Pioneer treks by youth have become a summer tradition in the American West. The sight of young Latter-day Saints divided into "families" with an assigned Ma and Pa maneuvering through the dry heat and rocky terrain of the Mountain States is now downright commonplace.
Meanwhile, most would not consider the Deep South a hotbed of handcart activity. Besides the region's lack of connection, geographically and historically, with the great Mormon migration, there are other potentially discouraging factors: The heat becomes unbearably humid; the terrain, though not desert-like, presents its own challenges: low-lying tree branches, giant insects and mile after mile of kudzu, "the vine that ate the South."
Those unique challenges make what more than 170 youth of the Lilburn Georgia Stake did that much more impressive. Dressed in pioneer clothing and bereft of technology, they trekked from June 17-19 through mountainous terrain near Cornelia, Ga., some 80 miles northeast of Atlanta. In the upper Chattahoochee River Plateau, Cornelia is located in an area of Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Doug and Kim Martin, members of the Cornelia Ward, Athens Georgia Stake, allowed the youth to use their 460-acre property as the trek site.
No matter where youth of the Church walk, treks are always a learning experience. For most youth in the West, that learning often focuses on the personal histories of their own pioneer ancestors. In the case of this particular trek, however, those youth who are first- or second-generation members of the Church learned more about pioneer history in general.
"I learned about and now appreciate what the pioneers did for all of us," said Kirsten Phipps, 14, of the Centerville Ward, a convert of two years. "Without this experience, I don't think I would have quite realized that they all truly helped each other to survive."
Pulling and pushing 300-pound handcarts up and down wooded hills is difficult enough. Add in stifling, muggy air that reached 100 percent humidity at some point each day, and it would be understandable to hear a groan or two.
If groans were indeed uttered, no one noticed.
"This trek was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done," said 15-year-old Nicole Gordon of the Centerville Ward, who also joined the Church two years ago. "It was very strenuous for even the fittest youth."
In spite of the difficulty, Nicole added, "What was so special about the trek is that no one complained and everyone helped each other."
Evidence of the pioneering spirit of love and unity appeared throughout the trek. Some even invited friends who are not members of the Church to participate.
Leaders who accompanied the youth also took notice of the youth's physical and spiritual strength. They credited loving bonds formed by the youth as the foundation of such strength.
"I didn't hear any complaining or murmuring as these young men and women overcame obstacles together," said Will Spurlock, a seminary teacher in the Dacula Ward. "Their strength was amazing and their bonds inseparable by the last day. These youth were strengthened physically, mentally and, most important, spiritually."
Peter Baron, stake Young Men president, said the youth, especially those who are recent converts like Kirsten and Nicole, need to maintain that strength to be pioneers among their peers.
"The youth in the South are strong and obedient," he said. "Often they are the only members in their high schools, so when they get an opportunity to come together they love it. They especially love the strength they feel from each other.
"This trek in the lush, green North Georgia Mountains was hot and grueling; it brought our youth together in a way they've never before experienced. The love and unity they developed and felt for one another was amazing — it was a Zion-like experience."
— Nikki Parrott contributed to this story.