Earlier this spring my wife and I were asked to meet with one of our regional religious leaders in his office. Once we were all seated he took a deep breath, looked us in our eyes, and asked us to be a “Ma and Pa” on the upcoming youth trek.
In our faith an ominous invite into a leaders office can mean many things and one is generally expected to accept whatever invitation is extended. This particular invitation was not one we anticipated and my wife’s face displayed the disdain she truly felt at the prospect.
He must have seen this as his hands came up in the universal, “now wait just a minute, take it easy”, pose. “Now this is not a calling. You are not under any religious obligation to accept. This is more like a favor.”
At this my wife visibly relaxed, and without a second thought sighed, “well that’s easy then. No.”
Now I am not completely opposed to saying no to my leaders. I have never done it, but in theory I know it can be possible, but in this instance, and any other for that matter, I thought we should at least give it some thought.
I put my hand on her leg, looked at the man across from us and explained that we, meaning my wife and me, should probably take a little time to consider the request and get back to him.
She looked at me as if I had just committed treason, cursed her mother, and passed gas.
Four months later the two of us were driving out to the Gettysburg area dressed in 19th century pioneer clothing, prepared to spend three days out under the stars getting in touch with our religious heritage. By prepared I simply mean we had arranged a sitter for our two small children, a feat that required importing my sister from the Carolinas. Proud of this accomplishment, as well as our conquering of our previous attitude, we had rested upon those laurels, assuming the two greatest hurdles had been crossed and the rest would be down hill.
I should probably back up and explain what this is all about.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded in upstate New York in 1830 . The church and its members were then forcibly moved to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally, with no where left to go, the desert that would become Utah. The first Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. Mormons from the east, and converts from Europe, continued to move there, throughout the 1850’s and 60’s.
My mother’s family was part of this exodus.
A woman named Louisa Kent Booth, the daughter of a Bengali woman and an English officer, learned of the church while in India, joined, and left her home, and life of luxury, to live with her new people in the American West. She was my great^5 grandmother.
Many of the pioneer immigrants were to poor to afford a wagon and team of oxen, so they purchased two wheeled hand-carts to carry their belongings, and walked across the plains.
Every summer thousands of Mormons reenact this journey with groups of their youth. This is what we had committed to do.
We began assembling in a large field. We, at this point, are the youth not only from the inner city of Philadelphia where my wife and I live, but the youth from the entire surrounding area. We don’t know them, they don’t know us, but my wife and I have a list and there is a “Trek Captain” who is informing the kids as to what family they will be a part of as they show up. Over a short period of time our family materializes, eight of them, the two of us, and we all stand there looking at each other. Now what? The looks on their faces, the “their” now includes my wife; appear to infer that I should have the answer. I did not.
This scenario will be repeated often throughout the next three days, but I am used to pretending to know things that I don’t, so I settled into this role quite quickly.
It was obvious that some of the youth possessed an attitude not unlike the one my wife initially displayed but with a healthy dose of youthful angst. Turns out a good cure for angst, a cure for a lot of things, is walking; a lot of walking. I knew we would be walking. I was ready for walking. I’m pretty good at walking. Walking is what I intended to do, especially since our original instruction package made clear that our job was to do as little as possible, allowing the children a more full experience. As little as possible; I am pretty good at doing as little as possible.
This was only to be a 20 mile trek over three days. My wife can burn through 20 miles at an outlet mall in 20 minutes and I pack enough calories above my belt to power me through twice that. We, again my wife and I, began in good spirits. Most of the kids just began.
Any time anything, that will be done over a duration, begins easily, one should be wary. I tried to convince our small team of teenagers of this as they began to show off their cart racing skills. They pranced and pulled along a relatively flat and shady trail, while I did my best to purport a “mosey”.
We learned a small lesson on the first hill that would haunt us for the rest of our journey. Hand carts, beautiful things that they are, will not move unless you exert some force upon them. Not only that, but on an incline, this devil contraption will actually go backwards unless you exert constant forward force upon it. Now bad enough as this is, once a summit is reached, a decline follows, and a handcart will attempt to drag you down to fiery depths unless you exert a constant force in reverse.
This may not be particularly revelatory. Anyone with bit of common sense would naturally know these things, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.
I guess that is kind of the point.
Most of the first day was simply tiring. That’s all. No enlightenment, no nirvana, nothing monumental in effort or affect. Note I said most.
As an adult leader I was somewhat informed of how events would unfold, the kids were not. At one point we were all gathered together, a long line of carts, a large group of youth and leaders, all taking a brief break. Someone was giving a short talk, the kind I listen to out of politeness, wishing I were less callous and more apt to be moved, but it was hot and such hopes were lost. I had been told that one part of the trail was too steep to pass with loaded carts. We would have to unload, carry the cargo by hand, pull the cart empty up the hill, and then reload at the summit to continue on our way. I could tell by the talk that this was that time.
We were all gathered at a curve in the road that had a 45 degree wall on one side, and a panoramic view of the valley on the other. I expected the uphill to be around the corner. I was wrong. I expected the youth would be able to do this without my physical help. I was wrong.
The young ladies began walking the gear up one side of this rock face, and the young men got to work on the wheeled contraption. We began with as much speed as we could, hoping a little momentum would carry us over the rock ledge that lined the hill about 15 feet up. After ramming and rolling our way up and over the rocks, I made the mistake of looking up and forward; the hill kept climbing. This ledge was the cruelest of false summits and thanks to gravity’s pull on the cart; we had no choice but to keep climbing.
And we did. Then we did some more. We went up, the boys and our empty cart, in the middle of a stream of haggard girls dragging sleeping bags and duffels through the tall grass and over rocks. Once we reached the top, my lungs and legs both burning, we regrouped. All together again, atop what had seamed like an endless hill, we re-packed and did our best to feel accomplished. I was well on my way to satisfaction, but no where near recovery, when I realized our 10 gallon water jug was still at the bottom, full of the water I desperately needed. My little assigned family was before me, tired, no, exhausted, and thirsty. The largest among them may have the lungs for it, but surely not the girth, so I started back down the hill to fetch one heavy pail of water.
Carrying that water up that hill was not only the hardest thing I did all week, but the hardest thing I have done in years. Somewhere near the top, I was unsure I was going to make it. No, I’m sure I would have made it that last 100 yards but it may have been the last thing I did, not only due to the sapping of all my energy, but I’m sure it would have taken the remaining two day to finish. Another man, one of the other “Paws”, with a look on his face as if he had just experienced death himself, came over to lend me a hand. He looked so tired in fact, that any sort of justice or irony that may have been drawn by this adult being the very same leader who extended the invitation to join this venture in the first place, was completely gone.
In 1846 Joseph Smith had already been murdered and the Mormons had been expelled forcibly from their homes. While they were walking in search of a location that would provide the protection the government had failed to give, that same government sent out a request for a battalion to be raised from the Mormons to help fight the Mexican war. Five hundred men answered the call, leaving their wives and children to push on without them.
In a strange homage to these hardy women, a section of our journey, a hill of course, was set aside as the women’s pull. The males were asked to step aside, not allowed to touch the cart or the girls. We were also asked to labor this leg in silence; no talking.
To a person, every one of the young men said the most memorable and meaningful moment of the trek was this women’s pull. The carts moved, or crept, upward. The boys found large rocks to wedge behind the wheels allowing the girls to take breaks without losing ground. The boys fanned the girls with their hats. The girls just pulled.
Before this whole venture started, back when we were gathering our crew for the first time, my wife and I were pulled aside and introduced to a young lady with a charming and ever present smile. This girl was to be placed in our charge but required special attention as she had some health issues that had her parents quite concerned. We were given extra hydration instructions for her and asked to mind that she not over do it. I expected the heat and environment to be this girl’s biggest challenge; in retrospect I can see that the real issue was this girl’s determination.
I began to get nervous when the progress of the cart became inversely proportionate to the effort the girls gave. It became obvious that this young lady would expire before she gave up. I thought she may well be on her way to doing just that and silently tugged on my wife’s dress. I motioned for her to trade places with this young lady, positioning her in the back to push as opposed to the key pulling position she presently possessed. This having been done, I watched my wife give a physical effort like none I have ever seen her give outside of childbirth. I watched this woman, a city girl, a city girl of the sort who refused to do anything that would inspire perspiration in gym class when young.
This city girl, sorry; woman, who would rather be anywhere else in the world than on this trail, was digging in and pulling with all the power her small frame could generate. Watching this, I believe I actually felt an emotion. I am usually in complete control of myself, and I did not lose control here, but watching these girls try to move this cart, especially as it became obvious that the cart would go no further, I was stirred within. It felt like watching the movie Rudy.
Our little crew struggled without result for quite some time before one of the organizing leaders gave me a silent nod. I grabbed the hand rail and heaved with all I had and the other boys quickly did the same. The cart virtually leapt up the rest of the hill.
That first night we ate vegetable broth and potatoes for dinner. Sitting around a Dutch oven eating, we talked about the days events, talked about each other, and about the purpose of all this. They had blisters on their hands and feet, one even had a nice gash from sandwiching himself between the cart and a rock, but what was more notable than the decoration on the extremities, was what was on their faces; they all wore smiles.
We slept under the stars, which I’m sure were beautiful, but I can’t say as I was unconscious from the moment I lay down on the hard ground.
Breakfast was cornmeal mash. We all looked at the horrible concoction in horror, then quickly ate every last bit of it.
On this second day we had to tie our carts to a rope and lower them down a steep hill. Once down, we were directed along a path lined with white stakes. Each stake represented a person who died doing what we were doing back in the late 1800’s. We were tired and the stakes looked to go on forever as they continued up over a ridge and around a corner. We did not die. We just pulled.
That evening we set up camp, enjoyed the best turkey I have ever prepared, and we danced. A live band complete with square dance caller set up shop and the entertainment began.
By entertainment I mean the observation of a large group of 14-18 year olds trying to navigate the gulf between the sexes. Country music may not be my scene, nor the Mrs., but she cannot pass up the chance to dance, and we did. In our group I watched a young lady, 15 I believe, swing arm in arm with a boy the same age.
She looked as if she had just stepped in something unpleasant and then told to go to detention. She was deflated and sluggish. I attributed it to a combination of the day’s efforts and general angst. Imagine my surprise when later that evening I looked over to see this same girl bounding, leaping, and… wait for it… SMILING! Had she not been wearing the same clothes I would not have recognized her. The music was the same, the setting was the same, the only difference was the boy. He looked just like the other one to me, but obviously not to her. Amazing.
My wife watched as two boys came upon a young lady who is by anyone’s standards, beautiful. The encounter came as she approached the outhouses. While waiting awkwardly outside for her turn to go in, one of the boys said something like, “you look like some kind of superhero.” She of course had no idea how to respond to this and just said “O.K.” and looked around nervously. This was not what he had hoped for. “He tried to make up for it with a clarification, “I mean you are sooooo, good looking.” He said it with a melodious “soooo”, at which his friend started laughing. Now she was being laughed at and understandably she began to ignore them. He saw that he had made a poor move and went into panic mode trying to fix it. “No I’m sorry. I was serious. I mean, you really are good looking.”
It was too late. He thought he would improve his chances by paying the girl a compliment and only succeeded in erasing any chance he may have ever had at having a chance. The beauty of the whole thing was that he made his move at the outhouse. Well done ole’ chap.
After the sun had set and our faux family was getting ready to pack it in, we found one of our “sons” loitering around a girl he had briefly attempted to date, but who now had a boyfriend. One who wasn’t him. I made a passing remark about it, which was of course defended with a, “We are just friends.” I could not help myself and launched into a long diatribe about the natures of male and female friendships and the general inability of males to make the proper investment in female company without the hopes, even if buried, of some sort of romantic payoff. I continued that if actually had romantic interest in this girl that he would serve his purpose better if he were to move on and just stay cordial with said girl, therefore avoiding the inescapable trap of the friend zone. This lecture is admittedly conjecture, or projection, not doctrine, but I have never had an audience more mesmerized. They hung on every word, asked follow up questions, and did pretty much the opposite of how 14-18 year olds respond to discussions of scripture. I had just endured 2 days of more physical strain than I had endured in years and these kids refused to sleep preferring to talk about dating. As we wrapped things up some small, freckled red-head who had materialized out of no where said, “Man, I wish you were my paw.” I patted him on the head and said, “You will think that till you are actually old enough to date.” and sent him back to his own camp.
The last day we had Sunday school. Pay no mind that it was actually Saturday. We dressed in what could be considered Sunday best for one who sleeps on the ground, and listened to leaders talk about history, appreciation, faith, and personal conviction. At the end a “Pony Express” rider came into camp with a satchel full of letters for the kids. These letters had been written by the parents of all the youth in advance. I took the stack marked for my group and began to hand them out. The kids took what looked like hand written novels where I’m sure Mom and Dad poured out their hearts to sons and daughters in hopes that some bit of encouragement, advice, or maybe wisdom, would reach the kid in a vulnerable moment and have some lasting affect. The kids were all sent out to find a place by themselves to read, think, and maybe write something of their own. I spent my alone time thinking about the boys from my home congregation who had to make due with letters from me as we were unable to obtain anything resembling a letter from the adults in their homes. I meant what I wrote to them, but who am I? I could be that cool Dad from the night before, I could be the perfect guy or even mentor. It doesn’t really matter because no one can really replace a Mom or Dad. Last night I was cool, that morning I felt lame.
We were told that we were basically done. We just had the technicality of a short, gentle, downhill to the finish line and we would be on our way home. That was one last cruel understatement, as we spent the next few hours giving everything we had to prevent a cart full of camping gear and clothing from running over a crowd of kids.
We were all excited to be done. We cheered, I’m sure someone cried, and we began to take apart our carts and say goodbye. It felt reminiscent of yearbook day in high school. We had a real fondness for each other, were unsure how to express it, and promised to keep in touch. I miss those kids. I enjoyed watching them as they took turns pushing and pulling without any direction from me. I enjoyed watching them struggle both physically and especially socially, all the while never drifting from what you would expect of a “good kid”. Mostly, my wife and I both enjoyed listening to them in the evenings as they gave answers to my questions about what this is all about.