PIMA,AZ–Dressed in pioneer fashion and packed for a three-day hike through the desert, 220 youths and 60 adult leaders from Duncan, Pima, Fort Thomas, and Central began pulling large handcarts in the early morning of Thursday, March 21, from the Riverview Campground at Bonita Creek as part of the 2013 Pioneer Trek for the Duncan and Pima Stakes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Every four years the stakes sponsor the hand cart activity to help young people better understand the Mormon pioneer heritage and the personal sacrifices made by those crossing the Great Plains to reach the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-1800s. Once the original pioneers were established in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young sent more pioneer families to settle communities throughout the West, including several in the Gila Valley in the 1870s and 1880s.
The youths of this modern-day handcart company were divided into groups of eight and assigned to one of 30 handcarts. Each handcart formed a family with two adult leaders known as Ma and Pa, who organized the family and assigned chores and responsibilities for the three-day event. The biggest chore was pulling the large 350-pound wooden handcarts, each of which carried the family supplies on two five-foot diameter wagon wheels. The original pioneers sometimes had no means to purchase wagons and draft animals, so they built the economical handcarts and walked the entire 1,000-mile journey to Salt Lake City.
To appreciate such experiences, participants pulled the handcarts seven miles the first day, over rough terrain of gullies and canyons chosen specifically to enhance the difficulty. Near the end of the first day, the company came upon a canyon side with a precipice that could only be reached by pulling the handcarts through a half-mile of switchbacks. Before they began this ascent, leaders handed out cards to all of the men and young men of the company. Each card explained how that man or young man had died of some disease or accident — dysentery, gunshot, snake bite, and cholera among others — leaving the hand cart family without the physical strength of any males, which sometimes happened to the original pioneers.“It was amazing how we learned to help each other, I learned a lot about what the pioneers went through.”
The men and young men were then required to sit at the side of the trail and watch. They could not speak or help as the women and young women pulled the heavy carts up the steep incline, which became known as the “Women’s Pull.”.
“The Women’s Pull was the hardest thing I ever went through,” said Addison Heap a member of one of the handcart companies.
“It was amazing how we learned to help each other,” said Mattie Windsor, another company member. “I learned a lot about what the pioneers went through.”
Kelly Joe McCormies said the experience helped her realize that “When we face hard things in our lives, we can do it if we have faith and keep trying.”
One of the Ma’s of the company, Teleysha Smith, was actually six months pregnant. Because of her condition, Ma Smith’s group told her she was not allowed to touch the cart during the Women’s Pull or they would make her sit on the side of the trail with the men.
“It was so hard not to help push,” Ma Smith said. “I kicked rocks out of the way and walked alongside encouraging the girls. They were sweating and tired, but they were smiling and happy. When I couldn’t do more, they stepped up and did it themselves. I realized that our young women and young men will stand strong in their lives and know who they are.”“I realized that our young women and young men will stand strong in their lives and know who they are.”
The Pioneer Trek also included many fun activities like a stick-pull and tug-of-war competition, a three-legged race and a taffy pull. They had fiddlers and square dancing and singing. The youths experienced Dutch oven cooking, black powder rifle shooting, tomahawk throwing, and making apple fritters.
Some of the famous true pioneer stories involved crossing icy streams along the way. To simulate that experience, the leaders brought out a tub of ice water and told the youths that anyone who stood barefoot in the icy water would receive four Tootsie Rolls for every three minutes they endured. About half of the 220 youths tried it. Most could only last three minutes, some only ten seconds. Drake Hughes stayed in for 12 minutes and cashed in on 16 pieces of candy, a desirable commodity in such a wilderness. Then Jhett Judd stepped into the cold water and set the record by lasting over 20 minutes. After three days of roughing it on the trail, the modern pioneers returned on Saturday, March 23
“It was really hard,” said Beth Pursley, “but worth it. We could feel the spirit of the pioneers.”