Author: Luisa Perkins
•1:47 PM
Despite all of the Sturm und Drang beforehand, I wouldn't trade the experience of last weekend's Pioneer Trek for anything. None of my anxieties (rain, injury, anarchy) were realized, and all of my prayers were answered.

The 150 youth (ages 14-18) were organized into 10 'families,' with couples like Patrick and me acting as their 'Ma and Pa' for the weekend. The kids were to be dressed in a fairly loose interpretation of 19th-century clothing, the exception being their shoes. Patrick's and my costumes turned out well, by the way. I don't really care for sewing, but I take great satisfaction in my work on my shirtwaist in particular.

All electronic equipment was either left at home or collected by the youth leaders before we began. The State Forest through which we would be journeying had no running water and only the most rudimentary of pit-type toilet facilities. The plan was for the groups to pull the handcarts about 10 miles on a circuitous route before reaching the campsites the first evening.

The 13 kids assigned to us were terrific. We had an even mix of boys and girls, younger and older. They were strong, affable, and funny, worked well as a team, and did not whine at all. After meeting as a family, we decorated the handcart with a banner, then filled it up with everyone's gear. We estimated that it weighed about 1,000 pounds once it was loaded.

We got in line and pulled the handcarts out of the parking lot at around 6:00 Friday evening. We were first in line, which was great; our kids set a pretty quick pace at the outset. I cautioned them to take it easy, since we estimated that we'd be traveling until at least 1:00 in the morning.

The most harrowing portion of the pull took place after about 3/4 of a mile. We turned off the paved road and took the carts down a semi-dry creek bed. This half-mile portion of the trip took about an hour; there were huge rocks and low hanging branches that had to be negotiated. The stony bed was wet, mossy, and very slippery. We all were relieved when we made it to the gravel road at the bottom.

We had frequent water breaks (we had coolers full of water in the carts, and everyone had a tin cup tied to their apron or belt loop). During these, I dispersed contraband homemade muffins and cookies to our boys and girls, since I know that the key to high morale is comfort food. The treats served us well; our group remained cheerful and energetic throughout the night.

In memory of the many women who pulled handcarts across the plains, the girls pulled the carts alone for about a mile, while the men and boys walked silently along the side of the path. Thank heaven for strong, cheerful girls! Our group did very well; I was so proud of them.

We pulled into the campsite right on schedule. The support staff passed out hard rolls and cups of broth, which were devoured in no time. Our family, hunger pangs quelled by my treats, put up no fuss with this meager fare. By about 2:00 a.m., we were all unconscious in our tarp lean-to's.

We woke up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and hiked up to the top of Mohawk Mountain; there we sang some hymns and our Stake President spoke. The hike was about 8 miles round trip, and it was very hot and humid. I was glad to have my sunbonnet as we sat together in the grassy meadow at the summit. After the hike, we had lunch.

Then the Pioneer Games began: relay races, feats of strength, and arts and crafts stations were set up around the perimeter of the camp. The families traveled from station to station in a pretty orderly fashion, then all came together for the Stick Pull Tournament, the Tug-of-War, and the Greased Watermelon Relay. Our friend Tom had been wearing a pedometer since we set out the previous evening; after the games, he informed us that we'd walked a little over twenty miles in 24 hours--half of that, pulling half-ton carts.

After dinner, it was time for the Hoe Down. The youth leaders had hired a professional square dance caller. He turned out to be a miracle worker; his gentle manner won everyone over, and his clear directions had everyone dancing--really doing it--very quickly. All of the kids lined up along the camp road for the Virginia Reel and several square dance sets. Everyone actually had a good time; I was shocked that these kids would be such good sports for so long. Personally, I love folk dancing of any kind; Patrick and I had a blast.

Once the dancing was over, we gathered at our campfires for a devotional and some Dutch oven cobbler. I had eschewed the standard-issue cake mix/SevenUp/canned peaches concoction, choosing to bring my own cobbler ingredients instead. Other leaders soon heard the news and drifted over to our camp for some of ours. If only we'd had some vanilla ice cream to put on top...but it was awfully good as it was.

The kids had a harder time settling down Saturday night. Our family was up until about 2:00 playing a PG-rated version of "Truth or Truth." Patrick and I lay in our sleeping bags cracking up at the questions and answers. Finally, everyone dropped off.

By Sunday morning, we were all more than a little aromatic, despite our best efforts with baby wipes and the masking effects of the herbal insect repellent I passed around. We passed out little journals that the leaders had made and instructed the kids to take an hour of 'solo time': no talking, just scripture reading, prayer, and journal writing. Again, I was surprised at how biddable everyone was. A couple of kids put their heads down on the picnic tables and napped, but I had no problem with that, since they weren't disturbing anyone else.

At 9:30, we gathered for Sacrament Meeting. The kids were encouraged to get up and share their feelings if they felt so moved; for three hours, we listened to some very sweet and sometimes funny testimonies. I know: the thought of a three-hour testimony meeting is a daunting one, but the time passed quickly and there was a lovely feeling of unity present.

After lunch, we packed up the handcarts again and pulled them the quarter mile to the parking lot. Along the last hundred or so feet of the path, the kids' parents had lined up and were waving white handkerchiefs and cheering. We took a few snapshots, hugged our kids, and returned them to their real families.
As Patrick and I drove home, I reflected on how well everything had gone. While I've known individual teenagers who were lovely people, I've had a deep-seated fear and loathing of the age group in general ever since I was one myself. The Trek brought me a healing change of heart, for which I am grateful.

I still wish that there had been at least a portion of our time focused on service. The pioneers whose experience we were trying to evoke were eminently practical yet generous people. The first groups that headed west to Utah built cabins they'd never inhabit and planted crops they'd never harvest along the 1,500 mile trail. They did these things to lighten the burden for those who would travel after them. If I could change one thing about the weekend, it would be to have found a way to infuse this spirit of selfless acts into at least a portion of our time together.

I have several ancestors who traveled across the plains with either the covered wagon teams or the handcart companies. We estimated, however, that this was the case for only about half of the youth at the activity. I now feel that the Trek experience functioned rather like a Seder. The Haggadah, or text for the celebration of Passover, reminds Jews as they rehearse it to one another that they would not exist as a people if God had not led them out of Egypt.

In a similar way, it's quite likely that my religion would not exist without the Westward Movement. Early Mormon history is rife with examples of bitter persecution. To find the freedom to practice the tenets of their faith, the Mormon Pioneers found it necessary to set out into the wilderness to make a new home.

Last weekend, we told the stories of our cultural heritage and remembered through physical hardship those who came before us, whether they were actual relatives or purely spiritual ancestors. I came away enriched and filled with gratitude; all of the participants with whom I've since had communication felt the same way.
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On 8/6/07 , Jenna said...

I just knew you'd come home with a softened heart! I'm so glad it was a treasured experience! I would love to have been trekking with you. You and Patrick are such a hoot that it's no wonder your 'family' never whined a bit.

On 8/6/07 , Brillig said...

Wow, what an amazing experience! Thanks for posting it and sharing it with all of us. I dont think I would have been strong enough or determined enough to make it--even in the re-enactment! I'm extremely impressed.

On 10/6/07 , Melessa said...

Wow! Between my YW calling and my job at a pioneer history museum, I would LOVE to do something like this with our youth.

On 11/6/07 , Luisa Perkins said...

Thanks, guys! Particularly gratifying is that our 'kids' seem to want to have a 'reunion.' They obviously bonded, so I feel like we did our job.