Early on Wednesday, June 3, seven buses started in Queen Creek and headed for the Tonto National Forest, east of Payson. With that, 300 Young Men and Young Women, 80 “Mas and Pas” and 90 support staff, all dressed in pioneer-style clothing, set off on the Queen Creek West Stake Trek. Like other treks held by various stakes in Arizona, the journey would transport the participants back in time to give them a taste of life as a pioneer, help build their testimonies and teach them that “they could do hard things.”
The Queen Creek West Stake had been organized for only about a month, when the new stake presidency—President Gary Smith, first counselor Joel Beckstead and second counselor Jason Filley—proposed the idea of a trek at a bishop’s training meeting and received unanimous support.
“They decided the best way to unify and strengthen the stake would be to quickly, efficiently and purposefully organize a youth conference and trek,” says Denice Riffey, of the Remington Heights Ward, who, with her husband, Matt, oversaw all the food preparation for the trek.
Jason Whetten, of the Ocotillo Ward, was called as stake trek committee chair, and planning immediately began.
Brother Whetten says the purpose of treks is to “help unify the youth by giving them a common goal to work towards. To gain a better appreciation for what the early saints endured to allow us to enjoy what we have today. To bring us closer to our pioneer ancestors.”
As they arrived and got off the busses, the trekkers were asked to imagine themselves departing paddlewheel boats that had traveled along the Mississippi River and had arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois. The mini-reenactment came to life as a horseman rode by, sadly announcing that the Prophet Joseph Smith had been killed. Then, someone dressed as Brigham Young spoke of the mobs that were gathering and warned, “We need to leave Nauvoo.”
The youth went to work, greased and placed the wheels on their handcarts, and with assigned “Mas” and “Pas,” began the exodus from Nauvoo, covering eight miles the first day.
The next morning, the weather changed.
“The rains came down Thursday and pretty much didn’t stop throughout the rest of the trek. It even hailed at one point,” says Sister Riffey. “Our executive committee, stake presidency and bishops met late into the night to determine how best to meet the trek goals in light of new trials, extreme weather patterns and safety issues.”
“If it hadn’t rained, it wouldn’t have been quite the experience it was,” says President Filley. “It was actually much better to have the rain. It gave more of a feeling of the hardships the pioneers endured.”
Adjustments to the schedule and route were made as required, and a unique characteristic of the Queen Creek West Stake’s preparation came into play.
“We saw the trek as an opportunity to get several of our members licensed in HAM radio,” says President Finney.
The goal was to have every Ma and Pa and at least one person from each committee HAM-radio certified. As a result, with the help of co-chairs Dennis Lawrence and Joe Sammartino, more than 100 members of the stake were trained and licensed, including the stake presidency.
“We may be the only stake presidency in the Church to all be radio certified,” says President Filley.
Each handcart was also outfitted with a GPS tracking device. This made it much more efficient when communicating medical, food, and security needs between the handcart companies and base camp as the handcarts traveled through the mountains and managed the storms.
While maintaining a high-tech system of communication, the stake also provided ample opportunities to enjoy many aspects of the pioneer experience.
Vignettes about several pioneers were presented along the trail. Tom Duford, a member of the trek activities committee, and his wife, Tamara, of Cortina 4th Ward, helped write and present the vignettes and served as “jacks-of-all-trades.” “We helped with the stories, gave direction and just had fun watching the youth learn and grow in character and strengthen their testimonies, all while creating friendships and loving and caring about others, even before themselves.”
At Fort Smith, the trading post named in President Smith’s honor, the families enjoyed a candy shop, creamery and hair parlor and participated in activities, including tomahawk and knife throwing, stick pull and tug-of-war. There, the Pony Express also delivered mail from home to trek participants.
In addition, each family was given a “hardship,” representing a trial the pioneers may have experienced.
“The trial we were given strengthened my testimony,” says Lacey Whetten, 15, of the Ocotillo Ward. “For our trial, our handcart wheel got broken. We had to take apart our entire handcart, and carry our stuff and our handcart for about a quarter mile, so we were one of the last families. Some of the Laurels called, ‘I’m coming.’ They came, and then our entire ward came and picked up our stuff and pushed our handcart.”
Possibly most impactful was the women’s pull, in which the women pulled the handcarts alone on a very steep and muddy part of the trail.
Blake Whetten, 17, of the Ocotillo Ward, was impressed that the women thought to have a prayer before they started. Still, he says, “It was difficult to watch. I learned women are capable of doing great things, but also that we should work together as couples and split the load.”
“It made me cry to watch the women’s pull,” says 17-year-old, Tanner Jacobson, of Cortina 2nd Ward. He says that event and the rest of the trek taught him “just how hard the pioneers worked through many years to achieve a common goal.”
Koralee Jackson, 17, of Cortina 4th Ward, says, the trek strengthened her testimony of the importance of family. “I couldn’t imagine doing it without the family I had. I was one of the oldest and I liked being an older sister. It also makes me excited to be a mother someday.”
As challenging as it was, nearly every trekker would agree with Rylie Figueroa, 17, of the Remington Heights Ward, who says, “The trek was awesome. It’s amazing what you can do and how much you can grow in such a short amount of time.”
Hunter Hemenway, 15, of Cortina 1st Ward, says, “My testimony grew a lot. I learned how Heavenly Father wants to help us. He wants us to go through trials, but He wants to help us, too.”
Maxwell DuFord, 16, of Cortina 4th Ward, agrees. “[Trek] taught me that when things get hard, if you push through them with a positive attitude, you’ll become a better person.”
His sister, Katie, 14, learned a similar lesson. “I learned through help from others and the Lord, we are able to get through hard things in life. Once, we were near the top, but I didn’t know how far it was. It helped to hear others say, ‘You’re almost there.’”
Brother Whetten says the entire committee and many others helped make the Queen Creek West Stake trek a success. He says hearts were touched, testimonies were strengthened, greater unity was realized and many witnessed literal miracles as they came to recognize that, with the help of the Lord, “We can do hard things.”