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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Youth Trek pulls a loaded handcart through a sandy wash on its first day. Photo by Jim Headley


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.

One of the handcarts is loaded for the trek, which is organized every four years. Photo by Jim Headley

“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 historic trail is on Bureau of Land Management property. Photo by Jim Headley

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.”

For 13 years, Community of Hope has presented its Living Nativity program, even as the church changed locations to 45295 W. Honeycutt Ave. Three years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints next door began a traditional Creche display of scores of nativity sets from around the world.

This year, the two are joining forces to present a unique and spiritual reflection on the beginnings of Christianity. Both churches will have their programs Dec. 8 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Community of Hope Pastor Rusty Akers said both are come-and-go events, with his 14th annual living nativity cycling through several performances during the evening. Church members perform the roles in an outdoor set with narration from the New Testament.

“It’s become a Christmas tradition for many people,” Akers said. “If you’ve never been, we’d love to invite you out.”

Bishop Brian Hoffman said the Creche Festival had more than 100 nativity sets on display last year and he expects even more this year. Besides the United States, the sets come from Mexico, Israel, Europe, South America and elsewhere. The tour is self-guided and at your own pace.

“These are depictions from the life of Christ,” Hoffman said. “So, sit back and remember the purpose of the Christmas season.”

Both churches are on Honeycutt Avenue across from Maricopa High School. After visitors enjoy one program, they are invited to walk next door to experience the other. Both will have refreshments and children’s activities.

This story appears in the December issue of InMaricopa.

The stake center on Bowlin Road is one of three LDS church buildings in Maricopa.

Though not adding a congregation, the Maricopa Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been realigned.

Two wards out of the stake’s nine congregations were most dramatically affected by the change, with several families shifted into other wards. The wards have also been renamed.

Wards are congregations that average about 400 members.

Since the formation of the stake in 2007, there have been six wards and one Spanish-speaking branch (smaller congregation) in the city plus churches in Ajo and Gila Bend. The wards were numbered First, Second, Third and so on. Now they will have place names such as Pacana Park Ward and Maricopa Wells Ward.

Eric Goettl, first counselor in the Stake Presidency, announced the change in ward boundaries and names at a special meeting Sunday night.

“Reach out and get to know your new ward members,” Goettl said. “We know it’s the right thing to do for the stake.”

Men and women who serve in positions in the wards they are leaving because of the shift are considered to be released from those responsibilities.

Stake President Malin Lewis said the presidency had mulled over creating an eighth ward for years but still did not feel it was the time. The decision to realign, he said, came through “revelation and inspiration and will be a blessing to this stake.”

The LDS church has three meeting houses in Maricopa. Two wards and the Spanish-speaking branch meet in a building on Honeycutt Avenue across from Maricopa High School. The wards are now called the Maricopa Wells Ward and Hidden Valley Ward, and the branch is the Maricopa Branch.

The newly named El Dorado Ward and Butterfield Ward meet in the Homestead building on Horton Drive. Pacana Park Ward and Santa Cruz Ward meet at the stake center on Bowlin Road.

The Maricopa Wells Ward covers the largest geographic area, straddling State Route 347 and running from Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway south to Interstate 8. Taking in the biggest housing developments, El Dorado, Butterfield and Pacana Park wards are much more densely populated.

El Dorado Ward, which had comprised Rancho El Dorado and the Lakes at Rancho El Dorado, will add about half of Homestead. Butterfield Ward will contain the Villages at Rancho El Dorado and part of Senita. Pacana Park Ward contains Province and part of Senita.

Ward by ward, members at the Sunday meeting were asked to support the decision. Though some members had questions about the fate of some planned events, no one voted in opposition to the move.

“We hope in these efforts that we will bless every family in our stake,” Lewis said.