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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Full Suburban: Hardships of ‘handcart trek’ offer life lessons

UPDATED: Sun., July 25, 2021

A handcart company, assisted by George Ditto (in cowboy hat), lowers a handcart down a steep cliff during a recent pioneer trek.  (Courtesy of Mindy Hymas)
A handcart company, assisted by George Ditto (in cowboy hat), lowers a handcart down a steep cliff during a recent pioneer trek. (Courtesy of Mindy Hymas)
By Julia Ditto For The Spokesman-Review

“What project are you working on?” the friendly craft store cashier asked as she rang up my purchase of 1½ yards of sturdy, checkered canvas. My daughter Lucy and I looked at each other, unsure how to explain.

“We’re, uh … we’re making a little caddy to hold water bottles,” I began. The cashier nodded encouragingly, so I continued. “It’s going to attach it to the back of … um … the back of a handcart” – blank stare from the cashier – “while we walk for 20 miles to … you know … re-enact the Mormon pioneers’ journey across the plains.”

The cashier was speechless. I don’t blame her. Here she was, just making pleasant conversation, probably expecting me to say I was upholstering some cushions or something, and instead I throw in the words “handcart” and “pioneer.” What was I even talking about?

Let me explain: In the mid-1800s, around 60,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka “Mormons”) made their way across the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains, where they would be free to worship as they wished without fear of persecution, which up to that point had been severe.

The majority of people traveled in covered wagons, but about 3,000 of them went the entire distance pushing handcarts. Eight of these 10 “handcart companies” had little to no tragedy along the way and made it safely to Utah.

Two, however, got caught in early winter storms and suffered tremendously before the survivors were rescued by teamsters sent out from Utah. Their stories are heroic, devastating and inspiring. Many of us who are members of the church today have ancestors who came across the plains in these handcart companies. I certainly do.

So, to honor their sacrifices, connect with our past and learn a little bit about what hard work and faith in action look like, the congregations in the Spokane Valley area decided to take our teenagers on a three-day “handcart trek” of their own through a rugged and rustic cattle ranch a couple weeks ago.

Everyone arrived decked out in pioneer-looking clothes from thrift stores and Amazon. I have to say, I’m all in favor of bringing pioneer wear back into the mainstream. It’s so comfortable and baggy; I didn’t suck in my stomach the entire time. What’s more, my husband looked like the Man from Snowy River for three days, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. But I digress.

The teens were split into groups of eight to 10, which were their “families” for the duration of the trek. Each family was led by a “Ma and Pa,” a husband-and-wife team there to lead, support and hand out Jolly Ranchers and Band-Aids as needed. Logan and I served as a Ma and Pa; our three oldest children, Lucy, George and Jane, were with separate “families” of their own.

As you can imagine, this was not a pleasure trip. Pushing a handcart and camping under the stars was difficult, dusty, hot and exhausting. But there were also copious amounts of dancing, playing games, hanging out and having fun. Complaints were minimal. There was not a cellphone to be seen. In short, it was amazing.

The things these kids had to do were difficult. At one point, they got to a steep, rocky cliff that would require each handcart to be lowered down backwards one at a time. I looked over the edge and felt legitimately nervous. It truly seemed impossible.

But the kids figured out how to attach a thick rope to the axle of each handcart and wrap it around the handle. The rope was then held by a line of teens stacked up the steep incline who worked, hand over hand, to lower the heavy handcarts safely to the bottom.

The confidence written all over their faces when they finished was priceless. These kids are the football heroes, the valedictorians and the stars of the high school musical. They are also the ones who are suffering from depression, reeling from devastating loss and sometimes filled with uncertainty about what their future holds in this insane world.

They may now be back in their air-conditioned houses, but they’ve had a taste of what it’s like to struggle, to put someone else’s needs before their own and to go until they didn’t think they could go anymore.

There are now pockets of teenagers scattered throughout the Spokane Valley who know they can do difficult things and who know they are much more capable than they may have judged themselves. Whether or not pioneer blood runs through their veins, they now know what they’re made of.

Julia Ditto shares her life with her husband, six children and a random menagerie of farm animals in Spokane Valley. She can be reached at

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