Young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently participated in a Mormon Pioneer Westward Trek reenactment.
The 113 youths, ages 12-18, spent four days and three nights experiencing a small part of what it was like for the Mormon handcart pioneers of the 1850s. They donned pioneer apparel, the girls wearing long pioneer dresses, bonnets and aprons, and the boys in suspenders, cotton pants and button-up shirts.
They camped in three different locations near Cle Elum — locations they walked to, pulling handcarts weighing 500 pounds. From July 19 to 22, they lugged those handcarts a total of 28 miles — the better part being difficult terrain, up and down dusty, steep trails, with two crossings of the Yakima River.
Youths were assigned to “families,” each led by a married couple serving as the “Ma and Pa.” Each family pulled its own cart. The pioneer trek reenactment consisted of 17 handcart families, with support adults serving as trail boss, trail scouts and medics.
Although the four days were long and challenging, the reenactment also included pioneer games, dancing, storytelling and preparing food in camp.
These 113 young men and women left behind all traces of technology for four days and agreed to dress like they lived 160 years ago.
Brad and Juliana Wallace served as the trek directors, having worked for the past year to make this event happen. “160 years ago, 3,000 of the 70,000 Mormon pioneers pulled handcarts 1,000 miles across the plains from Iowa to Salt Lake City. Many of those pioneers were children and teenagers,” said Juliana. “Our youth grow up singing songs about the pioneer children and hearing stories of heroic rescues on the trail. This opportunity to walk in their shoes for just a few days helped those songs and stories come to life.”
She added: “This pioneer handcart reenactment was a fantastic opportunity for our youth not only to connect with their pioneer ancestors, but also to discover strength within themselves.”
Russ Larsen, LDS stake president for the Grays Harbor-area congregations, feels the trek reenactment was worth all the volunteer time and effort so many adults gave.
“Our short reenactment of this journey is our way of experiencing firsthand just a small portion of the hardships that these pioneers endured. By doing this, we are able to keep these people alive in our memory and gain an even greater love and appreciation for them,” he said. “Leaving our life behind and being in nature completely free of technology for three days was a remarkable experience. There were no barriers to communication, and youth were continually found talking to one another, singing hymns, joking around and just enjoying being together.”
At the end of the experience, dust and clothing were inseparable, blisters were plentiful, and bodies were exhausted. But when the handcarts rolled past the finish line, family members in proud tears on the sidelines, there was nothing but joy in the accomplishment.
These reenactment trekkers had not walked over 1,000 miles like those they were remembering. They did not live on an average of 4 ounces of flour a day. They did not experience heartbreaking tragedy. But they had done something very difficult, spiritually, emotionally and physically, and all felt it was as privilege to have done so.