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Hands-On History Via Handcarts

Youth from the Annandale area walk for three days to remember the migration of their Mormon ancestors.

Over 150 years ago, Mormon pioneers trekked across miles of unknown plains, facing dust storms, temperature extremes, muddy rivers, thunder and lightning, contaminated water, poisonous plants, sickness, and in many cases, death. From July 5-7, 140 teen-agers from Northern Virginia faced the same experience — minus the sickness and death, of course.

Every four years, the Annandale Virginia Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints participates in a trek designed to simulate the journey of Mormon immigrants of the mid-1800s. This expedition took place at the Marriott Ranch in Fairfield, Va. and extended approximately 10 miles. To make the trek more authentic, participants carried their belongings in handcarts similar to the ones used by Mormons who did not have either horses or oxen.

"We tried replicating the hardships, both physical and spiritual so [the youth] would appreciate the sacrifices made by their ancestors so many years ago," said Charles McClelland, counselor of the Annandale stake. In addition to manually carrying wooden carts that weighed more than 100 pounds, youth participants also cooked their own food and built their own fires. They even made their own clothing true to the time period.

Because of the strenuous nature of the activity, all participants were required to undergo a physical exam and gain approval by a doctor before the day of the trek. "Last year, three or four people became dehydrated and needed IV’s," said McClelland. "But we were extremely health- and safety-conscious and learned from our past mistakes."

OTHER DANGERS that trail leaders were concerned about included dust and pollen allergies, poisonous plants, heat exhaustion and dangerous wildlife. To ensure the safety of all participants on the trail, communication with a base camp was available where a nurse and doctor were on standby in case of emergency. However, safety was not the only consideration in planning the exodus.

Joe Denker, 16, a member of the planning committee and also one of the youth participants, explained the extensive preparation undergone by both the teen and adult members. "We practiced making food and made our own clothes," Joe said. "We tried to get a feel for what it’d be like to be an actual pioneer."

Adults leading the groups also went through an orientation, learning the basics of fire building and Dutch oven cooking. Adults were then paired into "Ma’s" and "Pa’s" who were responsible for their respective "families" consisting of 14 to 15 teen-agers. These groups were chosen at random in an attempt to create a "unique family unit," said McClelland. Together, members of the family pulled one handcart carrying the belongings of everyone in the group.

Amber Barraclough, 18, remembers what was allowed on the trek. "We knew we had to carry everything we brought and everything everyone else brought, so we were only allowed to bring the bare minimum. Boys got their razors taken away, girls got their deodorant taken. Extra food like candy was taken away too."

Although an extra pair of clothing was allowed, it, however, was required to be handmade and true to the time period. "Guys had button-up shirts, suspenders, khaki and cotton pants, and hiking boots," said Levi Barraclough, 16. "The girls had bonnets and dresses. It was looking pretty authentic out there."

In addition to walking throughout the day, trekkers would enjoy activities in the evening such as square dancing, taffy pulling, skits, storytelling and pioneer games. Others simply enjoyed the closeness to nature and played in streams or lay under the night sky. "The best part was camping out under the stars with clear skies and being with your friends," said Levi. "It’s amazing and beautiful, and we know that when we wake up we’ll be saying hi to each other again."