Editor's note: This commentary by Melvin L. Bashore is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought. Bashore is the author of the article “Handcart Trekking: From Commemorative Reenactment to Modern Phenomenon,” in BYU Studies Quarterly.
This week, moviegoers along the Wasatch Front may have their heartstrings pulled as they watch handcarts pushed in a new Mormon youth comedy called, "Trek: The Movie." The film opens this Friday.
As I've traced the history of the trek phenomenon — from an obscure one-off stake activity to a cultural ritual captured on the silver screen — I've wondered whether the Mormon pioneers could have envisioned such re-enactments becoming a central part of the Mormon youth experience.
Today, they are increasingly a rite of passage undertaken every summer by thousands of Mormons. And, well, if you think treks only take place in stakes between Logan and Provo, Utah, you may be surprised to learn that they are not uncommon in South America and elsewhere around the globe.
For the uninitiated, Mormon teens leave the comforts of their homes for a few days to get a small taste of what it was like for Mormon pioneers to push a handcart to Utah. They dress in pioneer clothes, they camp outside. And, yes, they push handcarts.
The explosion of popularity in handcart trek re-enactments dates back to 1997. Though it was by no means the only factor, the Mormon Pioneer Trail Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1997 was the bellwether event that ushered in the modern-day phenomenon of handcart trekking. With two decades of continued keen interest in holding handcart treks in the church, I started studying how this program began, especially its early roots. My findings appear in an article, “Handcart Trekking: From Commemorative Reenactment to Modern Phenomenon,” in the latest issue of BYU Studies Quarterly.
The use of handcarts by Mormons started as a cost-saving experiment to bring poor converts from Europe across the plains of America in the 1850s. Unfortunately in the tail end of the first season of the experiment, hundreds of people died en route to Utah. It was a disastrous beginning. Before the last two companies even reached Utah, Brigham Young heard that people were blaming him for mismanagement. He became hurt and upset, lashing out at a Sabbath meeting in the Old Tabernacle at those who were pointing fingers at him for the tragic deaths of so many.
It may have been this sensitive situation that made people reluctant to talk about the handcarts while Brigham Young was still alive. After President Young died, the experiences of those who pushed carts to Utah began to be recounted publicly in written and spoken word. In time, their accomplishments even began to be celebrated. A group of handcart veterans marching in the 1897 Jubilee Parade in Salt Lake City were loudly applauded. Handcart veterans, both men and women, established organizations to hold reunions and remember their experience.
After the turn of the century, Boy Scouts began to hike over the last miles of the Mormon Trail, from Henefer to the mouth of Emigration Canyon. There may have even been some who re-enacted the handcart journey, but the very first youth handcart trek that I found in my research occurred in 1966. In that year, young men from the Phoenix Stake constructed some carts using big metal wheels that they scavenged from farm wagons. They hauled them on trucks and trailers from Arizona to Utah. They pushed them from Henefer, up and down Big and Little Mountains, in the same ruts where handcart pioneers had gone more than a century earlier. They pounded out bent wheels over aspen coals, tempering their repairs in cold water. Those men who went on this adventure that I spoke with, now old, told me what an impact this had on their lives and testimonies.
In 1968, 44 girls from East Long Beach Stake in California came to Utah with homemade handcarts to also trek from Henefer to This Is the Place Monument. They had not known about the trip taken by the Phoenix Stake two years earlier, but just came up with the idea independently. Impressively they spent the previous year getting ready for this adventure. They got into physical shape by qualifying for the trip with timed mile runs, sewed their own pioneer clothing, learned how to bake bread and fulfilled other requirements. One of the incidents told to me by an adult leader happened as they were pushing their handcarts on the road in Emigration Canyon. She said, “These college guys went by in a convertible and screamed at us, ‘Hey! You’re too late. They’ve already settled the Valley.’”
In the mid-1970s, handcart treks were offered at BYU and Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). I spoke with all the principal men who started those programs. The BYU program, developed by Doug Cloward, was an outgrowth of a wilderness survival program offered to LDS youth conference groups. The San Bernardino Stake had taken part in the survival activity at their youth conference held at BYU in 1975. They wanted to return again the following year but asked if a different kind of activity could be planned. This led Cloward to develop the pioneer handcart trek program. He used students majoring in youth leadership to help run the program. They employed many of the elements found in today’s handcart treks. The BYU student leaders were the Ma's and Pa's. BYU sponsored youth handcart treks and instruction on conducting handcart treks as a part of its curriculum for youth leadership students until the early 1990s.
In 1977, Ricks College began conducting handcart treks as a part of the curriculum in its outdoor recreation program. I interviewed two of the principal men who started that program. They established a 98-mile route through deserts and mountains, mostly on Jeep trails, stretching from Rexburg to Montana on which their students pushed handcarts. Prior to starting, the students spent five days in instruction and physical preparation.
The courses and treks offered at BYU and Ricks College may have provided the pool of people who had the experience and training to conduct local handcart treks when the popularity of such activities exploded after 1997. Although costly and time-consuming, parents and leaders continue to support and hold these treks. They see that pushing carts helps their children appreciate the hardships of the pioneers and, for some, gain a measure of personal spiritual growth.
On a personal note, I pushed a handcart in 1997 over Rocky Ridge in Wyoming with a small group of my wife’s cousins. Just like many Mormon youth, I wasn’t that thrilled to do it. But my objections were more intellectual than physical. I thought too much attention had been focused on handcarts, while the stories of many thousands of Mormon pioneers who came with wagons had been ignored. In my view, too much attention was focused on tragedy and suffering, rather than accomplishment and joy in the journey.
But I joined our little family handcart group and helped push a handcart. We shared the ruts of the old road that day with 400 youths from the Littleton Colorado Stake. Accompanying them was their stake president, who developed laryngitis during the day. They heard that I was also on the trail and asked if I could fill in for their stake president at the campfire program scheduled that evening at Rock Creek Hollow.
When we reached Rock Creek, my wife’s cousins left me. While waiting for the campfire program, I was eaten alive by hordes of mosquitoes — descendants of the same mosquitoes that bit the pioneers. In fact, my wife theorized that the pioneers kept plodding west until they finally reached the Salt Lake Valley where they found a mosquito abatement program was in effect. That’s when Brigham Young said, “This is the right place. Stop here.”
It may not have actually happened that way, but those mosquito bites that I got that evening in Rock Creek Hollow are an unforgettable memory. Also memorable and undeniable are the feelings I experienced that day by pushing a handcart. Though I don’t have pioneer Mormon ancestors, my heart was pricked by what the handcart pioneers did.