By BRADLEY S. RICHARDSON
The mountains east of Salt Lake City rang with “Come, Come, Ye Saints” Tuesday morning as modern-day pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley.
President Gordon B. Hinckley welcomed the wagon train, which began their trail from Omaha, Neb., April 21.
“My, you look dusty and dirty and tired,” he said. “You look as if you’ve come a thousand miles.”
Over 50,000 spectators and dignitaries met the wagon train at Utah’s This is the Place Monument to celebrate the occasion. Among those who spoke were Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini and Gov. Mike Leavitt.
A letter from President Clinton was read by Elder M. Russell Ballard, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial Committee. The letter spoke of early pioneer faith and hard work.
In his address, President Hinckley spoke of Brigham Young’s statement that “this is the right place” and said the blessings once prophesied are now being fulfilled.
The church is indebted to those who have crossed the plains on this modern-day trek, President Hinckley said. Because of them, millions of people know now of the historical pioneer journey.
The trek has captured the attention of many people throughout the country and the world. Some schools in Nebraska were closed early so the students could go visit those who were blazing the trail, said Rex Proud, a trekker from Taylorsville.
“The trek and the sesquicentennial celebration have captured at least something of the national curiosity,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and co-chairman of the Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial Committee.
The trekkers experienced more than their share of mental and physical fatigue.
“I’m very tired,” said Courtney Bridgers, a BYU graduate in broadcast journalism, after her three-month trek. Bridgers traveled the entire trail to help with media productions.
“I would go 18-mile days and get huge blisters and not walk for the next two days,” Bridgers said.
“We didn’t have any mats — we didn’t have any room for it,” said Katie Crow, 19, from Farmington. “(Now) I’m used to sleeping in a tent.”
Those at home felt relieved when the pioneers came into the valley unharmed.
“When the wagon trains came in I felt a great feeling of relief,” said President Joe J. Christensen, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, president of the Utah Salt Lake Mission and co-chairman of the Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial Committee.
On nearby hillsides, 230 LDS missionaries raised 116 flags representing different nations to salute those who had made the long journey. The missionaries then sang “Called to Serve” as they walked back to the monument.
President Christensen the day’s activities should help the missionary work in the area.
“We’ve received some referrals right up here on the hill,” Christensen said.
The day’s celebration brought plenty of satisfaction to those that made the journey.
“When we drove in and saw all these people, everything we did in the past three months made it all worthwhile,” said Brett Whitaker, 15, from Midway. “I didn’t expect so many people to be here.”
Some gave encouragement to the modern-day pioneers by dressing in white clothing and then climbing up a hill where they were visible to the arriving trekkers.
“The most incredible part of today was seeing people dressed in white waving their handkerchiefs,” Bridgers said. “They represent the spirits that died on the trail.”
Many of the trekkers traveled the long trail to pay tribute to their ancestors.
“I was walking for my grandfather. He was 4 years old in 1848,” said Dean Caldwell, 74. Dean’s great-grandmother, a widow, brought the 4-year-old child with the rest of the family to the Salt Lake Valley in her own wagon.
The long trip has helped many to love and appreciate their pioneer ancestors.
“The trail has been a great conduit of tying people of today to the pioneers and their great sacrifice,” said Elder Ballard. “There is spiritual bonding.”
Not all that made the long modern-day trek were members of the LDS Church.
“I would say around 80 percent of the wagon train was LDS,” said Terry DelBene, a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management. DelBene himself is not a member but was sent to make sure the trails were well-maintained.
“It was nice to have a group of folks that were history-oriented,” DelBene said. “I can’t speak more highly of the folks who were on the trail.”
“Everyone felt welcomed; there was no pressure put on anyone,” he said. “I did get a chuckle once in a while when people would refer to me as brother, because in my heritage that would make me a friar.”
“Our whole interest this year was to see that this wonderful event comes off and that the intact trails that we started with look the same when we finish,” DelBene said. “I’m happy to say they do.”