Refer to any atlas and it will tell you that the high point in Idaho is Borah Peak at 12,662 feet. But you might have a difficult time convincing 47 youth and 23 adults from the American Fork (Utah) 19th Ward of that. For them, the high point is known simply as “The Ranch” on the Idaho border just outside the small town of Freedom, Wyoming.
During summer vacation, this group participated in a not-so-typical youth conference: five days of hard work. And many of them even knew in advance that it would be hard work, because they had done the same thing last year.
“Sure it’s lots of work,” said 16-year-old Shirley Frazier. “But it’s also lots of fun. We play when we work. It’s not every day you get to work side by side with members of your ward. A bond is established, and I feel closer to the members of my ward and to the Lord.”
How much work can 47 youth do on a ranch in five days? Plenty. For example, they built fences with wooden posts and barbed wire, and they built a small bridge across a creek. They tilled and weeded a garden. They even finished constructing a barn (where they would perform plays and skits). As if that weren’t enough, they also cleaned up an old farmhouse once inhabited by barn swallows and mice, built a retaining wall with rocks they had gathered in a field nearby, and planted flowers.
You’d think that would be enough to tire them out. But there was also time for the fun usually associated with youth conferences. They boated, they fished, they swam. They played baseball in a pasture, organized and participated in a lip-synch contest where they imitated singers from the ’50s to the ’80s, and enjoyed a hayride on a wagon pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses.
“I think this is great,” said Elizabeth Toomalatai, 18, who, although not LDS, participated in the youth conference. “People get together and work—and have fun—at the same time!” Elizabeth, whose brother served a mission and is currently attending BYU, says she came to The Ranch with some friends “to see how members of the Church get together.” She added, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Obviously, The Ranch isn’t your typical ranch. Sister Lou Cille Hamnett, who runs the place with her husband Von and her son Scott, tells about the dream she and her first husband, the late Neil Carlisle, shared when they purchased the property. Over the years, ward groups from the surrounding states clamored for the opportunity to have activities at the site.
“When you walk around here and the sandhill cranes are flying overhead and the Canadian geese are flying and the ducks are out there on the lake and it’s quiet, well, there’s no place like it,” Sister Hamnett said. “People are living such a rat race that they don’t stop to smell the roses, they don’t stop to feel, really, the reverence of the soil and the clean air. I think that’s what you get up here. There is a special spirit here.”
Because of that special spirit, even after Brother Carlisle passed away in 1985, Sister Hamnett wanted to keep The Ranch going. But she had her doubts about whether it could be maintained.
Then Bishop Blake Wride and the youth of the 19th Ward came to the rescue.
“They knew what a large responsibility the upkeep and improvement of The Ranch would be for me. So he got all of his kids together and suggested coming up for a service project. I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ But I thought I would probably be baby-sitting them. Instead, this group has just been marvelous. Neil always said that giving to others was the most important thing. I knew we were giving by having these church groups come up here, but now someone’s giving in return.”
Like the unique focus of the conference, The Ranch is also unique in its character. The young men and women are quick to point out some reasons why. For example, there is an outdoor eating place known as the “Chuckwagon,” located where cattle used to roam the fields. The building that is now the kitchen was a place of shelter where the cattle sought refuge from the hot, blistering sun, or the hard, cold Idaho winters. Sister Hamnett still laughs as she explains how they had to borrow a tractor and clean two feet of manure off the ground when the transformation from cattle lounge to Chuckwagon began. But the youth don’t mind the Chuckwagon’s past. In fact, as soon as they arrived Monday afternoon, they were scrubbing down tables, and sweeping and mopping the floor in preparation for some “good fixin’s.”
And if you take a walk up the hill above the lake to look at The Ranch, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the six sheep wagons. Built by Carlisle himself, they provide cozy sleeping quarters for some of the guests. The six wagons are arranged in a tight circle in a small meadow, as if part of an old western movie set. You’d almost expect a few cowboys in chaps to come walking out of one of them.
And the garden. Well, that’s where an 80-year-old barn stood, until the weight of winter snow on the roof caused the structure to buckle. Youth from the ward helped weed and till the ground where the barn used to be in preparation for planting flowers and vegetables.
“Here, weeding is fun,” said 17-year-old Lisa Patterson. “I think working together seems to make it more fun, especially because we’re giving service.”
Corey Wride, 17, agreed, and added, “I was surprised at how the adults passed responsibilities on to us.” Even with all that good food at the Chuckwagon ready to be eaten by hungry, hardworking teenagers, Corey’s favorite expression seemed to be, “Well, I’m ready to get back to work.”
One girl is proud of the fact that she helped build a fence in one day. She is thrilled by the fact that she was part of an almost all-girl work crew that built the fence. One of the boys overheard her comments, then said with curiosity, “What I don’t understand is why girls get so excited about hammering nails into wood.” His statement was quickly answered, “Because this is a time when girls get to do many things they normally don’t get to do. The leaders are really understanding and they let us try new things.”
Girls hammering nails to help build a fence isn’t the only unusual activity going on at The Ranch. Boys are also participating in tasks they normally don’t do at home. Says Sister Cheryl Edmund, one of the ward’s youth conference specialists: “Where else can you see boys sweeping the kitchen (the Chuckwagon) and doing dishes?” And she adds with a laugh, “In broad daylight!”
On one particular day at The Ranch a visitor might see girls gathering up scraps of discarded wood from the barn project and piling it in wheelbarrows. As they push them along to be dumped into a hole in the ground for the night’s anticipated dutch oven feast, they laugh, talk about the upcoming play in the recently completed barn, and generally just seem to enjoy the natural beauty of their surroundings and the work they are doing. Having dumped the wood, some of them jump into the wheelbarrows for unorganized races back to the scrap pile.
What’s the secret to enjoying hard work and service? Bishop Wride says, “It goes back to what Elder Victor L. Brown said about service and youth: ‘May we remember that they would rather serve than be served. Self-sacrifice brings out their finest characteristics.’
Not only have the youth learned to appreciate service at The Ranch; they have had fun at the same time. For example, Jeff Eastwood, 18, earned the distinction of being the first one thrown in the lake. With a smile on his face, he’ll tell you that he really jumped in. On the serious side, he said he’s learned an important lesson by participating in youth conference. Jeff said he is grateful that his parents attended, too. “I’ve learned to live with adults in a different environment. My parents are interacting with my friends, and I’ve learned to act the same way in front of my family as I do in front of my friends. I’m being myself.”
With so much to see and do at The Ranch, it’s hard to say what was the most memorable part of this youth conference. Perhaps it was Thursday evening’s spiritual activity. It began with an invitation after dinner to take a hayride to a meadow for homemade peach cobbler and whipped cream. It was a perfect day: billowy clouds in a beautiful blue sky. When the young men and women arrived at the meadow, they enjoyed running around in the knee-high grass. And the tall pine trees on the hills that circled the meadow were surpassed only by the spirit of togetherness shared by the youth and adult leaders. When they finished eating, everyone sang songs. Suddenly, three men dressed in white came walking down the hill. As previously planned by the adults, but unknown to the youth, these three men represented the Three Nephites (see 3 Ne. 28).
“It was breathtaking, watching those white figures walk down from the hill,” said Sharon Frazier. “At first, we were all quiet, not knowing what to think. And then we started to sing, ‘I am a Child of God’ as they came closer. They told us that we are a choice generation, and very special spirits reserved especially for this time period.”
The youth were split up in groups, each accompanied by one of the three guests. Each group discussed a beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5), then discussed a particular question. One of the questions was, “If you could change something, what would it be?” Norma Nerdin, 15, said, “I’m going to make my Church habits more steady. You know, things like prayer and scripture study. And I need to talk about my problems more. Everybody has difficulties. It’s important that we let others know when we are having a hard time.” Norma said that it was a moment she would remember forever.
Heather Baxter, 16, was in another group. Her question was, “What would make you happy?” “I would want to have a pure testimony,” she said. “If someone asked me if I knew the Church was true, I would be able to know for sure and answer them without having any doubts.
And that’s what it was all about at The Ranch: doing rather than just talking. The results were service rendered and lots of smiles, and a feeling that the high point of Idaho is really at a small ranch outside of Freedom.