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Posted: July 30, 2010 12:00 a.m.

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A walk through time

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For an adherent of any faith, the opportunity to connect directly with one’s spiritual heritage is rare. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a unique privilege, in that their religious history runs parallel to American history. Earlier this summer, eight high school students and two adults from the Covington congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took part in an event that celebrated both the historical and spiritual traditions of their faith.

In the 1800s, converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would arrive from Europe with literally nothing but the belongings they brought with them across the ocean. The families would load all their possessions onto two-wheeled carts and drag them across the countryside and through the Rocky Mountains to join their fellow church members in Utah. The Pioneer Handcart Trek commemorates the journeys of these new believers and allows young LDS members to connect with their heritage.

Students Jante Andrews, Jahlani Clarke, Aaron Howell, Jessica Howell, Micaela Lopes, Patrick Lopes, Dylan Meissner, and Jake Vincent, all between the ages of 14 and 18, along with adults Adam and Erica Hamblin, participated in the Pioneer Handcart Trek in Cornelia from June 17-19.

Fifty adults and 150 students were divided into families made up of seven teens and two adult "parents." These families were grouped into companies of five families each. The participants dressed in period clothing and did without the comforts of modern technology in order to experience fully the pioneer era. Under these conditions, the family members developed close bonds with each other.

The students experienced the hardships of pioneer life. Each cart, loaded with belongings, weighed over 300 pounds. Families pushed and pulled their carts across streams, up steep hills, and through miry clay. The families prepared their own meals based on recipes from the 19th century; a few families even made cobbler from wild blackberries they picked themselves. Young men took turns keeping watch through the night while their families slept.

Church leaders led devotions with the families and taught object lessons that related observations from nature to spiritual truths. They also shared stories of the hardships endured by pioneer church members on their travels. One anecdote concerned a group of pioneer men who carried their wives across an icy stream before pulling their cart across, while another told the story of a group of women who carried on across the mountains after their husbands died in their sleep.

After hearing the stories, the families acted them out as a tribute to the brave pioneers. Young men from each family carried the women in their families across a thigh-high stream and went back across to move their carts. In another reenactment, the women from each family pulled their carts up a steep hill while the men stood by.

Despite the difficult work and austere conditions, the students learned from the experience and enjoyed the time they spent together. The family groups grew closer to each other as they bonded though their hard work and conversation and kept journals of their experiences. At night, families told stories and sang hymns around the campfire. The students developed a special camaraderie with each other through the trip.

"What really stood out to me was how willing everyone was to help each other without complaining," said Jessica Howell. "People would go out of their way to help others, and there was an all-around good feeling of cheerfulness and accomplishment around camp after every big trek."

"It was the best experience of my life," exclaimed Micaela Lopes. "When [the women] reached the top of the hill [with the cart], we were exhausted, but we were excited, because we made it!"

In addition to the students who participated in the Pioneer Handcart Trek, Eastside High School sophomore Zack Smith, who is also a member of the Covington Latter-day Saints congregation, spent two weeks at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in June. Smith, along with other Boy Scouts, completed an 82-mile hike in 12 days, climbed 12,441-foot Baldy Mountain and participated in various learning activities related to the outdoors.

Smith said he returned home with a greater appreciation for scouting and a better understanding of how he can make a difference in the community.

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