Clad in replica pioneer clothing and armed with a 5-gallon bucket of essentials, 245 teens from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traveled across the Northeast Georgia landscape for one purpose: to re-enact the Pioneer Trek of their ancestors from the 1800s.
For three days, the young Latter-day Saints walked and rode over rough, uneven terrain and forged through the streams in their paths. The youngsters between 14 to 19 years old from Hall County and the area traveled about 8 miles each day in Cleveland. And the event, which is once every three to four years, provides the teens with a unique experience before graduating high school.
“We often forget that there were many that came before us, of different religions, and gave up everything they had, including family members that they lost along the way, just to have the freedom that we so freely have today,” said Ryan Howells, one of the leaders on the trek.
The Pioneer Trek is designed to teach the teenagers about the trials and tribulations the early Mormon pioneers faced on their journey from Nauvoo, Ill., to Salt Lake City.
“Pioneers learned that doing hard things deepened and strengthened body, mind, and spirit; magnified their understanding of their divine nature; and heightened their compassion for others,” said Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the first presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Teens on the walk began their expedition at a meeting house in Suwanee that was remodeled to resemble Nauvoo, Ill., at the time of the original trek. More than 100 parents and leaders spent the last year remodeling and building the city.
“Everything looked so authentic,” North Forsyth High School senior Madi Smith said. “You could really get a sense of what it was like back then.”
Old Nauvoo consisted of a bakery, blacksmith, an infirmary and an old school house. It was designed and decorated to help teleport the teenagers back in time.
“The first day, they spend time in Old Nauvoo learning about the old way of life,” said Mindy Durden, the photographer on the trek. “They had a list of supplies they had to get from the marketplace, and they went into the old schoolhouse to see what school was like back then. They learned how to make bread and visited a blacksmith.”
After their time in Nauvoo, the group traveled to Cleveland to continue the trek in handcarts. However, instead of marching 1,300 miles in negative temperatures, the teenagers moved their supplies eight miles through North Georgia in temperatures of 90 degrees and higher.
“The trails that the youth walked consisted of river crossings, steep hills and many re-enactments of true stories that were experienced by early members of the Mormon faith from so long ago,” Durden said. “At one point of the trek, the youth were able to witness a re-enactment of a pioneer mother whose small infant died on their journey. The youth watched as this mother had to say goodbye to her child and dig a small grave for him.”
The scene was especially powerful for Anna Stephenson, who never met one of her baby brothers.
“I thought about how I will get to meet him when I die,” Stephenson said. “The spirit was so strong. As you walked the trails and climbed the hills, you could hear the youth and leaders singing and laughing in the distance. The air was filled with a joyful spirit that you couldn’t stop smiling from.”