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).ย 

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.