My family’s modern-day, cross-country pioneer trek

Jeff Call, far left, drove his family across the country to visit LDS Church history sites — such as Nauvoo, Illinois as pictured here — as well as U.S. history and sports sites. (Photo courtesy Jeff Call)

Jeff Call, far left, drove his family across the country to visit LDS Church history sites — such as Nauvoo, Illinois pictured here — as well as U.S. history and sports sites. (Photo courtesy Jeff Call)

When I was 13 years old, I took a cross-country trip with my family. It made quite an impression on me, so I decided that when I was a dad, I wanted to make a similar sojourn with my wife and kids.

For years, my wife and I discussed and analyzed the route we would take. We saved money. We studied maps. We booked hotels. We waited until we felt like our six sons were old enough (read: no more diapers, nap times and an attention span longer than 15 seconds) to appreciate it.

After years of planning, we finally made it happen. In June 2013, we embarked on a 26-day, 7,000-mile trek across the country in our 2004 Suburban.

Yes, we drove the entire way to the East Coast and back. And let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve driven through midtown Manhattan during the middle of the afternoon in a Suburban with Utah license plates. While trying to get out of the city and to the New Jersey Turnpike on a Monday afternoon, I got caught in the middle of an intersection on a red light, a decision that was immediately greeted by a chorus of horns honking at us. I had to make a deft maneuver to escape the wrath of dozens of New York pedestrians and cab drivers.

The trip featured a little bit of everything. We visited numerous Church history, American history and sports-related sites around the country. Every time we were near a temple, we took family pictures, and we saw numerous temples on our trip. At every hotel we stayed in, we removed the copy of the Book of Mormon from the drawer and one of us would take a piece of paper and write our testimonies for strangers to read. We hope someone will read those testimonies.

The month-long journey was both exhilarating and exhausting.

We wanted our six sons — ranging in age from nine to 17 — to experience the varied geography and cultures that country has to offer, and we wanted them to gain an appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. We also wanted them to learn Church history, and have a deeper respect for the sacrifices the early Saints made.

Here’s an abbreviated sample of what we visited, or saw (breathe in) — Carthage Jail, Wrigley Field, University of Notre Dame, Nauvoo, the Mississippi River, Niagara Falls, Hill Cumorah, the Sacred Grove, Fenway Park, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Lexington and Concord, Boston Commons, Bunker Hill, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth Rock (breathe out), the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Central Park, Lincoln Center, Lincoln Tunnel, Grand Central Station, Brooklyn Bridge, Ground Zero, the Rocky Statue, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge, Hershey’s Chocolate Factory (breathe in), Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the White House, National Archives, the Declaration of Independence, Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, the St. Louis Arch and Liberty Jail (breathe out).

Truth is, most of the time, it seemed like our kids preferred swimming at the hotel pool or playing on their electronic devices to learning about the historical significance of a certain place. But I’m hoping some things sunk in by osmosis. And I’m hoping that the older the get, the more they’ll be able to appreciate all that we experienced.

We took carriage rides in Nauvoo. We visited the Newel K. Whitney store, where Joseph Smith established the School of the Prophets, in Kirtland. We walked through the Sacred Grove and climbed the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra. We gazed at the granite monument that memorializes Joseph Smith in the place he was born, in Sharon, Vermont. We saw a replica of Liberty Jail, where the Prophet received revelations in dungeon-like conditions in the Independence area in Missouri.

Of course, you don’t have to go to those locations to obtain a testimony of the restoration of the gospel. But our testimonies grew during our trip, as the truth of the restoration was confirmed to our hearts again and again. I learned many things that I’ve already forgotten, but I’ll never forget the feelings I had in those hallowed places.

Still, it was difficult at times. Our trip featured frayed nerves and short tempers. Being together as a family, in closed quarters, is both a blessing and a trial. For some reason, there was always some mysterious odor wafting in from the back seat.

When we’d see old-fashioned log structures from the 1700s or 1800s and the tour guide would say, “Can you believe eight people lived in this tiny space?”

I’d think, yes, I can believe it. We did that every night at our hotel, with kids on the floor in blankets and sleeping bags, taking up every last inch of the room.

Sleep was always a welcomed occasion. At night we (or at least my wife and I) were sapped of energy as we tried to maintain a frenetic pace.

For parents, and kids, one of the greatest inventions of this dispensation has to be having a DVD player in a car. That was a lifesaver. That’s not a luxury my parents had when we drove across the country in a Suburban back in 1981. I gained a deeper appreciation for what my parents went through in pulling off a trip like that.

How the pioneers did it, I have no idea.

How the pioneers did it, I have no idea.

While I’m not trying to compare our trip to that of the pioneers, but we had our own challenging experiences.

Three of our sons came down with allergies while in Nauvoo. My son Brayden complained about heart pain. Our youngest boy, Janson, had a couple of big welts on his legs that we were told might have been chigger bites. I don’t think any of us had even heard of the word “chigger” before our trip. Chiggers are the larvae of mites. Once a parasitic chigger hatches, it finds a place on tall grass or other vegetation so it can attach itself onto an unsuspecting person or animal that passes by. They feed on the fluid in skin cells, attaching themselves to a skin pore or hair follicle. The result is red, unsightly rashes or bumps.

Anyway, we had a few mishaps along the way, but I’m grateful for the protection the Lord provided. I found a screw embedded in one of our back tires one morning while I was loading the car in Pennsylvania. It was in the exact spot where I could see it, which was a blessing. We had it was fixed in a place called, fittingly, Mechanicsville.

Among the many things we learned? Singer John Denver was not a geography major — the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River are in Virginia, not West Virginia. We felt the cold Kentucky rain. We serendipitously drove through Hannibal, Missouri (not part of our original plans), the birth place of Mark Twain and discovered that the statue of him that faces the Mississippi River. The plaque says that the rock beneath the sculpture came from Utah and that it was donated by a Mormon. Who knew? Mark Twain didn’t have very flattering things to write about the Mormons when he was alive. I wondered what he thinks now.

Jeff Call and his family stand outside of the Newel K. Whitney Store in Kirkland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Jeff Call)

Jeff Call and his family stand outside of the Newel K. Whitney Store in Kirkland, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Jeff Call)

When we pulled into the driveway, 26 days after leaving, the odometer read 6,994 miles. If I hadn’t been so sick of driving at that point, I might have driven around the block a dozen times to get us to the 7,000-mile mark.

Before we left on our trip, we gave each of the boys a journal. Every night, we’d have the kids write in them. And every night, as the kids pulled out their journals they would ask me, “What did we see today?”

Then I would list three to five amazingly awesome things that would make for an unforgettable year, let alone a day. We saw so much, so quickly, I don’t know if the kids could take it all in. It was a drive-by approach to seeing our country. A 26-day American history/seminary field trip.

And I would do it all over again if I had the chance.

The only real proof I have that they got something out of it? It was funny that when my wife and I would put on a Church-related or history-related movie before our trip, and the kids would groan. But after visiting the many sites, we’d put those same movies into the Suburban DVD player and I’d noticed it was awfully quiet, for a change, and the kids would be watching intently.

“Hey,” we’d hear them say from time to time, “we’ve been there!” Or “I remember that!”

In that way, history became alive to them. And that was a big reason why we took the trip in the first place.

As happy as I was to return home, I was also sad that it was over. There had been so much anticipation and buildup to the trip, and it lived up to the hype. It provided lifelong memories and stronger testimonies for each of us.

One of the things that made a strong impression on me was the Lord’s hand in events that made it possible for His Church to be restored to the earth in this dispensation. Viewed through that perspective, American history and Church history are closely connected.

It’s amazing that the Lord could take a young boy, Joseph Smith, with little formal education that came from a poor family, and mold him into a prophet that has changed the world. When he first visited Joseph Smith, the Angel Moroni told Joseph that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations kindreds and tongues,” and that prophesy has certainly come to pass.

We stand on the shoulders of faithful Saints who came before us, and it is our responsibility to continue to live the gospel, and build up the Church and share the gospel with the world.

That’s what I hope my sons learned as a result of our trip. And, if given the chance, I’d do it all again.

Maybe someday by boys will take a similar trip with their own wives and children. I’d highly recommend this type of faith-promoting, testimony-building journey.

I’ll just warn them about that mysterious odor wafting in from the back seat.


Jeff Call has covered BYU sports since 1993, including the past 16 years for the Deseret News. He, his wife and six sons live in Cedar Hills.

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