Pioneer Trek Travelogue

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

Pioneer Trek: 

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 Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

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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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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. : )

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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.

Pioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design MomPioneer Trek Travelogue featured by popular lifestyle blogger Design Mom

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. : )

26 thoughts on “Pioneer Trek Travelogue”

  1. This sounds like a massive amount of fun. I am not Mormon or even religious but I would love to participate in something like this. I love experiences that are physically challenging, outside, and done in groups. It is such a bonding experience and creates such vivid memories. It also sounds super well-organized and I loved the addition of the vignettes and tying it to real events in history. Thanks so much for sharing all the photos and describing the experience in such detail. I really enjoyed this post.

  2. These photos are incredible! We didn’t do trek growing up and I have yet to be called to participate in one but this post gets me more excited than ever. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This was really interesting and entertaining to read. Thank you so much for sharing. Your comment about listening to the experts and not letting overzealous leaders take over, resonated with me.

  4. Amazing. Ive never done a reinactment but I did do a pilgrimage. A few years ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We did about 150 miles over 8 days carrying all of our belongings on our backs. Such hard work but a really rewarding experience. It’s traditional on the Camino to stay in dorms often run by monks and I found the idea of sharing a room with strangers the hardest part. But overall such an opportunity for personal growth

  5. I would so love to do this! I grew up in the Midwest and gorged on childhood lit like The Little House on the Prairie, while of course playing Oregon Trail on 1990s computers.

  6. I bought a few books in Zion National Park a decade ago. One of them was about a British Mormon woman who made the handcart trek from Illinois/Indiana to Southern Utah. It was completely fascinating…and of course now I can’t remember the name of the book or her name!

  7. This was surprisingly moving and emotional for me to read. I am not Mormon, but my ancestors were the first pioneers to come into the SLC Valley. I have a strong sense of doing hard things and working hard for what I believe in. The importance of family and traditions. Thank you for sharing!

  8. I live in Oregon so grew up studying/visiting the actual Oregon Trail (as well as playing the videogame). But my ancestors were Mormon pilgrims who journeyed from Illinois to Utah, and my mother never missed a chance to point out that handcarts must have been *even harder* than covered wagons to navigate on poorly marked trails. I would embrace this sort of trek for the physical challenge and camaraderie.

  9. Our Arizona Stake does Trek in February when the kids have a long weekend off. I was asked to do a dramatic storytelling and musical program for the group. I researched the story of my ancestor Sarah Blackham, 16 years old at the time of her crossing with the Martin Handcart Company. I used her own words and other historical sources and wrote a script, interweaving it with popular songs from the era which I sang a capella (the kids sang with me in the last one and we had a guitar). I had an authentic pioneer costume and I tried my best for an authentic Manchester, England accent. Anyway, I think it really helped the history come alive for the kids. It certainly did for me. I would love to be asked to participate again.

  10. When I was in a singles ward we went on trek together which was a really unique experience. We actually went up to Martins Cove mid November- we all thought my bishop was insane when he first announced the idea. It was a surreal experience being up there around the same time as the handcart rescue happened so long ago. We did not wear pioneer clothing and were all lucky enough to have warm coats and boots. I remember when we did a crossing at the sweet water river my cart mates and I took off our shoes to try and grasp what it would have really been like. I remember being so proud of myself for doing it and then being immediately humbled as I put on my warm wool socks and waterproof boots which they of course would have not had. On the way home we ended up getting stranded for 12 hours because a blizzard shut down I-80. That for me was actually the most closely connecting part to the actual handcart experience. Just as they had become unable to move on we too were at the mercy of the storm passing and waiting for the plows to come rescue us. Later for an activity we did the John Moyer walk which was also an amazing experience. Obviously my bishop wasn’t into the standard single ward activities. Ha. One thing for sure is those pioneers had grit.

  11. I’m a long time youth conference organizer/ participator. I love getting out in nature with teenagers. Most are so willing to experience whatever is prepared and work hard and feel the results. This next generation are such good kids! The hardest part for me is dust up my nose, and saying goodbye once the event is over.

  12. I did trek when I was 14 and it was a formative experience of my youth. I didn’t want to go, almost didn’t go (like tried backing out the morning of) but I went and the experience has stayed with me. I wasn’t particularly athletic, I didn’t challenge myself at that age, so it was definitely the most physically and mentally challenging thing I had ever done! It meant so much to me to learn that I–little ole ME–could do something so difficult. We really only did two big hikes, but the first one on the first day was from about noon until after dark–which in the summer time in Colorado meant 9:00. I have no idea how far we went, but it was exhausting. But once we got to camp we had to immediately start making our family dinners. (We hadn’t eaten on the trail all day–only water.) I remember chopping carrots and potatoes on a rock by candle light with candle wax dripping on my hand and feeling grateful because my hands were so cold. (Yes summertime, but in the Rocky mountains at night–so cold.) Recently my kids asked me what the best meal I’ve ever had is and I told them what I’ve always said–it was the beef stew we had that night. Nothing has ever tasted better to me in my life.

    Other things I remember were whittling our own utensils for eating (we each brought a tin can to eat and drink out of) and there was one day where each family had to kill a chicken for our meal! I was the only one in my family not squeamish so I ended up plucking it, skinning it and gutting it–ha! Great fun. But really an important lesson for us modern carnivores to understand where our food comes from. And I remember sleeping out under the stars and looking up at that amazing star filled sky every night until I feel asleep.

    Years later, when living in NYC, I volunteered to go on the Pioneer trek as I didn’t yet have kids and loved my experience so much as a youth. I was so disappointed. There was this fear that “city kids” wouldn’t participate if we asked too much of them. So they didn’t dress up like pioneers, they didn’t take away their technology, they didn’t have to prepare their own food and we only did one 3 mile hike. And I don’t think the kids got ANYTHING out of it. I was like, these kids walk everywhere, these kids are tougher than most, why did we water it down for them? It was simply a 3 day camping trip.

    I’m so glad you had a great experience on your trek. Those photos are gorgeous and AMAZING gifts to cherish of your time there.

  13. I had to hop over from Instagram to see all the amazing photos! I’m not LDS, but about ten years ago I discovered that my father was descended from early Mormons, who helped build the temples at Kirtland and Nauvoo, then arrived in Utah with one of the wagon trains in 1850. I’ve read the journals they kept and the amount of grit and resiliency those folks had! The history nerd part of me would love to do something like this. Did it feel like you were walking in the footsteps of your history? Do you think you’ll do it again? And yes, as a long-term hiker and backpacker, I agree, Moleskin is amazing stuff.

  14. I’ve done two long treks/walks/pilgrimages. I did the Camino de Santiago in Spain (I technically started in France). It took about 5 weeks and was just under 500 miles in 2005. This past fall, I did the West Highland Way in Scotland. 97 miles in 7 days. It is HARD but a true mental vacation and one of my favorite ways to travel and see new places. I find the trickiest part to be eating—you have to adjust your food intake for all the exercise! It’s about the only time I crave a chocolate candy bar!

  15. Virginia Prescott

    We just finished trek last week as a ma and pa, so this was so fun to read for comparison.
    Our course was in central Washington and was pretty up and down in general but had two intentional hills/pulls…in the same day. One was the family pull where everyone worked together. The hill we went up, then immediately down, and was completely pointless. We didn’t actually have to go up it to get to our camp for that night, although the kids were so focused and then exhausted that I think a majority of them never noticed. The second was the “women’s pull” where the men stood along the hill and were told to watch and not intervene and we didn’t have any angels, only the other women. I loved it. We did a reflection on it as a family and it was a great opportunity to talk to our kids about the capability of the women in the church (and in general).
    Also, we didn’t have to make food at all. It was served cafeteria style and although I think having to make it a bit would have been fun (and more authentic), I was grateful that we didn’t have to carry any cooking supplies.
    Other than not having a baby, it sounds very similar and I so agree that it really interested me in how far they traveled every day and other logistics.
    If you want a fun read to learn more about the handcarts, the book Fire of the Covenant by Lund is a great historical fiction. I would suggest reading all of the footnotes in each chapter because he cites and explains in more depth the specifics of so many amazing stories that he wove into the main story. I think I might read it again now that I have a more concrete concept of what they experienced.

  16. These pictures are awesome and having a professional photographer is such a great idea. My husband and I were asked to be ma and pa for Trek last year. It was the first time for both of us. We live in the middle of the Nevada desert so it was very hot and dusty. On the second day, the trail boss had miscalculated the distance and we ended up walking about 17 miles that day! I thought my feet were going to fall off. We were each asked to walk for an ancestor and do some family history research ahead of time. I walked for a great grandmother Hannah and I’m so grateful I had her to think of when I felt I just couldn’t take another step. I knew what I was feeling didn’t even scratch the surface of what the pioneers went through. At the end of that super hard, long day, and we all wanted to collapse, I couldn’t believe the teenagers found more energy to square dance and laugh and sing together after dark! It was amazing. The third and last day, as we came under some trees for lunch, the trail boss surprised us by ending the trek early, since the day before had been so taxing and breaking. I had never felt so relieved! And the smiles and cheers for completing our journey were truly joyful! One of the most difficult but incredible experiences. I loved reading about yours, thanks for sharing!

    1. P.S. – I would REALLY love to hear your conversation about hard work vs. suffering. My husband and I have talked about this a lot lately and sometimes it feels like a blurred line between the two as LDS people, is it just me?

  17. We visited the Martin’s Cove Handcart Center in Wyoming this summer- the senior missionaries tell the amazing story of faith and perseverance in the face of epic challenges. We did not do a trek, but just hiking the trail where the pioneers were rescued was amazing. If you are in central Wyoming, I definitely recommend a stop.

  18. This was wonderful! Loved every word and every photo. How very KIND of you to come clear to Utah to be with all of us Blairs for Amber’s wedding . You must have been exhausted!!! Proud of all of you. And grateful for my marvelous pioneer ancestors. They have blessed all of our lives with their courage and faith. Glad that you’re safely home. So excited for Ralph’s homecoming. He has been a marvelous missionary! His communications have truly blessed my life. Sending love and appreciation to all of you.
    Julia Blair

  19. Wow! I love to see that you and your family are open to so many different kinds of activities, from visiting Disney world to trekking with handcarts.

    This sounds like a very meaningful experience! And I can understand that it is good for mental health to be out of the internet zone for some days: Same with me!

    Did the kids love the experience? Or were they stressed? Bored?

  20. I’ve never seen pictures from a pioneer trek as amazing as these! That was really neat to hear about your experience.

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