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Handcart trek more than teen make-believe game

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WOODRUFF, Utah — It was all fun and games that morning as the youth of the Farmington Utah South Stake picked up their handcarts and began to pull. They certainly looked like pioneers. Young men wore suspenders while bonnets shielded the young ladies from the sun. In their mind, being like pioneers for several days was merely a matter of acting the part of a pioneer.

These 275 youth and their leaders had come to this wide-open grazing land of northern Utah with the intent of learning something about their pioneer ancestors. The hope was that struggling like the pioneers would deepen their testimonies.

The dust was real and the handcarts were heavy, but for the most part, the first hours of pulling were merely a make-believe game for the teenagers.

"But then something happened after the first women's pull," said Barbara Squires, an adult leader. "The young men and women had been pulling together during the first few miles of the trail. Then the women were to pull the handcarts over this particular hill. It was hard and, all of a sudden, it wasn't a game anymore. The atmosphere changed. They became serious. The young men were separated from the young women as if taken away on the Mormon Battalion and stood watching from a distance. They agonized as they watched the young women struggle, pained that they were powerless to help. The young women quickly learned to band together to succeed. Those who made it to the top, returned to help the others. It was amazing to watch that change in them. They gained greater respect for each other.

"Late that night after eating a dinner consisting of broth and a roll, just when they thought they were through pulling, we picked up the handcarts and went a few more miles. There was no coaxing them to sleep that night," Sister Squires said.

"People change on the trail," she continued. "I noticed in the testimony meeting that the young men no longer called them girls, but women.

"I also watched the change in a young man who had been struggling in his personal life. He came from a good family, but several days prior to the trek he left home because he refused to live by family rules. His parents didn't know if he'd attend the trek or not. But he came, and on the second day, he walked up to his mother who was an adult leader on the trek and, without saying a word, handed her the earrings that had been the point of contention. He then turned and walked away."

The desire to live like the pioneers and feel what they felt and do what they did continues to be a favored activity for youth. Each week during the summer, from June until late August, youth groups from across Utah's Wasatch Front head to Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch for a three- or four-day trek. The 240,000 acre ranch is owned by the Church and is principally situated in northern Utah.

A pioneer trek becomes many things to different people, said Christy Huff, trek coordinator at the ranch. It's a time when the young women learn they are stronger than they thought and when the young men become more thoughtful. They become concerned for one another's welfare and learn to strengthen each other. They push themselves beyond their known limits.

Trek, as the survivors affectionately refer to it, requires a year or more of preparation. Adult leaders meet frequently to attend to the details of food, clothing, medical support and transportation. Leaders also go on a pre-trek where they are exposed to the rigors of the trail for early training.

"On the day the youth arrive, they are divided into family groups and assigned a Ma and a Pa. Some assume names of ancestors or pioneers who crossed the plains," Sister Huff said. "The first day is the most difficult. They hike 12-16 miles and are fed a dinner of broth and a roll. It may not seem like much, but at the end of the day a salty broth meets their needs. Some say it's the best food they've tasted. Others say they are more appreciative of Mom's cooking."

The second day on the trail is more recreational, with time for square dancing. The third day is planned for spiritual activities, such as a testimony meeting and journal writing. "The thing I like them to remember is the spiritual aspect of the trek. There is something about being out in nature that helps us feel close to the Lord," Sister Huff said. "My goal is to help the youth feel their Heavenly Father's love."