“I’ll bet no pioneer mother ever had to tell her daughter to get her clothes back on.” The thought ran through my head as I stared back at the defiant teen in front of me and said, “No, you can’t wear a tank top on this trek. Pioneer women didn’t wear tank tops. They knew that walking uncovered through this heat would dry them out in a day and kill them in a week. So they put on their skirts and blouses, tied on their sun-resistant bonnets that kept the flies out of their faces, and walked without whining. Now get dressed so we can catch up with the others.”
That was not the response she’d expected. She was all geared up to tell me she was so hot that she just had to wear her tank top or she’d die. With that argument completely knocked out of her, she crossly pulled her shirt back on. Trudging silently side by side, we eventually caught up with the rest of our “pioneer family,” which consisted of my husband (the “Pa” to my “Ma”) and 11 other teenagers dragging our wooden handcarts through the sagebrush.
This was a pioneer trek experience, designed by well-meaning church leaders to give their youth the chance to catch a glimpse of what life was like as a pioneer. Along with about a dozen other “families,” we put all our belongings in wooden handcarts and for several days pulled them through the sagebrush along a pioneer trail. We cooked self-prepared food over a self-made fire, set up our tents, and slept on the unyielding ground. The hoped-for results were more grateful, resilient, spiritual, appreciative, hardy, strong, tough, enduring youth.
In a few cases, the opposite occurred (think tank top girl), but that’s just a thinning of the herd. For the most part, we watched these youngsters grow into pioneers as they trekked their way through the week. Even their initially awkward pioneer clothing fit them more naturally as they pushed and pulled their handcarts, gathered wood, built fires, square danced by moonlight, and gradually traded their present-day existence for a pioneer one.
The easiest part of parenting these youngsters was not competing with their electronics for their attention and involvement. The kids had agreed to leave those home. We noticed some of them were initially cranky about that (going through withdrawals), then confused (didn’t know what to do with their empty hands), and finally — fun. They began to talk with each other face to face, work together and build themselves into a unit.
I know you’re not supposed to have favorites among your kids. But these were someone else’s kids and, oh yes, I did have favorites. One was the young man who enthusiastically chopped wood like a madman. Another was the young woman who appeared at my side whenever I started a meal preparation. She clearly knew her way around a kitchen — even one set up in the wilderness.
We were lucky enough to have a perpetually happy youngster in our “family.” She had a knack for cheering us up, even on the day the clouds broke above us in buckets of rain and we pulled our carts through mud. It could have been awful; she made it entertaining. She even turned collecting cow chips to burn into a hilarious game.
And then there was our work horse — a young man who pulled the entire time, reluctant to give up his spot on the handcart. At the end of the day, he’d haul entire dead trees into camp for firewood. How could we not love these youngsters?
Youth’s lives tend to let them be self-centered as they take care of their own needs, which are many. But thrown into this setting, they had to be a team. They couldn’t pull a full handcart up a rocky ridge alone, set up a canvas tarp tent alone or feed a fire and a family alone. The pioneers worked together to stay alive. These kids figured that out — and eventually embraced it.
My husband and I also grew in this experience. I’ve never really thought about what it was like to be a pioneer parent. Now I know it was hard. And demanding. And frightening. They either had to meld their children into a functioning unit or lose them. It must have been daunting. But they did it, and likely felt a sense of satisfaction every now and then.
We felt that on the final evening when the trek ended with a meeting where the youth had a chance to share their thoughts about what they’d been through. Each of our “children” stood up and expressed gratitude for the experience. Finally tank top girl stood — and thanked us.
Bonnets also hide tears.