In an effort to understand the faith of the early Mormon Pioneers who trekked directly across the wilderness of the American Midwest to the Salt Lake Valley, young members of the Church today are trekking all over the country.
From coast to coast, stakes plan handcart treks for their youth. While some are able to conduct the activity at historic sites such as Martin's Cove and Sixth Crossing in Wyoming, most stay close to home, creating the experiences that will help the teenagers identify with the past.
With handcarts in tow, the young men and young women work, play, dress, learn and behave in ways intended to build their faith through appreciation for pioneer forefathers and for the blessings of a loving Heavenly Father.
Janece Labrum, Young Women president of the Carrollton Texas Stake, put it this way after her stake's handcart trek: "Obviously, it would have been impossible to recreate the actual experiences the pioneers faced, but the hope was for the youth to have enough exposure to pioneer circumstances to cause them to think about how they would respond to those situations, and why. Hopefully, they found a new desire to fight their own battles as courageously as our pioneer forefathers fought theirs."
Ron Bennie, who helped organize the trek for the York Pennsylvania Stake, said, "I think trek is such a great activity for the kids. It's hard for them physically, but they learn so much from it."
With themes such as "Faith in Every Footstep" and "Go Forward with Faith," the stake groups embark into whatever wilderness is accessible and suitable for the activity. For example, unlike any of the original handcart pioneers, the youth of the Santa Cruz California Stake had the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop on their march into the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Texas stake followed what was essentially an equestrian trail in a state park north of Dallas. They renamed parts of the park to such things as Nauvoo, Winter Quarters and Martin's Cove to enhance the experience. The Pennsylvania Stake also trekked in a state park and the Gilbert Arizona Greenfield Stake headed for the White Mountains in the eastern part of the state. There are no geographical restrictions on handcart treks which are taking place outside the United States as well.
Some stakes build their own handcarts while others share handcarts with nearby stakes.
The Carrollton Texas Stake trek, as described by Sister Labrum, was typical of many of the youth treks. The participants dressed in pioneer clothing. They ate pioneer style food. The boys were called away with the "Mormon Battalion," leaving the girls to fend for themselves as they continued pulling the carts. There was a river crossing. People representing historical figures from inside and outside the Church appeared and spoke to the youth. Dolls, representing pioneer babies, were cared for by the families. "Most of the youth were really touched when the 'babies' died (from a cholera epidemic)," Sister Labrum said.
"Lives were touched and changed," she added.
The treks are physically demanding and require months of preparation, according to leaders of some of the stakes who conducted them this summer. But they return the reward of increased faith and strengthened testimony in most cases.
President Robert Hicken of the Gilbert Arizona Greenfield Stake said the trek was an outstanding experience for the youth, especially in a spiritual way.
Youth handcart treks have been going on for years and will likely increase in popularity as the sesquicentennial of the handcart era (1856-60) of Mormon pioneer history approaches.
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