Today I'd like to talk about a special experience I had a few years ago. I've been thinking for a while how everyone who blogs seems to have great fun/inspirational stories to put up, and I don't. So I've been trying to think of a good story to tell, and finally, I decided that the best one I've got is about my LDS Youth Trek in 2011, which was the best experience I've had in my life so far. It's appropriate to share now because I'm at BYU - Idaho as a new transfer student, surrounded again by kids from my own religion, like I was on Trek.
Below is one of two pictures from Trek that I have. I'm right there in the middle, on the wheeled thing with the blanket--that's called a rickshaw, friends, and this is where the story of my Trek experience begins.
As I've mentioned before, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which may be more briefly stated as "an LDS person." The unofficial but more well-known term is "a Mormon." (Fun fact: this term actually started out as a slur! 👍🏻) One thing about us LDS people is that we care a lot about our ancestors, so the history of our church is a big deal to us. A major piece of this church history was the pioneer treks west.
Back in ye olde days, LDS people were being persecuted and murdered and tarred/feathered and put in jail and kicked out of every other state, apparently because we're just so threatening. So a proclamation was sent out that all the members needed to head west, into what would become Utah. This resulted in a very long slew of difficult pioneer treks full of death and suffering. It was a really happy time. Some of the worst treks, with the highest death rates, were the handcart treks, where people basically just pulled what they had behind them in a cart. No cows or horses or covered wagons, just a cart with some belongings and a lot of people. (From what I know, I personally did have ancestors who trekked to Utah, but in the covered wagon treks, not the handcart treks.)
Nowadays, the church celebrates these members, their perseverance, and their sacrifice through events like the Trek program, where the youth ages 13-18 in a certain area 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. I'm about to tell you about it myself, though, so you don't need to ask them. Just read on!
When I was sixteen years old, my local area started planning for a Trek. It was a super big deal, and people were talking about it months in advance. Those of you who know me might recall that at age sixteen, I was newly diagnosed with a happy little condition called fibromyalgia. Yes, I had just found out that I was going to be moderately disabled for life, and now my church was talking about going on a many-mile walk through Wyoming in pioneer clothes while pulling carts. Needless to say, I was not happy. This was all everyone was talking about, and I could see no conceivable way for me to participate, seeing as I couldn't walk even a half a mile without severe pain. (This is before I went on medication.)
The bishop of our church, however, thought it was important that I go. He said we could work out accommodations. He promised it would be a great experience. But none of that convinced me to go. No, I chose to go because my brother, who had just turned 13, signed up, and there was no way my little brother was going on Trek without me. So we started planning, and I started lamenting the fact that this had happened. At the time, I was eating gluten-free, so not only did we have to work out how the heck I was gonna travel, 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 was that I would travel during 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 up top. Basically, I was going to be pulled through all of Trek, just like a handcart full of stuff. And that upset me almost as much as not getting to go on Trek because that meant I was making people work more for the sake of my sad disabled self. 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 through the initial scare of the Las Conchas fire, the biggest fire in New Mexico history, which was still burning as we left. (I had rather hoped Trek would be cancelled for it, but no.) 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 then organized into "families." There was a "Ma and Pa" 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. 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. (Yeah, very funny.)
When we got to Wyoming, we changed into our pioneer clothes. Of course, they weren't totally accurate, but the girls had to wear a plain button-up shirt and a plain skirt. We also hand-made bonnets beforehand. Boys had to wear plain pants, a plain shirt, and a straw cowboy hat. I also had to wear my glasses because no contacts were allowed, which 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 in, outside the window we saw our collection of handcarts, one for each "family", and there in the midst of the handcarts was a big blight--my rickshaw.
That's when I burst into tears. It just seemed so ridiculous and stupid to me that I had come on this Trek to sit in this giant conspicuous rickshaw while people had to pull me. 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 really hurt for me.
I finally calmed down after a bit and sat 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 the beauty Wyoming itself--so much flatter than New Mexico.). I dreaded the next day and the beginning of the actual walking. The Trek would begin for real with the infamous Rocky Ridge. It's rocky, and it's a ridge. It's generally considered the hardest part of Trek, and for that reason, the leaders decided my rickshaw and I would be best off not doing it. Instead, the next day, my rickshaw and I got on the medical truck and headed out to that night's campsite to get supplies before going back to the end of Rocky Ridge so I could rejoin the others.
Except we got lost. Yes, I got lost in the middle of Wyoming with a rickshaw. What a story, right?. Eventually, though, we found our way back thanks to a prayer and a well-timed radio connection. As everyone came over Rocky Ridge, I glared at my rickshaw. I was about to get in it and be pulled the rest of the way by "angels." In other words, a few random people from random families were about to be "killed" temporarily via dysentery and such in order to help me, Think of that Oregon Trail game, but with resurrection, apparently.
Luckily, I started off with an angel team that included one of my closest friends. (He, like LaPriel, is currently on an LDS mission.) As time passed and new angels came in, my mood improved: 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 theories 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, but 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. Somehow, in that, I also 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 disabled girl in the rickshaw, but somehow, I was also so much more important than that.
I began making a list of everyone who helped me because I was just so grateful. I couldn't stop smiling. There were so many wonderful moments that stick in my mind even now. How my Trek "brother" dropped my rickshaw and ran to the rescue when he saw our Ma fall in the mud. How a group of boys carried me to my tent when I collapsed from pain and was no longer able to walk even through camp. How another boy walked me to my tent when it was too dark and rainy to see, and how he gave me his poncho because I couldn't find mine. How my real brother and I became truly close for the first time there, something which has continued ever since. I looked at all these people and saw the beauty in their faces and their souls, their bravery, their determination, their love. Church members I'd known almost all my life suddenly changed there.
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 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 in remembrance of how greatly they fought to support their families and live on. It's probably the most tear-jerking moment of modern Treks. I refused to force the other girls to pull my rickshaw when they needed to focus on their handcarts, so I got out, and I walked a fourth a mile up a steep hill.
It was probably the strangest experience I've ever had. I was walking at the end of the group beside another girl who had a sprained ankle. We were struggling up the hill, which all the men were 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. They told me about how weird it was. But I just focused on each step, which was about as much as I could do.
Partway up, I stumbled. By then, many of the women had gotten to the top 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 and the hand of the girl next to me and started 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 dissociated then, and I was thinking in this monologue, Look at this. Look at these people. That tough girl who never cries is crying while she helps you up the hill. This is like an epic movie moment, you coming up this hill with everyone in a line, a big "V" of women waiting to receive you as the others help you up. I can practically hear the dramatic movie score playing.
When I reached the top, 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 waited 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.
Each one of us on that Trek carried with us the name of a real person who survived a real handcart trek. I carried the name of Tamar Loader. Tamar's memory later influenced my decision to transfer from Adams State here to BYU - Idaho, a school that was founded by Tamar's husband Thomas E. Ricks, whom she met when he came down from Utah to rescue her and the others in her trek company. She had seen him in a dream just the night before.
The experiences I've shared in this post were a few 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. 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 only wish everyone could experience something like that. Any time I get too upset or 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, I get out the bonnet I wore on Trek and I hold it to my face. It still smells like Wyoming.
(In other news, I got 107 mosquito bites. So maybe I won't go live there, haha.)
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