The year I turned 16 I had spent most of the summer living in Manhattan, Kansas, working as a secretary at my grandfather’s counseling practice. My work consisted mostly of menial organizational tasks, so I’d get to listen to music until four in the afternoon, when I’d ride my bike either to the park to practice guitar or to a local bookshop where I could trade in two used books for one. My parents sent me away to Kansas because I’d fallen a bit in love with a boy who they thought was distracting me from school. Really I was just skipping my Mormon Seminary and Physics classes to go watch Ted talks in the library, sometimes mixing it up by hanging out with my debate teacher or going to a coffee shop. (I’d have to hang out in an opium den to feel as slick ‘n rebellious as I did hanging out at coffee shops as a Mormon teenager) When I returned back home it was late August. Home was Holladay, a sprawling middle-class suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah.
One particular afternoon I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk of my neighborhood church, a sort of clinical-looking, outdated building with carpet climbing halfway up the interior walls. (Most Mormon in churches have walls like this, I’m not sure why) The roads had just been freshly paved, a dark asphalt that burned your feet if you walked barefoot, which in the summer you always make the mistake of doing. I’d managed to divide my hair into two sections of scraggly braids, around which I’d tied a white bonnet, a neat bow at the base of my chin. Around my waist I wore an apron, under which I had on a long indigo skirt dotted with small pink and white wildflowers. Into the parking lot drove a continuous line of minivans. Dozens of people dressed like myself hopped out their cars, kids hugging their families goodbye, some tearing up while others bowed their heads in prayer. Each person brought with them a garbage sack containing clothes, toothbrushes, and journals- belongings which were searched through thoroughly to ensure that no sort of technology made its way in.
It is Mormon tradition to participate in what we call “Trek” at one point between ages 14-18. Trek takes place over the course of three days during which participants dress up as pioneers and are organized into family units with whom we pull large wooden handcarts 24 miles through the wilderness, all the while engaging in religious discourse. The goal is to reenact, in a very minor way comparatively, what Mormon pioneers experienced while migrating on foot from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City Valley in 1847. In preparation of Trek, everyone was to read of the many challenges pioneers encountered along the way- frostbite, disease, and in some unfortunate cases, death. I had reluctantly agreed to go because, in the months leading up to trek, I had heard that fantastical things were known to occur: that God would speak to you in the absence of modern distractions, that testimonies miraculously grew, that the spirits of pioneers would be right there beside you helping you along. I was told that through trek, people could find confirmation, a sense of direction in the seemingly endless walking. This all appealed very much to me as a sort of romantic adventurer drawn to the mystical but especially as a young girl searching for confirmation of a religion that was beginning to no longer resonate with me.
After gathering together at church, hundreds of us rode together to Wyoming, a drive full of sing-a-longs to Disney musicals (Donny Osmond’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan being a favorite). A few hours later we were plopped out into a great field in the middle of nowhere. We gathered around man who read off our assigned family names. “Brother and Sister Andersen, your children are Jake, Alma, Samantha…” and trailed off to list others who would become a family over the next three days. Mine consisted of a Ma and Pa, three sisters and two brothers. We stood there, figures in this field, faces both familiar and ones we couldn’t recognize, introducing ourselves and feeling very much of another time. As the suburbans and minivans drove off into the distance, disappearing behind mountains so dry their surface crackled, we tried to organize ourselves. What started as the blowing of dirt in our eyes became a full blown dust storm, some hats and bonnets catching loose and flitting away. Every family was provided a wooden hand cart that carried all the supplies we’d need over the next three days- tarps, sleeping bags, logs, clothing, scriptures, food, and water. It took the effort of all eight in my family to successfully navigate it through grassy hills, rocky peaks, shallow rivers, wild terrain.
Trek commenced as we shielded our faces and sang primary songs to boost morale. “Pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked…” and walked from the desert landscape into green mountains. After a long day of walking we’d practice archery, make butter, or square dance, followed by cooking dinner with our families, studying the scriptures, then laying out blue all-purpose tarps we slept on. Our nightly home bases happened to be cow grazing fields. We lied next to each other under the stars, wafts of honey butter scones, manure, and kerosine lulling us to sleep. Sometimes I’d flinch at nighttime sounds near off, but then Pa would walk around with his flashlight to find the source, which was usually just a rabbit or frog. When I woke the next morning, I became aware of a sleepwalking problem, that twice during the night I’d woken up and tried to wander off. One of my sisters got the idea that we could attach a string around both of our wrists before bed. That way if I got up to walk away again, she could make sure I stayed in-sight on the tarp.
The second day of trek proved to be more difficult than the first. The weather had turned cold and a rainstorm begun. We continued walking on, lips turning various shades of purple, clothes soaking through, squishy pools in the soles of my shoes. I was jealous of my sister, Sterling, who had avascular necrosis (meaning the bones in her feet “died” and broke broke) and was able to sit in a cart as others pulled her. Occasional breaks from walking were spent telling pioneer stories. Ma encouraged us, her pack of disheveled wet puppies, to hang in there. “We are being tested physically and spiritually and now is the time to keep positive and work together.” Deprived of a comfortable sleep and exhausted from the distance covered, testimony meetings heightened more and more in intensity. My Ma and Pa attributed the heightened perceptivity of the spirit to the massive distance we all had from our “worldly” lives, but I wondered if it was moreso hunger and sleep deprivation. (our only rest stop snacks were wheat thins, cheese sticks, and delicious homemade beef jerky that I hoarded, stuffing leftover hand fulls into my pockets) That was the day I really began to bond with Sterling. In her I recognized a sort of questioning, a puzzled look in her eyes that mirrored my own. Sterling and I couldn’t really engage in meaningful discourse with one another. We were usually no more than ten feet away from another family member, but we began to have this rapport where we’d poke and prod in a very roundabout, indirect way into the other’s feelings about trek and about Mormonism as a whole, trying to express ourselves without directly admitting what we were thinking. I felt there was a lot of unspoken communication. We were both still earnestly devoted to the church, but traded wary glances during an instance where one man declared in testimony meeting that he’d been visited by his Pioneer namesake, that he found a card with his name in the shrubs.
In the last leg of trek, our physical efforts of pushing and pulling the cart led up to one great slope, specifically selected to test our strength and add some dramatic gusto in one grand finale. People barely made it up this hill, and those at the top cheered on the next groups. When every group had finally made it up, we all gathered around, full of emotion, humility, and pride as people shared their revelations from trek. At that point, families felt especially bonded. We had to rely on each other so much over the last few days that felt more like weeks, spending every moment of the day beside each other walking, pulling, sharing things we’d never shared with anyone else.
Before continuing on with our last mile, we were all given a paper and envelope and told to wander off into nature just like Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon Church, did. We were to write letters to our future selves, expressing our current thoughts and feelings. I remember the sky being a bright clear blue. The bright fields and mountains startlingly beautiful, untame. Drawn to a patch of sunflowers, I sat down with my paper and pen. I tried again and again to write, only to scribble out sentence after sentence. I knelt on my knees, bowed my head, and prayed that God would send the spirit my way to help me know what to write, how to feel. This task was surprisingly strenuous. Confused, I looked around at the serene expressions of others, the dirty limbs extending from the petal-like skirts of my sisters sitting a few yards away from me. Figures sprawled across the landscape, lying in the fields with hurried hands scribbling away. Some smiled, others cried, moved. Looking down at my blank paper I just couldn’t think of anything to write. No feelings or spiritual revelations had bubbled up, like I’d expected them to. I didn’t know what to say, what to write, and felt so absolutely embarrassed. I tucked my blank letter in my paper, cheeks pink, ashamed. I had prayed, I had read all of the same scripture passages, sung the same songs and done the same things as everyone. I both loathed and enjoyed Trek, just as everyone else had, as we walked and walked. But in the end, unlike them, I ultimately felt absolutely nothing. I was unchanged.
At the end of the mile, my real family was waiting for me- my mother, my father, my little brother- cheering me on on with other real-life parents as our Trek families made it to the end. Still dressed in skirt and bonnet, body brown with dirt, I went with my parents to get burritos. When we got home, I took a shower, three days of grime pooling down to create a orange-brown sludge around my ankles. Over the next month, as school began again, I continuously ran into people who went on Trek with me. We had witnessed each other get physically beaten down, temporarily we had become family, shared existential concerns and stories, only to return to our regular suburban lives and become strangers once more. At church, some gave talks about how special their trek experience was, and I just nodded my head in agreement, saying “yeah, yeah, me too,” while I couldn’t have felt more differently from them. Sterling was the one person I remained close with from Trek. She became one of my best friends over the next several years as I navigated my way out of the church and Utah. After five years apart, we’re both living and studying in New York together.
It’s been a long road, reconciling with this past I have with Mormonism and learning to function living a life void of it in New York. And it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to Utah around the holidays, now being very much aware of and having experienced firsthand the oppression and sense of alienation that the LDS community has currently and historically imposed on women, people of color, and those apart of the queer community. Looking back on my trek experience, the whole concept of it seems so strange now, although back then it felt incredibly normal. It’s more of a hazy dream than real-life memory, recalling the image of over 200 people hauling wooden carts with pseudo families through Wyoming in this wildly performative practice of faith. I think in fully immersive experiences like that, really profound, beautiful, and truthful things can be felt. Trek does has a way of really testing people’s faith as it becomes either heightened or, as with Sterling and myself, what becomes realized is a dubious distinction that this is not where you want to be, that it’s not your truth, and to use that recognition as fuel to go out and find that truth, whatever it may be. ♦