Doug Robinson: The rite of passage known as trek

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 10:15 a.m. MDT

LDS youth participate in a handcart trek activity near the Utah-Wyoming border in this 2007 file photo.

Jeffrey D. Allred,

Hey, America, know what your kids need more than an afternoon of video games or another text-a-thon?

They need a little hardship, a little adversity — maybe even a dose of misery.

They need trek.

If you are not from Utah, if you are not in or around the Mormon culture, you probably don’t know what trek is.

Trek is — how to say this? — contrived hardship, at least as we define hardship in the 21st century. For a few days and nights, Mormon church wards take their youths into the wilderness to pull wooden handcarts 5-10 miles a day the way their pioneer ancestors did some 170 years ago. Trek has become a rite of passage for Mormon youths.

It’s part theatrical production, part survival exercise. The pioneers didn’t wear shorts or jeans, so trekkers don’t either. The men wear Western hats and old pants and shirts; the women wear bonnets, long skirts, bloomers and aprons.

The pioneers also didn’t have cellphones and headphones jammed into their ears, so those are left home, as well. Talk about hardship. Some consider this child abuse. For three days they actually have to talk face to face with other human beings, the way it was done way back in the old days, 10 years ago. They walk and talk with their “families,” which consist of their peers and an adult couple serving as “ma” and “pa.” Together they cope with sore feet, sunburn, hot and cold, wind, dust, sometimes snow, often rain, but no showers.

We have it easy, America. We have it so easy that we contrive ways to create adversity and physical challenges. We do this because it’s good for us; it makes us stronger. Some people climb mountains. Some run ultra marathons or lift weights. Some play golf without a cart or fly business class (adversity being relative). Mormons go on trek.

They go to great lengths to contrive hardship. Last week, one group plowed a stretch of road to make it more challenging to pull handcarts. In the absence of a real river, they created a muddy waterway in the desert and then asked the kids to pull handcarts through the water while some of the young men carried others across in their arms.

One of the adult leaders said he was praying for snow on the trek. Everyone else was praying for sunshine. There was a divine compromise — a cold rain, with a howling wind.

“These kids need a little adversity,” said Matt Devisser, president of the Hidden Valley Stake and the man who rooted for snow. “They’re going to experience that in life. For some of them, this may be the hardest thing they do until they are adults.”

(Memo to kids: It could be worse. When trekking began some three decades ago, trekkers were given a live turkey for dinner.)

Trekking would be the equivalent of a round of golf for the original pioneers. Instead of months and 1,000 miles on the trail, it’s 3-4 days and 20 miles, and the worst thing modern trekkers get is probably blisters and dust in their teeth, and when they’re done they climb into air-conditioned cars and return to a house and a refrigerator and a soft bed.

But it’s enough to give them a taste of the pioneer life and cause most to wonder, as one woman did as she shivered in a sleeping bag, “How did they do it?” And that’s the point: To appreciate the sacrifices and privations of the pioneers, and to dig deeper into the kind of faith that drove them. Some trekkers wore necklaces with a photo of a pioneer ancestor. If that weren’t enough of a reminder, they were greeted on the trail several times by actors portraying real pioneers recounting their hardships.

The way it works out is this: Trek sounds about as fun as a root canal in the beginning, and then everyone embraces it. Along the way, remarkable things happen: Kids huddle in groups with their arms around each other to find warmth in the wind, they let others ahead of them in the chow line, they help others fix their leaking tents in the rain, they take turns pulling carts, the young men behave like gentlemen toward the young women, and kids give up their own dry clothes and sleeping bags to warm a boy who was wet and cold. Out of hardship grew simple kindness.

One of the trekkers, 16-year-old Dallin Davis, might have put it best when he said, “We’re all sitting out there in the cold rain and wind and it’s a little bit hard and not a ton of fun, but they (leaders) were talking about pioneers' hardships, barefoot and walking on ice, and I realized that they were willing to do so much for their faith and that I can do so much more … I can definitely do better.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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