Winchester Virginia Stake survives unprecedented handcart trek

On Aug. 17, 2011, I sat in the first meeting to plan an annual youth conference for the Winchester Virginia Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was planned to be a pioneer “trek” similar to many others organized around the country.

At that meeting, and at many others that followed over the course of 11 months, our fantastic committee thought it was simply planning an event that would re-create some of the unique trials and circumstances faced by 19th century Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains by handcart in pursuit of physical safety and religious freedom. But when the trek moved from the conference room to the trail, we learned it would be more realistic than we ever imagined.

We also learned that treks aren’t really about earthly destinations, they’re about getting to our celestial home.

On the morning of Thursday, July 18, on a ranch near Hume, Va., approximately 100 youths were divided into 10 families, each led by a “Ma” and “Pa,” and set off to wilderness camp. The sun was stiff but bearable. Temperatures were warm but manageable.

Hours later, neither was true.

After a pit stop at Western Town to buy supplies from the Trading Post and to view pioneer vignettes, the company lined up and returned to the trail completely unaware of what awaited. Soon the temperature would spike near 100 degrees and, combined with humidity, the air would feel like 110.

Calls for help began to ring out on radios used by the trail boss, the magnificent Michael Davis of Front Royal, Va., and others of us on the support team. First a simple sprained ankle, then heat stroke, then a heavy handcart rolling over a foot.

We rushed to the trail to find the company stalled atop a mountain, exposed in the sun with little shade available and in desperate need of help. They weren’t actors reading lines or following a director’s instructions. They were playing themselves in the greatest test most of them had ever faced.

If I live as long as Methuselah, I will not forget navigating my way through thick weeds and between handcarts and finding my daughter and her trek family lying on the ground under their cart and tarp to escape the unforgiving sun.

Meanwhile, a young man vomited three times on the side of the trail and refused to be transported away. Other young men carried family members to the shade and raced for water bottles and refills. One Pa found a young man passed out in the grass, and all families were ordered to conduct an immediate accounting. Families gathered and knelt in weeds higher than their heads and prayed for relief.

Adult sisters quickly established an infirmary off the mountain and provided food, water and shelter under canopies. EMTs also administered care and monitored the sick and afflicted. Many also received more valuable care by way of priesthood blessings.

When the temperature dropped and fresh water had been delivered to the trail, the company insisted on pressing forward, and with a revised schedule, the trekers made their way to the safety of camp.

However, when the sun set, flash-flood warnings arose. After a dinner of stew and bread and a short hoedown, heavy rain and lightning chased families back to their tarp shelters. Again they sang, prayed and braced themselves for a long night of storms. When morning broke, we learned that many had slept in puddles.

Friday brought cooler temperatures and a shorter trail but very tough terrain. In the afternoon, families enjoyed a long break with archery, a hatchet-throw, stilts, a stick pull and other games.

Rain returned after dinner, and families hunkered down for another soaking. Saturday morning brought more impromptu changes to the schedule, the menu and a rash of bee stings and tears from some who wondered whether they could trek the final stretch home.

They did.

In the early afternoon, the entire company – every single person who began the trek – crossed the final rolling field to the finish. Many had required assistance, two needed overnight care at a nearby private home, but not a single youth or adult went home early.

Watching each of the 10 families arrive was one of the sweetest moments of my life. Each handcart supplied me with blurred vision and a fresh supply of tears. Most standing near me fought tears, too.

Exhausted and hungry, families dismantled and cleaned handcarts before eating a late lunch and sharing their testimonies in one of the most powerful meetings I’ve ever witnessed.

When the meeting ended in a stuffy goat barn, families paraded up one last hill to greet their other families on the other side. Mothers, fathers and siblings had worried and prayed like never before over their little ones.

As trek families shared goodbyes, several Ma’s looked me in the eye and said the experience had been the most physically demanding of their life, more difficult than childbirth. Men said the trail had nearly broken them.

But none would take it back. I heard not a single regret about anything other than having to bid farewell to the youths they’d fallen in love with.

I enjoyed being one of the last to leave the property. A friend and I made a final pass and remarked on all we’d seen and felt. We’d been changed, not by circumstances, but by people.

Today, still tired and reminiscing almost constantly on the adventure, I wonder what the youths will remember about those three days many years from now. Will they lament not having a cellphone, shower and wearing long sleeves? Will they think of a fiery afternoon on a hill that created saints and soldiers?

I think not.

I believe they will remember that the trail each day is often much more difficult than we expect. The rocks are bigger and the slopes so much steeper. Children perish before parents, jobs disappear, homes are taken in foreclosure and evil men murder the innocent and faithful.

But with the love and support of a family, we can one day walk the final hill toward our celestial home. I know that if we are faithful on our own trek, we will find a loving Father in Heaven and our brother, Jesus Christ, waiting for us with open arms from the trail.

May we leave no one behind.

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