When I hung up the phone with our Stake Young Men’s President back in 2008, I had a lot to think about.
“We really want Jonathan to come on the trek this year. We have been trying to figure out in our planning meetings how to accommodate him, perhaps have him ride in a handcart and have his trek family care for him along the trail. We think it would be inspirational for the youth to see Jonathan on the trek.”
The Jonathan he was referring to was my 16 year old son. Jonathan was born with both autism and several physical challenges with his legs, knees and feet. What was meant to be a highly spiritual event for a typical Mormon teenager would have only been a nightmare for him.
Camping, flying insects, and unfamiliar foods are all triggers of great emotional distress for Jonathan. Unable to appreciate abstractly why he was riding in a bumpy handcart day and night in the middle of nowhere, the trail would only be meaningless torture for him.
Every four years the youth in our stake have the chance to go on a pioneer trek. The trek experience is intended to connect participants to real spiritual growth by channeling such pioneer themes as perseverance, faithfulness, and courage through a carefully planned re-enactment of the handcart experience. To those youth prepared, they emerge with life changing experiences and tender mercies to draw upon for a lifetime. I wanted this experience for my son. However, a stake trek was not the vehicle to accomplish such.
This was his time as a teenager to have a trek experience, but he needed a trek where he would not just serve as an inspirational mascot for others. He needed a trek specifically for him. He needed a trek of one.
Four years earlier I was called to organize our stake’s very first pioneer trek… from scratch. This was in the days before the official church trek handbook and I was tasked to create a trek tailored specifically to the needs of the youth of the stake. In what I can only describe as writing and directing a mobile Hill Cummorah pageant set in the mountains of Arizona with a cast of 400, it was one of the highlights of my service in the church. But here four years later, I felt inspired to now design a trek for one. I knew what my son needed spiritually, what would appropriately push him, what would inspire and nourish him.
As I pondered about how to achieve “trek results” in a manner meaningful for my son, I considered how Jonathan connected to the world. Jonathan was non-verbal as a child with one notable exception. He completely loved anything and everything Disney. Because of this he memorized every Disney movie phonetically, word for word. As he grew I noticed that he started using appropriate phrases from these movies like a tool to communicate his needs and feelings.
When I realized that I could quote movie lines back to him and he understood what I was trying to convey, I memorized dialogue exchanges and we began to effectively communicate as we quoted movie lines to each other.
It was an “aha” moment akin to an English speaker and a Russian speaker discovering that they both know French. Most of our father/son teaching moments happened this way. Our favorite movie to banter back and forth was The Lion King. In a practice that continues to this day, he started calling me Mufasa and I in return called him Simba.
Because of this connection I knew in my heart that a trek meaningful for Jonathan would happen at Disneyland.
This did not go over well with our leaders when I told them Jonathan would not be attending the Stake trek that year with the other youth. They scoffed at what they considered vacation plans.
As I began planning his “Trek of One,” there was one defining experience I wanted to replicate.
Four years previous on the stake trek we created a stage on the trail called Rocky Ridge. It was a HARD and rocky incline requiring teamwork and determination to ascend. We planned for the youth to climb our Rocky Ridge first thing in the morning of the second day. After breakfast, we gathered at the base of the ridge for a devotional where our Stake President recounted the original perilous 1856 ascent up Rocky Ridge in Wyoming.
Understanding the importance of the moment, the youth quietly assembled with their handcarts at the base of the hill. Then one by one there on an Arizona mountainside, each handcart family physically accomplished a seemingly impossible task as they rose together to conquer the hill.
It was a defining moment of great accomplishment for the youth as they stood atop their “Rocky Ridge” that morning.
Jonathan needed a Rocky Ridge.
Now a Priest, Jonathan expressed an intense interest to bless the sacrament but he could not read let alone pronounce some of the words. I knew his Rocky Ridge was to be the sacrament prayers. If he could memorize Disney movies word for word surely he could memorize the sacrament prayers word for word.
On the evening of his trek we boarded a plane from Phoenix, just father and son… Mufasa and Simba… to a land just as real to him as Bethlehem is to the Christian. We had a morning devotional the next day before the park opened where I introduced the challenge to him. I asked him if he wanted to learn the prayer on the bread or on the water. He said he wanted the bread.
We were so going to take this hill together.
During the days we trekked through Disneyland. Walking there was just as inspirational for him as a dusty pioneer trail. I had created small reflections on note cards for after each ride where I connected simple but meaningful gospel principles to what we had just experienced. Quoting gospel principles with Disney dialogue was as powerful as any lesson taught on any trek.
Each evening when we could walk no more, we returned to the hotel room and attacked the sacrament prayer. Following his lead we started reciting each line back and forth with each other. He was so determined to connect the sentences.
When he memorized Disney dialogue he would rewind the movie every few minutes over and over again to phonetically learn the lines. I noticed on our trek that he would rewind me over and over again, sentence by sentence paying particular attention to the pronunciation of each word. At times it was frustrating for him… especially the word “sanctify” which he insisted I repeat again and again as he would try to mimic the phonetics.
Night after night I was amazed at his tenacity to reach his goal. It was humbling as a father to watch the process. It was a moment where my eyes were opened to eternity as I saw a determined son rise, fueled by the righteous desires of his heart, and confront the limitations of his mortality. His struggles to pray the sacrament prayer on the bread were as tender and real as any I had ever witnessed on a stake trek.
The next Sunday, as I sat in the congregation we witnessed the sweetest, most pure invitation to renew our covenants from my son. As he finished the prayer, many eyes were wet as we offered our collective “Amen” for the Spirit was with us.
We all knew.
When Jonathan knelt that day at the sacrament table he was instead standing atop his Rocky Ridge.