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Treks give Mormon teens a taste of pioneer past, but some practices steer away from history

First Published      Last Updated Jul 25 2016 09:23 am

It happens every summer.

Mormon teens forsake cellphones, iPads, makeup and video games, don long dresses, aprons and bonnets or pants with suspenders, and set out on a grueling, exhausting, heat-smacking three-day wilderness experience. Organized into "families," with mock siblings and an assigned "Ma and Pa," they pull wooden handcarts for miles over uneven terrain, sing old-time hymns, munch beef jerky and saltwater taffy, jot in their journals, read scriptures by campfire and sleep under the stars — sometimes in hailstorms.

Many come back from this exercise in planned deprivation and shared suffering proclaiming it the most spiritually invigorating time of their young lives. Even the adults who go along on these pioneer treks often feel profoundly moved.

"It's clear that for everyone who went, it was an overwhelmingly rewarding experience," says former Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen, an LDS stake president in the Rose Park neighborhood, who just returned from a trek with about 120 teens and 60 adults.

"I felt like my [deceased] mother and father were walking with me," Christensen says, his voice cracking with emotion. "Talking to others, I knew I wasn't alone in that experience. One couple lost a baby girl born prematurely. They weren't going to go but decided to walk for their daughter. It was extremely meaningful for them."

In the past two decades, going on a "trek," as it is commonly called, has become an almost ubiquitous rite of passage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, designed to inculcate youths with character, empathy and a connection to sacred Mormon history. These excursions have become so popular, in fact, that they have been exported from the West's Mormon belt to LDS congregations in Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states as well as countries like Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Argentina, Mongolia and New Zealand (complete with gingham and cowboy hats).

"Just as Pioneer Day celebrations over the years have generated and perpetuated Mormon folk identity," explains LDS historian Tona Hangen, trek "retraces (sometimes on precisely the same ground), an epic historical journey [of Mormon pioneers from the Midwest to Utah] and replays certain pieces of an actual historical past."

But it doesn't come easy — or cheap.

Upping the ante • The trek experience, orchestrated by an LDS stake (region), requires an army of organizers to arrange the necessary permits, food and camping logistics, along with a wagonload of financing and supplies. An entire industry has sprung up around it to market trek goods.

Now, some members want to take the whole thing up a notch.

How about if the kids build a replica of the faith's Nauvoo temple and then have a black-faced, gun-wielding mob sweep unannounced into the camps, jostling tents, screaming invectives at the trekkers and then burning the sacred structure? What if folks dressed up like American Indians raid the camp, looking for contraband cellphones and "kidnapping" young women? What if the kids have to bury "babies" made from bags of flours?

Some LDS groups have embraced these theatrics, but many have declined to adopt them, seeing such tactics not only as nonhistorical but also potentially traumatizing.

"There is enough power in the authentic experience — getting the kids outside, putting them in 'families' that become close and enduring — without adding a faux experience," says Don Hangen, Tona's husband and an LDS leader in Massachusetts who oversaw his stake's youth trek. "We didn't want to emotionally manipulate the kids."

Besides, these Mormon treks, Tona Hangen says, are really about "collective memory."

It is a "dialogue with the past in the service of today," she says. "Instead of receding further into the past, the handcart pioneer experience has been yanked forward through the wormhole of time, where it has become a useful and highly adaptable vehicle for building Mormon identity in an era of rapid growth, global extension and the proliferation of social media."

In this context and with these as goals, she says, guns — even fake ones — are never a good idea.

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