It’s a lesson in history, religion, physics, environmentalism, physical education, and even psychology. For many of the 190 children who spent four days and three nights trekking through the desert south of Mesquite, it’s a rite of passage.
Every four years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Mesquite Nevada Stake organizes a reenactment of the journeys early pioneer settlers made in the 1800s as they came west to make new lives.
The 14- to 18-year old boys and girls are divided into families of about 10 each with a “Ma and Pa” in charge. Each family shares one historical handcart built like the ones used by the early pioneers packing just about everything they need into it. The 18 families leave the easy lives they know on Wednesday, heading out of Bunkerville into the desert. They climb as high as 9,000 feet into the mountains over 24 miles, circling back down into a raucous homecoming celebration on Saturday in Bunkerville.
Almost everything the kids will need – not want – for the next four days goes into one five-gallon plastic bucket for each child. No cell phones, iPods, iPads, computers, or other electronic devices are allowed. Each child gets a sleeping bag but no pillow – another throwback to the pioneers who didn’t have that luxury either. For three nights they will sleep on tarps under the stars.
One exception for modern times are the water pouches most children wear on their backs to combat thirst from strenuous activities, dust, wind, and heat. Oh, and the porta-potties carried on trailers at the end of the train or placed strategically along the trail.
Brian and Joy Haviland were designated this year’s ‘trail bosses.’ “The kids learn how to work hard together,” Brian said. “They learn they can do things they didn’t think they could. They do it in an environment that we can control and keep them safe. They grow physically and spiritually. These kids are tough.”
“You can’t really do a lot without a team and you have to work together,” one young boy, Trey said about the lessons he learned walking through the desert. “A lot of it goes to the Lord and having Him here now with us. You always know He’s there.”
“You can’t do anything without help from someone else,” his friend added. “Coming up Angel’s Hill was so hard until other people came to help us. You could just feel the burden being lifted off your shoulders. It felt great.”
As the young boys relaxed after making it up the last stretch of the day’s walk, they reflected on their experience at Angel’s Hill. “It made me push myself more. I kept thinking ‘just get to these people and we’re done,’” Trey said.
After trekking eight miles on the third day of the 24 mile excursion, Angel’s Hill was the last steep hill to conquer before everyone settled into that night’s campsite. With about a ten percent grade and loose gravel, rocks and sand the only thing below their feet, pulling and pushing the handcart up the hill looked daunting to say the least. But David Anderson, Mesquite Stake LDS President explained it was another lesson in church lore that until that day the children had only read or heard about.
“There’s a symbolic and spiritual implication for us,” Anderson said. “The early pioneers shared experiences where they believed they weren’t going to make it to the next bush. But all of a sudden they had a feeling they were being pushed by angels among them. That gave them the strength and courage to go on.”
In the local reenactment, as the handcarts gathered at the bottom of the slope with the kids staring at the seemingly insurmountable obstacle in front of them, about 25 adults dressed in pure white shirts and dark pants came over the crest of Angel’s Hill and grabbed ropes and pulleys to help pull the carts to the top. While the kids on the carts pulled and pushed, those on the ropes shouted words of encouragement all the way to the finish.
One by one each handcart crested the worst part of the trek with the help of the ‘angels among them.’ As the kids parked their cart in the campsite, they returned to the rope line to help pull the next cart up the steep slope. By the time the last several carts were pulled up, over a hundred people were helping.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” both boys said about their experiences.
Four girls who participated for the first time all agreed on one thing – they loved the experience of being with their newly-formed family. But they also agreed that four days was just the right number.
All of them said the women’s pull was the hardest part of the trek. Again, reenacting scenes from their ancestors, all the boys were taken off the carts and watched from a distance as the girls moved the train down the trail by themselves.
During parts of the westward movement in the 1800s, men were drafted to fight wars near the pioneer trails while the women had to continue their trek alone.
“It was really tough to do that without the boys. When they were allowed to come back to help us, the cart felt like it weighed only a pound,” one fourteen year old girl said. “Our ancestors did this for us. So it helps us understand what they had to go through and sacrifice for us.”
One 17-year old girl said the part she loved the most was the women’s pull. “It showed us how strong and tough we are but also how dependent we are on the men to help us and how much we need them in our lives.”
It was Jarrod Price’s second time as a Pa on the quadrennial trek. “It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it. It gives me peace of mind that we’re raising these kids to be decent human beings. They’ll be able to overcome challenges and work through trials in their lives.”
Anderson echoed those thoughts as he and several hundred people waited Saturday morning to welcome the families back home. “I think our kids want to do hard things. They are grateful for someone to give them a challenge from time to time,” Anderson said. “Life is a trek; marriage is a trek; work is a trek. It’s good for them to understand they can do hard things. They are amazing kids.
“On those days when they wake up and it’s hard to go to work or they have to figure out a solution to a problem, they can harken back to this trek when they did a hard thing and say ‘I can do this.’”
And indeed they did.
To view video clips of the 2016 LDS Desert Trek click here https://youtu.be/Q7XSagYvBMc
To view a slideshow of the 2016 Desert Trek click here https://youtu.be/EYYJ0zgEeJQ