VERNON - Powerful, relentless winds whipped petticoats, sent straw hats hurling into the brush and obliterated the shouts of members of the Hicken Handcart Company as each family strained to push the twowheeled cart and its large lump of belongings up a rutted, rocky hill.
The nasty gusts instantly dried sweat on dirt-smudged brows. Smashed bonnets sat askew on girls’ heads as they put their shoulders against each cart’s back end to thrust it over rocks.
"Shove! You’re doing great, kids," the "Ma’s and Pa’s" offered their "offspring" surrounding the steel-wheeled cart. Two stood in the yoke slot, pushing on a bar across the front, four on each side tugging on ropes, and three youths blindly shoving, for all their worth, on the back of the cart.
"The power within you is greater the task ahead of you — I read that on a Tshirt once," tall, lean Seth Richins, 16, told his "family" as he tugged at the front of the human wagon team, the rope wrapped around his waist. He chuckled, recognizing how appropriately the maxim fit the moment.
About 265 young people, most 14 to 18, joined by about 120 adults from the Gilbert Greenfield Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had come to the White Mountains of eastern Arizona to spend four days re-enacting the Mormon pioneer handcart treks across the Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Beginning in 1846, their Mormon ancestors carried out a modern "exodus" from their Mississippi River home of Nauvoo, Ill., about 1,300 miles to the Salt Lake Valley of Utah to re-establish their Zion.
For poor Mormon families, the sturdy handcarts were cheaper than oxen and covered wagons — and often moved faster. When the railroad reached Iowa City, Iowa, in 1856, Mormons from Europe and the East used that point to begin their treks in handcart groups to Salt Lake City. Some pioneers perished in snowy mountain passes.
Re-enactments have served as powerful teaching experiences for Mormons.
"This is the heritage of our church," said Aaron Bradshaw, first counselor in the stake presidency. "Most people have ancestors who participated in that. And whether they joined the church last year, it is still our heritage. I suppose, for the Jews, Moses’ exodus out of Egypt was the same thing."
In the 7,500-foot altitude of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests about 20 miles southeast of Show Low, the youths had their bodies, spirit and emotions tested in a grueling workout. It included pulling carts through the dark national forest until 11 p.m., camping in 50-degree open air and having to use the woods when nature called. Dressed in 19th-century frontier clothing, except for Nike shoes, they were asked to put their fastpaced 21st-century lives on hold and rough it from Wednesday to Saturday.
"It’s hard, but the feeling is just amazing once you get on to your goal," said Brittney Forsgren, 16, who said she was stumbling on the rocky trails, risking twisted ankles. "I feel so-o-o dirty. I just want to take a shower." Showers would have to wait until they got back to Gilbert.
Each carefully planned day was designed to instill teamwork, fortify church teachings and create as much authenticity as possible to the historic march.
A caravan of cars and vans initially delivered these new pioneers, after a four-hour drive from the Valley, to a mountain meadow where they were divided into three handcart companies, each named for the three men in stake’s leadership — president Robert Hicken, Bradshaw and second counselor Mike Isom. All the pioneers were then divided into one of 23 "families" who had to assemble their handcart.
While youths were given a restricted list of items to bring on the trek, the Ma’s took the girls in their families aside, and the Pa’s went with the boys, and carried out a shakedown, poring through duffel bags. Makeup, beef jerky, gum, toothpaste, mouthwash and flashlights were among items confiscated.
The new families then gathered their approximately 300 pounds of trappings, water jugs and food and packed them on the cart, tightly tying them down with a tarp.
Before a 14-member family in the Isom Handcart Company set out on the trail, the "father," Paul Whitlock, gathered everyone for a prayer: "Father in heaven, as we take off on this journey today, we pray that thou will bless us with safety and protection. We are so grateful for the opportunity to be together as a family and to have these experiences together. We are grateful, as well, for the pioneer heritage that we are part of through the sacrifices that they performed on our behalf, so that we could live in this beautiful part of the country and worship in the manner that we do . . ."
At dusk, three hours into the more than seven-mile, first-night trek, a man on horseback in 19th-century U.S. Cavalry garb ordered all males to abruptly leave the women and handcarts and follow him. In a meadow, the officer said he was ordered by the U.S. president (James K. Polk) to enlist them into the Army of the West. All were told to raise their right hands and take an oath.
They were reminded of how Mormon trekkers in 1846 were conscripted, with the consent of then-church president Brigham Young, to provide about 546 men for the newly declared war against Mexico. Paid about $7 per month, the soldiers would generate much-needed funds for the church.
After a short march, the boys sat down to hear a 45-minute talk by Hicken, who told them that the womenfolk were now pulling the carts up a hillside.
"Those sisters are going to face the hardest part of the trail alone," he said. "We are not going to be there to lend our strength, our support, our encouragement. Men of the Mormon Battalion left their wives and children, when some of them were sick and certainly without the means to protect themselves from the elements."
On the second day, after an onerous pull of handcarts over steep "Rock Ridge," the families arrived at base camp and spent an afternoon taking part in pioneer arts, such as taffypulling, primitive hair washing, pie -making, chicken plucking, pioneer toy-making and learning about black powder rifles. A traditional church "fireside" completed the day.
Friday was set up as "Pioneer Sunday," with traditional priesthood and Relief Society meetings and Sunday school. They then went through a "solo experience," in which they would go off on their own with journals and sealed letters from their parents to read. Through reading, writing and prayer, they were to digest the trek adventure and their unfolding faith.
On the last day, there were family meetings and a trek by handcart back to the starting point before driving back to Gilbert.
Isom said he hoped participants would "feel that selfsame spirit that accompanied the early pioneers . . . that at the end of this trek, we will be able to rejoice as a family."