Trudging up a steep dirt trail dotted with rocks in the back hills of Los Padres National Forest, 16-year-old Seth Rosario is sweating. Along with nine others, he’s pushing a rickety wooden handcart uphill in the first stretch of a 30-mile trip that will last for days.
The cart, designed to be pulled by an oxen or horse, is brimming with 400 pounds of simple necessities -- sleeping bags, toilet paper and flour. There are no cellphones, laptops, stereos or semblance of modern times.
“Watch out bro,” Rosario tells one of his family members, Tanner Funk, pointing to a rock in the trail. The dress is simple: loose Oxford shirts, khakis and straw hats for the boys; handstitched skirts, plaid blouses and bonnets for the girls.
The scene could come straight out of "The Oregon Trail." Instead, it's how more than 300 Mormon youth from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are paying tribute to the pioneers of their religion, many of whom died during a cross-country trek that lasted thousands of miles in the 1850s while fleeing persecution.
“We’re trying to re-create it as best we can in the modern day,” trek leader Dennis Emory said.
The experience, organized every four years, is a chance for Mormon youth to bond with others, pay homage to their ancestors and appreciate modern conveniences, church leaders said.
Central Coast teenagers began meeting at Live Oak Campgrounds in the Santa Ynez Valley early Thursday morning before being split up into “families” of 10. Each was assigned trail leaders, known as “Ma’s and Pa’s.” Few knew each other before the start of the day.
“All the families are mixed up … and they have to work tough as a family, and they have all kinds of hardships, and it does get hard out there,” said Mike Peterson, whose kids participated in the trek years ago.
Most of the kids have older siblings or relatives who have gone through the experience and offered them words of advice before the trip.
“It brings out the worst in people -- that’s what my brother said. You get to see what they really look like,” said Abigail Smith, who is related to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Others looked at the trip more optimistically.
“It’s a bonding experience," said Isabelle Sherman, a 17-year old who is making the trek again. "I went when I was 13 years old, so at first you’re really quiet then at the end of the first night you feel like a family. It’s just something that connects you, knowing that you’re a family and have to pull all your stuff up a hill.”
On a lunch break stop along the trail, kids sat quietly while they ate sandwiches packed from home, cups of apple sauce and salads topped with craisins and walnuts. It’s the only meal of the trip not provided for them.
“I think we try to emulate enough of the pioneer experience without the dying and hunger involved in the real experience,” said Bryson Pope while munching on a bag of homemade cookies. The 25-year-old “Pa” made the trek in Martin Cove, Wyoming, 10 years ago. “I’m planning on eating pretty good.”
But when families open their lunch sacks today, they won’t find such luxuries, Emory said.
“Nobody’s going to go hungry, but they’re not going to be real happy when they open up their lunch sack (today) and find a potato in there,” Emory said.
The trails along the trek are rough, and the first uphill climb that left many panting is among the easiest legs of the trip, he said.
Four years ago, a creek along the trail flooded and groups splashed in the shallow end, wading up to their knees as a temporary relief from the heat.
“It felt good for a minute,” said Scott Saunders, a doctor riding along on the trek. “But the medical tent was full that night with kids that got blisters.”
Throughout the course of the trek, there are some complainers and occasionally some that drop out of the trip, but they’re in the minority, Emory said.
“Afterward, many say they never would have made it up the hill without the prayer and spirit of God. That’s what this trip is all about.”