Shalise Borden is your typical American teenager.

She tweets regularly and plays basketball for Marana High School.

She is a fan of Xbox and has musical tastes ranging from Tyga to Taylor Swift.

Her background isn't in wilderness survival.

So when Borden, 17, was invited to participate in a five-day, 25-mile trek through the White Mountains near St. John's in May, using the same dress, food rations and modes of transportation that the early Mormon pioneers used on their exodus from the midwest to Salt Lake Valley in Utah, she was nervous.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy," she said. "I was scared to do it."

Borden was one of more than 180 teens from the Tucson West Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who simulated the trip that brought more than 70,000 Mormons west.

The church holds the event every four years for area youths ages 14-18 as a way for them to gain a greater appreciation for the pioneers and what they endured, and also increase their faith in Jesus Christ, said Stephanie Ashcraft, assistant public affairs director for Tucson West.

Authenticity is key

Dressed in period clothing - including neckerchiefs, trousers and suspenders for the boys, and skirts, aprons, bloomers and bonnets for the girls - the teens camped in the wilderness, churned butter, ate buffalo meat and pushed heavy carts weighing hundreds of pounds from the beginning of the trail to the end.

Groups were divided into "families" made up of two adults, dubbed Ma and Pa, and 12 teens, six boys and six girls, who played the role of siblings.

Marana resident Janette Skinner served as one of the mothers.

Skinner, 29, participated in a similar trek as a teen in St. David, but on a much smaller scale.

She and her husband, Brian Skinner, were approached by a church leader in October and asked to participate.

Skinner was excited at the prospect.

"We are pretty outdoorsy," she said. "We like to camp. We knew it would be a great experience and a chance to interact with the youth. They would learn a lot. We would learn a lot."

Bonding like family

Before the journey, the Skinners had to buy supplies - dutch ovens, lanterns, tents and sleeping bags.

They also attended training seminars offered by the church, teaching them how to prepare food from scratch and how to butcher different cuts of meat.

"Most of us weren't used to cooking full-course meals in the wilderness," Skinner said.

The bonding among the kids in her "family," many of whom did not know each other when the trip started, was initially slow.

"There was that typical reservation at first," she said. "They were a little outside their comfort zone."

But that awkward period soon ended.

Organizers set up scenarios that required groups to work together as a team.

Families went through "trials" - re-enactments of events that happened to Mormon pioneers - including broken wagon wheels, the death of loved ones and mob attacks.

By the end of day three, Skinner said her family was working like a real family might.

"One of our girls told me that the group decided they wouldn't trade a single member of the family," Skinner said. "They said they were open to adopt more but they weren't willing to trade."

With plenty of uphill climbs and forest terrain, the trip had its share of potential pitfalls.

The most challenging aspect for Borden was the girls-only handcart pull, when mothers and daughters were tasked with pulling their carts up two large hills without male assistance.

The act was meant to simulate what it was like when many of the male pioneers were called to protect the border as the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Borden said. "It was insane. That was almost my breaking point."

hard but worthwhile

For Zechariah Carter, the biggest challenge was getting up in the morning.

"You knew that as soon as you woke up, packed your cart and started moving, you weren't going to stop pulling until 4 or 5 in the afternoon," said the recent Mountain View High School graduate.

This was Carter's second time on the trek.

At 18, he was one of a few participants this year who was old enough to participate the time before.

Carter said he got more out of the experience this time around.

"At first, we thought it would be really hard and kind of suck," he said. "But after you've lived through it, you feel happy you could do it."

Carter said he couldn't even begin to understand what the original pioneers went through.

"We did it for five days," he said. "They did it for months."

Borden felt the same way, but would do it again in a second if she could.

"I never thought about how hard it was," Borden said. "It built my testimony and my faith just to see how strong they had to be."

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@azstarnet.com or 807-8430.