Updated: Jul 25
Why do members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leave the comforts of home and trudge miles over dusty, gusty desert trails by the thousands each year?
July 24th is a Utah state holiday commemorating the arrival of "Mormon" pioneers in the Salt Lake valley in 1847. Each year, thousands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reenact the trek experience throughout the world.
Last weekend, my wife and I returned home from leading three hundred other trek participants at the Church-owned trek site in Mosida, Utah.
Leading trek was one of the most challenging things I've done and certainly one of the most challenging things my wife and I have done together. It involved forming a committee of two dozen other volunteers who in turn oversaw 75 additional adult volunteer sub-committee members and "Ma's and Pa's", the couples who would act for several days as surrogate parents to eight youth per "family" as we pulled handcarts over dusty desert trails for eight or more miles per day.
In the two years leading up to the actual event (we were delayed one year due to Covid), committees were formed to oversee logistics and transportation, food, music, activities, medical, communications, photography/videography, and more. Many of us traveled to and toured the site. We met monthly or more, organized a kick-off fireside for participants and their parents (about 500 people), and held a practice hoedown to teach the 200 or so youth songs and dances of our country's past that most Americans have forgotten.
Weekends were spent coordinating details, organizing families, and communicating food allergies and other accommodations. The weeks leading up to the event were like having a part-time job on top of our regular family, work, and church responsibilities (my wife and I continued to perform our other church assignments on top of leading trek).
On the Trail
Trek itself was an enormous undertaking. All gear was color-coded by "company". Four trucks were arranged to haul everything in lengthy, enclosed trailers. Three hundred participants and their belongings were transported three hours away to the desolate destination west of Utah Lake. A refrigerator truck, a supply truck, and a grill trailer were managed by the food team. Local congregations helped supply pioneer clothing, tents, sleeping bags, transport vehicles, buckets, and other necessities. Trained medical professionals volunteered their equipment and expertise and walked alongside, treating blisters, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and one shattered radius from a fall.
Over the course of three and a half days, 25 handcarts were pushed and pulled over dusty trails. Songs were sung, stories were told, conversations were held, and historical events were reenacted. Each day we were up before the sun and went to bed well after dark, exhausted, one night sleeping in storm-soaked sleeping bags. We faced rain, terrible dust storms, and cloudless skies with temperatures over 100℉, all while dressed in traditional pioneer garb - long sleeve shirts and trousers for the men and full-length dresses, bloomers, and bonnets for the women.
Why go through the trouble? Why not read about these things in history books and call it good? Why go through the expense and give up the time and suffer unnecessarily?
As one who has spent two decades in the field of education, I have a great love of books and own hundreds of them in my personal library. But, I also know that some things are best learned by doing.
We trek so we can relate in a small way to the faith, determination, perseverance, and grit of the pioneers.
The question of "why do we do this" transforms into "why did they do this" as we trudge along the trail, dusty, dirty, and sweaty. What was their *why*?
Some 70,000 Latter-day Saint pioneers crossed the plains. 3,000 of them in handcarts. This wasn't a cult following. Most never met the church's founder, Joseph Smith, or heard him speak. They gathered from diverse nations, spoke diverse languages, and came from diverse backgrounds. Some were rich. Most were poor. Many left family, home, and homeland never to see them again.
Why did they do that?
The Pearl of Greatest Price
Their “why” was the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Good News that forged this nation and, in large part, western civilization.
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides the most complete philosophy, the most successful formula for human flourishing ever devised. It answers our deepest questions, aids in our deepest crises, and heals our deepest wounds.
It provides the template for individual living, family life, and community life - even the basis of our modern understanding of human rights and the basic freedoms of conscience, speech, assembly, press, and self-defense.
The pioneers believed prophets were called again on earth to teach that gospel, including principles and counsel to specifically address the issues and concerns of our day. They believed the windows of heaven had opened once more and craved the light and knowledge this restoration promised.
They came to live in unity with like-minded people, keen to follow God, and with sheer faith, will, and industry forge from a wilderness hundreds of thriving communities.
In our day, we aren’t called to travel hundreds of miles by wagon or foot. We aren’t called to build cities from the ground up. But we have problems to solve, hearts to mend, the naked to clothe, the hungry to feed, the sick to heal, the homeless to house, the ignorant to educate, and the captive to free.
The gospel calls us to forego selfishness and lift our neighbor. We want to instill these values in our youth, so we willingly give hundreds of hours over many months in preparation to provide them with this experience, in the hopes of passing on the “why” to the next generation. We hope that our efforts will create an environment where they can learn - for themselves and for certain - certain fundamental truths upon which they can build their lives.
Coming face to face with the experiences of faithful and faith-driven generations past can light the way for us. Past Church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, said it this way:
“It is good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before; to gain strength for whatever lies ahead. It is good to reflect upon the work of those who labored so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of whose dreams and early pains, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest of which we are the beneficiaries. Their tremendous example can become a compelling motivation for all of us. For each of us is a pioneer in his own life, often in his own family and many of us pioneer daily n seeking to do God's will and lift and serve those around us."
Connections That Require Disconnection
Additionally, during the trek, I witnessed two hundred youth disconnected from devices and reconnected in person with other youth and loving, trusted adults. I heard peals of delighted laughter as dozens ran and played games on a rough field after a long day of walking. I saw enthusiastic smiles as we danced the Virginia Reel in two enormous circles. I saw tear-stained faces as we witnessed our head cook, a giant of a man, being pulled in a handcart by his diminutive wife in a reenactment of the haunting and inspiring story of Jens and Elsie Nielson.
These simple moments of human connection - conversation, story, song, and play, once so commonplace, seem much less so in our day of constant electronic stimulation. The cultural water of just a few generations ago offers a stark contrast from the water we swim in today.
We learn best in immersive environments. Our family, friends, and society provide our initial and most influential immersive environments. So immersive that we don't even know we're being taught. We simply accept the worldview presented as the only one there is. As we grow, other immersive environments become available to us in school, sports, music, social media, sub-culture, entertainment, fantasy, religion, and career. Again, so immersive that we may think the rest of the world exists as we experience it, or ought to exist as such.
I was reminded of Neil Postman's brilliant comparison of two such potential immersive environments, two dystopian futures - that of constant government surveillance in Orwell's 1984; and that of Huxley's Brave New World in which the populace is lulled into complacency by material prosperity.
"Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
"As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)
Earlier in my adult life I feared Orwell's prediction. I now feel Huxley was the more prescient. We are drowning in distractions that rob us of potential connection, joy, and happiness. Too often, distraction and triviality are the immersive environments of modern life. Trek provides an opportunity to experience something different by taking a peak, however briefly, at the immersive experience faced my a people and a perspective that helped lay the foundation for the peace and prosperity we enjoy today.
I now feel a deep connection and sense of gratitude towards those other one hundred adults who volunteered and gave so much to serve young people, most of whom they don't even know. Outside of family, the deepest and most enduring friendships I have are with those whom I have served in demanding, yet volunteer service over the years. I didn't know that would be the end when I was standing at the beginning. I am grateful for the immersive, albeit short, environment of trek.
To those other adults who shared this journey with my wife and I, I wrote the following the day after trek ended. I couldn't bring myself to say it during the two years we worked together, because felt it was something I should do even if I didn't initially want to do it. And I intuited that I had something to learn through the journey we would travel together.
"I have a confession. I don’t love trek. It is daunting, difficult, and even dangerous. The planning beforehand is categorically overwhelming and the execution during is relentless and all-consuming. But I love the Lord and I love the youth and I will go and do and so I went and did.
"I am deeply, deeply humbled by the willingness of one hundred fellow saints to give of their time, talents, and everything the Lord has blessed them with to set aside the comforts of modern life and tirelessly give to young people from before sun-up till after sun-down - through rain, horrible dust storms, and blazing heat in one of the ugliest places God created. It goes beyond voluntarism and lands squarely in the territory of consecration.
"The pain-stricken expressions watching a shadow of the plight of Jens and Elsie, the throat-choking dust caking faces and bodies on Women’s Pull, the sounds of laughter of kids playing device-free on the fields of Rock Creek Hollow, the non-stop chatter of youth sharing stories of how they were impacted by the last three days and how their testimonies were strengthened - that’s what makes it worth it.
"I don’t know any women who “love” labor, but they love what is born from it. In a small way, that’s how I feel about trek. It is grueling, even desperately so at times, but what comes of it is priceless. Thank you for your service to our Savior and our fellow young brothers and sisters. I love you all and treasure the time we spent together and the privilege of being part of a Zion people."
I was not excited when we were called to lead trek. My wife, to her credit, was excited from day one, and her enthusiasm and dedication never flagged during those two years we worked together.
But not me. And I was to learn that I was not alone. As I did research for trainings or talks I would need to give, I came across not a few other saints from prior years writing and grumbling about trek and how unnecessary they felt it is in our day and age. But I now disagree. Trek consistently delivers on the promise of connecting youth with each other, with their leaders, and with heaven.
I am surprised, humbled, and even sometimes dismayed at how often my emotions or initial impressions run contrary to how I feel after I've run a particular race that has been set before me. These experiences remind me how much I have to learn and the importance of taking queues from the hard-won wisdom of generations past and the counsel that comes from divine sources.
Scripture is filled with the stories of God's children being called to trek or journey into the unknown. To leave the familiar and venture into the unfamiliar. We too are called to pioneer in different ways.
In closing, I share two quotes from pioneers of the past that illustrate the perspective that sometimes can only be gained by making the journey. The first are the words of Francis Webster who rebuked a group that was criticizing the decision made years earlier for the Willie and Martin handcart companies to begin their journey in spite of the lateness of the season.
"I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Hand Cart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it. . . . I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there. Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company."
The second is the words of Moroni describing the journey of the Jaredites:
"And it came to pass that they did travel in the wilderness, and did build barges, in which they did cross many waters, being directed continually by the hand of the Lord... that they should come forth even unto the land of promise, which was choice above all other lands, which the Lord God had preserved for a righteous people." (Ether 2:6-7)
Those are the main lessons I want my own children, two of whom accompanied my wife and I on this trek, and other youth to learn. Any price is worth paying to come to know God. He has, does, and will direct us continually if we pay that price. Sometimes that price requires a trek.