We were kids - well teenagers, but young nonetheless. I thought we were just a summer love, the kind that fades away along with everything else that's magical about summer - but God had other plans for us.
The first time I saw him was at church. He had walked in late after the opening hymn and prayer, all eyes seemed to follow him as he walked the isle and took a seat in one of the church pews - but he didn't stay long. It wasn't even fifteen minutes before he stood and walked out, the heavy door slowly swinging shut behind him. Who was this guy? I'd been coming to this church for years, I knew all the families who attended regularly. Why had I never seen him before? And why would he come to church just to walk out a few minutes later?
But our real story doesn't begin until a couple of months later when, because of a few serendipitous choices, we found ourselves spending three days together covered in dust and sweat.
It was June, 2005 and our church had planned their first ever “Trek” for the youth.
(Latter Day Saints or Mormons are often seen as a "peculiar people". So just a little information that an LDS Trek is a reenactment of the Mormon Pioneers. A few congregations will join together to pull handcarts across parts of Wyoming and Utah. It can be a very spiritual time for those that participate and often people leave the experience with a greater appreciate for those people who sacrificed - sometimes their very lives - for our beliefs.)
When we first arrived in Wyoming - it was chaos. A couple hundred teenagers all talking and yelling at the same time as everyone tried to pull their bags and buckets from the cars. There was a loud deep voice that came across the field through a megaphone, trying to give everyone directions. After about ten minutes, and with some coaxing from the other adult leaders, everyone had calmed down enough to start following the orders that our “Trail Boss” was trying to give.
Eventually, they managed to get all of the youth sitting down in a field surrounded by our bags and buckets as the Trail Boss went over the rules for the Trek. Out of boredom I scanned the crowd watching everyone's reactions. Some people were whispering excitedly back and forth to each other, clearly not listening to what was being said. Others seemed bored out of their minds, plucking up the tall grass from the earth in handfuls.
Looking around, my gaze rested on J.R. I hadn't been looking for him, but it was easy to spot him in the crowd. He was one of the only teenagers not sitting in the grass, instead he was leaning against the side of a truck with his arms folded across his chest, staring at the dirt a few feet in front of him. He was wearing black Dickies work pants, with a black and gray ski jacket. A cowboy hat rested next to him on the edge of the truck bed. But it wasn't his clothes that made him stand out, it was the expression on his face. Unlike everyone else – he seemed furious. At that moment, it was easy to see why my friend had said he was bad news.
I didn't know him, but part of me felt bad for him. He clearly didn't want to be here. I didn't want to be here either, but I was just trying harder to follow the rules and cover up my feelings.
I forgot all about J.R though when the announcement was made that they would be splitting us up from our friends and assigning us into “families” for the rest of Trek. Anxiety flooded my chest, and I instantly knew that Chantel and I would be separated. This Trek experience was going to be worse than I thought. It was already bad enough that all the women and girls were required to wear these ridiculous pioneer skirts and bonnets the entire time, now I wouldn't even have my best friend to help me get through all of it.
Names started to be called through the megaphone as the assigned families were announced. Chan's name was called before mine. My heart sank as she started to gather up her things. There were a few more spots still left in her family and I hope for some miracle that my name would be called to fill one of them. Stress filled my body and I anxiously waited as the Trail Boss call out the rest of the names to complete her family - but my name wasn't called.
Disappointment and discourage filled my heart as she walked away to join her group. I was once again bitter that I had come on this Trek at all.
Eventually my name was called and I was assigned to a “family”. I grudgingly carried my stuff over to our handcart. As I compared my assigned family to the other groups it was easy to see how small my family was. While the other families had an even mix of boys and girls, our family consisted of mostly girls. And there was only one boy over the age of 15. I started to worry that our family was going to have a really difficult time keeping up with everyone else.
My thoughts were interrupted when Chantel called my name. She came bouncing over to me with a grin on her face.
“I think my family is going to be so much fun. How about yours?”
I tried my best to smooth my complexion and my voice as I answered her. I felt like everyone in my group was listening for my reply.
Faking enthusiasm I said, “Yeah. It's going to be great.”
I hoped the small group had bought my act. I didn't want to start out on the wrong foot with them.
Chan knew me well enough to see straight through my lie. Looking around at my small family her bright smile faded just a bit.
“Come here.” She said as she grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the small group. All around us I could hear people celebrating as they realized they had at least one friend in their assigned family.
“Are you gonna be ok?” she asked me when we were far enough away that no one could hear us.
“Yeah.” I shrugged my shoulders “I guess I'm gonna have to be.”
We looked at each other for a moment knowing there wasn't anything that either of us could do about the situation but to accept it.
“Well guess who's in my family?” she said with a smile trying to lighten the mood. Before I could even answer she blurted out, “Jake!”
Laughing at her excitement I told her I had noticed.
Laughing at her excitement I told her I had noticed.
We talked and laughed for a few more moments about her good luck with being assigned to a decent family. And then when she left to rejoin her group, I dejectedly walked back to mine.
When we finally started walking, my fears about our family not being strong enough to keep up were proven right. We had quickly fallen into last place and the gap between us and the rest of the group widened every minute. It didn't help that a cold wind was picking up, and the sky threatened to rain.
When the trail led us over a few large hills, our family lost sight of the large company entirely. We were so far behind, that the dust from the other families had already settled before we could climb over the next hill. I sensed our Ma and Pa – the adult leaders of our family – panicking as the gap between us and the others widened further and further. Our family was silent, no one wasted energy on talking as we each focused on using as much physical strength as we could to pull our handcart up the hills.
Just as I started to wonder how our family was going to make it through the next couple of days, I looked up the trail, and at the top of the next hill stood two dark figures.
Both men wore hoods over their heads, their eyes being the only part of their faces we could. One of them had a blue bandanna tied around his face, covering his mouth. The other wore a black ski mask under his hood.
I recognized J.R as the one wearing the ski mask. They looked intimidating, but as we got closer I could see in J.R.'s eyes that he was smiling under the mask. I figured that he was laughing at how pathetic our little group was. Just then our eyes locked for a moment and I wondered if he remembered our brief meeting.
Out of breath, we stopped when we finally reach them. They looked like bandits and our Pa asked if they were going to rob us. They both just laughed, and J.R answered that they had been sent by the trail boss to help us. When they started pushing the handcart with us, our family moved forward at a pace twice the rate we had been traveling. It was a relief to know that we hadn't been forgotten; and our family was very grateful for their help.
Our family was the last group to reach the afternoon “rest stop” of the day. Because we were so far behind, by the time we got there, most of the other families had already been resting for a good fifteen minutes, but at least the rain clouds had passed and the sun was now shining down on us.
As a snack, each person received one red apple and a slice of cheddar cheese. Our family sat in a loose circle around our handcart while we ate and tried to get to know each other better. I didn’t feel like participating, in what felt like mindless chatter, so I just sat there feeling bad for myself and bitter about having to be on this stupid trek.
I was mentally preparing myself for what I thought would be some of the worst days of my life.
I scanned the crowd looking at the large group of teens. We had been directed to stay with our families and not wander around, so I told my Ma and Pa that I was going to the bathroom and instead I set out to find Chantel. I had never really done anything without her, and I was lonely.
I finally spotted her in the crowd walking with Jake, so I made my way over to them. I had just reached them when J.R showed up.
Jake and J.R. seemed as happy to see each other as Chantel and I were; It was easy to see that they were best friends.
After a few moments I heard J.R. ask, “Are you not hungry?” It was the first time he had directly spoken to me that day. I looked down at my hands, still holding the apple and slice of cheese.
“Oh. I’m hungry,” I replied “I just can't eat this because of my braces.” smiling shyly I showed the metal on my teeth.
J.R laughed. “Here let me help you.” He extended one hand out to me, palm up, and with his other hand he pulled out a pocket knife. I set the apple in his large hand and within seconds it was cut into nice edible slices. He returned the slices to me and asked Chantel, “Do you need help too?” She sheepishly turned her apple to show us the tiny bite mark she had created.
“Here, let me make it easier.” laughingly he held out his hand to cut her apple into slices as well.
“Thank you.” I told him. “That was really nice of you.”
“No problem.” he causally replied with a smile. And after returning the sliced apple to Chantel, him and Jake walked away.
It was a small gesture, but I was impressed. Who was this guy that noticed my small need and then went out of his way to help? And if he was “nothing but trouble” like I had been told before, why had he done something so kind?
As I ate my apple slices, the gloominess I had been feeling started to fade. Maybe this Trek wouldn’t be as horrible as I thought.