By Jennifer Guertin
Each year, thousands of people flock to Martin”s Cove, a niche in the wind-sculpted red rock of Wyoming”s high plains.
Almost 150 years ago, rescuers and members of the Martin Handcart, and Hunt and the Hodgett Wagon Companies sought shelter there to regain strength during a brutal snowstorm before going on to the Salt Lake Valley.
Many in the company died of starvation and exposure.
Now visitors come – some scheduling elaborate treks months in advance, others stopping spontaneously, drawn by the same indefinable pull.
“There”s just a spirit there that”s too strong to miss, if you”re open at all,” said Autumn Lorimer, 19, a freshman from Riverton, Wyo., majoring in communications. “It”s hard to miss the vision of it.”
Groups can tour the handcart museum that was converted from an old winding farmhouse, or pull handcarts over a four-mile loop to the cove, where they can rest on shaded benches and hear pioneer stories. Couple missionaries are stationed along the trail and inside the visitor”s center to answer questions and share stories.
Despite its current popularity, Martin”s Cove hasn”t always enjoyed celebrity status. Janet Tanner, a BYU doctorate student, said she remembers going to the cove when it was just a wind-swept corner of the desert.
“There was a little visitor”s center, but it mostly focused on the Indian history,” Tanner said. “It”s really changed a lot.”
Lorimer, who grew up about 90 miles from the cove, said she also remembers the early days.
Before the pioneer sesquicentennial in 1997 brought fame to that stretch of Wyoming, her stake did temple ordinance work for the handcart pioneers and developed pioneer sites.
“One of my early memories is driving up there with my dad and my brother and little sister in our old 1969 Ford truck when I was about 8 or 9,” Lorimer said. “The truck”s not in very good condition, and this was before the youth groups came up and filled in all the potholes in the road. The potholes used to be so bad – just ruts in the road. I remember drinking pop and having it spray all over the truck.”
Lorimer said she also remembers helping build the monuments that now stand at Martin”s Cove and various other pioneer sites.
As a 7-year-old, Lorimer and her brother Luke heated wax every morning for the monument molds. Her older sisters then sat around the table with the molds in front of them and used dental tools, donated by stake members, to fill air bubbles with small pieces of wax so the plaques would have no flaws.
“We actually heated the wax in electric skillets donated by the Relief Societies,” Lorimer said. “My dad always joked that for the Kirtland temple women donated their china to be crushed so the walls would shine. With ours, they donated dental tools and skillets.”
Lorimer said she”s not sure when she first realized the significance of the stories and the work she had done.
“I remember my dad showed me three tree stumps at the cove and told me the story of the pioneer who chopped them,” she said. “It saved him from dying. I just thought how hard it must have been, how much faith they must have had to stick with it. It”s formed my life.”
Amy Phister, who works with the Martin”s Cove missionaries to schedule and coordinate groups coming between the cove and Rock Creek, said she”s seen many lives shaped and changed as people visit the cove.
“It humbles people,” she said. “For some it”s a really drastic thing in their life. They come here and feel something. They see how important the gospel was to these people, and realize it should be for them, too.”
Karen Cannon, 19, a freshman from Salt Lake City, majoring in pre-nursing, said the pioneers” dedication amazed her when her stake participated in a trek to Martin”s Cove last year.
“The stories they told us just brought the place to life,” she said. “I remember writing in my journal about James Kirkwood.”
Kirkwood, an 11-year-old pioneer from Scotland, carried his youngest brother through the hardest part of a 27-hour trek. When the two reached the campsite, he collapsed and died from cold and over-exertion.
“It was such a strong testimony to me that he paid with his life,” she said. “I believe this trek experience has changed my life. I”ve become so much more grateful.”
Tanner said she agreed.
“It helps put my life into perspective,” she said. “When I think my life is just the pits, I get this vision in my mind of Martin”s Cove. You can feel the desolation of the whole thing. Even by a bus, it”s so far away from anything, and they were all alone. They had nothing. And yet, they said the price they paid was a privilege to pay. It”s my shot in the arm to go and feel the spirit of those places.”
Tanner”s daughter, Jamie, 23, a senior, majoring in English, said Martin”s Cove was the highlight of her church history trip.
“It was just so serene,” she said. “We had bought some pioneer hats in Nauvoo. We put those on and sat in the fields. It was beautiful. There”s just this feeling of protection – and of triumph. It”s helped me to realize I”m a lot stronger than I think. I”m sure when the pioneers first set out, they didn”t know what they were made of, but they were tested and tried and became stronger.”
For more information, see Martin”s Cove Pioneer Story
or Mormon Handcart Visitors” Center