Last summer, I dressed in pioneer clothing, put all my possessions in a five-gallon bucket and joined nearly 300 teenagers and 100 adults pulling handcarts along the Mormon Trail in Wyoming.
It has become somewhat of a rite of passage for young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to take part in a re-enactment of the Mormon westward migration at least once during their teenage years. And though I have been a youth leader for much of my adult life, this was the first time that I have been privileged to take part.
I do have a confession to make though. I didn’t actually spend my trek pulling the handcarts. I spent my trek time photographing the trek. I went along as one of two photographers to document the event for the youth. It is an interesting thing to be the event photographer for such an event. I was part of the event but not part of the event. When I am working as a photographer (and while this was a volunteer position, I definitely worked), I am more of an observer than an active participant. But I wouldn’t have traded my assignment for anything.
We gathered from the trek at 4:45 on a Monday morning, but we really started almost two years ahead of time. Planning for a Pioneer Handcart Trek is a huge undertaking. I joined the planning team about eight months before. Committees in charge of such things as food, registration, transportation and logistics began much earlier. Since both of my younger daughters were trek participants, we started planning for our personal needs (like pioneer clothing) earlier in the spring. We sewed bonnets, skirts and aprons, altered pajama pants into bloomers and purchased long-sleeved cotton shirts at the Goodwill. My daughters got to learn some valuable sewing skills and we had some great family time preparing for our trek. Each trek participant was allowed to bring a sleeping bag and pillow, a five-gallon bucket with their extra clothing and toiletries and a daypack for things they would need along the trail. Everyone dressed in pioneer-type clothing to help enhance the experience (and I am pretty sure it made them all thankful for jeans and t-shirts).
We boarded seven buses and headed for the high plains of Wyoming. We had one humorous spot, when we made a detour through a rest stop in Wyoming and a couple of busloads of pioneer-clothed teens disembarked. I am pretty sure the rest of the travelers weren’t quite sure what to think. We arrived at our destination, a place called Martin’s Cove, about lunch time.
The youth divided up into their “families” (8-10 youth and a husband/wife to serve as their “Ma” and “Pa”), loaded up their handcarts and headed for Martin’s Cove. We began our trek with a short introduction from one of the missionary couples who staff Martin’s Cove. The youth watched and sang along with this video—it gave me goosebumps to feel their spirit as they sang.
And then we were off. The youth started with the challenge of pulling their handcarts across a small stream that was tougher than it looked and then headed in a long and beautiful column of 29 handcarts to their next assembly place. We stopped just outside of the cove itself and heard the stories of the pioneers who camped there. Our mood was set by an amazing choir of some of our youth. Then the youth left their carts and walked quietly along the trail to Martin’s Cove, envisioning on that warm summer day what it must have been like to be a starving, freezing, exhausted pioneer, pulling their handcarts and walking through early October blizzards to find even the most meager of shelters. It was a thought I pondered much over the course of our trek.
Trekking in hot sun across the dry and dusty Wyoming plains isn’t easy, but I cannot begin to imagine how much harder it had to have been in blizzards, with feet of snow on the ground and having already walked nearly 1000 miles. Add to that starvation and deprivation and it gives you some pause. I was thankful then for my sturdy hiking shoes and the cooks waiting for us at our camp.
We later crossed the Sweetwater River and hiked on to our first night’s camp as a thunderstorm rolled in, making our setup a bit of a challenge. But the youth, being resilient, had a wonderful time getting to know their trek families and enjoying their time together.