I’m not going to lie, our church does some seemingly whacky things.  
I mean, we go to church for at least three hours every week, we don’t drink coffee and alcohol, we work hours and hours each week for callings that we don’t get paid for.  
But there is a purpose behind it all.  And I love it.
One of the most peculiar things we do is go on “pioneer treks.”
That’s where the youth dress up like the pioneers who came across the planes all those years ago to find a place to settle and build the church.  They pull handcarts across rough terrain for miles on end for a few days.  They camp, and cook for themselves (along with their trek “families”).  
And they learn….a lot.
I’ve always thought going on a trek would be a good experience.  I mean, how great first of all to reflect on ancestors and think about how life used to be way back when.  And I always like things that are hard cause they make you grow so much.  (“We do hard things”)  
So when Max and Elle were both on tap to go this year (they only do it every four years), I was all about finding a way to go with them.  I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass me up.  They ask different couples to be “Ma” and “Pa” for each group of youth and Dave and I would have loved that.  But because we’re in between wards with our pending move coming up that wasn’t really in the cards for us.  
So I offered to go along as a photographer.  
And they took me up on it.
Boy howdy, am I ever glad. 
It was one of the best experiences I’ve had.  
There was a bunch of prep work to get there.  Elle and I whipped up some skirts and aprons before we left.
We were the last ones to drop off our supplies in the trailer the night before we left, but we made it in the nick of time.
Day 1
We got up early to catch the buses to take us to the start-point up in the mountains.
There were a few perks for us photographers.  
One of them was that we didn’t have to ride the school buses.  We cruised along in air conditioning and passed them up.
When we got there everyone was divided into “families” with a Ma and Pa to watch over them along the route.  Here’s Elle hugging her new “family members:”
Then they put together their handcarts and we were off.  
I made that sound easy, but actually, with almost FIFTY handcarts, it was no small feat.
Us photographers went up ahead to get ready to take the “family pictures.”  
I have to say that my friend Ashley and I had so much fun as the photographers (along with one other guy and three videographers…pictures of them all coming up at the end).  We worked our tails off running up and down the trail to try to capture everything, were able to feel the pain as kids walked on blisters, stayed up late laughing until we cried and felt the beauty spirit of it all as we went along.
I loved seeing the “families” as they came through.  After only a morning of walking they were already quite bonded.
Here’s Max’s trek family:
…and here’s Elle’s:
In the early afternoon we hit what they call “Testimony Hill.”

I guess they call it that cause you sure have to be strong to get up that thing.
The pictures can’t quite do the steepness justice.
They had to have rope pulleys for safety to get those carts up.
It was so neat to watch the families work together to get up there.
Max’s group was way ahead of where I was, but I got to catch Elle’s:
She was obviously not overly daunted about that thing.
…maybe that’s because boys like this were working their guts out to help them up the hill.

 These two went up and down there at least fifteen times lugging up handcart after handcart.

I love how happy service makes you feel.

After about twelve miles of lugging those handcarts we arrived at camp, sweaty and dirty and tired as could be, but wow, it was sure beautiful:
The families cooked their own dinner and had devotionals.
Love these ladies from my ward:
That night they had some pretty fun dancing.  It was so dusty and dry it made for some dusty pictures.
Day 2
I loved watching the morning prep.  Here’s a family at their morning devotional:
…and cooking breakfast.
There were lots of feet that looked like this.  
 Poor kids.
The big deal thing on day two was the “Woman’s Pull.”

That’s when the boys leave off on their own little part, and the girls pull the handcarts for a while on their own.  
Up really rough terrain.
And it’s really hard.
Our Stake Young Women’s president gave a talk to all these hundreds of girls about knots that I will never forget.  
First she had a couple girls come up and hold those ropes on either side of her.  She asked if they could tie them in a knot if they didn’t let go of the rope.
They couldn’t do it.  
Then she told them to fold their arms first.  They discovered that if they folded their arms holding on to each end of the rope, when they took their arms out of the fold, the rope would be in a knot.
The point:  prayer makes everything possible.  She gave everyone one of these bracelets:
(The rope-like one, not the leather one.)  Each bracelet had two knots.  One was for “doubt not” and the other was “fear not.”  
She went on to explain that with God’s help nothing is impossible.  

I wish I could describe the feeling in that grove of trees with all those women.

The air was thick as could be.  It was my favorite part of the whole trek.
It was the best feeling, followed by the helpless feeling I had watching all these girls pull such heavy loads while I snapped away on my camera.
After a little bit Ashley and I had enough and we put down our cameras to help.
The boys weren’t allowed to help.  The point was for them to feel how God feels at times when he wants so much to help us but we forget to ask.
It was a pretty powerful exercise for them as well.
Elle wasn’t too daunted…maybe she just smiles whenever the camera is out…
There’s Ashley trying to get a whole group picture…tough when you have 700 people…
And here’s Max in the midst of some girls.  The poor kid, I couldn’t stop taking pictures of him.
Everyone was so happy to get into camp that night after another long day…I think nearly ten miles again.
They had all kinds of “stations” at the camp site that night.  
Hair washing:
(the girls were pretty thrilled about that one)
Three-legged races:
Seed spitting:
…that’s just to name a few…I think there were twelve stations.
Max and Elle were delighted that I made them stand up in the middle of their dinner so I could capture the beautiful light with them in it, can you tell?
Day 3
Another day to bandage wounds before heading out again:
(I know, gross.)
All the parents were asked to send letters to their kids so they could read them there.  They each got to find a quiet spot to contemplate and write down how they were feeling.  
I loved their concentration and their pensiveness.

 Here’s the group from our congregation:
I was so happy to be back with my Young Women again.  Here are a few of them.  Love these girls!
The third day was a little shorter, but still long enough for lots of blisters and heat exhaustion.  Did I mention it was record-breaking heat that week?  
Needless to say, everyone was overjoyed to get to the end.  Here’s Max’s family coming through at a run they were so excited:
This is how it sounded:

A very talented guy made this temple to greet everyone at the end.

I cannot believe the work that people put in for the youth.  It was to remind the kids to aim to get to the temple some day.
It had the names of every “family” and who was in it engraved into it.
Here’s our photography committee:

Miss these guys!

They are putting together a slide show I hope I can share here when it’s done.

My favorite part of the whole deal?  Watching these kids who live in the middle of suburbia get out and walk for miles on end with blisters covering their feet and smiles on their faces.  I loved watching them help one another so selflessly, even when they were having a really rough time themselves.  I loved that they didn’t have cell phones or iPods or any technology at all and that they talked and sang together while pulling those handcarts for 26 miles.  I love that it took us out of our regular lives for a couple days and made us appreciate our refrigerators, our air conditioning, our homes, our cars.

And our washing machines…you think we needed it?

But most of all it helped us appreciate those ancestors who went before us.

Those wonderful people who made sacrifices we try to duplicate but the depth of which we will never, every be able to fully comprehend.  Some of them never made it.  Some made it alone after losing family member after family member along the way due to extreme weather and incomprehensible hardships.

They were paving the way for their children and their children.

I’m so grateful for that.

And for the feeling in the air that it all created.  How I hope we can all carry that through to our regular lives and realize that we too, in our own way, are paving the way for our children and theirs as well.

And that there is a God above who will help us through it no matter how rough it gets.

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  1. I am always so amazed by the parent participation you have at your church…busy fathers and mothers of large families giving up their weekends and weekdays to teach. SO much work has to go into the planning of it all. It's awesome. Loved the photos-what a cool experience. (Except for the blisters! OUCH!)

  2. I seriously choked up and got major tears in my eyes when I saw the pics of the kids reading letters from their families. What an amazing experience! I wish we did that.

  3. I'm left in awe, that experience looks so amazing and the kids look like they had so much fun together. Sometimes I do wish I belong to a church with those kind of activities.

  4. what a wonderful experience! as an European I've never lived anything like this!! I think you do really learn great values, although I'm not a believer, I think a trek like this makes you a better person.

  5. I woke up, exercised, showered and thought, i will check shawni before the kids wake up.. i am not sat here, with thick black mascara all over my face.. what an amazing experience 🙂
    thanks for sharing all those pics.

  6. Five of my seven children have participated in Pioneer Treks–they loved the experience, even though it was really hard.
    I'm a convert to the Church, so these treks remind me that we are all pioneers in some way.
    Great pictures. Love Elle's effervescent smile! She just glows, doesn't she?! And it's no wonder max is surrounded by young women–what's not to like? My fav pic is of the two young men who helped the dozen others get their carts up "Testimony Hill". Reminds me of three other special young men who did the same thing one very harsh winter at Sweetwater River. My heart is full just thinking on it. Our young men are the finest I've ever had the pleasure of keeping company. These kinds of experiences help create bonds within the church and give our kids confidence and strength for the future.
    So neat that you got to go too!
    Ya done good!

  7. I am sitting here in puddles. I have heard lots of Trek stories, but never through pictures. Love the spirit you captured. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I have to agree with Jadell, I've heard all sorts of trek stories, but seeing it come to life through your pictures is so very touching.

    And how special that you were able to be there to see your own children grow and learn through this spiritual experience.

    I loved this post….thanks for sharing all your beautiful pics (well, minus the blister shots…ouch!…they look so painful!) 🙂

  9. I participated in a trek when I was pregnant with my third baby. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I loved being a Ma and have the opportunity to teach and love 10 teenagers. My favorite part of the trek was when it was the girl's climb. I had to get in and pull myself. Just when I was feeling cramping and getting worried if I should pull, an older man dressed all in white came walking down the hill, followed by another and another. The 'angels' wouldn't speak but just got behind each person and started helping us up the hardest part of the climb. I'll never forget the spirit I felt. I loved how they incorporated angels into our trek because there were so many stories of angels helping the real pioneers and I am a firm believer that angels are still among us today helping us along the way.

  10. Wow, what an amazing experience! I could feel the spirit you felt just by reading and looking at the pictures, and was left with mounds of tears rolling down my face! Thank you for always sharing such special experiences with us!

  11. I love the idea of a trek like that, and what it would teach everyone involved – how to depend on God, the joy of community, the joy of working together. But it makes me wonder – how inclusive is the LDS church? Are all LDS descended from pioneers? What about the Native Americans who suffered greatly when foreigners took over their land? Christ's love is for ALL who believe in Him.

    1. Great questions and insight, Carey. I know you posted this awhile back, but I was looking for the object lesson on knots and came across your comment. 🙂 You definitely don't have to be descended from the pioneers to be a member, but it is fun to reenact what many people went through for their faith. As for your comment about the Native Americans, I think you'd really be touched by the accounts in The Book of Mormon. It details the interactions of the Lord with many ancient tribes in the Americas and how they came to be there.

  12. great photos shawn! i like how your big camera just blends into the 1840s attire 🙂 all these kids look so adorable. i'm sure the pioneers are coveting their tennis shoes and mere blisters from heaven! isn't it amazing that this was only a teensy tinsey taste of the sacrifice of the pioneers?
    you guys are the best. love you

  13. I went on a pioneer trek when I was 15, and I STILL remember so many things about it, and especially lessons I learned. The women's pull was especially powerful… the boys weren't allowed to help us, or talk to us, but they would run up and down the hill to the river, getting their bandannas wet to wipe our faces. They would pick little wildflowers and hand them to us (poor boys were desperate to do anything). They also wrote in the dirt ahead of us encouraging words… "we love you" and "you can do it". It still makes me cry. What a great experience for these kids!!

  14. Wow. My sisters just completed a trek for youth conference and they shared some special moments with us. But my, oh, my… nothing could bring such tender feelings as your photos did. I had to fight back the tears and then just scan over the second half of this post because I didn't want to cry 🙂 Beautiful.

  15. So great! But I have to admit I'm TOTALLY jealous. When we were Ma and Pa for our Pioneer Trek, our kiddos (and us)didn't get to use camp stoves OR tents. We used dutch ovens for all meals on a fire and slept on the ground under a tarp tied to trees.

  16. You captured the whole experience so perfectly! I love all your pictures! It brought tears to my eyes to think back on that experience and I am so glad I was able to go too! It is one of those things that is so unique and so much can be learned from it. Thanks for sharing! I need to get a few of those pictures from you:)

  17. I have been on trek twice. Once as a youth and the second as a 'ma'. Both times it was absolutely amazing. We were lucky enough to actually GO to Martin's Cove and it was the neatest experience. The spirit was awesome there. Looking at these pictures makes me long to go back, because you MISS that spirit that is there. Your pictures are AMAZING and it is making me want to go home and watch my video again. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!
    P.S. Next time, tell those kids to use duck tape for their blisters…just tape up before you go!!!

  18. Wow that is so amazing, I wish we had something like that in our religion. It would be awesome to do something like this with my family. Great pictures!

  19. I've never done a trek! I don't think they were really do those 15 years ago when I was a teen (I think it's a relatively new idea, right?) I've never felt like I was missing out though – all that crazy hard work and sleeping outside – but I do hope I can do this with my kids someday or participate with a ward that does this! I love all the thought that your stake put into this and thought the day where the girls did all the work and the boys could only watch/not help was especially poignant. The whole thing just looked awesome and a great faith builder.

  20. I think Trek is awesome, it is one thing I never got to go on, but so far I have had one daughter go and then my other daughter gets to go this December when they have Trek out here in FL. Great job with the photography and narrating, awesome, thankyou

  21. I am so glad that there are adults who love these treks and are willing to go on them… because I am totally not one of those people. 🙂 I did everything I could to avoid a trek when I was in Young Women's, and in all honesty, I think they are kind of a weird concept. Like in a green jello with carrots sort of way. But my sixteen year old sister absolutely LOVED going on the trek and I've heard so many stories of it being a good experience for kids that I am glad there are parents who also enjoy the experience so they can chaperon. I definitely don't mean to disparage the spirit of this post, but I can totally understand where people who aren't members of the Church (or maybe even some who are) may look at this and say, "Hmm… that's odd." 🙂

  22. Just breathtaking pictures and a moving experience! I am floored by the brother who made the "temple" at the end. I got choked up watching the video as they reached the temple to "come, come ye saints". My husband is our bishop right now and we hope we get that opportunity next summer when our stake goes to be "Ma and Pa" 🙂

  23. What a great post. It looks like an amazing experience!
    I think those blisters are going to give me nightmares though! Wow, kudos to the kids who kept trekking with those things on their feet!

  24. Amazing pictures! What a story they tell. Next year is "trek year" for my kids and I can't wait. What an incredible experience!

    Thank you for sharing your talent with photography. You captured some powerful moments. I still have tears in my eyes.

  25. What an amazing experience! How in the world did you have time to prepare this before you left? This is monumental! Love every expression and the wonderful things you do with Lightroom.

    Lucky, lovely, lovable kids! The adult effort in this is truly amazing, including yours. LOVE IT!

  26. Oh my goodness, these images are amazing!!! I have never had the opportunity to go on a trek, good idea to go as a photographer!! I love the dust filled shots with the sun peeking through. I'd love a post from you sometime on your post processing. Lovely and clean.

  27. thank you so much for posting these shawni! as a youth i got to go to girls camp for all 6 years, but never Trek, and have wanted to SO bad. With your post, and all the gorgeous photos i almost felt like i was there 🙂

    LOVE your blog. Thanks for sharing your testimony.

  28. I think it is wonderful that your family went to India and did all that work for the children of the lepers. It has taught your children diversity and given them a wonderful experience of helping others.

    I have a question, though. Do the lepers and/or their children have to give up their Hindu beliefs in order to be helped by Rising Star? Do they have to become Mormon to get any of that help, or will your family and organization help anyone who needs it, not just someone who has been converted to your faith?

    1. None of the lepers had to change their religion. The LDS Church and its members help others because everyone on Earth is a child of God. No strings attached. For another example, millions of Africans have received clean drinking water in their villages because members of the lds church taught them how to dig ditches and install piping (the piping was provided by the Church).

  29. Thank you so much for the pictures & thoughts. When you wrote: "The point was for them to feel how God feels at times when he wants so much to help us but we forget to ask." It struck me so hard. I got down on my knees and prayed like I haven't in a long time. Thank you for reminding me and inspiring me. Prayer really does change things.

  30. Thank you for sharing not only the amazing pictures, but for sharing the spirit of Trek. I've never participated (started years after I was released from YW). I've always wanted to go, but doubt I'll ever have the chance at my age! Anyway, I'm inspired by the spirit of your experience. I hope to be a bit more thankful and appreciative of all that I have been blessed with. This is just one more reminder of how gracious and generous the Lord is.

  31. these are the only pics I've seen from trek! Kassidy loved trek she is excited that she might get to go again since she was barely 14. anyway these are such pretty pics shawni, as always. glad you posted them! satisfied a little bit of my curiosity.

  32. Hi

    I recently stumbled across your blog from another site (I can't even remember where) and I've had such fun reading your post archives. Coming from a family with a disabled sibling (my younger brother has downs syndrome and a long list of other medical issues) your posts about Lucy and the ups and downs of her condition have really touched my heart. I've also really been struck by the amazing work and activities that you do with your church. I have to confess to knowing little of LDS (I was raised Catholic and live in the UK) but your posts have inspired me to find out more. I love the family centric nature your church upholds. What a fabulous gift in these times when family can often seem so low on people's agendas. I read a article I think was written by your Father(the wrappings and the gift?)which was an amazing insight into your church and faith. How very well blessed you are to be part of such a community. I look forward to reading the continuing adventures of your family.

    Much Peace


  33. We are headed off to trek in just a couple weeks, loved this post! I have a question about the "Doubt knot" "fear not" bracelets, what is that in the middle? I'd love to know a little more about those bracelets and the devotional. kmbsorensen at gmail dot com

  34. Hi Shawnie, What a beautiful story of your Trek! We leave on our Trek in "California" this week and it was just perfect that I came across your post as I am our Stake Photographer! Also, I have my son and daughter going on this trek too. It will be a huge challenge for me to try and "capture" it all! I loved the beautiful images you posted here and the spirit that I felt reading about your Trek. You're amazing!

  35. I pinned this a few weeks ago for the devotional idea. Today, I sat down and read the whole post. So what you didn't mention is how do I not cry through this trek!? Cuz, I cried through this whole post dang it! You took beautiful pictures. I am so excited to go and be a Ma and feel so blessed to be able to have this experience. Thanks so very much for sharing!

  36. I was on this trek! I just found this post after seeing a the "knot" bracelets on Pinterest! I have read your blog for awhile now and Max and I had seminary together my senior year. I was reading and reminiscing all about trek and the experiences I had during those three days when I came across a picture of my blistered foot! My foot is the one that is really gross to look at on Day Three. I totally forgot that people had come and photographed my duct taped foot!

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