In Their Footsteps

In Their Footsteps

Area youth mark the 150th anniversary of the famed Mormon trek.

Teenagers from Fairfax County traveled to the Marriott Ranch in Hume, Va. to participate in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint's Mormon Youth Trek.

Drawing youth from McLean, Great Falls, Vienna, Arlington, and Falls Church, the trek, which took place on July 6-8 reenacts the journey of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young to Utah in the 19th century. The trek held particular importance this year, since 2006 marks the 150th anniversary of the first 500 Mormon pioneers to head west from Iowa City, Iowa in 1856. According to, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Web site, before the exodus west, about 16,000 Latter-Day Saints settled in Nauvoo, Ill. under the protection of Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of Mormonism. The Latter-Day Saints pioneers moved west from Illinois in 1846, after tension and harassment led to the murder of Smith in 1844. The Latter-Day Saints set out in search of religious freedom and endured years of disease and hostility on the trail, until eventually settling in and around Salt Lake City in 1856.

"Once you experience the trek, you understand what the pioneers went through on a whole new level because you see similarities between their stories and your own," said Katie Delis, a James Madison High School junior.

Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, areas of worship are divided into Stakes, which are governing units similar to a diocese in other Christian religions. Each stake consists of various wards, or local congregations within a region. In Northern Virginia, the McLean Stake, which hosted the Mormon Youth Trek consists of two wards in McLean, as well as wards in Great Falls, Arlington, and Falls Church.

Kent Colton, president of the McLean Stake served as 'trail boss' on the trek. A former president of the National Association of Homebuilders, Colton prepared the youth by having several meetings in the weeks before the trek. "All the people in the stake attended [the meeting] to get the teens excited and share the purpose of the trek."

Upon arriving at the ranch, the teens split into groups of 10 or 11 called "families" that included a “Ma and Pa,” generally portrayed by an older couple from one of the wards. The youth, ages 14 to 18 traveled close to 15 miles, all while pulling traditional handcarts, weighing up to 1,000 pounds, like those their Mormon predecessors used to cross the country.

When not hauling the handcarts, the group dedicated free time to learning traditional pioneer activities.

Katherine Richards of McLean particularly enjoyed "the saw race and games where we shot black powder."

The teens also learned the survival skills of the pioneers when they killed and plucked chickens along the way. Just as the pioneers did 150 years earlier, the youth kept journals of their travels and wore the traditional garb of the settlers.

While boys sported work shirts and jeans, and girls donned mutton shirts and long skirts, all the teens opted for a few modern comforts, including sneakers and sufficient amounts of traditional pioneer food.

James McConnaughey of Vienna recognized the advantages that he and those with him had been given. The Thomas Jefferson High School junior said that he tried to "imagine what the real trek must have been like since we wore comfortable shoes and had plenty of water and food." The realization of the relative ease of their trek made each step that much more manageable, according to McConnaughey. He recalled his thoughts while climbing hills and pulling the handcarts. "I would think of how much more difficult it would be to know there were one hundred more hills to climb."

The formation of "families" not only provided the youth with another connection to the pioneers, but also helped them separate from stereotypes and cliques that typically run rampant among high-schoolers. Delis found that she developed a closer connection with the first pioneers through daily journal entries written on the trek.

She also saw how all the familiar social boundaries created among teenagers went away.

"We knew it was important to get your family to the destination and we all grew very close along the way."

Jonathan Schmeelk of Arlington said "you don't have the same social cliques because they don't exist within the family group." Even differences in faith among the participants did not affect the spirit and purpose of the trip. For Schmeelk, a recent graduate of Yorktown High School, being a Catholic on the trek did not mean having to feel any different from the other teenagers. "I've had friends of different religions my whole life," Schmeelk said. Delis agreed, saying, "Whether Mormon or not, our goal was the same."

The teamwork developed within each "family" proved to be an essential aspect of the trek, as they encountered areas of challenging terrain. Katherine Richards of McLean learned the importance of a strong group morale during one of the most demanding parts of the trek. The Langley High School junior reflected on when they did a women's pull up the hill.

"All the guys had to step away from the handcarts and let the girls pull on our own." Schmeelk also considered the women's pull to be the mentally toughest part of the trek. "We [the boys] were not allowed to help." Despite the difficulty of the task, Richards knew it helped her understand what the pioneers went through on their journey.

According to Colton, most teens generally react to their experiences on the trek in a similar manner. Colton found the trip's effect on the participants is two-fold. First, Colton observed how the trek "gives the youth a sense of heritage with the pioneers of the church," and often with their own ancestors who traveled in 1856. Colton also noted a change from the usual frustration that teenagers express in challenging situations like the Mormon Youth Trek.

"Kids will usually complain on the trek, but then someone else would say, 'Yeah, but what about the pioneers — they had it much worse than this.'" Colton witnessed how the youth get to know themselves better and learn that if they can accomplish this, then they can do other hard things.

"You learn your potential through these challenges in life," he said.