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Keep on trekkin’

It’s summer time! Time to break out those flip-flops, shorts, swim suits, and pioneer attire!

My 14-year-old is currently on her first, and the first for our family, pioneer trek. Our stake is doing a great job of keeping us updated through a Facebook group, and I am loving the pictures and hearing about what they are doing almost minute-by-minute.
When I dropped off a group of girls yesterday, I overheard someone say, “Why do we celebrate only the small group of pioneers who came by handcart?” (we do a handcart trek).

I do know they looked into doing a covered wagon trek based on what the journey was like for the majority of those who made the Westward migration, but it’s cost prohibitive. Namely, it involves animals and they are not cheap to rent, transport, or maintain. Someone years ago built really nifty handcarts that fold up perfectly in a trailer and since then our youth have made this journey every 4 years – so that each youth will be able to experience it once between ages 14 and 18

It’s true that most of our Mormon pioneers did not come by handcart, or at least not solely by handcart. In all of our great-greats, between my husband and I only one person was a handcart pioneer. There were a few others who came by covered wagon, but the great majority of them came in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s as converts from Europe and they took ships and trains. And then of course we have many church members who are 1st and 2nd generation members and they don’t have “pioneer” ancestry at all (they ARE the pioneers). 

Still, I think those early pioneers are to be celebrated. Without them, none of us would be here as members of the church regardless of how long our families have been in the church. So it’s great to learn about them and spend a few days experiencing what their lives might have been like. It builds character.

I was a part of the early planning committee for this trek as a former member of the stake YW presidency. Having never been a trek before, I admit to being a little concerned/disturbed over some of what I was hearing in the planning phase (most of this was based on what had been done on previous treks and I’m not sure how much of it is actually happening on this current trek). Namely, I heard a few times different ways they try to make trek really hard to “break” the kids and “humble” them to help them “feel the spirit.”
Way in which they were doing so:

  • No modern conveniences at all (pillows, make-up, deodorant, bug spray…even sun screen was a debated issue, although they did end up allowing that and bug spray. I did hear them specifically ask kids yesterday if they had pillows, make-up, and deodorant. I’m sorry, but we snuck deodorant in there under “feminine hygiene.” I mean, really. Yuck.) My problem with this: I am actually fine with the no makeup. Things like the deodorant, bug spray, and sun screen I think are a little extreme because those crossing the plains DID try to keep themselves clean in the ways that they could back then, and they also used herbs and whatever they were aware of at the time to protect them from illness, sun exposure, and insects.
  • Women’s pull. This is that time where they call all the men off to war and the women have to pull the carts alone, often at the most difficult part of the trek. In some cases, I’ve heard of them making the girls do this while the boys stand there and watch. Thankfully, it appears that our stake at least took the boys off to do another activity so as not to humiliate our girls too much. Now, I am all for showing girls that they can do hard things and that they don’t always need a man in order to do it. Yay for pioneer feminism! However, I don’t think it’s really true to the pioneer experience for most of the pioneers, most of the time. It is true there were some women who did it alone (or at least as the head of their household, although there were men around to help). I am fine with this women’s pull as a lesson in what you can do when necessity warrants it. I’m not a big fan of it as a humiliation or “breaking” experience, however.
  • Fasting. I am not sure they are planning to do this on this trek, but in others I’ve heard of on the last night of trek they will tell the youth that pioneers sometimes didn’t have food and now it’s time to experience that and they go to bed on empty stomachs after walking all day. The next morning is the spiritual culmination of trek – time alone after the fast to ponder, pray, read scriptures, read a letter from your parents, write in your journal, and then attend a testimony meeting. (Disclaimer – yes, this is medically supervised so it’s not a physical danger for the youth, just not the most comfortable thing ever.) Again, I am not opposed to fasting, only opposed to it as a way of forcing humility.

Why am I opposed to forced humility or “breaking”? Well, because I think sometimes a deeply emotional experience can be confused for feeling the Spirit, and I am not a fan of contrived spiritual experiences. I feel similarly about some other emotionally manipulative things such as certain music or sharing some deeply personal experiences that are meant primarily to bring forth emotion. Emotion is often equated with the Spirit, and I don’t think it always IS the Spirit. Sometimes it’s just, “I’m tired, I’m sore, I’m hungry, I stink, I have heard so many stories about mothers burying their babies on the plains, and I feel like crying.”

Having said all that, I hope my little pioneer is having a wonderful time on her trek. I know it’s going to be hard and I hope that she learns a lot about herself and her capabilities, as well as about the pioneers who came before her.
I would love to hear the thoughts of those who have experience a pioneer trek firsthand.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Amy Lockhart June 23, 2013, 10:34 am

    Ah, the memories. I went in Utah back in the dinosaur age (as my children like to say) and we had covered wagons. It was traumatic and empowering.

    The women’s pull; for me it was a truly remarkable experience. We had quite a bit of rain during our trek and when they called for the women’s pull, in pitch dark pouring rain conditions, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Did I mention we were also going up hill. All of the sudden you realized all the guys were gone and you didn’t know why. It wasn’t explained.

    We just started making necessary adjustments in order to be able to push and pull and we forged ahead without knowing anything. We honestly didn’t even know if we were going the right way, we just followed the wagon in front of us and did our best not to get off track and plunge down the side of the cliff. Sometimes simply following does work.

    Shoes got sucked off your feet and some couldn’t be dug back out again. We couldn’t really stop completely because loss of momentum would have meant a seriously dangerous downward domino effect. So, many walked without shoes. Our skirts were soaked and muddy. We were cold.

    All outward circumstances pointed toward one thing; misery. And yet, we were not miserable. We were encouraging each other and in turn our spirits were lifted. We sang hymns and laughed. Maybe we didn’t even think it was working, but we believed in the encouraging words we said, and somehow just the act of positive thought, word, and deed moved us along in the right direction.

    At one particularly difficult point the guys appeared out of nowhere started going around and whispering in our ears things such as, “You’ve got this.” “You are doing it!” “We are right here but you don’t need us.” It was a powerful lesson to have them there *not* helping. We learned later that they were right alongside us the entire time ready to jump in if directed by the leaders. We couldn’t see them due to the darkness and our single minded focus on getting up the hill.

    One of the most sacred experiences of my life happened during that women’s pull. At one point when I was behind the wagon pushing with all my might and beginning to doubt my ability to put one foot in front of the other, I distinctly remember a strong clear communication from the spirit, “You are stronger than you think you are.”

    That statement has gotten me through, and is currently getting me through, some of the toughest trials of my life and I will be eternally grateful for learning that lesson in a real way. I think it is often easy to hear things and have them resonate but lessons that actually make a difference in my life are the ones I experience along side hardship. The most important part being, coming out on the other side and recognizing my ability to do impossible things *with the Lord’s help and guidance*. He’s not here, but He is. Just past the point of vision, and ready to step in if needed, but always there with love and encouragement.

    Ever since that experience I have known, because I saw myself doing it, that I can do hard things. My life has proven to be very hard. I don’t know why but I do know that the Lord blessed me with an opportunity early in life to believe in myself.

    Upon arriving at camp we were freezing, soaked, exhausted beyond anything we’d ever known, and then we found out that the covered wagons were not so “covered”, at least not water proof covered. There were very few people with dry bedding and clothing and it seemed impossible to keep everyone warm and safe. We ended up gathering all the dry things together and fashioning shelters and beds enough for everyone to cram together and stay relatively warm and dry. What clothes we had were shared amongst the group and we were grateful to have something dry to put on.

    I have a picture that I hold dear. It is of the next morning and it truly represents disaster. Stiff muddy clothing, way more people than space for in those makeshift beds, ratty muddy hair and faces. Devastation is evident. And then you see all the smiling faces. We were happy, because we did it. We did it.

    Though we looked like something from a horror flick, we did what we didn’t even know we needed to do, and we did it well. Not because everything was pretty with white picket fences, the right number of children, two cars and a vacation home, prestigious jobs, and a life worthy of worldly recognition, but because of what was inside each of us.

    I have often reflected on the fact that everyone participating had a different strength and tolerance level. There were some with medical issues that had to ride rather than walk. There were others prone to depression and some that struggled to get along with peers. And of course there were long standing cliques and “social status” rights. And yet, there was no animosity amongst the group, at all.

    There was no gossiping about who didn’t do their share or work hard enough. There was not a single way left to distinguish the upper from the lower class, the popular from the loner, the smart kid from the slow kid.

    We were deeply grateful to have made it. And to have made it with each and every one of us. It was a blessing to have a glimpse of what the Lord sees in us. All the labels and measures we have for one another mean nothing to him.

    I don’t know what the motive behind the women’s pull was for those planning mine all those years ago, but it certainly seemed to me like it was empowerment of women. I thought it particularly meaningful that the guys were right there watching how awesome we were!

    And that is my really long rambling of my women’s pull :) We had many more adventures, such as loosing a wagon to a rushing river, hunting and killing a turkey for stew one night (I couldn’t eat it, or even drink the broth!), washing in streams, and so much more. I didn’t want to go and my dad told me, “You’ll thank me when you get home.” It’s the first thing I did when I saw him and I have been truly grateful ever since.

    AND having said all that, I say AMEN to this: “Why am I opposed to forced humility or “breaking”? Well, because I think sometimes a deeply emotional experience can be confused for feeling the Spirit, and I am not a fan of contrived spiritual experiences. I feel similarly about some other emotionally manipulative things such as certain music or sharing some deeply personal experiences that are meant primarily to bring forth emotion. Emotion is often equated with the Spirit, and I don’t think it always IS the Spirit. Sometimes it’s just, “I’m tired, I’m sore, I’m hungry, I stink, I have heard so many stories about mothers burying their babies on the plains, and I feel like crying.””

    This definitely applies to girls camp as well. I remember being so confused at all the “testimonies” given around the campfire that had nothing to do with Christ and the gospel and everything to do with “I’m sorry I was so rude” and so on. Anyway, another post …

    Care to expound on this particular point? “other emotionally manipulative things such as certain music” I’d appreciate more specifics.
    Amy Lockhart recently posted…Missing OutMy Profile

  • Angie Gardner June 23, 2013, 11:30 am

    Amy, thanks for your comments and for sharing your experience. It sounds like you probably went in the same era as my little sister, killing turkeys and all.

    I remember her telling me that when she got back and thinking how sad to kill those turkeys when they knew no one would eat them probably. My sister said the boys had to kill them and then the girls plucked, cleaned, and cooked them. She said no one could eat. :(

    So, a couple of updates now that she’s home and some commentary about your commentary as well. ;)

    Women’s pull: They did do this. I had to laugh because right after I sent this in for approval they posted pictures on the Facebook group about the men being called off to war and women being left alone. They took the boys off to join the militia (did some kind of activities with them and had them build stuff) and the girls were on their own. This was also at a particularly hard point on the trail (common theme, I suppose). My daughter said it was the hardest part of trek but also rewarding and fun.

    They posted a lot of pictures of the boys in their militia and the girls pulling the carts uphill. I thought they were all great. The only picture that bothered me was the very last one when the boys came back. They lined the trail to watch the girls finish up their portion of the pull and took off their hats in respect for the girls.

    Aw, how sweet.

    No, actually it IS sweet. But I don’t know why, I just don’t like it.

    I can’t even say WHY I don’t like it, really. It just somehow seems patronizing to me. Like, women do hard things ALL THE TIME. Some of them are physically demanding and others are much more demanding but in other ways. This happens to be a physically and emotionally demanding task and the are several things wonderful about it. I think it’s fantastic to show girls that they are capable of doing hard things. I love that they pull together what resources they do have and just get to work. I love that they find joy even in hard times and sing, laugh, and joke while they do a really hard thing. I gave an entire lesson once at camp about “I can do hard things” and this is a great object lesson for that. Girl power. We CAN and we DO hard things all the time. When the men (and women) in our lives can help us, I think they certainly do try to and that’s part of the whole plan, working together and helping one another that our burdens may be light.

    Sometimes, crap happens and we will have to do things alone. I love this lesson for teaching that. I don’t necessarily like that they break it into male/female. Sometimes our sisters will help us, sometimes our brothers will, and sometimes we will be all alone and have to find that strength from somewhere.

    I just don’t like the thought of the boys standing on the sidelines “giving respect”. To me (granted, I am probably make much more of this than it is) it is saying, “this is hard FOR GIRLS and so we are showing that we love and respect you for doing something hard.” When really, pulling your handcart after losing half your muscle power or more would be hard for ANYONE.

    On a side note, my daughter said she didn’t even notice the boys on the side. She was working too hard. :) She said it seemed to her that as soon as the boys came back they just jumped back in and helped.

    So, that’s my thoughts on the women’s pull now that it’s done. Since this is already long, I’ll bump the next topic into a new post.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Amy!

  • Angie Gardner June 23, 2013, 12:01 pm

    I wanted to mention one of my other hot button issues and then I will address the topic of emotomonies.

    The fast.

    I really like how they did it on my daughter’s trek as opposed to other treks I’ve heard of. On the last night, they did tell the kids that they would be missing breakfast the next morning to help prepare them spiritually for the next day (the spiritual culmination of the trek – personal time, letters from parents, testimony meeting, the final few miles, and “arriving”). I love that they were asked to fast in order to prepare spiritually and not just that they showed up expecting a meal and were told (as I’ve heard in other treks) “Sorry, sometimes pioneers didn’t have food so tonight we aren’t eating.” I truly love that they turned it into a spiritual preparation thing and not a “we are going to make you suffer” thing. And they did give the kids a choice. They told them that they were inviting them to fast the next morning but that if they chose not to, there would be food available. I like it and approve. :)

    Okay, so the emotomonies.

    Yes, camp has bothered me for many years for this very reason. I think it’s great to share the love and all but I just don’t think we should call that a testimony meeting. Camp testimonies are 90%:
    -I love you guys so much
    -I’m sorry I was such a brat
    -I really miss my family
    -We had the best YL
    -I didn’t want to be here but now I’m glad because you guys all love me so much and helped me feel welcome

    Very, very little about the gospel, the Savior, Heavenly Father…those things that I really consider to be a testimony. I have seen a few exceptions at camp. One year when I went, the camp leader was very specific about building through the week the whole theme of putting on the whole armor of God. Every day built up to the testimony meeting and immediately prior to it they had a faith walk where they reviewed the theme and it really made an impact for the girls, I think. I would say that testimony meeting actually did have a lot of testimony sharing. So, it CAN happen. I just think most of the time, sadly, it doesn’t.

    Again, love fests are fine, I just don’t call it a testimony meeting. (To be fair, this can happen in actual testimony meetings on Fast Sunday too. I remember a time in the church when there was a huge focus on getting back to a real testimony, because we had gotten so far off track with the travelmonies and ilovemyfamilyonies.)

    Okay, so now to be more specific about the music. Let me give you an example.

    Even popular music, country especially, can really bring forth the emotion. A few songs that come to mind are “Butterfly Kisses”, “I Hope You Dance”, and “Live Like You Were Dying”. Even I, someone who considers herself to not be very emotional, can get a little caught up in these songs and a tear might come.

    The tears are great, the emotion is great, the sentimentality of it all is great – it only become troublesome if you confuse that for the actual Spirit (which can also bring emotion).

    Yes, I have heard people give testimonies (in Fast and Testimony Meeting) about Butterfly Kisses before. No lie.

    Did I ever tell you about the time when someone who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent wanted to sing, “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon at her son’s missionary homecoming. Yeah, maybe part of the reason we stopped calling them farewells and homecomings (although we still seem to do them pretty much the same way…perhaps a topic for another post?)

    Anyway, I digress. A good example of a lot of this emotion-causing music in the church is a lot of Michael McLean’s stuff. Another song is, “In This Very Room” (complete with sign language…gets me every time.) Now, I like this music (or at least I did at one time in my life) and I think it has it’s purpose. I just don’t like it when someone pops up afterwards and says, “Those tears that are falling? That’s the SPIRIT.” Because really, maybe it is the Spirit, or maybe it’s just that thinking of being together forever with the cute boy I like makes me wanna cry.

    Not sure if that clarifies it. I do love my music and I do often feel the Spirit through music. I just don’t think that every time we cry it is necessarily because God is witnessing that this is a true song.

  • Amy Lockhart June 23, 2013, 3:04 pm

    “Not sure if that clarifies it.” Yep, thanks! :)

    Glad to hear your #1 is home and had a great experience.

    All of this talk about forcing emotions and declaring it the spirit is bringing up some deeply hidden emotions/thoughts from/about my mission. Perhaps I’ll finish my post on that and let everyone have at it. Until then, I concur with your sentiments that emotional response does not equate to being born a witness by the spirit. Tis a fine line and it gets muddled much too often in my opinion.

    Now about those poor turkeys. I do remember many people enjoying it, the eating and the hunting/killing. And not all of them were boys. I just happen to be particularly squeamish about meat/fish in general. It wasn’t until recently that I could handle ground beef without gagging. Thankfully my kids love veggies so we eat very little meat and my husband is a fabulous butcher. He takes all the yucky stuff off of meat and puts it in little baggies so all I have to do is dump it out. And now you know way too much about my meat idiosyncrasies.
    Amy Lockhart recently posted…Torn In TwoMy Profile

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