Recently in a Stake Center in Richmond, Texas, members of The Church held a kick-off meeting for youth planning to participate in the church’s popular Pioneer Trek. This meeting mirrors other stakes in the Houston area and around the globe as they prepare and plan for spring and summer Pioneer Trek reenactments for their youth groups.
The Pioneer Trek is a nod to the roughly 3,000 Mormon immigrants who traveled 1,300 miles on foot between Iowa City, the end of the west-bound railroad, and Salt Lake City from 1856 to 1860. These settlers couldn’t afford horse or ox drawn wagons, so they loaded their meager supplies in four feet by five feet boxes centered over a single axle with wagon-type wheels and long poles out front connected by a bar for pushing.
Despite differences of locale, Pioneer Treks in Mongolia, Japan, Siberia, Argentina, Italy and the United States of America all share similarities. Dressed in period clothing and eating campfire meals, youth leave behind modern amenities, including electronics, and are at the mercy of weather and terrain for a period of time, usually between three to five days as they push and pull the carts in groups of eight to ten youth. One purpose is to help them “learn who they are and what they may become”, according to LDS Handcart Reenactment Guidelines, 2015. Pioneer Treks focus on principles that the pioneers exemplified including sacrifice, charity, and persevering through adversity. Trekkers also seek out their ancestors as part of their preparation.
Pioneer Trek reenactments have been popular for the past twenty years. To date, thousands of youth and leaders in the Houston area have participated in Trek. John and Caroline Bartlett participated in a Trek six years ago and are preparing to lead local youth this spring. “The Trek, through a series of physical trials, pushes them physically more than they thought possible and they do things that they didn’t think possible, yet provides spiritual moments, moments of reflection with a group of people they don’t know. They are going to have to work together. Hardships on the trail will cause them to dig deep – reflect on ‘Who am I’ and ‘Why am I here’. We want to challenge them,” Brother Bartlett said.
Experienced Trekker Curtis Burke area had an ancestor that died while making the journey. He and his wife Marni remember their experience eight years ago in Wyoming with a handcart weighing nearly 1,500 pounds, and hope for similar experiences when they assist with a Trek this spring. “There is a women’s pull which is very rough over a hard part of the trail. It was usually just four girls and a mom. The handcarts would roll backwards and other girls would leave their carts to help. When girls got to the top they would run back and help others pull. The young men had tears rolling down their faces as they watched. The young women learned they could do hard things. They felt their worth,” Sister Burke said.
Gina Potter, a new Trekker, will serve as Program and Activity Director for her area’s upcoming Trek in Northeastern Oklahoma. “They get to learn about some of the pioneer skills like paper making, Dutch oven cooking, and whittling a spoon,” she said. “You feel close to them [pioneers] when you walk in their footsteps, and experience what they did,” Sister Potter added.
Having been on a Trek as a teen a few years ago, Annie Laurie Major remembered, “I didn’t really want to go, but once I was there I really learned from it. I’m sure many of the pioneers didn’t want to walk across the plains, but a lot of good came from it and they learned valuable lessons. When you are put in hard situations you can see people’s characters, you can see some people picking up the slack for others,” Sister Major said.
First-time Trekker Brother Luis Oxlaj is looking forward to preparing for Pioneer Trek. “I’m really up for it. It’s going to be fun and spiritual. I’m getting ready, going to the gym to work out. The mud, uphill, hot, it’s not what matters. It doesn’t involve appearances, it involves what’s in the heart,” Oxlaj said.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “It’s good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead,” (“Faith of the Pioneers”, Ensign, July 1984).