by Terri Winder
Seventeen-year-old Ashton Jones didn’t start out to be anyone’s hero, it just happened.
Maybe it is his destiny. Born of pioneer stock, he is named after his great-grandfather, Ashton Harris.
Maybe it is his attitude. They say when he broke his leg in four places, mid-June, he didn’t even whimper. His biggest fear was that the injury would keep him from going on the Rocky Ridge Trek.
Maybe it is his spirituality. Ashton said he felt the Spirit so strong at Trek it gave him strength beyond his own. One cannot understand what one does not recognize.
Maybe it is a combination of all three. Whatever it was, it moved him to do what was seemingly impossible, and that is what made him heroic in the eyes of all those who witnessed his journey—a journey he shared with about three hundred other modern pioneers; a journey that took them back in time.
Concerning the historic Rocky Ridge Trek experience, someone said, “I thought I was recreating history; instead, I found history recreated me.”
Youth from the Blanding Stake of the LDS Church found this to be true as they left home at 4 a.m. and traveled 14 hours, in old school buses, to Fremont County, WY, so they could participate in a two day trek – across the same ground Mormon immigrants traveled a century and a half before.
The first night, the youth set up camp and then worked out their stiffness with square dancing.
The second day, Pioneer Day, they learned how to load and pull a handcart; then the 15-mile trek began.
Ashton had initially feared he wouldn’t be allowed to go because of his broken leg, but he was told he could ride in one of two support vehicles that accompanied the trekkers.
However, at the first rest stop, as he watched the other youth arriving, he felt an overwhelming desire to be part of the group.
“They all looked so happy,” Ashton remembers. “They looked like they were having a lot of fun, and I wanted to be with them. I wanted to have the same experience.”
Before the trek, all of the youth had been assigned to “families”. Ashton was in the family of Ryan and Brenda Heck. As their group left the rest area, Ashton joined them, hobbling along on his crutches.
The youth had been encouraged to walk in memory of a member of an original handcart company. Ashton had chosen William Page because he is about the same age Page was when he came across the plains.
A member of the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company, Page nearly died of starvation and exposure. At one point, he helped three other men carve a common grave out of frozen ground for members of their party.
Two of the men would shortly be laid in the grave they had helped dig. Page would be nursed back to health once he reached the Salt Lake Valley and later become a rider for the Pony Express.
Despite Ashton’s choice, he soon acquired another identity as the other youth began comparing him to Albert, a cripple in the movie, 17 Miracles, who crossed the plains on crutches.
As Ashton made his way through sand and rocks, up hills and down, his arms and shoulders began to ache, but he kept on going. Eventually his family members urged him to get into the handcart and ride for a while.
Realizing that he was holding the others up, he gratefully allowed his family to pull him. Still, he managed to go about five miles on his own. The next day the trekkers hiked another 15 miles; Ashton “crutched” six of them.
In his book, Seven Trails West, historian Arthur King Peters said of the Mormon handcart pioneers, “The true Mormon Trail was not on the prairie but in the spirit.”
Ashton embodied this spirit as he endured the hardships of the trail. Other youth experienced chaffing and blisters — some to the point of bleeding — but knowing what Ashton was going through gave them a new perspective, which increased their determination.
At Rocky Ridge, the trail ascends 700 feet in two miles, along a boulder strewn path. At this point Joshua and Andrea Nielson reenacted the story of their common progenitors, Jens and Elsie Nielson.
The youth were asked to imagine what it was like in 1856, when the Willie Handcart Company was caught in an early winter snowstorm, fighting about two feet of snow, howling winds, and temperatures falling below zero.
Jens and Elsie had buried their six-year-old son, as well as the nine-year-old Danish girl they had been given charge of. Jens became so crippled with frostbite he asked his wife to leave him to die.
Though she stood under five feet and weighed less than half what her husband, who stood over six feet tall, weighed, she refused, instead helping him into the handcart and then pulling him up the arduous path. Elsie would later testify that she had experienced divine intervention as unseen angels had helped push the cart.
Joshua and Andrea have a daughter who is named after Bodil Mortensen, the young girl who was traveling with Jens and Elsie Nielson. Bodil was buried there at Rocky Ridge, along with 14 others.
It was a poignant moment for the group as they reflected on the sacrifices of those who had willingly given everything required of them for what they believed in.
That evening, the weary youth arrived at their designated camping area as the day’s wind increased to gale proportions and rain began to fall. They struggled to get tents into place and some went to bed in damp conditions.
By morning, the air was icy, giving the youth a tiny taste of the cold the pioneers had to deal with. The realization that their discomfort was incomparable to the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies suffering stilled their complaints.
Church leaders who oversee the trek experience — and who see thousands of youth do the trek each year — remarked on the uniqueness of the Blanding youth, who “with joy wend(ed) their way”, including the young man on crutches. Ashton may well have become one of the stories leaders will tell future groups.
Remembering the trek, Ashton says, “By the end, I was really tired but I wasn’t feeling discouraged any more. I felt accomplished because I didn’t take the easy way out. It felt good to be having the same experience as the pioneers.”