From Nebraska to Utah: 1997 trek re-enactment still impacts participants

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Andi Pitcher Davis climbed out of her open-floored canvas tent at 5:30 in the morning. Far from the comforts of home in the Great Plains of Nebraska, and donning a dress made of eight yards of homespun cotton, she began cooking breakfast with her family over an open fire.

After breakfast, she helped to quickly load up camp into a large moving van. The van drove away, and her family, along with hundreds of others, began walking alongside a wagon train in the open terrain. They walked 18 miles that day, singing along the way.

When they finally arrived at their evening campsite, they set up camp, cooked their dinner and went to bed exhausted, ready to repeat it again for the next three months of their lives.

“It was the most fun thing in the whole world,” said Davis, who was a BYU student when she went on the trek. 

Davis was one of about 10,000 people — Mormons and non-Mormons — who participated in the Mormon pioneer trek re-enactment from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley in 1997 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the pioneers’ arrival in Utah.

Twenty years later, Davis and others say the experiences from the Sesquicentennial Trail still impact their lives.

The idea to do a trek re-enactment began among a number of different groups, according to Steve Sorensen, who assisted in arranging and overseeing the authentic camp of the trek. Some who wanted to participate were not members of the LDS Church but simply enjoyed trail-riding and re-enactments, while others were LDS members who wanted to commemorate LDS heritage, he said.

Eventually, the groups came together under the nonprofit Mormon Trail Wagon Train 150 Years, Inc.

Brian Hill, who was serving as stake president in the Kearney, Nebraska Stake at the time, served as its CEO.

Planning the trek was a major task, Sorensen said. Preparation included obtaining permits to cross state and private lands, finding campsites and developing plans to ensure all aspects of the travel would be in compliance with differing state laws.

“It was all mapped out very carefully,” Sorensen said. Bob and Sarah Lowe, along with their children Brenda and Gordon, played a vital role in mapping, he said.

“They spent, honestly, years and years of blood, sweat and tears trying to get this thing put together,” Sorensen said. “(The trail) was very deliberate.”

But while those in the wagon train all traveled the same trail, the way they participated varied. Some participated in the authentic camp, a group that was responsible for displaying pioneer life.

“We pretty much took it literally and kind of went down to the underwear to make it as authentic an experience as we possibly could,” Sorensen said.

Those in the authentic camp dressed in pioneer-era clothing, cooked using pioneer methods and performed pioneer chores. They camped in floorless canvas tents, slept with wool blankets and set up camp in the center of a circle of wagons every night.

“(The authentic camp) became kind of a focal point for visitors to the wagon train … to come and find out what Mormon pioneer life was all about,” Sorensen said.

Davis, who participated in the authentic camp, said imitating the pioneers made her experience more meaningful.  

“The more devoted to the process of being on the trail you were, the more you got out of it, and the more you contributed to the trail,” she said.

Christina Johnson, who participated as an 11-year-old, said trying to be as authentic as possible impacted her experience.

“It made me feel more connected to my ancestors and helped me better understand their trials and circumstances,” she said.

The authentic camp made up a small part of the total participants. Many of the authentic camp participants were volunteer docents from This Is the Place Heritage Park who took a weeklong shift.

The majority of those who participated in the Sesquicentennial Trek participated for varying spans of time — often a week — and imitated pioneer life to the extent they desired. 

Of the estimated 10,000 people who participated in the trek, only a few hundred went the entire 1,100-mile distance to the Salt Lake Valley, according to Hill. Yet whether completing the full journey or just a few days of it, the trek re-enactors experienced circumstances and experiences similar to those of the pioneers.

Lifelong relationships

One of the major ways in which the re-enactors experienced a pioneer experience was through the sense of community they developed, Davis said. She said the relationships she developed on the trek are what she looks back on most fondly.

The re-enactment, she said, bridged a generational gap between the young single adult participants and older retired persons.

“It ended up being the most important thing we could do,” Davis said. “I think it was the beginning of a younger generation understanding and coming along with the idea that Mormonism is cool, that … we have our own religion and sense of self and sense of place and … heritage.”

For John Stewart and Kimberly LLoyd Stewart, the relationship they developed on the Wagon Train significantly impacted their lives.

Kimberly went on the trek, and after breaking her foot while pulling a handcart, she asked John, a contracted teamster from Tennessee, for a lift in his wagon.  

“She said, ‘I’ll do anything. I’ll help feed. I’ll harness’,” John said. “I thought, ‘Alright, free labor, yeah, okay, she can do it.’”

John decided to teach her how to drive the wagon, and eventually, he let her take over driving sometimes while he shuttled a pick-up truck from one campsite to the next.

Over time, the two developed a romantic interest in each other, and after what John described as a lot of asking, they were married the following year.

According to Hill, a total of 11 couples met on the trek and were later married.

“You walked and talked and got to see others at their best and at their worst,” Hill said. “I can’t imagine a better way to get to know somebody.”

Testimony-building experiences

While many participants grew close to each other during the trek, many also said they grew closer to God.

Hill, who was called by Elder M. Russell Ballard to serve as the priesthood president of the wagon train, said the weekly outdoor sacrament meetings were a highlight for him.

“They were some of the best services I’ve ever been to,” he said. “The Spirit was so strong.”

He said a particular meeting held near Wheatland, Wyoming, showed him the impact the trek was having on missionary work. Although there were only about 40 members in the Wheatland area, and there were only 500 people participating in the wagon train in that particular area, over 1,200 people were there for sacrament meeting.

“(The wagon train) was like a magnet,” Hill said. “People whose towns we had passed through who were not Mormon would drive to be where we were.”

The spiritual experiences, however, were not limited to sacrament meeting. For Davis, walking alongside first-generation LDS converts was a spiritual experience.

“They were closer to what the pioneers were than those of us who had eight generations,” Davis said. “I felt very much like those who were converts to the church, who were doing this for the first time, were really the inspiration for me.”

Hill described the trek as a time when he saw the hand of God clearly and obviously.

“I saw so many miracles happen,” he said. According to Hill, miraculous priesthood blessings were fulfilled on the trail.

“These were blessings of ‘Be healed.’ Bones were mended, spleens stopped bleeding, people were cured of arthritis,” he said. “The manifestations of God were so clear.”

Johnson said the events she witnessed formed her testimony of the power of the priesthood.

“I personally witnessed so many miracles when worthy priesthood holders laid their hands on someone’s head to give them a priesthood blessing,” she said. “The miracles never stopped coming.”

For Davis, the uncommon 19th-century experience provided uncommon and meaningful ways to strengthen testimony.

“The stories of building families and building testimonies was something that you don’t get from watching an ‘I’m A Mormon’ ad by any stretched imagination,” she said.

Conversion experiences

For some participants, the trek was a time for the strengthening of LDS faith. For others, it was the start of belief in it altogether.

According to Hill, about 30 percent of the participants were not members of the LDS Church. A few, he said, found faith on the trail.

One of those who converted to the LDS Church was 25-year-old Larry “Turbo” Stewart. A rodeo clown from Iowa who Hill described as a fast and loose drinker and a partier, Stewart came along for the adventure as a teamster.

“As he came along (the trail), he would be the first to go to the bars in the towns,” Hill said.

Near Jeffrey City, Wyoming, Stewart hurt his shoulder. Elder Hugh W. Pinnock, who was visiting the camp, gave Stewart a priesthood blessing, and Stewart was healed.

At the next testimony meeting, Hill was surprised to see Stewart get in line to speak.

“He bore his testimony at (that) time and said he would get baptized when we got to the (Salt Lake) Valley,” Hill said.

When they arrived, Pinnock baptized Stewart in a pond at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

“If there was a spectrum of people that you would think would be interested in the church at the beginning of the wagon train, I would have put (Stewart) far at the other end,” Sorensen said. “Yet over the course of the trek, I think he figured out who he was and why he was there.”

Just a few days after his baptism, Stewart suffered a serious head injury while loading his wagon onto a flatbed truck. He passed away from his injuries in 2002.

An impact today

Although the trek occurred two decades ago, many participants said the experiences still impact their lives.

“We (aren’t) the same because of our participation — there’s no way,” Sorensen said. “My perspective on life is different. I can get by with much less. I can do hard things. I can be resourceful, and I have a core that I can lean on — not just friends, but my family.”

Sorensen said he and his family originally wanted to do the trek to honor his pioneer ancestors. However, he said they soon found the experience meant more to them than they had anticipated.

“We had no idea of the tremendous spiritual and emotional experience that it was going to be for us,” he said. “Those of us who were involved in it were humbled by it and gained lifelong and eternal friendships and were changed forever.”

Johnson said as a youth at the time, the relationships she developed have affected her life.

“Some (participants) made a big impact on my life, and even though we have not kept in touch, I feel that the experiences I had with them and the examples they set have helped develop who I am today,” she said.

Sorenson said those relationships remain strong despite the distance between participants.

“I have close friends (from the trek) that I have not seen for five and ten years, but it wouldn’t matter,” Sorensen said. “Time and space don’t mean anything. We could call and talk to each other and the distance is closed instantly.”

Both Hill and Sorensen said the experience gave them a glimpse of Zion.

“We feel like we had a very cohesive experience, where everybody takes care of each other, and we watch out for each other and meet each others’ needs in kind of a communal way,” Sorensen said.

While the trek had a significant impact on the lives of those who participated, it also had a significant impact on the perception of the LDS Church throughout the world, Hill said.

Hill, a professor at BYU, recently published a paper in which he analyzed everything written about the LDS Church during the trek. He said the amount of positive coverage was unprecedented.

“I think probably the biggest impact (of the trek) was the good that it did for the name of the (LDS) Church,” he said.

Dozens of news networks, newspapers, magazines, and international television and documentary crews covered the trek, bringing the unusual and difficult trek into the international spotlight.  

“It was amazing because we had our plan for it, and I think that the Lord had other plans,” Sorensen said. “I think that for a period of time it really captured the imagination of the country and became kind of a big deal.”

Yet for the participants in the trek, what looms large is not the publicity as much as the sense of a pioneering spirit.

“One of the things that I saw in people on the trek was determination: through hot days, long days, cold mornings, blistered feet, sunburns, physical and emotional strain,” Johnson said. “All I ever saw was determination to finish the journey, and most the time with (a) smile on their face.”

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