MARTIN'S COVE, Wyo. Faces shiny with sweat and their pioneer clothing covered with dust, heavily breathing youth pull off the trail at the crest of a ridge here and let their handcart grind to a stop. They don't speak, but look back in satisfaction at the hill they climbed, and sweep the group with a glance to ensure everyone is here. Someone mutters, "Let's go!" and, yoked in unison, they wheel back on the trail, continuing forward.
This is "trek," the youth conference of choice, that after months of preparation and honing becomes life-changing as youth and leaders re-enact pioneer handcart experiences.
Overall, handcarts brought fewer than 5 percent of the Mormon pioneers west and appeared on the western migration scene for just four years, (1856-57, 1859-60). Yet in recent years the two-wheeled wooden vehicles have made a comeback that likely outsizes their original numbers.
While handcarting among LDS youth is popular in many countries of the world, the most sought place is here in central Wyoming, the heart of handcart country. Here is the home of Martin's Cove and Rock Creek Hollow. In this region in 1856, the Martin and Willie handcart companies were caught in early snows and about 250 people, about one fourth of the two companies, perished from starvation and exposure. The rest were rescued in a heroic effort from Salt Lake City.
That long-ago drama remains fresh at Martin's Cove, where the Church's visitors center was dedicated in 1997 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, who said, "The memories of our forebears are deeply and indelibly etched, and this ground must forever hold for us a feeling of great sanctity, a spiritual feeling if you please."
Connecting to the past, in pioneer garb of bonnets and aprons, or broad-brimmed hats and neckerchiefs, today's youth have adopted the handcart to climb inclines and cross rivers in search of their own pioneer experiences.
At Martin's Cove Historic Site, trekkers roll in on buses and exit with color-coded bandanas and worn-in hiking shoes. The youth, fresh from video games, iPods and cell phones, take to handcarts as though they pulled, pushed and lifted every day.
These modern trekkers come much better prepared than the ill-fated companies of a century and a half ago. Each participant, whether a youth or adult, has a physical examination, wears appropriate shoes, walks many miles to build up endurance, drinks water and follows rules to protect the environment and comply with local regulations. Typically, treks are held only every four years in a stake. Groups usually have physicians, nurses and Emergency Medical Technicians walking alongside, who quickly handle the occasional cases of heat exhaustion.
The youth walk silently through Martin's Cove, and reverence a graveyard at Rock Creek Hollow as part of their trek. They also plod along the abundant miles near where the historic Oregon and Mormon trails ribbon across the back country as carved by the wheels of hundreds of thousands of pioneer wagons. While the clank and shout of pioneers and the lowing of their oxen has long since stilled, the most visible reminder of their heritage the twin-rutted trail remains for the youth as a tangible evidence of the past, and they connect.
According to their leaders, youth on handcart treks are almost universally finding spiritual pioneer experiences and the experiences are changing their lives.
Youth are organized into family units with a surrogate Pa, Ma and brothers and sisters. Here, love and sharing and responsibility are catalyzed by moving the handcart forward. The handcart is of a size that youth can manage it, yet large enough to give a significant challenge over rough terrain. Pushing a handcart is punishing enough that when the end of the trail is reached, so also is a deep sense of accomplishment. The commonality of the experience brings together adults and youth, say participants.
Characteristically, a trek will also include a women's pull, reminiscent of women whose husbands were away on the Mormon Battalion, a river crossing to memorialize the young men rescuers crossing on the Sweetwater in 1856, a solo experience an individual alone in meditation and prayer all of which contribute to the overall experience.
So young men and young women burn under the high plains sun, incessantly gulp water, plod on for miles and miles and collapse in near-exhaustion at the welcome end of the day. Devotionals and musical numbers punctuate the day. And somewhere between sunset and sun-up the fervency of their aspirations turns to meaningful prayer, and somewhere between sun-up and sunset, they feel the answer to their prayers. What begins as a physical experience becomes a spiritual one.
"They'd do it again in a heartbeat," said President Kenneth J. Lathen of the youth in the Grants Pass Oregon Stake.
"It was not an easy time," he said of the four-day trek at Martin's Cove the second week of July. "We had 50-mile-an-hour winds" and on the third night it rained so heavily their tents had an inch of water inside.
What made the difference "was the Spirit," he said. "It was being bathed in the Spirit for 72 hours." Reports at sacrament meetings have been filled with strengthened youth testimonies, he said.
Carrie Leavitt of the Eagle Idaho Stake, and her husband, Darren, a high councilor, headed the stake's recent youth trip to Wyoming. The stake youth made and donated 43 baby quilts at Martin's Cove for the Church Humanitarian Center in remembrance of the children who perished along the Mormon Trail.
Each of the youth carried the name of a handcart pioneer with whom they had become acquainted through research.
"Walking that hallowed, sacred ground made that experience great," she said.
After the trek, ward members noticed a change in the countenance of some of the youth.
"That experience helped them to come back and carry on in the same faith that our pioneer saints had," she said.
Wendell P. Child, second counselor in the Kaysville Utah East Stake, who has supervised three stake treks including one July 17-20, said the spirituality of each event was the result of months of preparation, and of "our fasting, our going to the temple before trek begins. For months, we petition the Lord for His spirit to be with us."
Primarily, he said, it is the family structure that has the most significant impact on the spirituality. In selecting families, "we pray . . . with the intent that the Spirit will be invited to participate."
"I would say that trek mirrors what life is about its challenges and difficulties. When they realize that no matter what the size or magnitude of the problem, when the Lord is on your side, you can achieve it. By far, this is the most significant activity we do as a stake."
President Child said a song, "Carry Me," that was composed by stake members for the trek, will remind youth of their experiences long after the activity concluded.
So, out on a dusty trail, as they watch their youth duck into a handcart's yoke, or push from behind to form the familiar train, dust hovering low amid the distinctive metal-on-rock grinding of moving wheels, leaders may begin to feel their mission accomplished.
But the real benefits of handcart treks come later, said Elder Eldean Holliday, director of Mormon Handcarts Sites in Wyoming. He is stationed at Martin's Cove Visitors Center. "I shed tears every day," he said. "It doesn't get old; it gets more beautiful, more glorious and tears flow quicker. I thank my Heavenly Father every day that the Church supports these programs for the youth. The aftermath is absolutely marvelous."
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