It was 165 years ago that Brigham Young led the first company of Mormon Pioneers on an arduous, perilous trek across the Great Plains and into the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
But to Jess and Nell Adams, of Dallas, the experience felt very real and recent.
They, with 139 other teens from congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Eastern Pennsylvania, put aside the conveniences of modern living and stepped back in time for a physically taxing but spiritually enriching local re-enactment of the great pioneer trek of 1847 in the Michaux Forest at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
The young people assembled at a youth camp owned by the church adjacent to the forest and each was assigned to a pioneer "family" – an adult "ma" and "pa" and 11 to 14 young men and women, ages 14 to 18. Replicating the experience of companies of 19th-century handcart pioneers who lacked the advantage of ox-drawn covered wagons, they packed their belongings into wooden handcarts designed after those pushed, pulled and persuaded across rivers, over the plains and up the mountains by their forebears and set out on their shorter route.
As a society, "we are very tech centered," observed Jess Adams, 18, a 2012 graduate of Dallas High School who begins his freshman year at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, this month. "The Trek experience made me realize that, although we don't have to live like the pioneers did, we can pull ourselves away from the world and realize what's important."
The first day the modern pioneers covered 12 miles of terrain selected by the activity's organizers to mimic the challenges faced by their predecessors. Each trekker's food ration for that rigorous march was one apple and one biscuit, with a dinner of beef bouillon and a roll awaiting them at the end of the day. Arising early the next morning, they breakfasted on mush and hit the trail again. While food was sparse, water was readily available and, with temperatures reaching as high as 98 degrees, the trekkers downed 500 gallons of it over the three-day event.
To give the participants an appreciation for the sacrifice and ordeal experienced by some of the female pioneers who made the original trek alone or with young children and without a husband, father or other adult male, one particularly challenging part of the route was reserved for the "women's pull." The young men in the company were required to step aside, offering encouragement but no physical assistance, as the young women strained to push and pull the carts to the apex of a steep hill.
"It opened my eyes to what women had to go through back then and just how strong and self-sufficient women can be," Jess explained.
Like the original handcart pioneers, the trekkers found themselves exposed to the vagaries of nature. A tornado warning and approaching 70-mph winds led to a change in course, a shared experience of prayer and a renewal of faith as the storm bypassed the group.
The second day's march ended at mid-day and the trekkers found a menu of activities awaiting them that exposed them to the practicalities and pleasures of pioneer life. They participated in pioneer games and square dancing, washed their hair with old-fashioned bar soap, made candles by a creek, shot cotton balls from period musket firearms and cooked dinner in Dutch ovens.
The final day brought a two-hour hike with the handcarts back to the starting point where cheering parents gave the weary modern pioneers a renewed burst of energy as they completed their trek. A barbeque brought the activity to a close.
Nell Adams, 16, Jess' sister and also a student at Dallas High School, spoke of the new perspective she gained from the experience. "It's not just about dressing up in funny clothes and going out to pull handcarts," she said. "We didn't do it just because we were made to but because we wanted to see what it was like. We had fun even though we were hurting the whole time. The best part was being away from the world and actually experiencing for myself what the pioneers went through rather than just hearing about it."
Ninety-two of the teen trekkers came from the nine congregations that constitute the Scranton Pennsylvania Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and 49 from the Williamsport Pennsylvania Stake's seven congregations. In addition to the Adams siblings, participants from the Wilkes-Barre Ward, which meets in the Latter-day Saints chapel on Manor Drive in Trucksville, included Connor Jones from Dallas, Casey Bartoli from Exeter, Amy Alder and Theresa Mitten from Harding, Virgina Myrkalo from Inkerman, Wake Schepman from Hunlock Creek, Brian Schappert and Sean Webb from Kingston, Nicholas and Samantha Kohlert from Mountaintop, Sarah Scherer from Shavertown and Katy Dymond from Wyoming.