Don’t hate me just because my trek was awesome

January 9, 2014 | 14 comments
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hcartWhen it comes to handcart reenactments, we spend too much time on all the wrong questions, questions like: How much physical suffering is needed for a youth-appropriate spiritual experience? Personally, I’d like to minimize the suffering in my spiritual experiences, thank you very much. Or anxious hand-wringing, like: Do handcart reenactments distort the historically authentic experiences of pioneers who traveled to Utah by various means and responded in individually determined ways to the contingent experience of physical exertion and deprivation over which a superstructure of religious Exodus narrative had been established amid a plethora of competing counter-narratives? Again, I’m not terribly interested; perfect authenticity is not only boring, it’s inauthentic. Instead, the question we should be asking ourselves is What kind of awesome ward activities can we justify thanks to the examples of pioneer ancestors and/or revered persons of non-direct ancestry?

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We had a new bishop. He announced in ward council that he felt inspired do a pioneer trek with the whole ward. I stifled a groan: “Trek,” to me, meant artificially imposed suffering while youth leaders fussed about what was or wasn’t appropriate. I’d never actually done a trek, but that was my impression. It sounded like the opposite of fun.

But the ward council was enthusiastic. My family was enthusiastic. There was no way I was going to be able to avoid the trek. While the logistical undertaking of moving everybody from point A to point B using only handcarts seemed intriguing, I was suspicious of the rest.

Preparations began nine months in advance. There were ward activities. Handcart races. Square dancing. Firesides. Family history nights. Temple sessions. Ward members were encouraged to start walking every day to get in shape. The trek specialist considered several routes, found one she thought would work, obtained all necessary permits, planned menus and daily itineraries, arranged to use the stake’s handcarts, and started acquiring supplies for a three-day, twenty-mile trek.

The ward trek ended up with 75 participants ranging in age from a few months to just short of sixty. We met at 6:00 AM at the trailhead, loaded the handcarts, and started walking. We walked seven miles the first day, camped, hiked eight more miles, camped again, and finished the loop at the trailhead on a Saturday afternoon.

(Or rather, that’s what they did. I was still teaching, so I walked halfway the first day, then turned around and walked out, drove home, got cleaned up, raided the refrigerator, and taught my classes. Then I drove back up to where everyone was camped. The next day I drove out, taught my classes, drove back to the trailhead, and bicycled to the next campsite. The last day I walked the whole way. Going back and forth between civilization and a pioneer trek was not awesome. It was actually kind of annoying.)

A few key ingredients made our ward trek awesome.

  1. Let people get out of it what they put into it. Everyone was welcome to come and walk as much as they could. All ward members were invited to the firesides and other preparatory activities whether they were planning on participating in the actual trek or not. Every ward member was invited to drive up to the fireside at the campsite on the second night. No one got offended that I disappeared twice and showed up later in a car or on a bicycle. The trek specialist only put her foot down on electronic devices; if people had to stay in touch by phone for some reason, she asked them to find a spot away from the group.
  2. Simplicity. The menus were simple. After pulling a handcart for seven miles, chicken and vegetable stew tastes amazing, as does oatmeal. By the time you walk seven miles with a handcart and prepare a meal over a fire, there isn’t much time left for elaborate activities, and no one feels like square dancing. By the time everything was said and done, the entire budget came to about $15 per person, most of which went towards renting the port-a-potties stationed at the campsites. For a three-day event, that’s ridiculously inexpensive.
  3. More real challenges, less play-acting. There were occasional trail markers where people “took ill,” “gave birth,” and the like. It was important to some people. There was even a hill where the adult men were sent off on their own and the women and children had to pull their carts on their own. I’d always been opposed to doing that — but it came at a point where I was off teaching, so pushing a handcart  with the help of her children and a teenager on loan from another family was already what my wife was doing anyway at that point. Personally, I was more impressed at how people responded when a handcart broke down for real.

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hcart2Usually, high adventure trips are the exclusive province of physically very fit young men between the ages of 14 and 17 who are able to acquire some specialized, seldom used, and rather expensive equipment. Multi-day hikes are physically strenuous, and the frame backpacks and other equipment required for hauling and preparing food while hiking are not cheap. Occasionally some young women will justifiably ask, Why can’t we do that, too? But no one even contemplates bringing along the Relief Society. Or the High Priests Quorum. Or the Primary children.

Why not? If only there were some device that would let one transport food, clothing and other essential items long distances without carrying them on one’s back, a device of some sort so that an overnight hike didn’t require the same degree of physical strength… With such a device, one could conceivably use everyday camping equipment and household goods, rather than lightweight but expensive hiking gear. Presumably such a device would involve wheels, but it should be relatively simple, so that it would be inexpensive, and require no external power or fuel source.

Congratulations. You’ve just invented the handcart, and for much the same reason that the handcart pioneers did: to get as many people as inexpensively as possible from point A to point B.

* * *

The genius of the handcart is that it extends the possibilities for outdoor experience beyond the usual half-dozen or dozen teenage males to a much larger community. A trek is still a stiff physical challenge, but it’s one that the majority of ward members are capable of attempting. With the event open to the whole ward, the trek is transformed from an adult-supervised situation where artificial groups of healthy teenagers walk on command, to the real and serious situation of your real family (plus whoever else could be spared to help you, minus whatever family members are off helping someone else) carrying most of what it needs to survive under its own power, with no adult leaders keeping you in line because you are the adults. There may be someone telling you when to march and where to stop, but you listen because they know where you’re going, and you won’t make it there on your own.

When I was a teenager, I went on high adventure trips in the Sierras. It was fun, and I don’t want young men to stop going on high adventure trips together. It might be a good idea to break up their monopoly every so often, however. On a trek, the social structure of a ward gets rearranged. Instead of only young men hanging out around the campfire, young men and young women both hang out around the campfire, and the younger kids join in, and adults of various ages. A trek also imposes a degree of economic equality on participants in a way that camping doesn’t, because most of the marks of wealth distinction we have are not useful on a trek, and even fewer will fit in a handcart. Since it’s a handcart trek, lack is coded as authenticity rather than poverty. Being in a forest for three days also gives people a chance to contribute to the ward in ways that are rarely possible otherwise. At church on Sundays, you mostly get a sense of who can give a good sermon or teach a good lesson. Until the warmth of your oatmeal depends on someone else’s high-level talents in wood-chopping and firepit-digging, you may not appreciate how many other skills go into building up Zion.

14 Responses to Don’t hate me just because my trek was awesome

  1. Steve Fleming on January 9, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Our ward is doing the trek this summer and my wife and I would appointed as the head liaison people (or whatever it’s called). I’m pretty excited since they recently released me from the youth at which point I had the realization that I had been released from the best possible calling but hadn’t appreciated it enough.

    We went to the first meeting and it looks suffering-light and though it’s on church property and are mandating a women’s pull (stupid) the stake is working hard to make it less stupid in ways that I thought were pretty cool. Anyway, thanks for the post, looking forward to this summer.

  2. Sam Brunson on January 9, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    But no one even contemplates bringing along the Relief Society. Or the High Priests Quorum. Or the Primary children.

    I’m curious what you mean here. Maybe my experience is idiosyncratic (our HPs are largely in their 30s and 40s, and the average age of our RS is probably mid-20s), so I can’t imagine any problem inviting them to do high adventure-y stuff. (As a sidenote, our ward doesn’t have Scouts—I think we have one YM—so we do not, in fact, do high adventure-y stuff.)

    As for kids, again, why not? My kids have been on strenuous 5-mile hikes, and could easily have done another two if we’d been going that far. I don’t think we need a pseudo-historical[fn] reenactment to include a large swath of a ward in physical activity.

    [fn] Oops, did I tip my hand that I’m no fan of the idea of treks?

  3. Amanda on January 10, 2014 at 1:02 am

    Priests AND Laurels do High Adventure here. They do it together alternating between stake and ward levels each summer. Are you saying only your young men do it? Weird. It’s more fun with both.

  4. Michelle on January 10, 2014 at 1:33 am

    FWIW, regarding the women’s pull, as a ‘Ma’ in my trek experience 16 years ago, that was one of the most memorable parts of the trek. Watching my tiny 12-year-old ‘daughters’ rally together and do that hard thing was inspiring. I get that it may not resonate with everyone, but just as was said in the OP, let people get out of it what they will. I’ve yet to hear of any part of a trek that at some point didn’t resonate with someone.

    I was skeptical when I was called to be part of our trek committee all those years ago. I couldn’t imagine the youth liking it, to be honest. (This was before doing treks was more common.) But in the end, the other memorable thing (besides the blisters and the ad-hoc ‘rescue’ of people from our stake to help some of us stragglers) was the testimonies of the youth afterwards. It really did stick with them. It’s an experience none of us will forget.

  5. ji on January 10, 2014 at 6:50 am

    “Don’t hate me just because my trek was awesome”

    There’s something very telling and sad about this title…

  6. Amira on January 10, 2014 at 8:43 am

    I enjoyed reading this, Jonathan. Thank you.

  7. SusanS on January 10, 2014 at 10:24 am

    I always considered our treks to be our form of pilgrimage, especially since many trek groups like to go up to the Sweetwater river area in Wyoming. I haven’t ever considered it in this light, where trek gives everyone a chance to get a sense of overnight backpacking trips. That’s an interesting perspective, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that I think we should give the girls the same opportunities for camp-outs as the boys.

    I was always jealous of the families who could afford to take their kids on some humanitarian trip to Haiti to help build an orphanage or school, or run a health clinic. With a gospel framework, I always thought those to be much better opportunities for spiritual growth than anachronistic and artificial treks.

  8. Kevin Barney on January 10, 2014 at 11:46 am

    Treks don’t get much love around here, so I was happy to read your positive perspective.

  9. Jared vdH on January 10, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    @#2 (Sam Brunson) – When I was around 10 years old my dad took me and my sisters (7 and 5 at the time) on a four day hike in Yosemite up Half Dome. For those unfamiliar with this hike, it’s a grand total of 4,800 foot elevation gain and 16 miles round trip. The first day was 4.5 miles and 2000 feet of elevation (virtually all uphill along the very picturesque Mist Trail along side two separate waterfalls) to Little Yosemite Valley where we camped the night. The next day we treated as a day hike up to the top of the dome. About 6 miles round trip, and the last 400 feet up to the top of the dome are along a very steep rock face that is really only possible with the aid of the semi-permanent cables erected every spring. For that part of the hike, my dad left me essentially to climb on my own while he secured my sisters to himself with climbing gear and focused on helping them. I still have memories of being passed periodically on this final climb by small groups of adults who were amazed that I was climbing by myself and that my sisters were even on the trail. I remember being praised by them, but of the “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” variety. After we made it up and down, we took an extra day to rest, then used the fourth day to make it back down to the trail head.

    This is all to say that, yes even kids can do some amazing things given the right preparation and accompanied by knowledgeable and skilled adults. However if my dad had done it today, I also wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had radioed a park ranger and my dad had been arrested for child endangerment. We have enough evidence that inexperienced adults on their own will do stupid things that kill themselves in the wilderness. I have serious doubts that in a volunteer church that your typical Primary leaders would, except in the rarest of circumstances, be able to lead children on a strenuous multi-day hike.

  10. Chadwick on January 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    I did one trek growing up. I enjoyed it. But once was enough.

    It seems like my brother and his wife are on some stake YM/YW trek every single summer. And their kids are still primary age, which usually means they get passed around the family all week long. For my brother, who I think gets 8 vacation days a year, to use 5 of them for trek seems silly to me. But every year they go.

    I think if I were a youth in that stake, I would stop going by 15. I mean, enough is enough.

    Jared: Kudos on Half Dome! This summer my wife and I did just the mist trail to the falls. We had arranged for someone to watch our kids but in the end we had to cart the six-month old with us. I had her in the bjorn the whole way. Boy that’s a tough hike with a bowling ball strapped to your chest, especially coming back down….I can’t even imagine all the way up to Half Dome with camping gear! Hats off.

  11. Chet on January 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    my thoughts after four days on stake youth trek this summer -

    I thought our trek planners did the right amount of play-acting and did not over do it. We were at the Deseret Ranch with senior missionaries so maybe there are some guidelines for this. But doing this event in July creates its own exigencies, i.e. the youth need to know where and how to get water at all times.

    There some logistical issues that I thought could be improved, but I will keep my mouth shut and stay under the radar for the 2017 event, although I would go again if asked.

  12. James Olsen on January 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

    I’ll admit, I didn’t know that treks had a bad rap. I think their brilliant (though I’ll admit, I’m speaking theoretically, having never had the opportunity). One big reason why:

    Preparations began nine months in advance. There were ward activities. Handcart races. Square dancing. Firesides. Family history nights. Temple sessions. Ward members were encouraged to start walking every day to get in shape.

    That’s just awesome. Ward activities that 1. center around a significant religious theme; and 2. orient the entire ward over an extended period of time are really worthwhile. It’s even better (for me) when the theme is uniquely Mormon.

    I’ll never forget standing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and watching an old woman stagger to over to a stone slab in the floor where, traditionally, Jesus’s body was laid. She fell to her knees, tears streaming, fell to the stone, and communed with God. It was palpable and transformative for me.

    The potent ways that unite ourselves to our ancestors, our posterity, and their actual lives are among the most potent aspects of our religion.

  13. Beth on January 11, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Let’s assume the goal is getting ward members to work together, build relationships, and have a fun medium-adventure activity. Let’s go visit local national parks or natural wonders. Maybe commemorate Church pioneers in our stake. And I’d want to use current technology, like lightweight gear carriers instead of heavy wooden handcarts. Like these: http://www.trendycarts.com/products.html
    I just don’t think the 1856 pioneers want us to honor their sacrifices by reenacting their lives, but rather by making the most of ours.
    In my stake (in Utah), high adventures are indeed limited to the Young Men. The Young Women are stuck with the same camp experience every year, in the same safe, boring Church-owned camp.

  14. Shawn E. on January 11, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    I’ll address a few points – you’ll need to read the post AND the comments to find value.

    1. I’ve been part of 13 treks. While everyone claims to have had an excellent experience, in parallel comparison, some of them were way ahead of the pack, and others poorly done. Yet the information provided each stake was the same. So that all could have the same truly excellent experience, having a trek expert facilitate the trek would be very beneficial.

    2. Not to brag, but the best treks I have seen, I put together as a tour operator for family reunions. it wasn’t that we did anything overtly special, it was that REAL families were trekking, and other families worked together to resolve problems. Some were created intentionally (like secretly dropping an important bag off the cart) or accidental (having to go back again to get a camera left on the trail) The greatest value is that the family unit had the experience with strong spiritual components which DID NOT include a women only cart pull BTW. Some of those participants had been on an excellent stake experience, but felt that it paled grossly compared to doing so with your own family.

    3. YW get cheated only because of their own failure to let the YW adult leaders run the program (same way YM get cheated too.) I know of wards that the YW have an outdoor experience every month. it may not be camping, but they do something. A hike, rapelling, birding, snowshoeing, swimming – whatever they can think of, and stay within budget.

    There is even wards that have registered all their YW in Venturing, albiet not a LDS Ward crew, use the Venturing program to facilitate great experiences with the YW, and have even gone to Philmont. The experience they had as an all LDS YW Crew, hiking for 2 weeks, created experiences and personal growth they would naver have achieved at Girls Camp. They can do this because their crew is not obligated to adhere to the LDS Scouting policies which are required of scout units registered to the LDS Church.

    4. Handcarts are not new to youth programs. In its early history, scouting utilized very light carts they made, that could be dissasembled and carried on a train, then assembled at the whistle stop in the mountains, and carted off to any destination they desired. Each patrol had their own cart, and all 6-8 boys pushed/pulled it. While wilderness policy does not allow them in wilderness or WSA’s , they can be used in much of our national lands. Being out of vogue, I don’t foresee a resurgent use, but do have the plans, and had thought about it for personal camping – leaving the car on the road, and wheeling in many of the comforts I would never backpack – such as dutch ovens, etc.

    5. At one time, it was common for ward – at least those behind the Zion Curtain, to have ward youth conferences, such as at a old ski lodge in the winter; or multi-night ward campout sans RV. When the new budget was rolled out, much of that was lost. They could still be done, and the wards that make them happen in some way, seem to have better social dynamics. I must say though that a Friday Bivouac doesn’t cut it. You know the type of activity labeled as a campout by too many LDS troops but is not really camping = Evening departure on Friday, subway sandwich in hand, or premade foil dinner at camp, up at 8 to break camp, breakfast cooked by adults, and home by 10am, cause heaven’s forbid we miss a football game! You aren’t camping long enough to develop any expedition behavior, let alone appreciate nature – just sayin.

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