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Yuma trek a tribute to church's pioneers
About 181 youths and adults from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now have a better understanding of the harsh conditions their Mormon ancestors faced while immigrating west in the mid-19th century.
During the Yuma Arizona Stake Pioneer Trek held in early January, the group walked through about 25 miles of desert while pulling handcarts and wearing authentic pioneer attire. Each night they camped in the wilderness.
“The Handcart Trek is a local re-creation of one of the ways Mormon pioneers came west to the Salt Lake Valley from the late 1840s into the late 1860s,” explained Mike Erfert, bishop of the LDS Yuma Mesa Ward.
“For some, such as those newly emigrated from Europe, they could only afford the handcart method. Originally this immigration was necessary to escape persecution, but it was also to go where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had established itself. That was where members wanted to be.”
At the onset of the expedition, Yuma Stake president Mark Workman told the 111 youths participating “to think and be obedient.”
Ethan Lines, 14, said he took Workman's words to heart and enjoyed the experience.
“It was hard, but very worth it,” he said. “I am very glad I went.”
As the re-enactors “boarded buses to take them about 100 miles east into the desert, they knew they were leaving most of their 21st century comforts behind,” Erfert said.
While modern sleeping bags were allowed on the journey, cell phones and other electronic devices were not, except those required for emergencies. Each person was limited to carrying no more than 17 pounds of personal items that had to fit in a 5-gallon bucket.
“Pioneer-era clothing was required and much of the clothing was hand-made,” Erfert added.
Participants were taken to a farm in the desert where groups of eight to 10 were assigned to adult leaders and given a handcart that had to be assembled on site.
“When the handcarts were assembled and gear loaded, the group participated in a service project clearing brush and debris out of canals in the area,” Erfert said. “After a short lunch break, the trek began.”
On the first day, the participants “pushed and pulled” their handcarts seven miles through soft sand, dust, rock and dry washes before stopping to camp for the night.
Each morning during the journey, 16-year-old Chris Carter awoke the camp with bugle calls authentic to the mid-19th century, and the re-enactors continued their trek.
On the second day, the group traveled an additional seven miles, but only about three miles on the third day in order to make time for activities.
“Different games were played — crafts and activities such as woodcarving, taffy pulling, black powder shooting, archery and hatchet-throwing could be learned and practiced,” Erfert said. By the third day, “washing your hair in cold well water was particularly popular,” he joked.
To make the experience more authentic during one portion of the trip, the men were handed cards explaining how they had died on the trail and couldn't help move the handcarts.
“The women had to take on the extra burden and soon the different handcart (crews) were helping each other get over the hills,” Erfert said.
Mattan Lines, 14, said “the hardest part was when we couldn't help. We are taught to help people and that part was hard to just watch.”
On the fifth and final day, the group traveled about nine miles before boarding buses, “which would return them to Yuma — and the 21st century,” Erfert said.
When Ethan returned home, he said, he had a greater appreciation for “light switches,” “warmth” and “running water.”
And he learned confidence, he added. Sometimes “all you can do is just put your shoulder to the wheel and do it. Your Mom isn't around to do it for you and no one else is going to do it.”
He also gained a greater appreciation for his ancestry. “We just did this for (five) days, but our ancestors did it for months. They knew what they were doing was the right thing to do.”
The goal of the Yuma trek was “to help the participants turn their hearts to those who had come before them, and to better appreciate what the pioneers had to contend with,” Erfert explained.
“It also helped them understand and appreciate that passing through difficult experiences will strengthen us and enable us to be self-reliant and self-assured. And it helped participants to understand that individual choices, such as those made to make the original handcart and pioneer travels, will affect generations to come.”
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.