Trek, Mobs, and Spiritual Escalation

The version of this post I originally drafted in my head was going to be easy: I’d describe a trek activity (mob attack—more on that in a minute) that, in spite of its being clearly inappropriate, seems to be gaining currency. Then I’d have a poll, asking you what you thought about it, with lighthearted, smart-alecky answers. The end.

The post would have been good for a couple laughs and, hopefully, an icebreaker if you were on a trek committee and somebody suggested said mob attack. 

But then I saw a YouTube video of the mob attack. And another. It seems to be a thing now. And it needs to stop.

Basically, what happens is this: sometime in the morning, before the kids get up, a “drunken mob” comes in, waving guns (and maybe firing blanks), threatening the kids, and trying to get rid of the Mormons. A couple examples:

(Note that, in the second video, the relevant part starts at about 12 minutes, 42 seconds; I can’t get it to embed at that point, though, so you can also access it here.)

So I realize that simulated mob attacks aren’t a new thing: the Deseret News reported on one (as part of a Boy Scout proto-trek) in 1979.

It’s not clear to me from the videos whether the kids knew in advance that they were going to be attacked; in the (now-aborted) incident I first heard about, though, it was going to be a surprise. And not just for the kids—for the adults, too.

As an attorney, my first thought was that this could potentially subject the church to tort liability, if a kid (or, for that matter, an adult) hurt themselves running, or was emotionally damaged, or was otherwise injured as a result of the mob. And, to my knowledge, the church doesn’t enjoy tort liability. (I also thought, “Haven’t any of these people heard about what happened to Brandon Lee while he was filming The Crow?”)

gst upped the liability risk. He pointed out that most states have a brandishing law (Utah’s is here) that makes threatening others with a firearm (whether the threat is real, and whether the gun is loaded) a crime. The members of the “mob,” then, could face not only civil, but also criminal, liability.

Other friends upped the risk even further—what if one of the adult leaders, not knowing the mob was planned, had a real gun? The risk of injury, or even death, becomes even more significant.

And I’m leaving out the potential harm to the kids because that should go without saying.[fn1]

Basically, I can’t believe that two or more functioning adults, with a responsibility to take care of and provide a spiritual experience for the youth, could actually think this was a good idea. IT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA, UNDER ANY CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES. It just isn’t. So don’t do it.

How Did We Get Here?

Still, despite the fact that the mob reenactment is a TREMENDOUSLY STUPID IDEA,[fn2] I assume the people planning sincerely wanted to provide a valuable experience for the kids.

So how did they go from good intentions to traumatizing, potentially criminal acts? I don’t know, but two factors strike me as being significant: first, the planners didn’t think through their goals, and second, they were involved in spiritual escaltion.

Goals. Trek strikes me as a fairly pre-fab activity. Sure, we customize it to where we are, and who our kids are, but the basic outline stays the same: kids pull handcarts in period clothing for a couple days to help them empathize with their (spiritual) ancestors. I mean, there’s a ton of planning involved but, once it starts, it basically runs itself. (And there are websites out there that purport to significantly reduce the planning by giving a template for the trek.)

The problem is, a pre-fab experience lets us just put the pieces together, without trying to decide what we want to accomplish, or if the way we’re doing it is the best way.

What is the purpose of trek? It’s clearly not historical accuracy. The women’s pull, for example, is apparently meant to show the kids what women pioneer had to enure when the men were sent off to the Mormon Battalion. The problem? While members of the Mormon Battalion had to “leave wives and children on the wild praries [sic], destitute and almost helpless,”[fn3] they weren’t leaving their wives and children to pull handcarts. The Mormon Battalion existed from 1846-1848-ish; the Mormon handcart pioneers crossed the plains from 1856 to 1860.

And they didn’t face significant mob violence: the prairies were mostly uninhabited (in fact, the only violent deaths that seem to be recorded by pioneers period are four deaths from “Indians”;[fn4] while the cause was only recorded for one in five pioneer deaths, it strikes me as likely that deaths resulting from mob attacks would have been recorded), and the handcart pioneers were poor converts coming from Europe, not Nauvoo citizens fleeing mob violence. The handcart pioneers certainly did not watch the Nauvoo temple burn.[fn5] And I’m entirely sure they didn’t have portable toilets available.[fn6]

Perhaps the purpose of trek is to allow youth to better understand what the early Saints experienced, thereby allowing for a composite experience that includes pulling handcarts, experiencing mobs, and seeing the temple burn (though, again, handcart pioneers didn’t do all three of those things).

But even if so, why is a mob attack necessary? Actually experiencing what someone else has experienced isn’t the only way to gain empathy. Hearing stories, signing songs, watching movies: all have the potential for increasing our empathy. And, frankly, even trek is an imperfect version of empathy: pulling handcarts for two or three days, with the knowledge that you’ll have your iPhone and comfortable bed back once it’s done is not the same thing, physically or psychologically, as pulling a handcart for three months with no idea what you’ll have when you finish.

Maybe it’s to help kids realize they can do hard things. But again, doing a backpacking trip, or an American Ninja Warrior-style competition,[fn7] or a battle of the bands can all accomplish the same thing. Without, necessarily, the trauma that a mob attack with guns entails.

Maybe it’s to help them feel the Spirit. In which case, see my next section.

Which is to say, even though we know the contours of trek, for it to be valuable, we need to know what we want our kids to get out of it. And we need to tailor the activities so they drive toward those things, rather than throwing everything we can at the kids to see what sticks.

Spiritual Escalation. But even if you take away the historical inaccuracies, the potential criminal and civil liability, and all the other negatives I’ve talked about up until now, these ever-more-exaggerated trek activities concern me.

They concern me because, ultimately, we should be pointing our youth toward having their own spiritual experiences. And, while not every youth activity needs to have feel the Spirit as its central goal (because seriously, sometimes have some fun is a plenty-good goal), an undertaking as massive and as explicitly-religiously-oriented as this should have feel the Spirit as an important goal. And I believe that it does: most major youth activities like this end with a testimony meeting.

Maybe part of the reason for escalating the drama in the activities is to hit the kids over the head with a spiritual experience, to force them to actually engage with their religious beliefs.[fn8]

And if that’s the case, mob attacks and burning temples are precisely the wrong way to go about it.

I still remember President Hinckley’s 60 Minutes interview, in which Mike Wallace asked him how he experienced revelation. Pres. Hinckley responded by paraphrasing 1 Kings 19:11-12:

Elijah spoke to the Lord, and there was a wind, a great wind, and the Lord was not in the wind. And there was an earthquake, and the Lord was not in the earthquake. And there was a fire, and the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still, small voice, which I describe as the whisperings of the Spirit

The Spirit, that is, is quiet. But if we teach our youth that spiritual experience somes in big, noisy, elaborate wrappings, we’re leading them in preisely the wrong direction. Instead of expecting, and looking for, that still small voice, we’re teaching them to look for ever more explosions, bigger and better metaphorical car crashes.[fn9]

I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do pioneer treks. A lot of kids seem to enjoy them, and physical enactment is a legitimate, important, and underused teaching tool. What I am saying, though, is, let’s not do trek (or, for that matter, any other youth activities) on autopilot. Instead, let’s actually, carefully consider what we want the youth to get out of their trek experience, and let’s choose activities that promote those things.

And seriously, let’s not do dumb, tortious, or criminal stuff.

[fn1] To underscore: there are really two major reactions the kids are likely to have. Either they’re terrified, or they’re laughing (in the first video, I heard both screaming and laughing). I talked about the potential liability risks associated with terrified; while I like laughter, in this case, laughing isn’t terribly conducive to the empathy that the activity is presumably meant to engender.

[fn2] (and yes, I realize I’m shouting)

[fn3] Norma Baldwin Ricketts, The Mormon Battalion:U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1848 (Logan: Utah State UP, 1996), 6.

[fn4] Melvin L. Bashore, et al., “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847–1868,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53:4 (2014), 122.

[fn5] (an inexplicable escalation that was praised by Utah Valley Magazine and picked up by the Deseret News. Maybe step one in deescalating these experiences is ignoring, rather than publicizing, them)

[fn6] See p. 11 of the first linked PDF and p. 5 of the second.

[fn7] Note, though, that that probably raises the same tort liability issues the mob does.

[fn8] Part of it, too, may be seeing what other treks have done, and trying to make this trek at least that good.

[fn9] And yes, I know they’re teenagers, and (a) it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and (b) my kids aren’t there yet. Maybe teenagers do prefer noisy religious experience to cut through their noisy lives. But offering that to them, I believe, does a disservice. Better is to help them experience the quietude that truly lets them experience the divine.


  1. Scrolling down, I thought that logo said ‘Carnage In Christ.’

  2. From “maybe” firing blanks to Brandon Lee? I take your point but, as a fellow attorney, I think we can go overboard sometimes.

    I went on a trek where there was a simulated mob. It was a group of leaders who all the kids knew. They snuck up on the kids and stole some food (to be replaced later). The whole thing was silly. The kids all laughed. The idea that a kid would be emotionally damaged is a stretch. You would have to assume that the kid would lack the cognitive skills to realize he was in a pretend situation (trek) versus a real situation (on the plains trying to survive). If the kid lacks those skills, he/she definitely should not be on trek anyway. I take your point about brandishing laws, and the guns are a bad idea, but the kids I was with had a lot of fun.

    Bottom line: the people who put together a trek are not stupid. We can overanalyze the thing to death but it would not be done, generally speaking, if the kids didn’t enjoy it. It is a huge sacrifice and costs a lot of resources. The adults are not doing it for themselves.

    It teaches kids know about our history, it allows them to spend time with peers with similar values, and it creates an environment that encourages kids to ponder spiritual things. I went with a kid who decided to go on a mission during trek. Other kids I was with made great friendships. It was worthwhile.

  3. This idea of spiritual escalation—it’s everywhere in the church, but especially within our youth programs. In our desperation for impact, we have shored up activities and lessons with manufactured emotion. It reminds me a bit of the power shown to Laman and Lemuel. They were shocked, but it wasn’t a lasting feeling that impacted their spiritual lives.

  4. Marc, what was the purpose of your mob? Just to be silly? I mean, that’s fine, and it sounds like the kids had a groovy time (which again, is fine), so maybe yours was done in a decent way. But did you watch the videos? In those cases, people came in at night, waking kids up unaware.

    And maybe a mob—and guns—wouldn’t affect your kids. But what about kids with sensory sensitivities? What about kids who live in cities, where gunshots largely mean gang warfare? What about kids whose schools do active shooter drills?

    So yours went fine. Again I ask, what was the purpose? Handcart pioneers didn’t face mobs. They generally weren’t attacked—they were pulling their carts through largely uninhabited land. If your leaders came up with a reason for it, and they were successful, more power to them. They got lucky, or they carefully considered the kids in questions. But a mob attack, with guns, is a bad idea.

    (Also, fwiw, blanks do pose a real risk of physical harm; even if you’re sure it’s not a live bullet, being shot from close range with a blank can do real harm.)

  5. I agree that none of these things should be done on autopilot. But do we really want the kids to have a historically accurate handcart experience? Talk about liability.

    Also, trek is littered with quiet times for spiritual matters. I don’t think anyone believes the kids are having a spiritual experience during the mob attack. I think it’s just supposed to be fun. Trust me, three days pushing a handcart you definitely need some distractions.

  6. And while we’re at it can we put to rest having funerals and burying fake (dolls) babies? That happened on my trek and it was seriously eye roll inducing. And I’ve already shared my opinion about the women’s pull.

    I sometimes wonder in an age of social media and viral videos if the recognition factor is playing into some of our more wacky ideas. Shrug. Also, Mormons gotta try to out-Morm each other in ridiculous ways.

  7. Kristine, I thought about mentioning fake baby funerals. Again, the loss of a child has to be so tremendously devastating, irrespective of where it happens. But that idea feels manipulative to me and, again, isn’t particularly historically relevant; according to Bashore, et al., while the general mortality rate of pioneers was above that of America at large, the infant mortality rate was about the same. Which is to say, the babies who died on the trail likely would have died anyway (or, at least, the same number of babies would have died).

  8. “But did you watch the videos? In those cases, people came in at night, waking kids up unaware.”

    I confess…I didn’t watch the video of people coming at night. That is pretty annoying. I think the purpose of our mob was to be silly.

    “But what about kids with sensory sensitivities? What about kids who live in cities, where gunshots largely mean gang warfare? What about kids whose schools do active shooter drills?”

    Clearly in these situations the guns are a bad idea. Again, I think guns are a bad idea anyway. To be fair, I live in Texas so the kids had a very different reaction (half of them probably own guns but this is a separate conversation).

    My basic point is that treks seem to work. Of course they aren’t always historically accurate and of course they are manufactured. And with a bunch of Mormons together of course there will be eye-rolling moments.

    But church activities are always manufactured aren’t they? I think what youth leaders try to do, to the best of their ability, is to create environments that allow kids to hear spiritual things and ponder their testimonies. Trek is pretty effective at doing this.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    Teens are often smarter than we give them credit for. Naturally, in a simulated mob attack, there will be a core group of kids that will play along with it, get caught up in the spirit of it, but knowing all the while that it is pretend so they will have fun with it. The other group of kids will probably just roll their eyes and make smart-alec remarks through the whole thing.

    But I can understand how this is getting ridiculous. I think back to my own youth (pre-trek era) and, though the perpetual 12-year-old boy in me loves the idea of metaphorical car crashes and explosions, I nonetheless chafe at the idea of cramming “spiritual experiences” down their throats. In hindsight, at that time I really needed more lessons on how to listen to the spirit and receive my own personal witness.

  10. BHodges says:

    Marc’s comments about mob simulation being a bit of fun is troubling and reassuring at once. On the one hand, I’m glad we’re so far removed from the abuses of the past that we can simulate a mob with low risk of ptsd, etc., although we should realize there actually may be people with ptsd or other health issues that can render the simulation a threat. On the other hand, viewing mobbing as a chance to have a little fun can be understood as trivializing the horrors our ancestors actually faced. Not to mention the fact that we too often overlook the troubles our own ancestors caused (Mountain Meadows Massacre, for example). What would pioneers think if they could look to the future and see us laughing and having some fun reenacting their terrors?

  11. “What would pioneers think if they could look to the future and see us laughing and having some fun reenacting their terrors?”

    Oh, I don’t know. The original criticism was that mobs were historically inaccurate right? The whole handcart experience was a hardship and, I am sure, had moments filled with terror. One of the purposes of trek is to remember our ancestor’s sacrifice. My guess is they appreciate our efforts.

    In general, I would think trek is pretty far down the list in reasons that our ancestors judge us.

  12. “Spiritual Escalation” is such a spot-on term. I’ve talked to my parents, who are the perpetual trek directors in their stake, about their experiences and they explain that they try to stay away from spiritual sensationalism, which is another good term for it. I remember two strong things from my stake trek way back in the first year they did trek. The one that applies here is the strong testimony building moment I had when I sat by myself communing in nature and was writing my testimony and a deer came into the meadow. It continues to be a testimony touchpoint in my life and I’m grateful for trek providing the setting.

  13. Seriously, they bury dolls? So if my wife or I or one of my daughters go on trek we get to be reminded of burying our son/brother? Sounds like a gas. As if our actual, real lives aren’t full of enough actual, real hardship and suffering already.

  14. John Mansfield says:

    A lot of sensitivity escalation going on here.

  15. John, I certainly hope so.

  16. Jack Hughes says:

    Young people have a higher threshold for realism in entertainment these days. I heard on This American Life about an amusement operator in Mexico that, for about $20, takes tourists on a simulated immigrant border crossing in the Sonoran Desert. They painstakingly recreated the physical and psychological hardships, complete with hunger/dehydration, gunfire, kidnappings and fake US Border Patrol agents. The whole thing ends with mock executions, followed by a fireworks show. As I understand, the intent behind it was to dissuade poor Mexicans from actually making the crossing, but it unexpectedly became a popular recreational attraction for thrill-seeking middle-class Mexican teens (a demographic unlikely to ever emigrate to the US anyway).

    If I am ever put in charge of our stake’s trek, this is the model I will use.

  17. “complete with hunger/dehydration” that’s the other huge thing I remember about our pioneer trek. How angry I got at the leaders (I was a trek youth leader) for how having us trek on less than 300 calories put kids in danger (so many kids were getting heat stroke/fatigue).

  18. Trek winds me up negatively, in the worst way. I could write a book on why Trek does more harm than good in my opinion. And testimonies, real tested experiences, I don’t know. I appreciate emjen’s spiritual moment, but I listen to the kids who return and bare testimony and I am scared. If the church thinks it’s members are having faith crisis now, just what will happen when these starved, conflicted youth who trekked run across the real stories. Last year one girl said Trek taught her that if something is hard, it must be true. I desperately wanted to run up, grab her from the podium and talk to her. Not everything that is hard (horrible, etc.) is true. Not all true things arrive through pain. Don’t even get me started about the historical events.

    I mean heaven forbid that gets involved. I grew up thinking Joseph Smith didn’t have a wife. We never discussed her. Around High School she suddenly morphed on the picture, in statue form. All loving, breezy and connected. Yes she has a couple of temper flaws, but really they were a team. He would never betray her or go behind her back or marry other women. Today I couldn’t tell you who Joseph and Emma were. But my images, my heart strings were influenced. Trek does the same. I vote for the old fashioned dating, dances and BBQ conferences. If not let’s do a Mountain Meadows Reenactment for the next pioneer adventure.

  19. John Mansfield says:

    “John, I certainly hope so.”

    Well, if the aim was getting folks to top one another in demonstrating how exquisitely tender their feelings and fears for others’ potential feelings are, then the post has been fairly effective.

  20. Yes, as Blair alluded to above, if these kids gain any sort of brittle persecution testimony that stems from feeling something during the pretend mob, what happens when they learn that not only were Mormons sometimes the mobs, but in terms of pioneer deaths, Mormons persecuted non-Mormons much more than the other way around?

  21. John, are you arguing that we should ignore others’ feelings, that we should be callous toward how they’ll react? Because if so, this is clearly not the thread for you. If not, I’d certainly love for you to clarify your position.

    Also, you’re misreading the post and the comments horrendously (see? I don’t really care about others’ feelings). FWIW.

  22. Marc, what are we teaching the kids if we teach them the mobs are supposed to be fun and/or silly? Why not just play a pioneer game if you’re going for fun/silly or a decent match of capture the flag? That’s martial enough, isn’t it?

  23. Sam, I am dumbfounded by these videos you’ve found. These are truly very bad examples. That burning of the Nauvoo temple? Amazingly mindless. I heard people cheering as the temple was set on fire. Cheering at the burning of one of our temples?

    Spiritual escalation is a very good way to describe this alarming trend. Manufacturing spiritual experiences is, in itself, problematic. But this spiritual escalation basically encapsulates a lot that is wrong with us culturally right now. We can’t trust our members or our youth to commune with the divine on their own while on a contemplative trek experience so we manufacture these ridiculous pretend adversities and calamities and think that they’re having a real spiritual experience. We are known to encourage them to say real prayers about pretend situations, such as when a member of their “family” group disappears in the night (because she’s been taken out to simulate her death on the plains).

    This shouldn’t be found among us.

  24. These type of events also really, really play into the fear and persecution rhetoric. As the bible tells us not a spirit of fear but of love, is what we should be going for. I can easily imagine after the mob attack, a well-meaning leader saying something like the following:

    “Today we may not be attacked by mobs but you are are *attacked* everyday by the evil, awful world. That feeling of fear you had? That is the feeling we parents feel for you every day we send you out into this wicked, awful world….” yadda, yadda. Spiritual escalation is a great term, and spiritual escalation based in a rhetoric of fear, closedness and us versus them rhetoric concerns me the most. In my mind people use fear to manipulate. I don’t see this as very different. I don’t think many kids will either.

  25. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I’m not kidding…the whole premise, facilitation, and enactment of trek scares the hell out of me. This is mormonism run amok. The scariest part is that I am not even the least bit surprised.

  26. At Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern CA there is a stagecoach ride, real horses pulling a real stagecoach through part of the park. When I went there as a child and rode on it, halfway through there was a mock holdup. Masked bandits stopped the stagecoach, shot their guns in the air and robbed us. It was terrible, terrifying, horrible. To this day I need trigger warnings for bandannas and for triggers. I have panic attacks in Frontierland. Creaking leather induces cold sweat. And it wasn’t even historically accurate, bandits didn’t traditionally rob people in theme parks. Amusement park escalation is real and it’s entertainment run amok.

  27. John F.,

    I really don’t think we are teaching kids that mobs are fun. The silliness factor came in when the kids saw their leaders try to act mean and menacing. I think the point of the mob reenactment was to illustrate trials that pioneers faced. (To be clear, this was not my idea. I could’ve done without it. I just think the criticism is going a bit far).

    A goal of trek is that the kids have fun, but I don’t think the kids leave actually thinking that people in the Willie and Martin handcart companies were having fun.

    “We can’t trust our members or our youth to commune with the divine on their own while on a contemplative trek experience so we manufacture these ridiculous pretend adversities and calamities and think that they’re having a real spiritual experience.”

    You are one of my favorite commenters but I think this is a bit unfair. The point of trek is to have a contemplative experience. Treks are several days and full of quiet time for contemplation. The reenactments are the exception and not the rule.

    I guess I am having trouble with the idea that manufacturing spiritual experiences, in and of itself, is problematic. What are we talking about? Isn’t a testimony meeting manufacturing a spiritual experience? How about a nativity reenactment? A Christian pilgrimage?

    If you are just referring situations like the burial of baby dolls or praying about instances when a pretend family member is “lost” then I agree. If you are talking about trek or reenactments in general then I would differ.

  28. “If you are just referring situations like the burial of baby dolls or praying about instances when a pretend family member is “lost” then I agree.” — this is what I’m talking about, and mob reenactments and burning the Nauvoo temple and myriad other such contrivances in this cultural practice.

    The Christian pilgrimage comparison is apt — similar to trek in some ways but it is an experience of very personal communion with God as one trudges along. Each pilgrim can be trusted to encounter that divine presence on his or her own just by virtue of being part of it. And that will look different for each person. As is reality.

  29. Another point I would make is, generally speaking, the youth enjoy trek and report that they have spiritual experiences.

    Isn’t this a good enough reason to do it?

  30. I think it would be interesting if the pioneer trek reenactment movement could evolve into something more like a traditional Christian pilgrimage. I think that’s part of the attraction of the idea–we get something from walking in the footsteps of those that went before us. But maybe try it without the reenactment element, the unnecessary hardships, and scripted horrors? Keep the walking, the camaraderie, the times for quiet inward reflection, and (understated) campfire devotionals.

    But pilgrimages tend to be a sort of Roman thing, and the cultural affinities of Mormonism are aligned less with Roman pilgrimages and more with Evangelical hell-houses.

  31. Marc, I don’t think anyone is saying to do away with treks entirely. They’re not really my kind of thing, but there is certainly (blessedly, even) diversity in Mormons’ interests, and I’d hate to exclude one person’s deeply moving experience just because it’s not the kind of thing that touches me.

    I think john, like most of us, is referring specifically to the over-the-top things that seem to be planned within some treks (like mobs, doll burials, and starvation diets). It’s hard to say that the trek experience would be worse, for example, if the kids played capture-the-flag (or, better yet, authentic pioneer games!) (although capture-the-flag is a pretty cool game, so that too) to break up the monotony of walking and pulling.

    And there’s a difference between authentic and emotionally-manipulative. Sure, the experience is manufactured, and I agree with you that we shouldn’t shy away just because it’s manufactured (because there’s not much choice there, if we’re choosing a particular three-day weekend to do something over), but what we manufacture doesn’t have to be over-the-top or manipulative; I believe it’s possible to manufacture (the setting for, at least) authentic spiritual experiences.

    And again, I’m not saying by any means that the whole three days needs to be solemn and quiet. Have games! Have a dance! Have competitions! Laugh and have fun! All of those things build friendships and are an important part of life. I’m just saying, you don’t need to bury a doll to have empathy for those who lost children on the trek. If that’s the empathy you want, have someone read a series of pioneer journal entries around the campfire at night. Or something.

  32. “but it is an experience of very personal communion with God as one trudges along. Each pilgrim can be trusted to encounter that divine presence on his or her own just by virtue of being part of it. And that will look different for each person. As is reality.”

    I think this is the goal of trek too. We are probably just in the beginning stages of learning line upon line and precept upon precept.

    Maybe in a few years our treks will be more like the Christian pilgrimages and we will get rid of some of the silliness.

  33. Sam, I agree with your comment about emotional manipulation in the form of starvation diets and baby dolls. And I know you were not calling for an end to treks. My last comment was more directed at some of the other criticism.

  34. “I think that’s part of the attraction of the idea–we get something from walking in the footsteps of those that went before us. But maybe try it without the reenactment element, the unnecessary hardships, and scripted horrors? Keep the walking, the camaraderie, the times for quiet inward reflection, and (understated) campfire devotionals.” -gst

    As I understand it from friends who participated in it, the above quote (thank you gst) is what the initial Sesquicentennial Trek Team did. All sorts of wagons, hand carts, lone walkers in period clothes made the distance from Illinois to Utah, without all the extra events thrown in. At nights they did dance, have campfire with ancestral stories, dutch oven or campfire food, and daily spiritual private time. The came together and had church in the outdoors. They did the chores that pioneers would do. If our youth treks were more of this, I would be delighted. My struggle came the first time our stake did one, the adults made/created a mishmash of starvation, deprivation and so on. A good friend of mine who was a chaperone, and on horse back said he could carry all the trail mix, water, etc he wanted. The kids were rationed. One was traumatized by the fear, the hunger. The horse back riding friend, had to sneak snacks to her because he could see the problem arising. That was over a decade ago. I am all for pilgrimages, historic re enactments, and walking a mile in someone’s moccasins, but we need to decide which one to hold and why. Then figure out a better how.

  35. Cat’s comment reminds me that there was a Centennial reenactment from Illinois to Utah, too. We used to have a copy of a book that was made about it, mainly because it had a picture of my wife’s grandfather, who won the stick-pulling contest.

  36. Last fall, I represented our Bishopric with a Scout bike ride from Nauvoo to Carthage. More than one adult leader on that trip thought it was a sort of Mormon version of The Stations of the Cross. Unfortunately, the boys mostly remember how the guide at the jail told them that we worship Joseph Smith. (Yes, I corrected that doctrinal point.)

    The trek plague might be intended to function the same way, but it can be done in any piece of wilderness available. And while the sentiments might be admirable, putting youth in the footsteps of the pioneers, they stand a much better chance of remembering killing chickens, burying dolls, and marching at 2 AM with insufficient water to get back to their starting point.

  37. So when a fake-pioneer youth offers a real prayer for deliverance from a fake-mobster, does God hear that prayer?

  38. I’m also not suggesting the end of trek. Just the end of kitsch and spiritual escalation.

  39. Part of my problem with trek is that it instills in people the idea that handcarts are the central part of the LDS pioneer heritage. We focus so much on handcarts that we sometimes forget the hardships endured as the Saints were chased from one city to another (long before the handcarts) and the hardships endured by many as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came to a brand new continent where they often had to learn a new language and new customs (many of them after the handcarts).

  40. “Spiritual escalation” as I understand the meaning (baby dolls, burning of Nauvoo temple, etc.) should definitely be ended.

    The church ending kitsch??? I just don’t have that faith. My guess is that is something that happens during the Millennium.

  41. Also, just as a historical note regarding the burning of the Nauvoo Temple. It was not burnt while in the possession of the church (well, it did have one small $100 fire during construction that happened because of a malfunctioning stovepipe). The church had sold the temple by then for $5000 and then it was going to be leased out as a college for the Home Missionary
    Society of New York. After the lease was in place, an arsonist did come in and set fire to the temple in 1848.

  42. If they want to be historically accurate why don’t they trek like 90% of the actual pioneers did? In wagons, pulled by mules.

  43. Or like about half of the pioneers–on a long overseas voyage from Europe.

  44. there was a tall ship voyage in the nature of trek about ten years ago — that looked really cool.

  45. John Mansfield says:

    Thirty-odd years ago I took in the Manti pageant, and I remember the explanation/disclaimer before the show that though only a fraction of Mormon pioneers had used handcarts, maneuvering animal-drawn wagons across the temple hillside was more difficulty than those producing the show wanted to take on. Those gathering to Zion used various transportation modes, but handcarts for transcontinental migration is unique to Latter-day Saints. The handcart is a pretty nice icon of the gathering.

  46. Next up in our Stake at the Joseph Smith Encampment: a mock tar and feathering re-enactment using molasses or syrup or some such as the tar.

    When will we just rip off the band-aid and go straight to ritual crucifixions like they do in the Philippines?

  47. The trek my kids and husband are headed to this week did in fact include an early morning mob attack complete with the firing of guns.

    The youth and their mas and pas were to be surprised in their tents by the sound of gunfire (blanks) going off around the camp and men going through the camp with firearms (real, but unloaded) and other weapons yelling at them to get off their land.

    The participants would emerge from tents not knowing that the guns right next to them weren’t loaded, nor that the guns being fired were only blanks. There are 12 year olds on this trek, kids who have never done sleep away camp.

    My husband was asked to participate in the mob and was horrified when he saw the instructions. No way do I want anyone carrying weapons as props and toys around my kids. No way am I okay with someone even pretending to threaten my child with a gun. The fact that the kids may know some of these people (multiple wards, so they really don’t know many of the adults involved) may alleviate some fears, but that doesn’t make it okay. If my son with Asperger’s was on this trek he would not recover and we would need to bring him home. My 13 year old daughter would not fair much better as being startled and scared upsets her more than the average person. She would struggle greatly to trust the adults on trek after that. Because neither parents nor adult participants besides those chosen for the mob were informed of these plans there would be no opportunity to plan for the needs of certain individuals.

    The mob/gun portion of our trek has been removed because of parental concern once word got out. I can’t imagine a time when purposely scaring kids is a tool to be used to teach gospel principles. And as Blair pointed out, those who aren’t scared are likely to see it as funny, which doesn’t seem conducive to the goal of understanding the hardships of the pioneers.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time in the wilderness with kids I can tell you that the experience of being removed from daily comforts and distractions will foster enough opportunities for reflection and growth without the need for manufactured and contrived situations engineered to drive home the point. As someone stated above, kids are smart. Let’s give them credit and assume they can draw meaning from their experiences without us having to connect the dots, with increasingly bigger and brighter sharpies, for them.

  48. I am grateful every day my stake does not participate in trek which I absolutely loathe. And attacks by an angry mob brandishing real or fake firearms? For frak’s sake! I can’t even. How is this possibly a real thing?

  49. melodynew says:

    In the late 1970s, when the trek phenomenon was in its infancy, I had the pleasure of volunteering (as a 15-year-old) to assist in skinning a sheep whose throat had been slit in front of the entire youth group; the blood drained from the animal into a small bowl-shaped area dug in the dirt. The sheep made a crying, gurgling sound as it died.

    The sheep-killer strung the animal up by its hind legs after killing it, cut it down its belly (or was it the back? I don’t remember now) and instructed me to push my hand between the muscle tissue and the wool-covered skin. I still remember the heat inside that newly-slaughtered animal, the tensile-ish strength of the fascia as I tried with varying success to tear it free from muscle. I suppose I volunteered because no one else was stepping up (gee-whiz! I wonder why) and blood and guts didn’t scare me much. (I eventually became a nurse.) But several children present were severely traumatized by this event. Later, we baked bread in the animal’s stomach. . . I’m quite certain law suits followed.

    Part of our history as a church apparently includes idiocy by adults who plan youth activities. This is a wonderful post. Thanks for writing it.

  50. melodynew says:

    And lawsuits.

    Oh, we also rinsed out the intestines and made some sort of dumplings with them. I ate ash cakes for supper and was better for it.

  51. What????

  52. What Steve said. But also, thanks for the story.

  53. MDearest says:

    I’m amazed that none of these faux-mobsters ever went to scout camp where they (presumably) would have been taught basic gun safety, as our scouts were, beginning at cubs’ day camp. Or did they ever review the requirements for any of the merit badges involving guns? I was there as an adult leader when a very experienced gun enthusiast drilled our scouts on the cardinal rule of gun safety: A gun is never safe. I’ve never forgotten it.

  54. Geoff - Aus says:

    The handcarts have just reached Australia. We just had a treck in our Brisbane stake. The beautifully made handcarts arrived. We have 3 in our stake. The kids and handcarts were trucked/bussed out into the bush 500k the event was catered, and portalood.

    The handcarts cost about US$700 and shipping and getting them through customs would have cost probably close to $5000 A$ for the 3. I find it difficult to justify. None of our kids have this culture, except through the church.

    What could we do with $5000 helping those in need? The kids do the walk without the handcarts.

  55. Trigger Warning: Discusses fake mob attacks that may occur along with the rest of the fake pioneer stuff on a reenactment trek.


    I’m pretty much with Marc on this. Five of my six kids (four girls, one boy so far) have gone on trek and their experiences ranged from very good to great. (Mostly aligned with home much they like camping and being dirty.) If my kids were going to be “traumatized” by the experience I would have kept them home.

    That said, I think ya’ll need to just head over to the new Trek Safety website. Watch the videos. That Miranda girl is AWESOME. Just sayin’.

  56. Hedgehog says:

    Perhaps the final line of the Trek Safety page should be the first line: “youth do not need to suffer through these same trials to gain an appreciation for the sacrifices of the handcart pioneers.”

  57. How exactly is simulated violence meant to evoke the Spirit?! What’s next, flagellation?

    As corny as those “what would Jesus do?” stickers are, the general idea isn’t a bad one–would Jesus approve of a mob pretending to attack kids? As I recall, he had some hard words for those who would injure the littlest among us.

  58. Hook 'em Horns says:

    Since more of the early Saints died of cholera than from violence, perhaps giving the kids a low level diarrhea would help them appreciate pioneer heritage.

    Trek seems more and more to be the LDS version of “scared straight”.

  59. This is just bizarre. I am glad that our stake has never gotten into the whole trek thing.

    I do like the idea of a pilgrimage, and I’m trying to get the other leaders in our ward on board to do a bike trip from Palmyra to Harmony, so I get that there is value in walking in the footsteps of the past as a way to connect with history. But there is a fundamental difference, I think, between a pilgrimage and a re-enactment. In my mind, a pilgrimage is for introspection and spiritually connecting our world to the world of the past, not so much by severing ties with our world (even temporarily), but by seeking a connection between our world and the world of the past, something like turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. The goal is not historical accuracy, even in small doses, but connection.

    A re-enactment, on the other hand, is more of a performance. It’s about becoming a character, or playing a part, in order to teach about the past, rather than about having a personal experience with the past. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, and it certainly has its place, and of course, a performance can result in introspection and in a personal experience, it seems that a re-enactment is better designed to result in education rather than instrospection. Not too long ago we took our scouts to a reconstructed revolutionary war fort and had them spend the night on the straw beds and then spend the next morning marching and drilling. I think it was a worthwhile experience, and taught them a lot. But I don’t think it resulted in a kind of introspective personal experience until the afternoon, when we visited a battlefield and walked the grounds.

    My sense is that these trek activities don’t really know whether they are a pilgrimage or a re-enactment. They are sort of trying to be both, but doing neither very well. On the one hand people do all kinds of things to make it seem more “authentic” (making kids wear some version of period clothing, mock mobs, mock funerals, etc.), but when it is pointed out that these things aren’t even authentic, then the response is that the point isn’t authenticity but spiritual growth. If that’s true, then why not just do a pilgrimage, where the youth follow some portion of the handcart trail or something like that, but do it wearing normal clothing and spending their down time reading histories, writing in journals, and things like that? Or, if some people want to wear period clothing or push a handcart or whatever, let them do it, but let them do it because that is how they personally choose to make the experience meaningful, don’t make everyone do it. If we don’t like the word pilgrimage, because it sounds too catholic, or something, we can call it something else, but that seems to me to be more conducive to spiritual growth than the kinds of play-acting that a lot of stakes seem to be doing with the whole trek idea as it currently appears to be executed.

  60. Mark B. says:

    ” cut it down its belly (or was it the back? I don’t remember now)”

    Seriously?? You don’t remember if the guy pulled out his bone saw and cut through the spinal column and then spread the cut wide enough for you to reach into?

    (I’ll admit–this is quite a long ways from faux mob attacks.)

  61. My niece went on a trek activity with her Portland area stake. I think that the leaders tried to make it a good experience. No mob, etc., but she came back with a lot of misconceptions about mormon pioneer history and was upset to learn the true history of the handcarts only being used for a very short time and the Mormon Battalion actually occurring almost ten years earlier.
    I have always disliked manufactured spiritual experiences. They have no staying power and I have always considered them superficial and false. Yes, one can seek a spiritual experience, but to artificially contrive one, even with a good heart and a goal to help someone is wrong.

  62. Clearly i have been on al of the wrong treks. The only thing that scares me more than the prospect of a fake mob is a group of lawyers drawing up a list to be enforced by the Fun Police thus taking away my Freedom.

    Since ours were devoid of mobs we did try and spruce up the boredom a bit by introducing polyandry amongst us teenagers which we were able to keep on the down low the whole time.

    It appears the Central Planning Committee has enshrined an activity that various secret societies, fraternities, sports teams and elite military units have known for a very long time: Hazing rituals promote bonding within the group and it turns out there’s plenty of academic literature to show that this does indeed work quite well.

    I do, however, think that a prerequisite for becoming a part of the fake mob is to first partake in a mock Abrahamic sacrifice of one’s own children without knowing ahead of time whether or not someone is going to step in and prevent the sacrifice. I’d definitely let that person scare me with blanks anytime.

  63. Chadwick says:

    Hi Sam:

    Long time no comment!

    I endured trek once as a teen and while there were several thing I disliked, it was a unique experience. But some stakes do it every year. I’m curious about these stakes. Are they lazy? Uncreative? Just really love trek? I can’t imagine going on trek 7 years. What would the law of diminishing returns have to say?

    My cousin lives in Eagle. I’ll have to find out more.

  64. Left Field says:

    I just have to say this.

    I really hate dropping the article. You don’t “go on trek.” You go on a trek.

    But perhaps those who “graduate high school” are the ones who “go on trek.” Everyone else goes on a trek.

    Thank you for your attention.

  65. Thank you Left Field. Like attending the prom, or a prom, not “going to prom”.

  66. Not sure that grammar makes a lot of sense. After all, we keep expecting these youth to come back to civilization, stand in testimony meeting, and tell us “I know that Trek is true”. The phrase “I know that The Trek is true” just doesn’t seem correct, and we all know that the purpose of these things in the first place is to build testimonies….

  67. Samurai6 says:

    I lived outside the US for 10 years and missed out on the Trek hype for years. I recently went on a trek with my stake after moving back to Idaho. The manufactured spirituality is there for sure and I struggle with that (especially imaginary dead people) but overall I found it a good experience (didn’t have any mob attacks) and I’m pretty slow to have good experiences. The great outdoors and some sweat are a pretty good recipe in my opinion for improving your life outlook. I liked that it was coed, too. Our kids need to learn to interact with people of the opposite sex without fearing imminent pregnancy at all times (or trying to create it).

    As for potential torts etc. I’m tired of our country’s obsession with this. I was gone 10 years and now back in the US I hear 12 year olds at scout camp talking about “liability” (in Idaho even). The training in the scout program for climbing, shooting etc. is so extensive that I have to spend multiple vacation days in scout shorts and socks just to be able to do these activities. If our liability culture were actually informing people of risks and how to manage them I’d be for it but instead I see long seminars devoid of real meaning that we jump through so that we have an attendance record involving approved content in case someone gets sued and the insurance company gets involved. People who have been to these seminars and are stupid will still destroy rock formations. How do you solve for idiots among us?

    And while I’m ranting, can someone trace for me the mumbo jumbo in the handbook about Christmas lights on trees in the gym? I assume this for a lower church wide liability insurance premium.

  68. Until the summer of ’77, we got up in testimony meeting and proclaimed “I know that Star Trek is true.” Then it became more fashionable to declare “I know The Force is the priesthood”. Dropping the “The” got you a lecture from the bishop about D&C 121:41.

  69. Here’s a letter I wrote my son when he went on Trek:

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