The band of teens trudged down the hillside, flushed and sweaty after their three-mile ramble through the San Bernardino Mountain foothills.
The 90-degree heat would have drained any hiker, but the youths faced it wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, or prairie skirts and bloomers, and struggling with 200-pound handcarts full of water and blankets.
The 200 Mormon teens from north Orange County were simulating -- in a six-mile hike over two days -- the 1,500-mile journey their ancestors made from the Midwest to Salt Lake City, Utah, more than 150 years ago.
The weekend event, with its overnight encampment, simple rations and pioneer attire, was designed to educate the teens about their ancestors’ ordeal, and to instill resilience in meeting the challenges of their suburban lives.
Organizers hoped the youths would “reflect on the strength and faith of their forefathers, and ... ask themselves if they have the same resolve to stay true to their beliefs,” said Ken Dalebout, president of the young men’s group for the church’s Orange, California Stake -- a geographical designation similar to a diocese -- which encompasses parts of Orange, Tustin, Irvine, Santa Ana and Villa Park.
In the 1840s and 1850s, tens of thousands of Mormons fled persecution in the Midwest to settle in and around Salt Lake City, traveling by mule train or on foot. Thousands died of disease or exposure during the trek.
Participants sought to recall that journey as they departed Friday morning from a farm in Oak Glen in a half-dozen, three-family “companies.” Each “family” included 11 youths, two adult “parents” and a “baby” -- a doll, weighted to resemble a newborn, and containing an egg that members were required to protect from breakage.
Every “family” lugged its supplies in a wooden handcart, which was pulled and pushed in turns. On the way, they encountered church leaders acting out vignettes of historical events that occurred along the original trail.
A Pony Express rider galloped up to explain the mail routes that connected Mormon settlements to the East. Members of each family simulated growing sick with smallpox, or being injured or being bitten by snakes, forcing other members to carry them part of the way. And a pair of grieving mothers described the loss of an infant who perished along the trail.
Participants said the death of their “baby” was one of the most difficult lessons of the day, offering a haunting reminder of the losses suffered by the early pioneers. Teens had brought heirloom dolls from home, or made them from a pattern provided by organizers, and grew attached to the figures they coddled along the way.
Craig Baron, 46, who played the role of father to one “family,” named his group’s baby Shaniquwa Emma Parkinson -- after an ancestor who perished along the trail: Emma Payne, the daughter of his great-great grandparents.
“We had vowed that she would make it this time, because the real Emma did not,” he said. Teens in the group took turns carrying her, carefully cradling her head to prevent the egg from cracking. But the doll was chosen at random by one of the “mothers” in the trailside vignette to serve as an example of the trail deaths.
The physical toil of the hike, along with the vignettes, brought textbook tales of the original trek to life, teens said.
“It’s a cool experience,” said Brady Lesueur, 14, whose “family” was one of the last to arrive at camp Friday night. “You’re not reading books. You’re living it. We walked three miles. They walked hundreds. We’re doing it for two days. They did it for months.”
Many said the comparatively minor privations of their weekend trip helped them appreciate the comforts of their daily life.
“You wouldn’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll just dress up like a pioneer and push a handcart with my friends,’ ” said Jenny Heathcote, 15. “It’s been powerful. You hear about (the Mormon trek). And now we can understand a little.”
The adventure taught participants not to “take things for granted, like a car with air-conditioning, or a house,” said Megan Mendel, 18.
“Or clean clothes and showers,” other members of her “family” added.
Arriving at Mile High Ranch in Oak Glen, the boys pitched tents for the girls, an exercise in gallantry whose rewards they wouldn’t share: they would sleep on tarps under the stars.
In contrast to their sparse daytime rations of bagels, bread and beef jerky, they enjoyed a camp supper of beef stew and corn bread, topped off with peach cobbler. As they dined, sunlight faded over the wooded hills and a bluegrass band warmed up for a hoedown later.
Gathered for prayer in small groups and then together, they reflected on their experience. Although their lives don’t contain the physical discomforts suffered by the pioneers, they offer other trials and challenges that require similar endurance in the face of adversity, they said.
“It’s pretty common in high school for Mormon kids to get made fun of,” for their abstinence from cigarettes and alcohol, said Joel Goodman, 18, one of the youth leaders who planned the event.
“This will give us greater strength to live up to what we believe in.”