There’s a little romance in playing pioneer.
Like Ma and Pa Ingalls, leaving their family in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and travelling west to settle on the prairies of Minnesota.
Pa chops down trees, hauls and hews logs, hoists them (with a little help from Ma), building a house for his family in the middle of nowhere and clearing the land for farming with the help of an ox.
Ma plants a garden, makes satisfying meals from scratch for her family, sets aside stores for the winter, keeps house and fights prairie fires.
Such a simple life . . . I’ve dreamed about it ever since my dad read the “Little House” series to us when I was nine.
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Dave and I got married on February 29, 1992 — twenty years ago now — and we honeymooned at Lake Tahoe, high in the Sierra Nevada.
One of our favorite stops was Emigrant Gap from which you can see Donner Summit. Such a romantic vista . . . a great spot for pictures . . . and the scene of the worst possible horrors of pioneer life.
The charming childhood stories fade briefly there as reality hits: Pioneer life was hard and terrible.
And I would never have made it.
The Donner Party story is notorious, disturbing, and morbidly fascinating. And yet, if you look closer there is a painful, beautiful picture of survival.
James Reed, banished from the party before they were fatally trapped in the mountains, barely made it to Sutter’s Fort alive and then hiked back into the mountains — a treacherous 7 day journey — TWICE to rescue all of his starving family and their remaining travelling companions.
Margaret, his wife, was only 32 at the time. She endured four months of that winter alone, caring for her children and elderly mother, fighting for survival among people who most likely blamed her husband — who not only had made bad route choices but had also murdered one of the party — for their predicament.
Those months stranded in the mountains must have seemed an eternity.
An unimaginable nightmare: snow, starvation, death, cannibalism . . . rescue at last — and then an agonizing decision for Margaret and James to leave two of their small children behind for the next relief party.
Half the Donner party died. Margaret and James Reed and their children were one of only two families to make it through the journey to California intact.
There have been many studies over the years attempting to determine why some survived the months stranded in the deep snow and some didn’t, but this family defies the odds. And some believe they may have been the only ones to not resort to cannibalism.
Maybe the Reeds had more body fat.
Maybe the separation from her husband gave Margaret determination to see him again.
Maybe they had hidden stores of food.
To me, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, they survived by the hand of Providence.
I wonder how many weary pioneer women heading to California after 1847 said to themselves, If Margaret Reed can do it, so can I . . .
And I wonder how many men chose to follow James Reed’s example of perseverance. Unwilling to let his family die, he didn’t give up. His family was worth the fight. He raised up relief parties of men who risked their lives for strangers.
The Reed family made it. And even rescued some people along the way.
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I’ve spent hours and hours searching the internet for statistics on addictions and the toll they take on a marriage. Somewhere I read that 90% of all marriages that battle with addiction end in divorce, but I haven’t been able to find it again. In other places I’ve seen that we’re four times more likely to go through divorce than anyone else. Whatever the numbers, the situation isn’t very promising.
Dave and I don’t have any special secrets to making it twenty years. Only simple words like: endurance, hope, trust, and forgiveness.
There were days, months and years when neither of us thought we’d make it. The death grip of addiction led Dave to despair of ever having victory. Loneliness and fear haunted me.
But we didn’t give up.
* * * * *
Writing about our life sometimes feels like I’m trying to trudge through snow that keeps getting deeper.
The scars of years of dysfunction don’t disappear overnight. It’s tempting to despair. To look at the mess around me . . . in my life, in the world and just pull the covers over my head.
I feel tired. And I wonder who am I to speak about these things? I certainly don’t have life figured out.
But when I lift my eyes from my own poor feet — like last night with a few friends — I see a few foolhardy companions beside me who are just as weary and just as determined to succeed.
We remember what God has brought us through and that though we don’t know the way over the mountains, He does.
The endurance of my companions gives me hope.
* * * * *
Certainly, pioneers who came after the Reeds learned what not to do.
I think maybe if Margaret was giving advice to later pioneers she might have said, “Keep going through the valley even if it seems harder to go on . . . don’t stop or you’ll regret it . . .and never give up.”
I guess that’s how I feel about blogging about addiction. And even if it’s just learning what not to do, I hope our experience encourages others along the way.
Ours is not a charming “Little House” story. And it’s not completely written. But there is a beautiful picture if you look hard enough. And by God’s grace, it’s a good one.
We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through . . . We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9