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.
Grass-roots movement • The notion of youth treks did not come from the top down in the hierarchical faith. It bubbled up from the bottom, spawned by media coverage of the 1997 sesquicentennial re-enactment of the original Mormon pioneer journey.
Soon, Mormon youth groups began to share general outlines for such ventures, including what became known as "the women's pull." Trek leaders tell the teenage boys and male adults that they have been called to serve in the Mormon Battalion, leaving the girls and women to pull the handcarts — sometimes up a hill — without them.
"For older men like myself, it was extremely painful to stand by and not help," Christensen says. "I had a 15-year-old daughter dreading it. Because of the length of the second-day walk — more than eight miles — I wonder if we were asking too much. But they still wanted to go ahead with it."
Of course, no such "women's pull" happened during pioneer times. Some men did join the Mormon Battalion in 1846 and 1847, but the handcart pioneers did not start crossing the Plains until a decade later.
More history, please • Last year, church headquarters established more consistent trek standards to enhance safety and historical accuracy.
"Symbolizing the absence of the young men by calling them to serve in the Mormon Battalion is historically inaccurate and is therefore inappropriate," says the church's Handcart Trek Reenactments: Guideline for Leaders. "The wearing of white clothing to represent deceased persons or angels ... is not to be included as part of treks."
The faith also has a safety and health webpage for treks, with a strong emphasis on the importance of hydration. An Arkansas woman died of heat-related injuries on a Mormon trek in Oklahoma earlier this year.
"The guidelines are revised regularly based on experience and need, including following incidents like in Oklahoma," church spokesman Eric Hawkins says. "In these guidelines, the church does not suggest or promote mob re-enactments, the building of temples, tar and feathering, and other historically inaccurate activities."
Sunny Ernst Smart says her Meridian, Idaho, stake planned to terrify the teens with a fake mob attack during a 2015 trek.
"They would be coming in early in the morning, rustling tents, yelling, verbally threatening people, running through with [unloaded] guns," Smart recalls. "Then people outside of camp at a safe distance would fire real weapons to further scare the kids."
When Smart complained that it would be disturbing to some campers, she says she was told to get over it and that it was an "inspired" decision handed down from the organizers.
"In a community where we often attribute intense emotion to the [Holy] Spirit," Smart says, "the need to continually up the spiritual wow factor for youth drives ideas like this."
Thankfully, she says, a member who is a cop was similarly "horrified" and put a stop to the plan.
Sans any surprise attacks, Smart's two teens — accompanied by her husband — went on the trek and loved it.
"You put kids in the woods, away from everything they know, and with people they love," she says, "and they'll have a great experience."
That, says historian Hangen, is precisely the point.