Each year thousands of youth ranging from 14-18 years of age, along with their leaders, travel from different states to Rock Creek Hallow here in beautiful Wyoming to remember and honor the thousands of pioneers who traveled, and many who died, on the Mormon/Oregon Trail.
Participants dress in traditional pioneer clothing and walk the actual trails of the pioneers. According to one of the missionaries serving on the site from Michigan, 22,000 youth visit the site and march along the trail each summer, and 7,000 of those individuals walk over Rocky Ridge with the handcarts. She said they travel from Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, Arizona and this year even had a group from Seattle.
Last week local youth from Riverton, Lander, Dubois, Wind River, Pavillion and Shoshoni blazed the historic trail in their own 29-mile trek. They stared at 6th Crossing bright and early on Thursday morning making their way across the same rough terrain as the pioneers, camped one night and ended in Rock Creek.
Rock Creek is a historical marker and held in sacred remembrance specifically of the Willie Martin Handcart companies who were rescued on that site in October,1856. A total of 10 handcart companies traveled from Wyoming to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860, but the Willie Martin Handcart Company experienced severe casualties and tragedy. They were the last two immigrant handcart companies of 1856 and departed late from Nebraska. The Willie and Martin companies were running out of food and dealing with the bitterly cold temperatures of our harsh climate. On October 21, the rescue party from Salt Lake City reached the Willie Martin Company in Rock Creek and provided them with food and assistance.
Each youth walked in remembrance of a person in those handcart companies. They learned about them and the struggles they experienced along the way. According to Bishop Spencer Smith who walked with the youth, "Going on [this] trek allows our young people to have an experience that helps them to understand the tremendous hardships and sacrifice that the pioneers made. These sacrifices by the pioneers were done so that they would be able to freely live their religion. It is my hope that the participants will come to understand the sacrifices helped to preserve the freedoms that they have today."
Jonah Kreitzer, a 16-year-old participant explained, "The hardest part of the trek was going through the last 5 miles when the wind picked up, and the grit and dirt was flying in our faces. Watching the women's pull was hard too. Seeing them pulling the handcarts alone was tough. It reminded me of how strong women are."
Part of the trek included The Women's Pull. The boys went ahead leaving the women and girls to pull the hand carts up the a hill on their own. Many of the youth said that was the most powerful experience. Many of the pioneer women's husbands died along the way leaving them alone on the grueling trek with children in tow. The exercise was meant to highlight that. Eli Gard, a 14-year-old young man on the trek said, "The women's pull was the most awesome. It was really hard to just watch. They were very inspiring."
Madi Smith, a 14-year-old girl on the trek said, "The women's pull was hard but we talked about how sometimes we have to go through tough trials to show ourselves that we can do some pretty hard things. I thought the last five miles were really important for us because it helped us remember what the pioneers had to go through and that they were willing to go through it so they could finally come to a place to call home with a temple to do church ordinances in. It was so much fun and I'm so glad I could go."
Ella Haulk, a 15-year-old young woman recounted her experience,"The whole time I was thinking about my ten-year-old great great aunt Bodil Mortensen, who was coming across that same place in freezing weather and three feet of snow. Bodil made it to Rock Creek, but she froze to death there. She was such a strong and courageous woman. As I pulled such a short way up that hill during the women's pull, I was overwhelmed with the connection that Bodil and I shared and had a glimpse of what she sacrificed for what she believed in. I'm very thankful for her and the opportunity I was given to go on this trek.
By the end of their 29 mile journey which took them two days, they were covered in dirt and grime. Many were suffering from blisters and sunburns but all had a profound appreciation for their pioneer ancestors. They were greeted in Rock Creek by family and friends who had hot food, cold water and air conditioned cars to take them home in.
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