“The hardest part was having to push the handcarts up the hills. It was heavy, and you had to learn how to work together with your family,” said Steven Driscoll, who is a rising junior at Cherokee High School. “There was a huge hill that we called ‘the beast’ that we had to go up. It was a lot of loose rocks and really steep.”
More than 120 youths participated in the trek which took place at Fort Mountain State Park in Chatsworth.
The Mormon pioneers began to leave Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846 to escape persecution. At that time, 80,000 pioneers traveled in covered wagons, handcarts or on horseback to the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.
In an attempt to get a glimpse into the hardship the original Mormon pioneers went through centuries ago, the youth hiked a dirt foot path, horse trail and old mining roads. The youth were put into groups of eight to 12 called “families.”
Each family was in charge of a handcart.
“I gained so much respect for (Mormon pioneers),” said Bresia Yates, another youth on the trek. “We only had to do (the trek) for two days. We had lighter carts and had someone who knew where we were going — someone who knew what was ahead. The pioneers didn’t have food or fresh water. They didn’t have all the nice modern stuff we have. They did it completely on faith. They sacrificed everything they had and even some of their lives for religious freedom.”
On the trek, the youth had to overcome some nature-made obstacles along the way with their handcarts loaded with camping supplies. Some of the obstacles included fallen trees, going over a creek, steep hills and the dangers of animals such as snakes and bears.
The trek was designed to help the youth get an idea of what the Mormon pioneers went through, but it also taught them many life lessons along the way.
“We put them through (physical) hardships that they couldn’t go through on their own,” said Brian Blattner, the trek coordinator. “As they progressed through some of these obstacles, you could see their confidences grow. They would look back and couldn’t believe that they overcame those obstacles.”
It took them two days to hike the 14 miles up and then back down the mountain. They camped along the way, some in tents and others without.
“During some very difficult times on the trek, those teenagers who make it over the obstacles would go back and help those behind them,” said Barron Smith, the trek navigator. “They learned unity and that working together they can accomplish anything. Nobody wanted to quit.”
“When I tell people about the trek, they look at me weird because it didn’t sound like a fun thing to do with your summer, but it was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Kathryn Torgersen, a 2012 graduate of Etowah High School. “I gained empathy for the pioneers, learned to have a prayerful heart and worked in unity with others. You can’t trade an experience like that for anything. It was so humbling.”
The Pioneer Trek takes place once every four years. The youth, aged 14 to 18, who participated live in Cobb, Cherokee and Gilmer counties.