For youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, going on a Mormon Pioneer Trek experience is an opportunity not to be missed. Youth from all over the United States travel to the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center in Martin’s Cove, Wyoming for several days of camping, pulling heavily-laden handcarts while wearing pioneer clothing and getting first-hand experience about the difficult journey many of their ancestors made while crossing the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. Recently, however, youth and adults in the Glendive Stake (comparable to a diocese or district, in this case, covering all of eastern Montana and the Watford City area of North Dakota) recreated this event on a ranch near Baker.
Three years ago, in May of 2018, about 200 youth and their leaders from throughout eastern Montana made the trip to the Wyoming Visitors Center. The trip was a huge success and Glendive Stake President Jerry Parker of Fairview wanted to try recreating the experience closer to home so there was less travel time and expense and more ability to set their own schedule and plan their own activities. He also hoped that other youth groups throughout Montana and North Dakota could utilize the handcarts and ranch to have a similar experience without going all the way to Wyoming.
With the help of a large committee of youth and adults, planning began in 2019 for a 2020 trek. After several months of working on the event it was canceled, like just about every other activity due to Covid-19. Even so, everyone was determined to make it happen in 2021.
Angie Hopes of Fairview and Sterling Beck of Glasgow were the adult youth leaders responsible for heading up the event. There was a lot to prepare for.
The first and maybe most important task was to purchase and build the handcarts. The 60-pound wooden handcarts were designed in 1856 so that pioneers could push or pull them. They consisted of a box about the size of a small bed on a modern pickup truck. Each had two five-foot diameter wheels connected to an axle. Pull shafts seven-feet long were connected to each side of the bed and to a crossbar. A source for the carts was an Amish business located in Minnesota. Fifteen carts were purchased and came in kits that had to be built, stained, and have the bearings packed before they could be used. The project took almost a year with help from many people.
A second important task was to find a place to host the trek. Dean Wang of Baker volunteered his ranch to be the site of the event. Hopes and Sterling, along with their youth committee, spent time at the ranch mapping out the daily trekking routes where the youth would pull their handcarts, setting up camp locations and figuring out logistics.
When asked after the 2018 trek many of the youth who had gone to Wyoming expressed that they wanted to have a more physically challenging experience so Hopes and Beck set out to make that happen. The trails at the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center are paved and there were no trails at the Wang ranch.
Several activities were held prior to the Trek to finish the handcarts and clear areas for camping and walking. Committees were established for food, clothing, music, activities, medical and logistics. The youth accepted and fulfilled the assignments and had a major role in the success of the event.
Part of the preparation involved dividing everyone into “families.” Married couples were asked to be “Ma’s and Pa’s” and seven-to-eight young men and women were assigned as “children” to each couple. Each family group pulled their own handcart and everyone was allowed one five-gallon bucket to serve as storage for clothing and personal items and seating when not on the
trail. Youth and adults alike dressed in pioneer clothing — long skirts and bonnets for the women, while the men wore long-sleeved buttoned shirts and wide-brimmed hats.
Three separate trails around the ranch were created for pulling the handcarts, one for each day. The first day was a three-mile loop that included the traditional “women’s pull.” The majority of the pioneers who died during the handcart crossings were men because they would work all day and then give most of their limited food to their family. Consequently, many pioneer families were left fatherless, with the women shouldering all of the responsibility for their families’ welfare on the journey west. During the “women’s pull” all the male trek participants walked away leaving the women to pull their handcarts alone up a steep hill. The men then took
off their hats and silently watched the women pass by. Brailey Anderson and Kallie Hopes of Sidney, both 15, commented they thought the women’s pull was the hardest part of the trek.
Day two was the longest day. It involved an eight-mile loop around the ranch. Rest stops included activities and snacks. Ryan Karren of Sidney did a reenactment of Ephraim Hanks, one of the young men sent to rescue the Martin Handcart Company, caught in an early winter blizzard on the Wyoming plains. Square dancing finished off the day.
Four miles of hills comprised day three including a “Rocky Ridge” very steep slope. Rocky Ridge is a steep, stony part of the Oregon Trail that was difficult for all emigrants but especially for the Mormon handcart pioneers pulling handcarts through the Wyoming snow in 1856. Many handcart pioneers died during this time.
To reenact this event some members of the trek were randomly pulled off the trail and later met the trekkers dressed in white to depict those who had died on the trail. Journal entries from survivors wrote that when they could no longer push or pull their handcarts they felt their cart being pushed and would look back but see no one and know angels were helping them.
Hopes said this part of the trek changed the youth’s perspective about what was hard and there was no complaining that day. Quite a few of the youth thought Rocky Ridge was the best part of the Trek experience. Also, 14-year-old Jackalynn Hinck of Sidney added, “Everyone pulled together to make the load lighter.”
This Trek was definitely a more physically challenging experience than the Wyoming trek. Sydney Hinck, 16, Sidney said, “There were no paved roads, just the plains and bluffs. It was very spiritual and it made me even more grateful for what my ancestors did. It was way harder this time around but that’s what made me like it more.”
When asked about what they learned from this experience many of the youth had a similar answer, “I can do hard things!” Abbigael Batty added, “I learned that I can do what I put my mind to when I have faith.”
President Parker’s vision is coming to fruition. The Minot Stake will be using the Wang Ranch and the handcarts built by the Glendive Stake for a Trek experience in 2022. Hopefully, they will be the first of many.