Why would normally sane people take teenagers out into the wilderness of Wyoming to walk for 18 miles?

My husband and I just returned from rough camping for three days and two nights with a bunch of teenagers, and it’s called “Trek.”

We weren’t the only ones, either, to take on this insanity.

While Dave and I were responsible for eight teenagers, 13-17 years old, three other married couples from our ward (or congregation) accompanied us with their groups of eight kids (our two teenagers among them), along with nine other groups from our stake (about the size of a diocese).  We were “Pa” and “Ma” and they are our trek “kids.” All total, there were nearly 500 of us on this adventure.

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The Hyrum 12th Ward Trekkers

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Dave and my trek “kids,” before our “family” got too dusty and dirty.

At 6 am on Thursday, nearly 400 of us piled into ancient school buses with dubious safety features (about 100 followed in chase vehicles with our gear and food), drove for 6 hours on uncomfortable seats with no A/C, and spent the weekend pretending to be 19th century pioneers.

Yes, that means wearing dresses, aprons, and bonnets for girls. Because not all of our participants can sew, I made eight skirts, seven bonnets, seven aprons, and one relatively authentic pioneer shirt for my cute husband. The boys wore suspenders, long-sleeve shirts, long pants, no jeans, and bandannas. (But modern shoes, thank goodness.)

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Dave and I and two of our “real” kids. (The males in our family do know how to smile. Just not for cameras.)

Why would we go to so much effort, and drive for so long, just to walk around in the wilds of Wyoming?

Because our teenagers deserved it.

Not to suffer—which they did, but only mildly. But to discover incredible, amazing things about themselves.

Now I know I recently wrote about why the most dangerous words are “I deserve,” but here’s one thing all people everywhere deserve: perspective.

We all also deserve to discover a few things about ourselves. For instance . . .

Our teenagers deserve to discover their strength. Our kids are typical: they love their electronics, their games, their music, their cars . . . and they had none of those on trek. No, not even cell phones. (There really isn’t coverage out there, anyway.)

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See any cell phone towers?

All of this means that our teenagers were, overall, soft. (So were most of us adults, to be fair.) While we’ve been trying to prepare these kids since March for this adventure—encouraging them to go walking, and even taking them out ourselves—I think only a handful were fully prepared for the experience.

The second day of trek required 10 miles of hiking (later, we learned it was actually 12, but the senior citizen missionaries leading us initially said only 10, so that they kids didn’t lose heart). The terrain was varied and beautiful, but dusty and difficult, especially pulling and pushing a 19th century handcart through the sand.

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(Knowing how much I love epic-looking clouds, God generously provided some for our photos.)

The kids grew tired, despite the water and Powerade and Jolly Ranchers and hoagie sandwiches and bags of Milano cookies. (No, we didn’t eat like pioneers—that’s for sure.)

But they persevered. We “Trek Parents” were always by their sides to encourage and help, but we didn’t need to do much because the kids helped each other. They told stories. They made up song lyrics. They cheered when boys tried to sneak off subtly into the bushes to relieve themselves, and returned victorious from watering the shrubs despite threats to sensitive body parts from mosquitoes.

When one of our trek sons developed the most epic nosebleed ever, and the EMT and nurse who accompanied our group of one hundred finally got the bleeding stopped, they recommended that he ride for a time, seeing how pale he was.

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Our kids hastily made room in the handcart, helped in their “brother” get in, then, without any complaint about the added weight, cheerfully pulled him to the river where we crossed, pioneer-like, three times in the rushing water, pulling their brother.

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Our teens deserve to discover their strength, and their compassion, and their fortitude.

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Trek isn’t some exercise in futility—walking in enormous circles without running water or bathrooms. (And the porta-potties were few and far between. At one point, I took matters into my own hands by holding up a tarp and letting girls hide in front of me to relieve themselves on the Oregon trail. Quite literally on the trail. That’s why we brought lots of flushable wipes with us.)

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The disparity of porty potties. We taught the men they were allowed to water the bushes. Leave the potties to those of us wrestling with skirts, aprons, and bloomers.

Trek is an exercise in perspective, which our teenagers deserve to understand.

It think few people realize this, but over half a million people used the Oregon/California/Mormon Trail over a span of 25 years—from 1843 to 1869. The trail was so well-used that the original wagon ruts are still quite visible, nearly 150 years after the last wagons used them.

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These are the actual wagon ruts, from 150 years ago, caused by 500,000 pioneers. The distance, astonishing. The vista, immense. The trees and water, non-existent.

Among the 500,000 who trekked west were 60,000 Mormons, fleeing the persecution and mobs of Missouri and Illinois. In fact, they frequently trekked on the other side of the rivers, away from other pioneers who still saw them as targets for persecution and theft. The Mormons figured no one would bother them in the wild west (part of which eventually became Utah), so they took to wagons, and later handcarts, to get there. Most traveled safely, with their mortality rates similar to that of the rest of the country.

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Except for two groups of poor immigrants from England, Sweden, and Denmark. They arrived in America with very little money, had to build handcarts, and got a late start from Iowa City (now Omaha, Nebraska). The Martin handcart company had 665 immigrants, the Willie company around 500. They didn’t leave until August, when they should have been arriving in Salt Lake City, 930 miles away. (You can read more in detail about these companies here.)

Wyoming weather is unpredictable, and 1856 was brutal. In early October, snowstorms hit the beleaguered handcart companies, covering the poorly-dressed and running-out-of-food immigrants with over a foot of snow. It was impossible for them to progress, and they’d been crossing rivers with chunks of ice floating in it. Freezing, without proper clothing or shoes, and surviving on only half a cup of flour a day, the handcart companies were doomed. One group, the Martin Company, eventually took shelter in a cove which protected them from the Wyoming winds, but not the snows.

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Martin’s Cove, Wyoming

It was here that we first took our teenagers, and explained to them that it was sacred and hallowed ground, for not only did the handcart pioneers take shelter there, over 50 died and were buried in unmarked graves. President Gordon B. Hinckley also stated some years ago that the Savior walked there, making it akin to a temple.

Here the Martin Company waited for rescue parties, which Brigham Young had sent from Salt Lake City, over 350 miles away. Sixteen supply wagons and many healthy men headed out immediately, but traveling by wagon on unimproved roads with snows flying meant their progress would also be hampered. (Eventually 250 wagon teams were dispatched.) Many of these rescuers also suffered from hunger, illness, and exposure because they went to help.

When they found the Martin Handcart company, the immigrants were beyond frail, many of them dying, and couldn’t cross another freezing river to get to the cove for shelter. About 15 men, most of them young men and older teens—like those we had brought with us last week—carried the several hundred people across the waist-high river, over and over again, all day long in the bitter cold and snow. Miraculously, all of the young men rescuers survived, although they suffered from the effects of their heroic deeds for the rest of their lives.

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One of three statues commemorating the rescuers who carried pioneers through the icy rivers to the shelter of Martin’s Cove.

This was what our teenagers deserve to see and learn; to recognize their own strength, to see what others had done. Some of our kids had ancestors who were among the immigrants or the rescuers. As they walked the three miles of the cove, they did so in silence. Imagine that—over a hundred teenagers, hiking quietly recognizing the strength and faith of those who had gone before, and the willingness of other teenagers to sacrifice to save others. They deserve to learn reverence.

Our teens also deserve to discover they can do hard things. That evening we drove on our buses an hour west to where the Willie handcart company was discovered by the rescuers. What took us only an hour to drive took the rescuers several days to accomplish in snow and wagons. Here we camped, ate far better than the pioneers did (taco salad and pudding cups, anyone?) and spent the next day hiking that 12 miles I mentioned earlier.

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At one point in our trek, all of the men and boys were sent on ahead, recreating the fact that many of the pioneers were women who traveled alone with their children. The men were gone because many had been recruited to join the Mormon Battalion; other men had died along the way, giving their last rations to their wives and children. Still other men went on ahead to prepare the way for their families to follow.

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Preparing for the “Women’s Pull” and watching our men and boys walk away.

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On the other side of the valley, the boys were taught for a few minutes about their responsibilities to their families, God, and community, while on our side the girls were taught about their strength and ability to do hard things.

Then the girls and Mas pushed the handcarts, by ourselves, ¾ of a mile to where the Pas and boys were waiting and watching. They weren’t allowed to come help, but just observe as we struggled through the sand to get the carts up the hill.

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One of my older (real) sons, who did trek four years ago, said that was the hardest moment—seeing the girls struggle and knowing that he couldn’t help.

However, another recreation we did was that of a Danish wife whose husband became too ill to continue. He told her to go on without him, but she dragged him into the cart and hauled him herself for two weeks until he improved.

On our trek, we had a Ma and Pa act that out, with us at the top of a hill watching as the small wife half a mile away struggled to heave her very tall husband into the cart, then start pulling it all by herself. Even though it wasn’t “real,” still I couldn’t take any more pictures because I was too teary-eyed, watching my friend try to get her husband up that sandy hill.

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After a minute, one of our leaders said, “Any of the young men here want to go help?”

They did, four of them, eagerly jogging down the hillside to rush to her aid and help her push and pull her husband to the top of the hill. I have no pictures of it, because it was a sacred moment. None of us need photos to remember that.

Our teens deserve to discover that there’s nothing more important than family. Ten miles into that hike, our group paused at Willie’s Meadow, where the handcart company of 500 finally had to stop, out of food and facing too deep of snows. The rescuers found them, too, and got them over Rocky Ridge, 16 miles away to where the supply wagons had stopped, unable to go farther. After that ridge, another 13 people died, and after they were buried, two of the men who buried them also died.

It was in the meadow, where the kids were told about the Willie company, that we handed each teenager a letter, written some weeks ago by their parents. One hundred teens then went off on their own to sit in silence and read their letters, and spend a few minutes writing in their journals.

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All of Dave’s and my trek “kids.”

Again, complete silence. Dave and I quietly took pictures, and felt that even our whispering was too loud as we watched our trek kids, our own two teenagers, and about 90 more read, contemplate, and even meditate in an area of complete peace and tranquility.

That evening our ward group—about 50 of us—sat around a campfire and talked about our impressions of the two days, of what we learned.

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Teenager after teenager stood up and expressed their thoughts, talked about their love for their families, their ancestors, and those who were there that day helping them to learn.

That night the sky was astonishing—no moon, no light pollution, and no clouds meant that our kids could stare up into a sky crowded with stars and the Milky Way, and feel the universe come down and touch them. Even after such an exhausting and long day, no one wanted to go to their tents just yet. And so Dave and I stood with our eight adopted trek kids, after our “family” prayer and a group hug (which was more of a scrum), and gazed at the heavens which gazed back at us.

Finally, at midnight, we sent them off to bed, reminding them we had camp to take down in the morning, and visit Rock Creek to see where the rescue wagons had been, before the long drive home.

At Rock Creek, where the 15 of the Willie Company had died, we saw their burial area, and sat down on wooden planks for a devotional. That’s when the storm came, an isolated thunder shower, dumping cold rain and even hail upon us as our stake president tried to talk to us about the sacrifices and faith of the pioneers.

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We see the storm coming, and realized that we packed in another vehicle all of our jackets and ponchos. There was nothing we could do but wait to be hit.

We shivered. We froze. And, because it was before our lunch of more sandwiches, grapes, and even soda and more Milano cookies (there’s a Pepperidge Farm factory in our valley–lucky us), we were hungry.

For ten minutes we experienced a tiny fraction what the pioneers did, and it was utterly miserable. One of our leaders said that he had prayed we would have the weather we needed. Apparently, we needed to feel a little bit of discomfort in our very comfortable lives.

After the storm passed, we were able to take shelter in those buses which seemed to be as luxurious as a hotel. (Ok, not quite, but you see where I’m going with this.)

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Even though the school buses were miserable, they were far better and much faster than wagons, or handcarts.

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Exhausted fellow Mas and Pas, trying to sleep.

 

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(Wait–this means I’m the only responsible adult awake on the bus?!)

It’s now been a few days since we’ve returned, and I’ve finally got all the laundry washed and put away, the tents swept out, the Dutch ovens reseasoned, and the many supplies we gathered and purchased stowed away. The mosquito bites are healing, and last night I saw all of my trek daughters again, along with several of their mothers.

Would they say that trek was “fun”? Parts of it definitely were, especially for my 17-year-old daughter who was the only one who took a bath for three days, because the swift current of the Sweetwater River pulled her under briefly.

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But “fun” wasn’t the point. Over and over the parents of my kids said, “She said it was the best experience of her life,” and “He even broke down as he said how great it was,” and “She said it was a lot harder than she expected, which meant it was even better than we hoped for,” and “It changed him.”

So why did we drag these kids in pioneer gear out to the wilderness and walk them near to death (or so some claimed)?

Because they deserved it. Everyone did.

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(Pa Mercer wore the right boots, but not the right socks, which left him with many blisters. However, riding on the handcart proved more uncomfortable than walking, so his ride lasted about 50 yards. He bailed out when he saw the first major dip in the trail coming, to the relief of our kids.)

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(And I deserve to see my #6 child smile.)

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