SALT LAKE CITY – "Goin' on trek."
The phrase doesn't refer to the television/movie sci-fi franchise, the brand of bicycles nor the Boers' "Great Trek" inland migration in southern Africa in the 1830s and '40s.
In the LDS Church vernacular, "trek" means a modern-day re-enactment of the Mormon pioneers who crossed the Great Plains and Wyoming's Continental Divide en route the Salt Lake Valley.
Almost always those youth-oriented re-enactments use the pulling of smaller handcarts across rugged stretches of land rather than full-size wagons drawn by horses, mules or oxen. It's for the same reason LDS Church leaders tried the handcart mode with 10 pioneer companies in the 1850s — because of the cost and logistics of arranging for the livestock and the larger wagons.
As park of trek re-enactments over the past decade and a half, LDS youths and adults wearing period attire have struggled to pull the handcarts over rocks and ridges and through sage and sand, all the time learning of the sacrifices and struggles of 19th century pioneers — more specifically the ill-fated 1856 Martin and Willie handcart companies, revered for their faithfulness and sacrifice.
Comprising 980 European emigrants, the two companies started their cross-country journey disastrously late and were halted in central Wyoming by early, heavy snows and severe temperatures before being rescued. More than 20 percent of the 980 died along the way.
"We're trying to get this generation to realize something of our heritage," said Elder Robert L. Backman, an emeritus general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wonders if Mormon pioneer stories would "seem like fairy tales" if LDS youth didn't have a chance to replicate the trek experience.
"You can't be on that trail very long without the spirit touching you," he said.
Eighteen-year-old Rebecca Ehlert, who participated in the East Millcreek North Stake's four-day, 28-mile trek in June, agrees.
"I absolutely loved it, and in a spiritual sense it was very rewarding to me," she said. "The whole experience is so humbling for what the Saints then went through."
While pioneers and related trappings have long been a staple of Mormon pageants and parades, handcart treks date back to BYU's summer Especially For Youth program, where they were more of a survival-type experience than a pioneer re-enactment.
Treks across Wyoming in and around Mormon Trail landmarks such as Martin's Cove and Rocky Ridge became popular when LDS Church celebrated in 1997 its pioneer sesquicentennial anniversary.
That same year, Latter-day Saints in Russia and Ukraine pulled a pair of commemorative handcarts across their own countries.
Nowadays, treks can be scheduled for not only Martin's Cove, Rocky Ridge and Rock Creek Hollow, in Wyoming, but at church agricultural properties such as Deseret Land and Livestock, in Rich County; Elberta Valley Ag, in Utah County; at Bing Canyon Pioneer Camp, in Washington's Tri-Cities area; Deseret Cattle and Citrus Ranch near Orlando; and Oklahoma's Sooner Cattle Company.
Trek also has gone international at church farm property in England, Australia and Argentina.
And at all the LDS properties, church-service missionary couples help oversee scheduling and arrangements of stake and ward groups and can assist when invited with providing historical perspective or suggesting re-enactment activities.
At the Mormon Handcart Historical Sites alone, more that 60 couples are stationed during the summer months.
Because of distance and travel costs and the fact that limited reservations at the church-owned sites fill up a year or two in advance, alternative sites and handcart operations have started to crop up in recent years.
A church-owned almond farm in California rents out the same Amish-crafted handcarts used elsewhere. Other privately owned companies have started to either manufacture or rent handcarts for LDS groups trekking on private property or forest service land.
One challenge of the influx of treks and the alternative-site options is that re-enactments can exceed historical or doctrinal boundaries.
"There are legends that creep in all the time," said Elder Backman, who served as vice-chairman for the church's 1997 sesquicentennial celebration and was asked last year by the Presidency of the Seventy to help review a new church manual for local church units organizing and operating handcart treks.
Those "legends" include working in elements of the Mormon Battalion into the handcart treks — despite the battalion occurring 10 years before the formation of the first handcart companies — as well as the depicted involvement of resurrected beings, angels and even members of the Godhead in re-enactment programs.
"This handcart story is dramatic enough," Elder Backman said. "We don't need to embellish anything."
Church leaders and youth alike understand the treks are a far cry from what actual sufferings of the handcart pioneers, stranded in remote Wyoming and battered by the late-fall blizzards.
With most re-enactments done in summer to accommodate school and work vacations, participants battle hot temperatures, not freezing cold. Their involvement is only several days, not several months. They're well-fed and cared for, not starving and facing death.
"Nobody can experience everything those pioneers did — the cold, the starvation — but these youth can see a little bit of what happened and appreciate it," said Elder David Freeman, the LDS service missionary who directs the Mormon Handcart Historical Sites.
"The kids leave their cell phones, they leave their iPods, they leave their showers for two or three days — and they camp and they walk. You get in that position to feel that spirit, to know that spirit, if you've walked pulling a handcart and you're bone-tired."
Elder Richard Bretzing, who supervises all service missionaries assigned to the church's agricultural properties, underscored the impact felt by participants.
"We use the term 'life-changing experience,' " he said. "Some of the youth are reluctant; they go up there grumbling. And then they come back with tears in their eyes and say it's the best experience they've ever had."
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