Social media in Utah has been inundated with pictures of eager and cheery teenagers garbed in pioneer attire and side braids. Simulated pioneer treks are in full swing. I realize that many people think such activities are quirks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that just can’t be squared with modern day realities. And they might be right.
But the number of people, youth and adults alike, who come back from these treks with positive experiences of grit and determination, sacrifice, gratitude, and maybe just a little empathy, is too large to ignore.
The emphasis on the church’s handcart history, though, is a bit overblown. History teacher Quinn Rollins tweeted that “less than 5% of pioneers from 1847-1869 came by handcarts.” In fact, the 3,000 handcarts available for youth treks are more than the total number of handcarts used by early church members.
But it is still part of our history.
Fake babies and trailside gravesites aside, the experiential learning can’t be easily dismissed.
Except for the “Women’s Pull.” Let’s dismiss the women’s pull.
One of the most controversial aspects of these pioneer treks is the women’s pull, wherein the young men are taken elsewhere, to simulate the early pioneer men leaving the journey west to join the Mormon Battalion, while the women continue on.
As if women continuing on is some miraculous feat.
During the women’s pull, the young women are left to pull and push the handcarts, usually up a hill, by themselves. The young men are directed to stand at the top of the hill and watch the young women labor with the heavy handcarts by themselves.
Presumably, the young men are supposed to be overcome with emotion that they can’t rush in to help and must watch the sisters struggle on their own. And many boys do end up crying for their sisters’ pain, which is noteworthy.
But what is the purpose of this manufactured emotion? What are we teaching?
Maybe we can start to couch this experience in different terms. Maybe the boys should watch as the girls accomplish what they could accomplish themselves, and not be told this is some miraculous feat.
Maybe the boys should be told that the experience isn’t so different than everyday life – that life will inevitably leave them in a place where they will abandon those they love, as well as be abandoned in turn.
Maybe the boys should be encouraged to see their sisters as able and strong, instead of as weak and needing help.
I recently read about a different approach. Instead of the boys standing at the top watching the girls struggle, this group would come in at the start of the long, last, uphill climb from seemingly out of nowhere, and they would all push together.
What was once hard became easy. What was once heavy became light.
Isn’t this how we’re supposed to support each other?
What about keeping the genders together, and not separating the “strong” from the “weak,” and making it an individual experience about achievement and work and unknown strength?
At the crossing of the Sweetwater River, one pioneer man exclaimed,
“ ‘Have we got to go across there?’ On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. That was the last straw. His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, ‘O Dear? I can’t go through that,’ and burst into tears. His wife, who was by his side, had the stouter heart of the two at that juncture, and she said soothingly, ‘Don’t cry, Jimmy. I’ll pull the handcart for you’.”
We all have a juncture where we need help. We will all have our personal treks across desolate prairies. Our youth will face their own.
The idea that women aren’t capable, or that men need a special object lesson to see that we’re capable, is outdated. Men and women are mired in their own difficult, singular, struggle every single day. We all need help. There’s no shame in it. And it’s not gendered.
Blisters and sunburns and sore muscles may be enough to teach our kids to be grateful and to work hard. They may not. But there’s no reason to manufacture a false emotional drama that instills wrong beliefs and engenders old stereotypes.
Our kids face enough drama in their day-to-day lives. Let’s be a source of refuge and peace for them for the struggles they face.
All of them.
Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune