What’s the first thing you think of when I say the word “trek”? Pioneer? Handcart? Bonnet? Hot summer? Freezing winter? Women’s pull? I’ll tell you the first thing I think of: my little sister. Here’s why.
I was 17 years old and my stake was doing a pioneer trek for youth conference. I had already attended a stake trek once, so I was a little disappointed that we were doing it again, and that I had to attend again (17-year-old attitude … lame, I know). The people in charge of the trek this specific summer had done a lot of research and gave each member of the trek a name, and not just any name, but a name of a person from one of the handcart companies. With the name came a small paragraph telling us how old the pioneer was when he/she made the trek, how long they lived, and if they lived, what they did after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.
On the second morning of our stake trek, I woke up to find that one of the members of my trek family was gone. My trek parents explained to me that my “sister” had died during the night. (She hadn’t literally died, but the pioneer she had been playing did die on the trail to Salt Lake.) Each family in our stake trek lost a minimum of one family member, some two and three. We didn’t get to say goodbye to those family members, nor did we have any idea where they had gone. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the real pioneers to wake up next to their loved ones who had passed away during the night.
Later that day we had what many recognize to be called the “women’s pull.” The women’s pull is supposed to remind those trekking of the time in handcart history when the men of the handcart companies were called off to fight with the Mormon Battalion, and the women were left to pull the handcarts. If you can imagine tired and severely underfed women pulling handcarts up a very steep and rocky ridge, your heart might tug a little bit. Mine does, because that’s exactly what all the other women in our group and I did. It was hard and teary. All the fathers and brothers stood off to the side, some crying, and had to watch us as we struggled up the hill. Some women tripped, fell, lost hold of their handcarts, or had to stop.
About three-quarters of the way up the hill, at what seemed to be the hardest part, all of a sudden I felt my handcart become a lot lighter. I turned and saw my trek sister who had “died” the night before. She was pushing the handcart, draped in a white tunic, representing an angel. The representation was sinking in when I looked ahead of me and saw all the deceased members of the company walking toward our handcarts. My eyes welled up with tears as I thought of the representation. I looked to my left and saw a young girl in white walking toward me and I realized it was my 14-year-old biological sister, who was also on the trek. She had also “died” during the night and was walking toward me. She grabbed my hand as we both cried and hugged each other. I was so overwhelmed by the moment. I don’t know how the pioneers did it. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more grateful to get to attend a second trek and experience what I did. My sister and I treasure that moment we had together, and the memories we have from our stake trek experiences.
As summer begins, so does the trek experience for many wards and stakes across the nation. I hope it’s a great experience for both leaders and youth, because it can change lives.
For those youth groups in the Salt Lake Valley who are attending trek this summer, I have a preparation suggestion for you: there is a movie releasing on June 3 called 17 Miracles. It is the story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies on their trek to the Salt Lake Valley. The same director who filmed Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, Testaments, and Only a Stonecutter worked on this film. His goal was to depict not just the hard moments the pioneers suffered, but the miracles they witnessed. For those near the theatres, I encourage you to see the film. Whether you see it before or after your trek, the personal connection you’ll feel to the pioneers will be greatly strengthened through the combination of this movie and the actual trek experience.
*Click here to watch the 17 Miracles movie trailer.
Ashley Jones practices public relations for Deseret Book. She loves writing, emailing her missionary sister, and making/ eating home-made popcorn.
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