Photo: Hannah Cowan. Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, Utah.

In 1847, the three largest groups of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. One hundred years later, on July 24, my people took a commemorative “Pioneer Trek”—this time with automobiles decorated with oxen-shaped cutouts and canvas wagon covers—and drove together for eight days, from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. It was symbolic, a centennial celebration. But in the decades since, we haven’t stopped trekking. To commemorate the sesquicentennial in 1997, a caravan of six hundred walkers and handcarts spent three months on the trail. As I was becoming a teenager then, a cottage industry emerged of people who made pioneer costumes and handcarts, and every Mormon kid was coming back in tears about how they’d never felt closer to God than when they were lost in the woods.

“Don’t leave those apple cores outside the tent, the coyotes will come sniffing,” I said to a girl, two years my junior, who was pretending to be my sister for the week. I met her for the first time the day we started walking, when I threw her backpack and pillow onto the wooden cart and began pulling hundreds of pounds toward the horizon—miles before the lace on her bonnet became stained with red dirt. Each morning, our group—an older couple in the role of our parents, two boys I was told to call brothers, one fake sister, and a plastic doll named Emma—tried to pack and leave early so that we could take the lead. Otherwise the rising dust from the other handcarts would choke us and sting our eyes all day. July in Utah can climb into the triple digits, even at high elevation; we’d march for a few miles in the morning while it was cool, then in the hottest part of the afternoon we’d stop the carts under some trees and say a prayer over cold sandwiches. But the worst part of moving again wasn’t the heat. It was the singing. “Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked / Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked…” If there were more lyrics to the song, none of us knew them; it was a Mormon version of “The Song that Never Ends,” an earworm we’d learned as toddlers.

As we walked and sang hymns, we did become closer: I was a big brother on the trail even if, until I was seventeen, I was nobody’s brother in real life. There was nothing more powerful than being sixteen and trusted to use your body for work. For thirty miles I pulled the handcart alone, while the younger boys and girls encircled me, chanting the song maniacally like a coven around a fire. A handcart has two wooden wheels, a long handle, and a rope to loop around one shoulder. The man-child has to lean into the full weight of every other camper’s gear, pulling toward the Promised Land (an arbitrary point in the desert, true to history). Our caravans’ “provisions” were just the heavy mounds of North Face bags full of acne creams and hair gels and body sprays. When we stopped to camp, we found our friends from other wagons, or made fires outside the view of the adult leaders. We discretely ripped our old-timey threads, in desperate attempts at sexiness; we laughed and pushed our bodies closer together without touching.

Every trek is taken on different terrain. Local leaders will pick a route, and then the ranchers who own the land (if it’s private), along with outfitter companies and historical wagon manufacturers, will either charge or donate their resources in support of the youth groups. Each participant is assigned to a fake family composed of people from their neighborhood congregation. This meant being partnered with your school classmates, who would later pretend among their regular friends that they didn’t know you, that they hadn’t pretended to be your sibling, that you hadn’t spent days together unwashed and grinding sand into boots and bonnets and popping zits between the pines and smelling like brisket farts under the stars. To us, the pioneers were echoes of the Ancient Israelites wandering in the desert; God’s chosen people must always be confused and homeless. It’s the same play, in different costumes.

We’d prepare for months, and try to wear period clothing—or thrift-store ensembles and hand-sewn hallucinations of what our mothers thought the pioneers might have worn. One woman who wanted to prove she was better at handicrafts than my painter mother sewed me a billowing white shirt with a wide collar and a button-less V. The opening was so deep that this pirate blouse swung back and forth off my shoulders in the wind—giving all the jackrabbits in the sagebrush a view of my newfound nipple hair. I did feel erotic, like my body was not just useful but desirable for the first time. The shirt was more Fabio than functional, but I wanted to honor the fact that it was sewn just for me, so I squeezed into the tightest pantaloons I could find, and boots with an obscene Victorian heel (I thought I was Billy the Kid, but I was probably just Little Lord Fauntleroy).

Hiking over a mountain peak can be relatively easy in the right gear, but if you’re pulling a cart bowlegged for thirty miles in tight polyester Wranglers, you’re in for bleeding thighs. In other words, I envied anyone in an ankle-length dress. (I was nineteen before I started wearing women’s dresses to parties, and felt like that arose less as an expression of identity and more as an exorcism of my many years of pageantry and playing dress-up as a Mormon.) Whatever we wore on the trail, we were told we had to suffer like our ancestors, because misery makes you kind. The walls of our churches don’t depict the Stations of the Cross not because Mormons don’t believe that Jesus Christ had to carry his own timber through town before dying on it, but because that wasn’t a long enough walk.

Mormon teenagers attend other retreats, too: Boy Scouts, Girls’ Camps, Youth Conferences, private survivalist retreats. (Utah has become an epicenter for wilderness drug rehab programs because so many Mormons are secretly addicts and already familiar with these types of extreme getaways.) My mother went to a motivational camp in the 1970s that got shut down after a girl died; they starved the kids, and made them walk blindfolded at night through a forest, to simulate a life without God. Recently, a writer friend from Utah and I were comparing notes on our Mormon upbringings. He told me about his experience in a “Helaman Camp” for young men, “Helaman” being the character in the Book of Mormon who leads a band of warriors, none of whom die in battle because they love their moms. My friend said, “On the first day of camp, we were given a toy sword. All week we did crafts to decorate that sword, personalizing it and getting attached to it. They also made us dig a hole the size of a grave. At the end of the week, we were told to bury our sword in the grave, cover it with earth, and think of it as the one thing we didn’t want to give up. We were too ashamed to talk about how we all were thinking the same thing: the sword symbolized masturbation.”

I never went to a Helaman Camp, but I understood. How suddenly something as innocuous as rock-climbing a granite wall in a canyon could become a lesson on saving yourself for marriage. Once, in a special church meeting just for boys aged twelve to seventeen, my bishop said, without irony, “Young men, we need to discuss the grave sin of masturbation. Does anyone want to take a whack at that?” I fell out of my folding chair laughing. My friends suppressed giggles. The bishop lunged forward to stand over me and boomed, “Brother Fuller, why do you not take your salvation seriously?”

The Pioneer Treks were considered spiritual experiences, not physical ones, and we never talked about our bodies there. We may have pulled handcarts up and down steep slopes, tugged at their wooden wheels stuck in dry sand or wet mud, lifted them over rocks using ropes and the sheer power that dozens of asthmatic children and a few middle-aged men in sun hats can muster, but we were taught to believe that the body wasn’t involved. Somehow, every summer, these groups cross the high deserts and red rock canyons and sage-blasted prairies of Utah or Wyoming on foot, without any fitness conditioning, and are expected to think only of the spirit.

On my final pioneer trek, I was pulling the cart downhill for the last four miles into Castle Valley, a place where the alpine La Sal mountains start to merge with the bare red rocks around Moab, when the leaders asked us to stop. For one mile the boys are asked to switch with the girls so they can pull the handcarts alone, while the boys walk alongside, because of stories we tell ourselves and each other about Mormon men who left their wagon trains to support a war in California—offering themselves as a Mormon militia to the US. It’s part of the revisionist patriotism that exists within Mormonism, something we do rather than remembering that we were once just a misfit band of utopian perverts who chose to leave America.

No one sang during that the mile when the girls pulled alone. There was silence. Then, as I took the reins, we saw that the ranch at the bottom of the valley had a theatrical stage and a huge lighted statue of Christ. When we reached the place, before we could stop to sit or sleep, strangers herded us into metal folding chairs, and some fresh-faced Mormon teens put on a singing, dancing musical with no plot. I don’t remember lyrics from any of the songs, but I’m pretty sure some high tenors in buckaroo costumes reminded us that Christ died for our sins. Then it was our turn to take the stage. They begged us, as trekkers, to bear our testimony.

Any Mormon testimony must start with the sentence, “I’d like to bear my testimony,” announced clearly, and that’s typically followed by sobs and something like, “My heart’s so full today…” During the first testimony, made into a microphone beside the bonfire we lit at nightfall, I stood up and ran back into the sagebrush. I couldn’t bear to sit with everyone any longer—not because I didn’t have my own version of faith, but because I was so horny after heaving sweaty bodies and dirty bags and wood handles over a mountain for six days with no privacy. There was no way I could keep watching other tanned, sweaty teens whisper their secrets into a sound system. I crawled under the same tilted handcart I’d pulled down into the valley, hiding out of view in the shadows of the bonfire, and slid my hand down the open V of my puffy shirt, grazed my chest before diving into my pants. The amplified voices of my friends echoed in the dark—“I know that sin is never happiness… I know that if we choose the right trek our Heavenly Father has planned for us, we never have to sin…”—as I tugged and grimaced and released myself into oblivion, as I gasped, yes, yes, amen, and yes, yes, projecting all my fantasies onto the blank underside of the cart.

Years after my last trek, in my twenties, I’d drive along the route of the Mormon migration in my hatchback, which I called “the covered wagon”; I often lived in that car, and I’d schlep all my belongings back and forth along the I-80 from Iowa to Utah. It was mostly empty road except for the tractor trailers, the modern prairie schooners, and I drove 80, 90, 100 mph as I passed the open landscapes and wondered how anyone had been insane enough to move through the Great Plains and Rockies at the pace of an ox. Once, I drove twenty hours in one sitting, the sky turning black and green. I was the only one out on the road for hundreds of miles across Iowa and Nebraska: I thought I could outrun the tornados, so I drove faster and faster. My tires occasionally lifted off the road, while twisters formed off the highway—and I just waited, almost prayed, for one to cut across my lane. I wondered how my ancestors might’ve handled tornadoes, because among all the stories of hardship, I’d never heard about wind.

Now, in my thirties, I’m a hedonist and academic who lives in New Zealand. And since those trekking days, my Mormons have gone some places that I can’t follow. I’ve seen Mormons who, afraid to be left behind by American conservatism, have adopted the doctrinal dissonance that Evangelicals have owned for decades in American politics. Years ago, they would have been apolitical or somewhat moderate. But in the last election Mormons trailed only Evangelicals in a majority support for Donald Trump, a human turducken of everything my church leaders told me to fear. Since the death of the last church president, Thomas S. Monson, who spearheaded these shifts—funding opposition to marriage equality in 2008, for instance—the church has been losing members, mostly Millennials. I’m not sure that the leaders of the organization know its role or identity in people’s lives anymore.

Currently, there are protests raging against the practice of Mormon bishops questioning youth on their own, asking about their sexual behavior without a parent present. I’ve taken part in many of these interviews in which middle-aged men—who seemed to take no more pleasure in it than I did, but that can’t always be the case—asked me if I touched myself; and how; and if I looked at pornography; and if I had ever touched someone else; and where; and for how long? My answers were usually quite honest: “Yes; sort of humping my hand while lying on my stomach; sometimes, but our dial-up Internet is slow and my mom might be a psychic; and once, yes, I touched my friend’s older sister, the boob, under the shirt, during The Tom Green Show. But most children are not as glib as I was about these things, and there’s pressure to either lie or earnestly discuss your most intimate experiences with an unqualified man, completely alone. The church has yet to fully respond to the protests, but has reminded members that there’s a sexual-abuse hotline available—a hotline only for bishops who have questions, not for victims.

Mormonism in Utah is not merely a religion: it’s a (secretly Keynesian) economic system, a dialectical language, a fashion/food culture, a genetically homogenous ethnicity for some of us, or just a large corporation. But it’s losing its theater-of-the-absurd quality and heading toward the mainstream binaries of America. I worry that there will be a time soon when no one in a Mormon congregation will want to tailor a puffy shirt for a boy learning that his body can pull all kinds of things—a Mormon teen willing to do something that is both ridiculous and transformative, and commit to people and ideas and paths that are too stupid not to love.

The thing I most regret from my last pioneer trek was not being able to bear my testimony while I was jerking off under the wagon. Maybe when I write what I’m really trying to do is get that mode of conviction with language back, but there is nothing like bearing testimony, and I wish there was a way I could mumble into that microphone again, pointed back toward the desert sky, and say the few things I can testify to now: I’d like to bear my testimony, but my heart has never been full. I still eat too much barbecue and spend too much time alone. Sometimes I have sex with people I don’t know that well. The rest of the time, I have sex with people who don’t know me at all. Really, I miss the intimacy of kissing other Mormons. I’d trade any kind of sex for a long kiss with another Mormon who went to camp or on a trek, because it feels like your whole face is striking a match and lighting a cigarette for your brain. I know these things to be true, even now that I’ve left the desert and live on a cliff where I can see the ocean from my window, writing and sipping coffee from a mug the color of the red dirt we crossed.

Miles Fuller

Miles Fuller is an essayist with an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa—and who also earned an MBA to learn that finance is less competitive than creative writing. After growing up with several generations of pioneer-ancestry Mormons in Utah, he now lives in Wellington, New Zealand, where he’s writing a book about chronic pain in extreme sports.

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