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Desert Trek, On the Road-Video/Slideshow
Posting Date: 06/19/2012

By Barbara Ellestad

[Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part is available through this story link: Desert Trek, Welcome Home - Video/Slideshow]

When I was invited to travel up into the mountains south of Mesquite to do a story last week, I jumped at the chance. The Mesquite Nevada Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) was sponsoring a four day, three night, trek through the desert and mountains for kids ages 14 to 18.

In the days when we complain about kids spending too much time in front of the television or computer, never enjoying the outside daylight, I wanted to see for myself what this was all about. Besides, it was a great opportunity to see a part of the south mountains that had always enticed me since I’ve lived here.

Kraig Hafen, First Counselor of the Mesquite Nevada Stake and one of the organizers of the event, picked me up Thursday night and we drove up through the desert until we couldn’t go any further in the truck. We switched to a four-wheeler and continued the trip through some pretty rugged country. At one point, I looked back over the valley and Flat Top Mesa. It’s the first time I’d ever seen the top of it.

Once we got as high as one could go, about 9,000 feet in elevation, we switched to horseback and began riding down a dirt road towards a line of kids and adults pulling handcarts through the mountainous arid desert. What I saw lined out in front of me was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.

About 160 kids and 45 adults were dressed in pioneer garb, girls and women in long dresses, boys and men in long pants and long sleeved shirts. The women wore bonnets and the men wore old-fashioned straw hats. No blue jeans, no shorts, no tank tops.

It was late in the day when we got to the line of 19 handcarts laden with supplies and all the worldly possessions these people were allowed to have for the four days. As you’ll find out in a moment, that wasn’t much.

Each cart was pulled or pushed by a “family” that was carved out of the people who were there to relive their ancestors’ heritage and to challenge themselves to an ordeal that few of us could withstand.

Hafen explained that each family had a “Ma” and a “Pa” and about seven or eight kids. No one related to another in real life could be assigned to the same family. The idea was that the kids would have to learn to get along with people they may never have known otherwise and to work together to accomplish their goals.

Those are pretty good life lessons. And to think that some corporate-types pay big money to learn those important messages and these kids were voluntarily absorbing them as they sweated it out on the trail.

Along the line that seemingly stretched for a mile or more, some families had stopped to rest, waiting for the others to catch up. The kids were lying on the ground seeking what little shade the carts offered from the late day sun. Some of the older boys and men were walking back to groups behind them to help push the carts up the steep grades.

These kids looked exhausted. And well they should. They started out Wednesday morning from Juanita Springs, a little palm tree-laden oasis near the Virgin River, just off Riverside Road. As Kenyon Leavitt explained to me later in the evening, the handcart train had pushed and pulled its way up a sandy wash the first day, “all up hill for about eight miles. It was a pretty tough first day but the kids did really well.”

Leavitt, and his wife Marianne, were the head honchos of the trek, the main coordinators. And there were so many other adults who were using vacation time from their jobs to join the train and help the kids catch a glimpse of what it took to leave the comforts of home and walk out West, seeking a new life in the pioneer days. Some of the men that I was used to seeing in their official capacities wearing suits and ties were now sporting two or three day old beards and looking pretty dusty, dirty and tired.

It was the end of Day Two on the Trek and the group had traveled eight miles in about twelve hours that day. While the first day was all uphill, Leavitt explained that the second day was “a lot of up and down.” And indeed, the small part of the trail that Hafen and I rode was all up and down with very steep grades. “It’s almost as hard going down as it is going up,” Hafen remarked. “The only thing they have to stop them going down these steep grades are the kids in the back digging in with their feet.”

Each cart was packed with white five-gallon buckets, sleeping bags and a shovel. Hafen explained to me, as Leavitt did later, that each child was allowed to bring one change of clothing, a couple of other small items, and a toothbrush. No cell phones, iPods, iPads,

computers, or other electronic devices were allowed. Each kid went through a “shake down” the first day to ensure they were only bringing what they were allowed. Everything they owned was stuffed in the bucket. They were also given a sleeping bag but “no pillows,” Hafen said.

No pillow? That would kill me. “Their ancestors didn’t have pillows, so we don’t allow them on this trip,” Hafen said.

Local physician, Dr. Lonnie Empey, was along for the walk, but like us making the trek on horseback. As Hafen and I rode our horses along the cart line, he was off on the trail side administering an IV to one of the children who had become dehydrated. Another man was treating blisters on the bottom of the feet of one of the walkers. Later, one of the girls told me that she was sick for the first two days. “But they told me not to give up because we would all help each other through. I made it to the end,” she said.

I asked Hafen the inevitable question about toilet facilities. Eventually I saw the answer as a truck pulled a trailer laden with porta-potties behind the cart line. Pioneer-potties, yes. Nice hot or cold showers, not so much.

There were several other support vehicles following the group but mostly they remained in the background. Some of the adult leaders used walkie-talkies to communicate and coordinate with each other on the logistics of moving over 200 people through the desert and the mountains but for the most part, the re-enactment was as authentic as you could get.

Well, except for the propane-powered cooktops each family used at suppertime.

As the carts pulled into the encampment area for the night, each family member immediately set about with their chores. Several laid out the blue nylon tarps on the ground that would serve as the “soft, fluffy bed” for the night. Others went to the “camp cook” to get their food supplies for the evening’s meal.

Rather than chance trouble with real fires getting out of hand, and remember there’s not a lot of firewood in the desert, the groups used small, five gallon propane tanks to heat their evening meals. But the kids had to do all the work.

Hafen told me that the first night out “the kids got a bowl of broth and a hard roll.”

“That’s it? That’s all you gave these poor kids after walking eight miles uphill for twelve hours? Why did you do that,” I asked quite indignantly.

“Because, when their ancestors came out West, that’s all some of them got for a meal,” Hafen explained. “We wanted them to see what that felt like.”

“Oh,” was all I could say.

I walked among the groups and talked to some of the kids, asking them about their experience. One eighteen-year old girl said it was the second time she had done this excursion and she loved it. Another young girl, looking dazed from exhaustion, said she learned things about herself that she didn’t know, mostly that she now felt that she could do “anything I need to do.”

One young boy said he missed his cell phone the first day, but the second day it didn’t mean that much to him. Another young man said he learned that “the Lord will help me conquer anything.”

And that was the second side of this trek. Because the trip was organized by the LDS Church, it stands to reason religion played a large part of the kids’ experience. Some of the kids talked about the spirituality they experienced in the four days and others spoke about feeling as though their ancestors “were right there with me all along the way.”

Even though I’m not a member of the Mormon faith, I too could feel the spirituality of the experience and understand how this kind of adventure could deepen one’s faith. Hafen mentioned that some of the kids did not belong to the Mormon Church but came along for the experience. “We welcomed all of the kids that wanted to do this,” he said.

The families were enjoying an evening meal of beef stew, rolls and butter, and gingerbread cookies. Interestingly, each family was making its own butter by shaking a small jar of heavy cream. As I visited with one family there was definitely a mixture of exhaustion, awe, satisfaction, and the realization they had another 16 miles and two more days before they could delve into that cheeseburger, soak in a hot bathtub, and catch up on their sleep.

As we came down out of the mountains Thursday night, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the next group of young people who want to re-enact their ancestors’ trek through the desert and mountains may not be able to.

The LDS Church puts on this adventure about every four years. What happens to future excursions if the Gold Butte National Conservation Area with Wilderness proposal becomes law? It would be almost impossible to support this kind of adventure logistically without the use of vehicles bringing in additional supplies, especially the pioneer-potties. How sad would it be to deny the children a chance to re-live their heritage?

Like Leavitt explained “some of these kids have never been up here before, have never been out of Mesquite or Bunkerville. They have never seen what’s up here.”

That would be a tragic loss.


  • Posted Date: 06/19/2012
    Wow, what a great story! Barbara did such a great job capturing the essence of a trek, it felt like I was there with this group. What a great accomplishment for the youth and adults alike! Not many people in this day and age can say that they have gone through such a challenging experience and have such a positive attitude in the trials. Congratulations to you all!
    By: Mike
  • Posted Date: 06/19/2012
    Barbara, I'm glad you were able to come up and see the trek we were on. Your story is wonderful and really captures the purpose and spirit of trek. Thank you!
    By: Mindee
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