This week about 180 Maricopa 14- to 18-year-olds are re-creating the handcart trek of western pioneers across the country.
The re-creation, called a Youth Trek, is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The teens are hauling handcarts 17 miles over three days as a connection to history and their forefathers.
Katelyn Dayley, one of the participants in the trek, said at Christmas Camp, “Right now we just loaded all our gear onto the wagon. It took a little bit of work just to get the tarp over everything. We got our boxes of food for our lunch. We’re getting ready to go on the trail.”
Those participating in the trek are from the Maricopa Stake, which compromises seven units in Maricopa as well as two from Ajo and Gila Bend.
Youth Treks have been done for many years in various locations along the original “Mormon Trail,” from Iowa to Salt Lake City, as well as other locations convenient to the participants.
The Maricopa Stake Youth Trek is particularly unique because it follows a portion of a trail taken through this area by the Mormon Battalion, a group of 500 LDS men recruited by the United States in 1846 to leave their refugee families in Iowa and walk to Mexico as a military resource during the Mexican War.
The group went on to California, on the way spending the Christmas of 1846 encamped west of modern-day Maricopa, in a campground now called Christmas Camp. Using portions of native trails, the route had been established by the excursion of Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775-76. John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company later used the trail for its stagecoaches before the Civil War.
“We get together every four years and have this handcart trek,” said N. Emery Layton, high councilor and 2018 Maricopa Stake Trek director. “We help these kids have the opportunity to get out in the desert and do some hard things. Most stakes will do this in our church in the summertime. We choose to do it in the wintertime because of the historical significance of this location.”
Layton said in 1846 his great-great-great-grandfather was one of the Mormon Battalion who camped at Christmas Camp.
He said the trek selected the Christmas timeline due to the historical significance of their ancestors that not only traveled west during the 1846-47 expedition but chose to do such on the historical Anza trail. The Mormon Battalion camped Christmas Eve in “Maricopa Village,” a location just west of Maricopa, off the 238 about halfway to Gila Bend (about three miles west of 99th Avenue and two miles north of State Route 238).
“It was a place they were coming through and they stopped here for a couple days. They cut buttons off their clothes to trade with the Indians, so they could get food, beans and things. As they travelled all the way across the West, [his ancestor] was one of them who dug wells and did things for future pioneers,” Layton said.
The trek takes place on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land known as the Sonoran Desert National Monument. The BLM issued the group a special use permit to have the event.
“It is a good time,” Layton said. “Let them get out here and walk the trail. Let them hit their knees on a rock and things like that. Experience the fact that life has bumps just like this trail does. They can look back and say, ‘Hey you know, I can do hard things.’ It’s not going to be easy.”
The goal of the event is spiritual growth.
“We’ve asked them to think about what their role is and why are they here. It is something that will help them build their love for Jesus Christ and the ability that they have to share with other people and to be an outstanding citizen within our country,” Layton said.
While the event is clearly a huge learning experience for the young men and women participating in it, “it is for us, too. We’ve all had a part in this. I’ve never directed it. This is my first time,” Layton said.
During the program, participants learn about camping, wilderness survival, first aid and how to pack the carts.
“It is a self-reflection type journey. They push themselves and learn they can do something hard that you are being asked to do,” Layton said.
Cody Wilson, a parent of some of the participants in the Youth Trek, said, “It is a time that we have to get together a group of kids and experience some of the activities that took place 100 years ago when the pioneers were coming through this area.”
Wilson added his wife’s great-grandfather and great-uncle were part of the Mormon Battalion that came through the area in 1846.
“For my kids, it is a good experience. I’m just helping a little,” Wilson said. “After it’s over, I hope it means a lot more. They’re just getting started. I think they are a little intimidated and probably a little tired. Once they get going, I think it will take on meaning for them.”
By the time they reached Christmas Camp the first day, Dayley and her group had traveled 3.5 of the 17 miles on the course.
“It wasn’t too bad,” she said. “It will be fun with everyone working together. We have six people pulling. I’m looking forward to lunch – always – and dinner – and breakfast tomorrow.”