As I've mentioned in other posts, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a phrase which is typically shortened to "I am LDS" but more commonly understand as "I am a Mormon." One of the things about us LDS people is that we have a huge respect for our ancestors and the history of our church. One major phase of this church history, which affected many LDS members' ancestors, was the pioneer trek.
Back a long time ago, the members of the LDS church were being persecuted and murdered and set on fire and put in jail and kicked out of every other state, apparently because Mormons are just so threatening. So a proclamation of a kind was sent out that everyone needed to head west, into what would become Utah. This resulted in a very long slew of very difficult and painful pioneer treks that involved lots of deaths. It's a really happy time. I had ancestors on these treks, although I think they were in the covered wagon treks, rather than the handcart treks.
Some of the worst treks, with the highest death rates, were the handcart treks, where basically everyone just pulled what they had behind them in a cart. No cows or horses or nice covered wagons or whatever else, just a cart with some belongings and a lot of people. This was tough.
Nowadays, the church celebrates these loyal members and their perseverance in the face of such trials. In honor of them, many different stakes (areas in which members reside) go on the Trek program, where the youth in the stake, those ages 13-18, get a chance to follow part of the trail and live a moment in the pioneer life. If you talk to an LDS person around my age, they may very well have been on a Trek, and they'll probably tell you it was amazing. I'm about to do that myself, though, so you don't need to ask them. Just read on!
Needless to say, I was not happy. This was all everyone was talking about, and I could see no conceivable way for me to join in, seeing as I couldn't walk even a half a mile without severe pain. This is before I went on medication for the fibromyalgia, so I had the full-on brunt of it still. So I was ticked off about the whole situation.
The bishop of our church, however, thought it was important that I go. He didn't push me too hard, but still hard enough that he got me thinking. He said we could work out accommodations. He promised it would be a great experience. But none of that got me to make the decision to go. No, I chose to go because my little brother, who had just turned 13, decided to go. And there was no way my little brother was going on Trek and I wasn't.
So we started working stuff out, and I started lamenting the fact that this had to happen. At the time, I was eating gluten-free, so not only did we have to work out how the heck I was gonna get anywhere, we also had to work out food. I was privy to a lot of information the others didn't have about this whole situation, like the menu for example. But I was still super grumpy. The main decision we ended up coming to, for my situation, was that I would spend Trek in a rickshaw.
A rickshaw, for those of you who don't know, is a wheeled wooden seat that people pull. Take another look at that picture of me up top. Basically, I was going to be pulled through all of trek, just like a handcart full of stuff. And that ticked me off almost as much as not getting to go on Trek, because that meant I was making people work, because I was a poor disabled little munchkin. And they were going to hate me. I was sure of it.
Our Trek took place in the summer of 2011, after I turned seventeen. We'd just gotten over the initial scare of the Las Conchas fire, the biggest fire in NM history, which was still burning as we left. (I had rather hoped Trek'd be cancelled for it, but truly, it was a miracle that we all managed to make it.) We went in really nice fancy buses all the way up to Wyoming. I sat between my best friend, LaPriel, and my brother. We were all organized then into "families." There was a "Ma and Pa", a married church couple, and then a group of maybe five or six kids from different towns in each "family". I knew a couple of the them already, which was nice. Anyway, this was the group I would be with the entire Trek. We would organize activities as a family, we would walk together, and we shared tents.
We also had "teams". There were four teams comprised of multiple "families", and each team had a color and a quality. Our Trek motto was "Undaunted", and we had four qualities, taken from the scriptures, that we were meant to represent while on Trek. These were Courage, Faith, Obedience, and Charity. My team was Obedience.
When we got to Wyoming, we changed into our pioneer clothes. Of course, they weren't totally pioneer clothes, but we had to wear a plain button-up shirt, and for girls, a plain skirt. Girls also hand-made bonnets to wear on Trek. My mom made mine. Boys had to wear plain pants, a plain shirt, and a cowboy hat sort of thing. I had to wear my glasses, because no contacts were allowed. I didn't like that much. Anyway, we got on another bus and we went out to where we would set up camp. As we drove into camp, outside the window we saw a big set of handcarts, one for each "family", and there in the midst of the handcarts was a big blight--my rickshaw.
That's when I started crying. It was just so ridiculous and stupid to me, that I had to come on this Trek and sit in this stupid giant rickshaw, so conspicuous and silly, so everyone had to pull me, and why was I trying to go on a Trek where we'd be walking up to 13 miles a day when I couldn't walk? Even sitting in that rickshaw for all that time was going to be super uncomfortable. I would have to have blankets all over it and even then it would hurt.
I finally calmed down after a bit and went to sit there, feeling totally useless, as my "family" set up the tents and got everything ready for the night. The one thing I did love already was Wyoming itself. So beautiful. We set in for the night, and I waited, dreading the next day and the beginning of the actual walking.
Except we got lost. Yes, I got lost in the middle of Wyoming with a rickshaw. Eventually, though, we found our way back; yay for the power of prayer. As everyone came over Rocky Ridge, I stood and glared at my rickshaw. I was about to get in it and be pulled the rest of the way by what they called "angels." In other words, a few random people from random families were about to be "killed" temporarily in order to come pull my cart. Dysentery and such. Think of that Oregon Trail game, but with resurrection, apparently.
Luckily, I started off with one of my closest friends as an angel. He, like LaPriel, is currently on an LDS mission. Point being, that helped me deal emotionally with that first stretch. As time passed, and new angels came in, my mood picked up: because they didn't hate me. They didn't hate me at all. In fact, people were begging to be killed so they could come pull me. The general consensus is that I was lighter than the handcarts, although I prefer to believe their eagerness was because everyone loved my amusing stories about what the nearby cows were thinking.
It continued on like that for the rest of Trek, which was a week-long experience. I don't know how to even explain it to you. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. All of these people suddenly became so much more. They were pulling carts through mud and water, they were volunteering to help others, they were laughing and smiling and working together, and it sounds ordinary but it wasn't. I saw, for the first time, how good people really can be. And somehow, in that, I saw how good I could be. To this day, I don't understand what it was I saw in myself then. I was still the useless disabled girl in the rickshaw but somehow, I was also so much more.
I began making a list of everyone who helped me on Trek because I was just so grateful. I couldn't stop smiling. There were so many beautiful moments, things that stick in my mind even now. How my Trek brother dropped my rickshaw and ran to help when he saw our Ma fall in the mud. How a group of boys carried me to my tent when I collapsed and was no longer able to walk even through camp. How another boy who walked me to my tent when it was dark and raining and I couldn't see, and how he gave me his poncho because I couldn't find mine. How my real brother and I became close for the first true time there, something which has continued ever since. I remember looking out at all these people and seeing the beauty in their faces and their demeanor, their bravery, their determination, their love. People I'd known almost all my life suddenly changed there. I also remember the name that I carried, the name of a real girl who went on a real handcart trek all those years ago. Her name later influenced my decision to transfer from Adams State here, to BYU-Idaho.
The greatest moment for me was the women's pull. Partway through Trek, it's traditional that, through a short but particularly difficult stretch, the men are told to step aside and watch as the women alone struggle to pull the handcarts. This is done in remembrance of all the strong women who were left alone when men were lost to violence, and how greatly they fought to support their families and live on. This is probably the most tear-jerking moment of modern Treks. I refused to force some of the other girls to pull my rickshaw when they needed to focus on their handcarts. So I got out, and I walked. It was a fourth a mile, up a steep hill.
It was probably the strangest experience I've ever had. I remember it clearly. I was walking beside another girl who had a sprained ankle. We were struggling up the hill, which all the men had been lined along to watch us walk. I refused to look at them, because I knew they would be crying. That's what happens every time, quite famously, and if I saw them cry, I wouldn't be able to do it. Others looked, I know. They told me about how strange of an experience it was. But I just focused on each step, which was just about as much as I could do.
Partway up, I stumbled. By then, many of the women had finished their walk and were running back down to help the others. They got to me and they paused, uncertain. Then a few of them took my hand, my hand and the hand of the girl next to me, and starting walking with us. They were crying, I could hear them, and that was the strangest thing of all. (Let me tell you, it is a rare experience for me not to be the one crying.)
My mind sort of separated then, and this monologue was in my head , saying, Look at this. Look at these people. That girl is crying while she helps you up the hill. This is like a movie, you coming up this hill with everyone in a line walking in, a big "V" of women waiting to receive you as the others help you up. Do you see?
I made it up to the top, and LaPriel threw herself in my arms, sobbing. Which was actually kind of a relief, because I was about to fall over. After that, no one even had to be "killed" to come pull me. A group of guys just came right up and helped me, and it was like that for the rest of Trek.
That was one experience among many I had, and mine is one story among many. But I don't think I will ever see or experience anything like that ever again. And I have never respected the human race so much as I did during Trek. I have never felt love as I did then.
Trek really was the best experience I've ever had, and it's because of how much goodness it brought out, in everyone. I wish everyone could experience something like that. Any time I get too upset or too hopeless now, I think of Trek. I think of the examples I saw there, the love and courage and beauty and strength, and I know that it is possible.
Sometimes still, I'll get out the bonnet I wore on Trek and I'll just hold it to my face. It still smells like Wyoming.
In other news, I got 107 mosquito bites. So maybe I won't actually go live there, haha.
What was the best experience of your life so far?
Image via Becky Dahl, Cloy Kent, and handcartsinwyoming.blogspot.com.