In many places it is still a clear track through the sagebrush and Joshua trees. In other locales, it lies hidden beneath skyscrapers, casinos and Interstate highways. Historian Leo Lyman has called this The Arduous Road: Salt Lake to Los Angeles, the Most Difficult Wagon Road in American History. Lyman, in fact, has written a popular book with that title. Since the trail had only ten watering holes in 300 miles, the pioneer pathway across the Mojave Desert deserves the distinction.
Lyman is descended from Apostle Amasa Lyman, who led the first Mormon colonists down the road in 1851. Brigham Young had authorized a couple of dozen families to settle in California, but when he found hundreds of people gathered at Payson, preparing to desert Deseret, the prophet was so mad he would not speak to them.
Heber C. Kimball tried to persuade the settlers to stay in Utah, but 437 of them decided to head for the Golden State with Amasa (pronounced am-a-see) anyway. Historian Lyman concludes that Brigham Young "never again held cordial feelings toward the California colony" and wanted to shut it down, which he and the Mountain Meadows Massacre did in 1857.
On Monday, the wagons of the Heritage Trails Celebration will roll out of Spanish Fork to follow the path of the men, women and children (including some two dozen African-Americans), who left Utah to found San Bernardino in 1851. Modern trekkers will spend fifty days following wagon master Paul Bliss south and west as they emulate the determined explorers, Mexican traders, gold rushers, Mormon pioneers and apostates, soldiers, mail carriers, freighters and freedom-seeking slaves who took the road to California.
Some interesting independent women also made the trip, including Biddy Mason, an original San Bernardino settler who used her skills as a midwife to become one of the richest African-Americans in Southern California, and Sarah Pratt, who enjoyed duck hunting along the way. Re-creating the past--and then having to live in it--won't be easy, but compared with the first trips it should be a cakewalk. "We're on the original trail for most of it," says Bliss. He estimates that sixty percent of the route has changed little since cars and trucks replaced wagons in the early 20th century.
The trekkers will follow the original road as closely as possible, employing alternates to avoid restricted private property, bomb-littered federal land and a power plant built on top of the trail. The re-creators encourage participants to use period dress as much as possible. CD players, tank tops, shorts, thongs and baseball caps are verboten. They will have some big advantages, including access to portable restrooms (which reduce the chances of getting an embarrassing rattlesnake bite) and emergency medical care (which can handle regulation snakebites).
The modern train's biggest advantage will be a 5,000-gallon water tanker. Although movie Hollywood wagon trains had huge oak water barrels dangling off the wagon boxes, few historic wagons carried more than a few gallons of water. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon, so such an arrangement gave a wagon an unfortunate tendency to roll over.
When real pioneers filled their small, recycled flour barrels from the springs (or more likely, a seep) on the desert trail, they often carried them stowed inside or slung under their wagons. For some, water became more precious than all the gold in California. And on the Southern Road, it was a long way between drinks.
Leo Lyman's The Arduous Road, illustrated with Larry Reese's photographs, can be ordered toll-free at 866-291-2743 or by e-mail at TheArduousRoad@aol.com.