Just outside of Park City, Utah, a wagon train made up of hundreds of young pioneer reenactors, livestock, and various conveyances plod along the side of Interstate-15.
Towards the front of the party, Jake Jensen—a sunburned 16-year-old from Pleasant Grove—sets down his replica handcart.
“Hallelujah!” cries out Jensen, as he gets his first glimpse down Emigration Canyon and into the Great Salt Lake Basin. “Hallelujah and Hosanna!”
Jensen is one of thousands of dedicated Mormon pioneer cosplayers, who have spent the last three months trekking across the plains of the American West headed for Salt Lake City. The Trek, as it is known amongst its faithful, is an annual pilgrimage that has grown increasingly popular in recent years as young people have devoted themselves to the pioneer lifestyle.
The phenomenon has prompted many, both in and outside of the movement, to draw comparisons to Islam. If Mormon founder Joseph Smith is the American Mohammed, then perhaps the Trek is now the American Hajj.
“It is fair to say we wear our devotion to The Most High on our sleeves,” says Jensen, as he wipes the sweat from his forehead. “On our billowy, period-correct sleeves.”
And this Otaku-like obsession with recreating an authentic pioneer experience isn’t just for the fan-brethren, as the sisters have proven they are worthy helpmeets along the trail.
“I live for preparing for The Trek,” says Gillian Jacobs, 17-year-old Ephraim resident and proud Laurel. “I know that when I work all day sewing the perfect prairie dress and bonnet that my Heavenly Father will bless me with a quick sale at my asking price on my Etsy store.”
Jacobs, who has been suffering from dysentery for most of the summer, says she feels like this is more than just a fad. “It is a lifestyle for sure, and it isn’t for everyone—I mean come on—I lost a toe to frostbite in Wyoming for Pete’s sake. Who is more hardcore than me?”
When asked about her costume Jacobs explained that this will certainly be the last year she will dress as Fanny Alger. “Fanny is great, I love doing the Trek as Fanny. But a girl can’t be Fanny forever.”
Of course, the culmination of this summer-long schlep coincides with the fall sessions of the LDS General Conference—GenCon as it is known among the Trekkies. For two days, faithful Mormons of all stripes will be milling around Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake. This year’s conference promises to be a crowd-pleaser, with many of the biggest names in Mormonism greeting fans live in packed conference rooms.
Jolene Sorensen, a mother of six from Nephi, says she is primarily here to listen to the church’s “prophet, seer, and revelator” Thomas Monson. “You just never know if it is Elder Monson’s last GenCon, so I will be sure to attend the sessions of his Conference talk.”
For Sorensen’s children, the various sessions are fine—but the real action is out at the vendor tables just south of the Tabernacle. Here, collectors can buy, sell and trade mint-condition copies of The Friend, The Improvement Era, and other early Latter-day Saint periodicals. Local LDS artisans show off their unique pieces, like custom scripture cases and bespoke genealogy calligraphy.
Joshua Sorensen, Jolene’s eldest son, is on the hunt for an elusive Cyrillic CTR ring from the early 1990s. “The early ones—the ones made right after Reagan won the Cold War and Russia was finally opened to the Saints—those things are impossible to find in good condition.”
But it is the Trekkers who really own GenCon. After walking thousands of dusty miles, they set up camp in the park on top of the Conference Center. Jensen kneels in prayer, thankful to God for sparing his newborn baby son from the typhoid outbreak that ravaged his wagon party in late August.
A little later, he will water his uncle’s horses down at the City Creek Mall and then maybe check out the happenings around Temple Square. “I am on the lookout for a laser-disc copy of Johnny Lingo,” says Jensen. “I hear somebody saw one for sale over by the Assembly Hall.”