A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail

By Jana Richman

Crown. 299 pp. $24.95

Unlike many of us, Jana Richman knows who her ancestors are. She knows that seven of her eight great-great-grandmothers traveled the Mormon Trail toward Salt Lake City and Zion. She knows that even those who lost children along the way did not regret the journey. And she knows that she does not possess the faith that drove them to make that perilous trek.

Not having that faith troubles Richman, who was raised Mormon in a small town outside Salt Lake. Without it, she cannot understand her own mother, who persisted in her beliefs despite the jeering opposition of Richman's father. And she can't seem to understand herself, either. So she decides to re-create her great-great-grandmothers' journey. But being a modern woman, instead of hitching up the oxen she mounts her motorcycle. "What started this trip," Richman writes in the sometimes edifying, sometimes solipsistic Riding in the Shadows of Saints, "was a sense of unease, a sense of having shrugged off my fittings too nonchalantly without really discerning what it was I was throwing aside, a sense of something precious and possibly essential being lost with the rituals so carelessly tossed away."

Richman's journey begins in Nauvoo, Ill., the site of the beginning of the great Mormon exodus. In 1844, church leader Joseph Smith was lured from there to nearby Carthage, where he was arrested and murdered in the jailhouse. That violent event, the latest in a long line of hostilities, triggered a wave of westward emigration, with tens of thousands of Mormons traveling the 1,300-mile trail to Utah between 1846 and 1869. But now Mormons have returned to Nauvoo, "returning in the way only Mormons can," Richman writes, "shaking with humility at the same time they construct a fifty-four-thousand-square-foot, six-story, $26 million replica of their original temple, complete with window glass brought from France and Germany, handcrafted doors and window frames, limestone quarried in Alabama, and sun-, moon-, and starstones crafted in four different states and Canada."

From tourist-attraction Nauvoo, Richman rides through Iowa, stopping at small cemeteries and local museums to read the historic plaques and mull over her connection to these long-gone people. In Bridgewater, a kindly farmer shows her some of the few surviving wheel ruts in Iowa left by the thousands of wagons that passed that way. At the Winter Quarters site in Nebraska, where some 4,000 people waited out the winter of 1846, she eyes the life-size oxen in the visitor center and resists the urge to slap a teenage tour guide-cum-missionary who, two days after Sept. 11, 2001, smiles as she tells tales of persecution, starvation and disease.

Throughout, Richman does her best to dramatize the travails of a lone woman on a motorcycle -- mechanical failure on a St. Louis freeway at the beginning of the trip, nerve-wracking construction in Nebraska and a close call with a depleted gas tank in Wyoming -- but she can't begin to match the hardships of her ancestors. Widowed Hannah Middleton Hawkey left England with her three children on Brigham Young's promise that $45 would get her a handcart and passage to the Promised Land. Hannah would push that cart the length of the Mormon Trail, helped by her 14-year-old stepson until he died along the way. Another great-great-grandmother trudged the same trail pregnant, eventually giving birth to a stillborn baby, while yet another lost two sisters and six nieces and nephews to cholera during the trip.

The trouble is, the more Richman describes the trials of her stoic forebears, the more trivial her own seem. Unlike those doughty souls, she is always crying. She cries when she says good-bye to a friend in St. Louis. She cries during a tour of a historic Mormon house in Nauvoo. She cries over the generosity of the folks in Bridgewater. While she admits to her propensity for weeping, that doesn't make those episodes any more interesting to the reader.

Occasionally, she does happen upon wisdom, especially as she wrestles with the nature of faith. As she mulls over her ancestors' lives, she comes to realize that action, not belief, is the key to faith. "I'm beginning now to think of faith as a practice," she writes, "a practice that allows acceptance of uncertainty and allows for the unexplainable."

But too much of this journey is spent in Richman's head. Books in the voyage-of-personal-discovery genre can be saved by keen observation of places and people, by situating the spiritual awakening squarely in the experience of travel. Richman can't quite pull that off. Descriptions are sparse or bordering on cliche. And her parents, the source of some of her religious agonies, remain ciphers -- merely a saintlike mother and an angry father -- despite the many memories of her childhood recounted throughout the book. She digs too deeply into her own feelings and not deeply enough into her story, leaving the reader bewildered about why she feels as she does, and feels it so intensely. *

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a deputy editor at U.S. News & World Report.