It’s July again, and that can mean only one thing. Members of the Church from Alberta to Arizona, Washington to Maine, and in fact, all over the world, start doing things they would otherwise never consider. Your hayfever-prone father, who is happy to spend most of his time in a climate-controlled office, announces that he wants to learn to milk a cow. Family barbecue parties and picnics feature unusual foods like venison steaks and taffy that you have to “pull” before you eat it. And you can’t be sure, but you could almost swear that you saw your normally fashion-conscious older sister swish past you wearing a floor-length skirt and a sunbonnet.
And just when you think it’s safe, your parents, your leaders, or even your friends may suggest that you try your hand at a few pioneer-related activities to honor those Church members who settled in Salt Lake City and established the Church there. But before you shout “NO!” and head for the nearest fast-food restaurant, video arcade, or other modern entertainment of your choice, take a look at the experiences of youth in different locations who decided to give pioneering a go—at least for a day or two.
During the late winter, 13-year-old Travis Hurst, a deacon from Indianapolis, Indiana, and his dad, Kent, came up with a plan. Because several of their ancestors had made the trek west to Utah, they decided they would build a handcart and participate in a re-enactment of the pioneers’ journey through Iowa. Lots of people were coming from many locations to walk for a day or two, or even a week during the event, but Travis and his dad decided to go the whole way, so they could really understand what their ancestors had gone through. They would walk from Montrose, Iowa, to Winter Quarters, covering the entire state from east to west. It’s a long walk—about 300 miles—which takes about three weeks to complete, but Travis felt that it would be a good experience and a lot of fun. His older brother wasn’t so sure.
“At first I thought it was kind of a crazy idea,” says Travis’s 17-year-old brother, Taylor. “But I watched Travis and my dad build the handcart, and Travis kept telling me what an awesome vacation it was going to be. He was right.”
And so, when the trek started, Taylor was right next to Travis and Brother Hurst, taking his turn pushing their handcart. Janell Seely, a Mia Maid from Castle Dale, Utah, was pushing a handcart the whole way with some of her family members, too. And Danny Wilkins, a deacon from Willcox, Arizona, was just up ahead with his dad, Dean, driving a wagon.
“Some people think Iowa is flat,” says Janell. “But they’re wrong! It’s all hills.”
And hills weren’t the only challenge. Just like the pioneers 150 years ago, the trekkers encountered searing heat, fierce wind, and pouring rain.
“When we left from Keokuk, it was very rainy and wet,” says Travis. “We were supposed to travel across a bridge, but it had been washed out, so we crossed through the stream. It did feel good, though, to get our feet wet.”
Unfortunately, not long after that stream crossing, Travis was unable to continue because of illness. He went home to Indiana to recover, leaving Taylor and his dad to finish the trek alone.
“I feel bad that my little brother didn’t get to continue,” Taylor says. “Without him, I wouldn’t even be here. Lots of pioneers didn’t make it to the end of the trek because of illness, but they didn’t get to go home. It makes you feel grateful for medicine and all the other blessings we enjoy.”
Air conditioning, soft beds, and their mom’s cooking are some other blessings Danny, Taylor, and Janell all say they missed. But despite the spartan conditions, all of them said they see real advantages to living a pioneer lifestyle.
“It seems like there’s more time to talk out here,” says Danny. “Day after day, I just sit here talkin’ with my dad and the other people riding in the wagon, and it’s been fun. I feel like I know my dad better now.”
Janell agrees. “Sometimes I am walking along, and I think about how the pioneers were in this very same place so long ago. It’s pretty quiet, and I can really feel the Spirit. This is an experience I won’t ever forget.”
The Utah Bonneville Stake’s pioneer experience wasn’t just a trek through some of the same territory pioneers settled in after they arrived in Utah; it was also a trek through time. Many of the youth read their pioneer ancestors’ journals before going on the trek, to give them a very personal idea of what the exodus west meant to the pioneers.
“One of my ancestors came from Nauvoo to Utah,” says Candice McConkie, 17. “She had to travel alone because her husband had died. I really admire her courage and sacrifice. And because of her, I felt I could face any of the hard experiences of our trek and even some of the real hardships I might have to face later in my life.”
The stake’s Youth Pioneer Trek Council wanted their trek to be unforgettable for everyone, even those without pioneer ancestors, so they made a few rules about modern conveniences being left behind. Who would have thought that bar soap would fall into that category?
“After a while, it didn’t seem to matter if you were dirty or clean, because everyone else was the same way. You began to notice people for what they were inside instead of outside,” says Patrick Moench, 17.
And the food wasn’t much like what the youth were used to either. But that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone, especially 17-year-old Ryan Parker.
“I don’t care how the food tastes ,” he says. “I just hope there’s lots of it.”
The Nashua New Hampshire Stake wanted to focus on service on their trek. So in addition to the usual handcarts and other trappings of pioneer life, the group formed a Mormon Battalion to help the handcart companies cross the river and provide assistance when needed. David Stienkuhler, of the Nashua First Ward, liked being in the battalion. “At first I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned a lot about the Mormon Battalion and its job. We worked hard helping the companies. We were important and needed.”
One early morning on the trail found the youth on their own for quiet contemplation and scripture reading. After this solo experience, a testimony meeting was held. Chris Rodney of the Littleton Second Ward says he “didn’t realize how much strength I had, and how hard it would really be. This showed me more of myself and helped me build character.”
When the trek ended and the last handcart finally reached the end of the trail, Joe Kahler, from the Nashua First Ward, said, “It really felt like we were pioneers.”
So maybe two or three days camping out in chilly weather without your down-filled sleeping bag doesn’t sound like fun. And who knows, maybe your microwave-loving mom really did lose her mind when she decided to bake eight different kinds of pie. But then again, maybe there is something to getting a taste of what the pioneers went through.
Lying down in your bedroll and gazing up to the stars without the blare of a portable stereo, the hiss of a campstove, or even the glow of your digital watch, might just give you a chance to realize how strong the pioneers’ testimonies must have been. And maybe you’ll decide that you, too, could do the same if you had to.
You’ll never know until you try.
—Don Thorpe and Jill Gray contributed to this article.