“In the ten years that I’ve been riding, I’ve been asked often why I ride a motorcycle. I have struggled but failed to come up with a satisfactory one-sentence answer for those who seem genuinely interested. Lately, however, the most logical answer seems to be, ‘I grew up Mormon.’ ”
This is the story of Jana Richman’s journey on a motorcycle across the Mormon trail in search of her roots and an understanding of the faith that brought peace to five generations of women before her.
Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, and one of the least understood. Written with searing candor and a beguiling lack of sentimentality, Riding in the Shadows of Saints is rich in history and detail regarding the origins, beliefs, rituals, and social mores of the Mormon culture. Richman, born into the Mormon Church but no longer a member, explores the meaning of faith and the perils of middle-age motorcycling with equal aplomb.
Four generations ago, seven of Richman’s eight great-great grandmothers walked all or part of the 1,300-mile Mormon trail, from Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi River to Salt Lake City. Traveling on faith and little else, they endured unfathomable hardships—bitter cold, extreme heat, mud, icy river crossings, blizzards, buffalo stampedes, disease, hunger, and exhaustion—never stopping until they reached their promised land where they could be free to practice a religion that few outsiders understood and many violently condemned. Between the years 1846 and 1866, about 50,000 Mormons traveled the Mormon trail, burying more than 6,000 of the faithful along the way.
One hundred and fifty years later, Jana Richman packs maps and a laptop computer on the back of a motorcycle and follows their route, searching for the peace and faith the women before her carried with so much confidence. She also searches for a clearer understanding of how her devoutly Mormon mother is able to reconcile an independent spirit and enormous inner strength with her intense belief in a patriarchal institution.
Traveling blue highways into the nation’s heartland, visiting graveyards, chatting with missionaries, and soaking in the rituals of the faith she so casually shrugged off as a teenager, Richman begins to unravel her family’s mysteries and confront her own long-held prejudices about the Mormon Church.
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Jana Richman recently left Tucson and now lives in Salt Lake City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The motorcycle stalls then lunges in the far right lane of Interstate 44 in St. Louis. I hold the grips tightly and give the throttle an angry twist with each cough of the engine, moving down the road in a series of violent jerks and thrusts, as if the bike and I are mad at each other and exchanging strikes. Jerk. Twist. Jerk. Twist. The toes of my right foot rest lightly on the back brake pedal to engage the flashing brake light. Still, several cars approach the rear tire with far too much speed before they dart into the next lane to avoid me. Sweat seeps out of my skin sucking the cotton of my long-sleeved T-shirt to my arms and torso under the heavy motorcycle jacket lined with “armor” around my shoulders, back, and elbows–the places most likely to hit pavement if I go down. None of that will make much difference if I’m hit from behind and catapulted through the air. Or worse yet, dragged under a semi and bounced between the underside of the truck and the road for a while before a tire finally tears me free and expels me off to the shoulder like a worn tire tread. I normally don’t allow myself such images when I’m riding, but under the current circumstances, they seem impossible to avoid.
The bike has no intention of delivering me to my desired destination, so I surrender. I signal to my friend Debbie, who drives a lead car while looking anxiously in her rearview mirror and occasionally flashing a hopeful thumbs-up, eager to receive the same back from me. Instead I wave at her frantically and point to the next exit. She unnerves me by driving past the exit and pulling onto the shoulder of the freeway. I’m lost without her guidance, so I reluctantly pass the exit also and pull up behind her. The bike falls silent. She jumps out of her car and walks toward me.
“Get me the hell off this freeway!” I scream.
I can’t imagine she can hear me through a full-face motorcycle helmet over the shriek of passing cars, but my message apparently gets through. The look on her face is one of sheer terror. She turns quickly and runs back to her car as if time were a factor in my safety. I flip up my face shield and yell at her, “I’m not gonna die!” She doesn’t hear me, and I’d have a hard time convincing her anyway. As my father says, motorcycles are dangerous; any damn fool knows that.
“I’m not gonna die,” I say quietly as I slap at my shield, which settles back over my face with a clack. Thankfully, the bike starts again, and I give the throttle four or five ambitious twists before putting it in gear and pulling back into freeway traffic.
During the weeks before my trip, my mother called often, her voice always vibrating with false bravery and cheerfulness.
“All ready to go?” she asked during one call.
“Almost,” I replied, trying to conjure up a strong, confident voice.
“What’s Will going to do without you for so long?” she joked, not knowing what else to say.
“I don’t know. He’ll probably be happy to get rid of me for a while.”
She started to reply, but her voice disintegrated and she began to cry, quietly at first, then gasping sobs. I pushed my fist into my stomach and curled into my reading chair. I hate doing this to her. She loves me so fiercely and dreads life without me so powerfully I am forever causing her anguish with my refusal to live a more normal life.
At one time I tried to give her that. I married my first husband right out of high school, and we bought a house less than a mile from my childhood home. My mother wasn’t as happy about my marriage as I expected her to be, but I was wrapped in the excitement of an adult life and never paused long enough to understand her hesitancy. I fully expected to drop into the life most rebellious Mormon kids follow: a few years of coffee and beer drinking before settling into marital bliss at the far edge of the teen years, followed in short order by a pregnancy sparking a tentative return to the Church, then another pregnancy triggering a temple marriage representing a full-blown return to the Church, then possibly another pregnancy. I had seen variations of this design numerous times and have since seen it work for most of my high school friends. Some take longer than others–two of my friends just married in the temple twenty-five years after I attended their civil marriage ceremony–but the pattern holds steady.
We referred to those who didn’t follow this system as our town’s oldest teenagers–still guzzling beer and dragging Main Street well into their thirties. Marriage and Mormonism seemed a better way than dragging Main to spend a life, and those were the only two options apparent to me in Tooele, Utah, in 1974. A month before my nineteenth birthday I started into marriage with good intentions. I expected it would come naturally, that I would fall quickly into contentment, but I never did. Instead I felt stifled and restless, subconsciously suspecting life held other options but ill-equipped to explore them. My friends knew the answer to my uneasiness. “Have a baby,” they said; instead I had an affair. Then I packed what seemed essential–some clothing, a toaster, a few dishes–into an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and left my hometown.
At that time and ever since, my mother has stood next to me, supporting every decision I’ve made, even the bad ones. Her love for me cannot be shifted. I have tested it time and time again; it remains solid. And here again, I fully expected her to understand, to put aside her own fears and indulge me without question. She did. But the tears came spontaneously.
At a loss for words, I listened to her sobs until I couldn’t stand it anymore, then, desperate to relieve her fear, I asked if she intended to pray for me.
“Yes, of course!” she said.
“Then I’ll be fine, right?”
“I’ll pray for you every day you’re gone. I’ve already started.”
“Then there’s no reason to worry.”
It worked; she stopped crying. I promised to call often from the road and she promised to keep praying.
“My mother is praying for me,” I say aloud to no one in particular as I pull back into traffic on my hacking bike–if it were a person, it would be spitting up blood about now. I suggested it only for my mother’s sake–the bit about praying–but for some unexplained reason, it calms me also. I’m unsure whether the comfort comes from the idea of a higher power watching over me or simply from the idea of my mother taking care of me. I was an anxious, uneasy child except in her presence. Only one photo of me as a toddler exists without her leg or her skirt lining the edge of the picture. In that one photo, I’m running straight for the lens with a tormented look on my tiny face. My mother apparently held the camera. I assigned her superhuman powers of protection and the first time I realized she couldn’t protect me from the inevitable pain of adolescence, I was angry with her. But even as a teenager, when it was not cool to be seen with a parent, I never strayed far from my mother’s side.
When I spoke to her on the phone that day I felt the same sense of comfort she provided me as a child. Upon her promise to pray for me, an immediate calm washed over me. My stomach stopped churning, and I slept soundly that night for the first time in the weeks of preparation for this trip. A few days later I saw a television program that spoke of a study with AIDS sufferers who fared significantly better than the control group when people–total strangers–prayed for them. They ruled out the mind-body connection because the people for whom prayers were being said knew nothing of the praying. The study was small, and I’m sure someone can give a rational explanation for the improved health of those who were prayed for, but I didn’t want an explanation. I wanted to believe.
I personally have no relationship with God and no expectation that God will watch out for me. I have been known to pray in moments of fear and desperation in an “Oh, God, help me” sort of way, but I’m not one of those who cuts deals with God–just get me off this freeway and I’ll go to church for the next twenty Sundays. I have to think anyone, God or not, would find that sort of bargaining unforgivably annoying, enough to smite someone on the spot. For the most part, I ignore the possibility of God in my everyday life. I think about it from time to time, but the issue is never forced. Chances are good that I can live my entire life without having to proclaim and defend my beliefs. Unlike my Mormon ancestors, I’ve never been given an ultimatum: Keep your faith and give up your home, possibly your life and the lives of your children, or give up your faith and keep everything dear to you. Religious persecution in our country has gone underground now. Still practiced, but much more discreetly than when my great-great-grandmothers were alive. I, and others like me, can live relatively easily from day to day without questioning ourselves too deeply on the difficulties that belief in God or a particular religion would represent. We can satisfy everyone, including ourselves, uttering a timid little cliché–I believe in some sort of higher power–while hedging our bets just in case. No one demands more of us.
I’m not averse to the possibility of God. But I don’t quite know how to think about God, how to visualize God, how to frame God in my mind. I’m envious of people who seem able to do this without a problem, who seem so sure of God’s structure. I’ve had plenty of instruction in this area, and I’ve followed it diligently–prayer, faith, fasting, blind acceptance–but nothing took. My gut feeling is that God is nothing like the God of my religious experience, but is instead something I can barely conceive of, something unbelievably simple and overwhelmingly complex at the same time.
Even as a child, when God was presented in probably the simplest way possible, God was utterly confusing to me. I wanted things concrete, understandable, preferably touchable and visible. I wanted clarity. I understood Jesus to be the son of God and there were plenty of pictures of Jesus floating around so that was momentarily clear. A picture of God would have helped. Next thing I knew we were praying to “our Lord, Jesus Christ,” and up until then I had understood God to be “our Lord” and we were referring to Mary as the “mother of God” when I thought she was the mother of Jesus and God was the father of Jesus. About that time, the Holy Ghost was introduced and the title alone was more than a little disconcerting and never adequately explained. Every question seemed to get a different answer, and it would all be perfectly clear if I could just see a picture of all the players together. I searched the books in my primary classes, lots of pictures of Jesus, a few of Mary with Joseph–adding to the confusion–but that was it. Soon after that, I had a primary teacher who spoke of God as the trees and the stars and the mountains and the whole damn universe. She did nothing to help me at all. Then we started singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and that idea scared the hell out of me, so I forced it all from my mind and did what I suspect most kids do in church–go through the motions that keep the adults happy by practicing mindless reverence.
There was a brief period when I was certain about God. It was a Friday night in October of 1969; I was thirteen years old. My older brother and sister were out for the evening, and I dropped into a frenzied state of boredom and frustration that came with much whining and self-pity and eventually tears and a stern warning from my father. I slunk into my bedroom, flopped down on the edge of the bed, and prayed earnestly to God for a babysitting job that would rescue me from a certain slow death of monotony and parental monitoring. About five minutes later the phone rang and the woman across the street, apologizing for the short notice, asked me if I could babysit, and the glory of God dashed through me. I spent the evening with two towheaded children from a born-again Christian family–the five-year-old girl fond of giving me memorized lectures on the true meaning of Christ–glowing in the rapture of the true God, my God, the Mormon God, the God who had arranged my babysitting gig. For an entire week I radiated faith from every pore of my body. I was hesitant to push my luck, to test my standing with God, but the next Friday night found me in the same desperate position. Again I dropped to my knees, pleading to be blessed with a babysitting job one more time, possibly reminding God of the bonus of my influence on the two little lost souls across the street believing in the wrong god. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and waited not-so-patiently for the phone to ring. It didn’t. I was devastated, my beliefs shattered. Two days later, I told my Sunday school teacher about it, and I accused God of not answering my prayers.
“God ALWAYS answers your prayers,” she told me. “Sometimes the answer is no.”
“Why would God answer no?” I asked her.
“Maybe he was trying to teach you something.”
“Well, he failed.”
She gave me the look that let me know I’d gone too far, said too much, and being a fairly obedient child I blushed with embarrassment and stumbled to my seat, where I remained flushed and near tears for the entire class. I worried for a while after that episode that God might show his disapproval of me in some magnificently horrific way, and I watched for signs. Every pimple on my brother’s face was an oncoming dreaded disease; every sigh from my mother’s mouth I heard as her possible last breath. My idea of God felt like a balloon that had been inflated right to the point of explosion; any wrong move could be lethal. But as happens with balloons if left alone, the feeling started to shrink, first down to normal size and then down to nothing at all. Just a baggy little pouch of nothing.
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