Around the end of April, local artist Adam Bateman – also curator of Salt Lake’s quirkily named CUAC (formerly the Central Utah Art Center, now called simply “quack”) drove to Council Bluffs, Iowa. From there, began walking back along the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, following in the footsteps of his ancestors (over 60 of them) who undertook the 1850s Mormon Exodus.
Walking the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, part of the U.S. National Trails System, is nothing new. Many Mormons, from Wyoming to Australia, undertake “treks,” handcart pulls stretching from three miles to hundreds that re-enact the voyage westward complete with pioneer clothing, frontier songs and rented handcarts. But Bateman’s trek seeks more than ancestral pathways.
Following in the footsteps of performance artists such as Richard Long, Francis Alys and Hamish Fulton, whose work shifted the act of walking from pedestrian to performance, Bateman’s trek is investigating travel as a ritual re-enactment of manifest destiny and a fundamental way Americans experience “The American West,” both the physical place and the mythical one.
As Bateman walks across the country, in Utah preparations are underway for Pioneer Day (July 24), a state holiday in which locals honor their ancestry by symbolically re-entering the city pushing handcarts and wearing pioneer costumes. The annual Days of ’47 festival, which includes a beauty pageant emphasizing congeniality and modesty, is organized by the eponymous committee that strives to “keep the Pioneer spirit alive”.
Bateman, while not entirely critical of such celebrations, questions the ways in which the past gets repackaged and distorted for popular use. Using his own trek as a platform, Bateman is delving deeper into the Mormon Exodus to separate fact from fiction that is scarcely critically examined. Part of this repackaging comes from comparing official scholarly accounts of the journey to pioneer accounts. “My mom has a book about one of her ancestors who crossed the plains. That book claims that 20,000 Mormons died on the trail,” says Bateman. “But according to scholarly research done by BYU professors, it was more like 1,200. And that’s a great example of the way the myth has grown. I mean, 1,200 people is still a lot to have died. But it’s 3-4% of the population, [which is] very different than 15% of the population.”
Other complexities are found in the ways in which the legacies of smaller groups are spun. For example, a third of the Willie and Martin Handcart Company perished, due largely to bureaucratic failings by the church and Brigham Young. “Their circumstances were so dire, yet they became icons to demonstrate how the faithful faced their problems,” says Bateman. However, Bateman points out, the legend conveniently ignores the ending of the story. A third of the Willie and Martin Handcart Company left the church after arrival.
“The idealization of past landscape travel and mythologies are built up from the nostalgia surrounding these heroic feats,” reflects Bateman. “In my mind, demythologizing something isn’t proving it false; it’s more like recognizing how language functions in society. And so, in a way, demythologizing anything is also re-mythologizing it. It’s adding a new truth.”
Using a Walkmeter to track his daily progress by satellite – while also plotting it onto Google Maps, posting to Facebook, and tweeting it to #amtwalk – Bateman is slowly adding his own truth of the Mormon handcart experience to the mix of rhetoric and research. His photographs, posted to Instagram, capture moments of astonishing beauty – traces of Bateman’s eye for Formalism – and speak to a country fallen into disrepair. Abandoned tractors, disconnected phone booths, golden arches and roadside trash betray a land sorely neglected. Mile markers are buried in overgrown grass. Weathered signposts and faded wagons bear witness to a Mormon past. The dilapidated nature of these scenes begs the question: Is this the stuff of religious legend, the legacy which Mormons so revere and mythologize?
In an age when the flight out of Nauvoo is not just re-enacted, but commercialized beyond recognition, Adam Bateman is reclaiming the narrative for himself: one step at a time. “[I’m gaining] this testimony of how hard it is and how hard the pioneers had it, which is a reinforcement of the mythology. They say, ‘Look how hard 20 miles is. Now try 1,100!’ It’s the daunting nature of that story that led me to want to walk the trail for myself.” Two months into the trek, Bateman is hitting his stride. He now averages about 20 miles a day and will probably arrive back in Salt Lake City early, long before the Pioneer Day parade.
Alexandra Karl is an educator, art historian and essayist. She lives in Salt Lake City.