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Mormon Trail Journey Honors Historic Trek of Faithful

For the past three months, Kathy Stickel and Sarah Robinson have shared a one-room apartment with no gas or water, surrounded by bales of hay and jars of horse liniment. The walls are rusting and the four-legged neighbors are noisy, but the view is incredible.

The apartment - a horse trailer - has been their home for 1,100 miles on the Mormon Trail. On the 150th anniversary of the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley, a wagon train has been reenacting a portion of the famous Midwest migration, traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah.

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For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Trail is a holy path - one that was a test of faith and endurance for "great organizer" Brigham Young and his followers. It represents a deliverance from mob violence and religious persecution.

The early church had faced criticism in the United States for its claim to be the true church, its prosperity, and practices like polygamy. After establishing the city of Nauvoo, Ill., church members ran into trouble, and church founder Joseph Smith was murdered. Within two years, Young led the trek out of Nauvoo that lasted from 1846 to 1847.

For many, the reenactment of the trek 150 years later is a spiritual and often tearful catharsis. "This trip taught me the price my ancestors had to pay for religious freedom," says Eileen Ferris, a Salt Lake City elementary school teacher who made the entire trek, just as her great-great-grandfather did.

"It's been a dream come true," says Stickel, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a Mormon. She has been filing firsthand accounts of the trip from gas stations and Dairy Queens - any place she can plug the laptop into a telephone line. Like Ms. Ferris, Stickel's great-great-grandfather was one of the original pioneers. He ran messages for Joseph Smith out of the Carthage, Illinois, jail where Smith was held before his death.

Ms. Stickel and Ms. Robinson pull a handcart 20 to 30 miles a day with the wagon train. At night, after camp has been set up, Bonnie and Clyde, two Belgium Blonde horses penned up next door often take to snorting, whinnying and horsing around.

"We have to bang on the wall and tell them to pipe down. It's worse than a New York apartment," Stickel jokes.

The 57 wagons and 11 handcarts rolling across the dry, high plains of Wyoming, with the people garbed in period dress, are a riveting vision. Billowing clouds of dust rise up from the wagon wheels as they cut through shoulder-high sagebrush. Teams of horses seem to pull the white-topped "prairie schooners" effortlessly.

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Along the way, the rolling city has camped out in churches, woodsheds, and alfalfa fields. A Dutch oven cooking crew serves up two hot meals a day for an average of 300 people.

A typical day on the trail this past month began with the clanging of an iron triangle at 4:30 a.m., followed by the sounds of sleeping bags unzipping and butane stoves being lit everywhere in the dark, frigid air. At 7,000 feet, overnight temperatures dropped to as low as 23 degrees. Tents had to be folded up and wagons loaded. At 6 a.m., trail instructions were issued to the handcart brigade on historical points of interest and trailmarkers to watch for. The wagons departed later, catching up to the handcarters by noon.

The journey was full of wonderful sights. On a northern plain one afternoon, two wild horses ran in the distance, and later, a small herd of antelope appeared.

The wagons would reach the new campsite under a fiery sun; the handcarts arrived later, and the last to come in off the dusty trail were those aboard the "wimp wagon," for walkers who struggled with the final miles.

Every trail has a few bumps along the way, including this one. There was the Mormon outrider who plunged into a gas pipeline excavation. The rider got out, but it took three hours to rescue the horse. Or the woman who was dragged 50 feet through the sagebrush by a team of horses - she refused to let go of the reins after her wagon hit a washout.

Mishaps aside, the wagon train rolled through three states right on schedule. The men, women, and children of the memorial trek finished the final leg of their journey, arriving in Salt Lake City July 22. It will be a lasting memory for participants like Brett Van Leeuwen, an insurance broker from Salt Lake City.

"Being on this trail is a little like watching 'Schindler's List.' That's what people are going through. The Mormon story is about a church that got kicked out of America. And now it turns out we're not so bad after all."

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