I’ve been back from the Pioneer Trek for a week and a half now. The Trek photographer was Craig Williamson, and he shared a Dropbox folder of images with everyone who attended. There are so many great shots! I thought it would be fun to give you a photo tour and write down some of my favorite highlights.
Pioneer Trek is a popular tradition — a sort of historical re-enactment/pilgrimage — but it’s not an official or formal program of the Mormon Church. Congregations can decide if they want to participate, and if they do, how they put Trek together is totally up to them. Mormons are organized into Wards and Stakes. Wards are equivalent to a congregation (there are also Branches, which are like mini-Wards). A Stake is made up of around ten Wards (or Branches). Our Pioneer Trek was the combined effort of two Stakes — the Oakland Stake, and the Walnut Creek Stake.
I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I believe there were 175 teens who participated (in the 14 to 18 age range), and maybe 75 adults. The adults had roles like Trail Bosses, Food Team, Vignette Actors, First Aid, and Mas & Pas. The teens were split into 19 “families” — each family was assigned a Ma & Pa, and each family was assigned a handcart. No one got to choose who was in their family, or which family they were a part of. Ben Blair and I were one of the Mas & Pas.
It was a MAJOR effort, requiring tons of prep over many months, and it was entirely staffed from top to bottom with volunteers.
Treks can be organized along any trail, but it feels especially meaningful when you live close enough to an actual trail that early Mormons used for cross-country migration. We live about 3 hours from the Mormon Emigrant Trail that I believe goes from California to Utah, and that’s where we trekked — it was a section near the Nevada-California border. The main Mormon Handcart trail goes from East to West — Illinois or Iowa to Utah.
We hiked on a rough trail. Lots of rocks and divots. Lots of uphills and downs. And it was crazy dusty. So much dirt! It was everywhere.
Each Trek Family was given matching neckerchiefs in a particular color (the Blair family was assigned a sort of light aqua green). These really helped as family members got to know each other, allowing all of us to quickly identify who was in our group and make sure everyone was accounted for. They were also handy for covering mouths and noses as we hiked through the dust.
On Day One, we hiked about 7 miles. On Day Two, we hiked about 8 miles, and on Day Three, we hiked about 5 miles. It was around 20 miles total.
I had never been on a Pioneer Trek before and was picturing covered wagons crossing the Great Plains. For some reason, I assumed we’d be walking along fairly flat trail, and that boredom would be the biggest challenge. In fact, on the bus to the starting point, I was trying to cram as if preparing for an exam — making mental notes about games and activities I could engage in with my adopted teens while we walked, topic ideas for discussions, and Camp Songs we could sing.
But the cramming was totally unnecessary. Because hiking the trail with a handcart was exhausting! It was often so challenging, that I was perpetually out of breath and unable to carry on a conversation, let alone sing a song. Hah!
Interestingly, both uphills and downhills, were challenging with a handcart. On uphills, lots of muscle and effort were required both pulling and pushing the cart. On downhills, we had to concentrate on slowing down the carts so they didn’t go too fast. We were human brakes.
The physical exhaustion was very real. On Day One, our family eventually made it to camp around 3:30 PM, immediately pulled out sleeping bags and instantly collapsed for afternoon naps. Laying down was more appealing than food, water, or anything else.
After the nap, we finished setting up camp as a family. There was a central camp area with a food prep station, first aid tent, port-0-potties, a washing station and a gathering spot. Down the hill, each family was assigned to a separate area. Everyone slept under the stars, and we brought one tent per family to use for changing clothes.
At the main gathering area, there were stilts and log-balance games and other pioneer activities.
Then it was time for dinner. The way our Trek handled dinner was that the food team would mostly prep everything, then each family would get a bin full of food, take it back to their campsite, and do the final prep as a family. Each Ma & Pa brought cooking equipment and a propane stove.
There were no tables or chairs. There were no showers. There was no water source — the organizers had to bring in water containers on trucks. There was no place to leave trash. Everything we brought in, had to be taken out.
After dinner, we all went to the gathering space, bringing a bucket to turn upside down and use as a chair. There was amazing live music, and a dance teacher helped the kids learn some square dancing and the Irish Jig. You would think the kids would be too tired to dance, but they actually loved it.
After dancing, we sang pioneer hymns together, and then went to bed.
The second day, we woke early, made breakfast, and broke camp. We reloaded our handcarts and hit the trail. What was in our cart? Each member of the family was only allotted a small cargo spot, and a specific list of supplies. Everyone brought a king-size pillowcase that had a drawstring added to it. Inside the pillowcase, we placed a standard-size bucket. The bucket helped keep things compact in the cart, and also functioned as a chair at camp. Inside the bucket went pjs, socks and underwear, toiletries and a jacket. On top of the bucket (still inside the pillowcase), we would place a rolled up camping pad and sleeping bag. And then pull the drawstring closed.
We had 11 kids in our family, so our cart had 13 of these bucket-pillow-cases, each one taking up the same amount of space. There was no room for pillows, so we stuffed our sleeping bag cover with our jacket as a makeshift pillow instead.
We attached water bottles to the back of the cart, and we kept a box of snacks for the trail in the cart, as well as a bag of other helpful essentials, like a first aid kit, wet-wipes, sunscreen, bug repellant, and hand sanitizer.
Throughout the Trek, along the trail, there would be short breaks where we would stop and see a historical vignette. For example, there might be people dressed up, reading stories from the journals of actual pioneers. The vignettes were designed to help us picture what it was like for the early Mormons crossing the Plains, and help us connect to their triumphs and losses, their hardships and joys.
One of the vignettes involved a challenge. A couple miles into the hike on the second day, recruiters for the Mormon Battalion showed up and took all the brothers in our family off to war for a few hours. The Mormon Battalion is a real part of American History, but doesn’t actually line up with handcart pioneers — it took place about 10 years before the handcarts started heading West. But no matter, it added a fun element of distraction, and it meant that the sisters had to handle the cart on their own for the next few hours.
The Mormon Battalion vignette was intentionally inserted at the hardest part of the trail, making it extra hard for the women. But along the hardest parts, “angels” would show up on the trail and help push and pull. There are dozens of accounts in pioneer journals about knowing they can’t walk another step, and then suddenly feeling like the cart was pushing itself, or that the load had been significantly lightened. The pioneers would credit angels for these small miracles. So I thought this was a sweet part of the Trek re-enactment.
During another vignette, since so many pioneer families had babies along the trail, each Trek family was given a “baby” — a five pound bag of flour, wrapped in a piece of flannel, with a cloth doll’s head attached. Hah! The rule was that the baby must be held at all times, and not set down. So the family members took turns hiking while holding their new sibling.
Some families got their babies on the first day, but we got ours on the second day, so one of the favorite activities along the trail was thinking up names for our future baby. The kids came up with boy names, girl names, and gender-neutral names. When our new baby girl arrived, they settled on Claire Cher Blair. : )
That afternoon was the smoothest part of the trail, and the pace wasn’t too hurried, so we could easily chat as we walked. I loved that! We had such a great group of kids in our family (many of them of pictured in the old-fashioned photos on this post). As we walked we talked about the difference between suffering and hard work.
We set up camp again that evening. Then it was dinner, and another gathering for more dancing and a fireside presentation. The presentation started silly with a cow-pie throwing competition between the leaders of the two Stakes (Oakland Stake won, naturally). Then four different teens were asked to share compelling stories from their own lives.
We ended the night with more pioneer hymns, then it was off to bed.
The third day went fast. We broke camp and hit the trail early, and when we got to the end of the trail, around noon, the volunteers had prepped a celebratory lunch for everyone. It definitely felt like an accomplishment, and a cause for celebration!
One thing that stood out to me in a fun way was the contrast between modern and old-fashioned along the trail — like a full pioneer outfit paired with aviator sunglasses or Nikes with a bright yellow swoosh. Or authentic-style handcarts with Nalgene water bottles hanging from the back. Honestly, if I was doing it again, I would like to have spent a bit more time coming up with the most authentic pioneer outfit that I could. I know they made it harder to hike, but they also helped me get into the event mentally.
And while we’re on a mental topic, I have to say the forced internet break was pretty heavenly and good for my state of mind. No phones were allowed for the teens, and there was no reception anyway, nor anywhere to charge a phone. I carried my phone, but never pulled it out, though I did try to preserve the battery life so I could take photos. But really that was unnecessary, because a pro-photographer was there to document the whole thing. He even set up a backdrop and took faux Daguerrotypes portraits. I LOVE how they turned out.
I’ve also thought a lot about what I got out of the experience. I definitely developed an interest in learning more about the handcart movement — how many miles a day did they average? How big were their carts? How many people managed the trip? Who organized the whole thing?
The particular pioneer stories we were told on the trail also left me with some lessons learned: With proper preparation, good advice from experts, common sense, and team work, we can accomplish hard things. And also, if we let overzealous leaders do the thinking for us, and ignore the experts, a hard thing can turn disastrous, and cause pain, loss, and death.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever participated in a historical re-enactment? Or a pilgrimage? Does this sort of thing appeal to you at all? What would be the hardest part for you? Not showering? The hiking? Sleeping under the stars?
P.S. — I didn’t mention blisters, but they were definitely a big part of Trek. I have huge gratitude for the miracle of Moleskin. : )