Alcova, Wyo. -- More accustomed to poolside parties and summer jobs at burger joints, the Colorado teens struggled as they pushed the heavy wooden handcarts across Wyoming's dusty prairie.
Leaving the carts at the bottom of a hill, the group of 100 or so youngsters walked the final half-mile up a steep slope to Martin's Cove, where 56 Mormon pioneers are said to have died of exhaustion and hypothermia in 1856 while on their way to Salt Lake City.
Amalie Brown, 16, had heard stories of this place over and over again in Mormon Sunday school and at church while growing up. But the moment was more powerful than even she had expected.
"It feels so quiet up there, so peaceful," the high school senior said. "You can almost feel them -- the people who died -- up there with you."
Part pilgrimage site, part historical legacy, Martin's Cove is visited by an average of 70,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each year, and group tours are booked solid for the next four years.
Many come to tread the same earth as those who died during the journey west, to learn from their example of faith and sacrifice.
The problem is that, as one of the most revered sites in the Mormon world, a place considered by church officials to be holy ground, Martin's Cove is on a patch of sagebrush and prairie grass administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
After years of trying unsuccessfully to purchase the site, the church engineered what critics say is an end run. At the urging of powerful Mormon lawmakers, Congress ordered federal land managers in 2003 to give the Mormon Church a 25-year lease on the site that can be renewed indefinitely.
But a battle is brewing over whether the sacred nature of the site --and the LDS church's right to determine how it is interpreted -- conflicts with the site's role as part of a larger history of the American West, one that includes miscalculation and greed as well as courage and sacrifice.
"As far as we can tell, this is unprecedented," said Mark Lopez, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, whose organization filed suit in March in U.S. District Court in Wyoming to have the 933-acre lease revoked.
He points out that there are dozens of sites sacred to American Indians on public lands, including Devil's Tower in northeast Wyoming and parts of the Black Hills of South Dakota, but none has been handed over to Indian control.
"What if you took the Gettysburg battlefield and put it under the stewardship of a religious organization? It raises problems of blurring the line between church and state," Lopez said.
Martin's Cove is among the crown jewels in a string of historic sites that the LDS church has spent years and millions of dollars to buy, develop or restore.
But the site also plays a significant role in the history of pioneer migration to the West. Martin's Cove is an important landmark along the route of all four major routes west: the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Pony Express route and the Oregon Trail.
During peak summer months, thousands of trekkers --the vast majority of them Mormons -- walk the dusty trails around Martin's Cove each day, dressed in pioneer costumes while pushing two-wheeled wooden handcarts as Mormon pioneers once did.
Around campfires at night, they recite stories of those who died along the route years ago.
One was James Kirkwood, an 11-year-old boy who carried his younger brother on his back for miles as snow fell and temperatures plummeted. He died, but only after he set his brother safely next to a campfire.
Like the stories of the church's expulsion from Missouri or the lynching of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, in Illinois, the tales are more than mere history, according to Jan Shipps, an expert on the Mormon church.
They are Heilsgeschicte or holy history, like the stories of Catholic martyrs or the Jews' escape from Egypt.
"You can tell what happened in the past from a secular standpoint or from a sacred standpoint," said Shipps, professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. "The church wants to tell that story so that it builds faith. That's what holy history does. It tells acts of God in the human past."
LDS authorities say they take pains to welcome all visitors at Martin's Cove. The church purchased the adjacent Sun Ranch in 1996 and established a visitors center, open to the public and staffed by Mormon missionaries.
"If they ask us about the church, we tell them," said ElDean Holliday, 73, who is serving a two-year mission as the site's director. "But we don't proselytize."
Still, Holliday doesn't believe this place has the same significance for others that it does for members of the LDS church.
"It's sacred to us because so many people have died here," he said.
But for some critics, the federal government has taken the wrong side in a conflict between history in the service of religion and history in the service of truth.
At the foot of an outcrop of granite hills known as the Rattlesnake Mountains, Martin's Cove is less a cove and more a natural shelter created in the crease between rocks and a grass-covered hillside.
In 1856, while caught in an October storm, one group of nearly 600 exhausted handcart trekkers, known as the Martin Company, are said to have camped here for five days. Many handcart groups had traveled the same route, but the Martin Company suffered some of the greatest losses.
Church guides explain that the dead were buried in snow banks to keep their bodies from the wolves. Eventually, a relief group arrived and took the handcart pioneers to Salt Lake City.
But many basic facts are in dispute. At least one historian claims the real Martin's Cove is at a different site. And there is evidence that many of the deaths that supposedly occurred there actually took place when the party camped near Horse Creek, several miles away.
"If I say my lawn is hallowed ground, then I guess it is," said former Wyoming legislator Barbara Dobos, a member of the Alliance for Historic Wyoming, which has filed a separate appeal of the Bureau of Land Management lease. "(But) my contention all along has been that this is an inaccurate presentation of history."
To Kevin Holdsworth, a Wyoming college professor and a descendant of Mormon pioneers, the real problem is that the story told by the church is history scrubbed clean.
At the time, the decision to send thousands of converts across the prairie pushing carts that weighed more than 300 pounds each was part of a grander vision of the LDS church's growing empire. Struggling to build a flock in the harsh frontier of the Salt Lake Basin, the church paid the cost for new, foreign converts to journey to America and then West to Utah from something known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund.
With the fund dwindling, Mormon leader Brigham Young decided that two-wheeled handcarts would be a cheaper and more efficient way to build numbers than buying wagons and oxen for each family. It was also a physically exhausting and painfully slow form of transport.
According to church history, Young explicitly gave orders that no emigrants were to leave Iowa City, Iowa, after July 1, because of the threat of early storms. But members of the Martin Company nonetheless departed four weeks late, after waiting for the church to provide enough handcarts to carry their families and belongings West.
"Terrible mistakes were made, and they whitewash it as faith and sacrifice," Holdsworth said.
"The way the church presents it is, 'Oh, well, it was just bad weather,"' he said. "No, it wasn't. It was bad decisions, because somebody allowed them to go. Somebody was in control of these people's lives, and they set off in the middle of July."
Because of the site's broader significance, members of Wyoming's congressional delegation initially opposed church efforts in 2001 to buy the land, as well as a later plan for a 99-year lease.
But the LDS church pressed hard. Among those involved in negotiations with lawmakers and land managers was Clint Ensign, vice president of government relations for Sinclair Oil Co. and an employee of Robert Earl Holding, an LDS church member and one of the country's richest men. Holding's businesses in Wyoming include Sinclair Oil and Little America, the Cheyenne resort hotel.
Wyoming lawmakers eventually agreed to support the current 25-year lease, which was attached to a must-pass Energy and Water Appropriations Bill and approved by Congress in 2003.
The ACLU believes control of the land should be returned to the Bureau of Land Management.
Citing the handling of American Indian sacred sites, Lopez, the group's lawyer, said he believes the federal government is the only entity that can balance the religious value of public lands with the rights of people who think differently.
Sitting around a campfire near where Mormon pioneers once passed, Steve Neeley, a financial planner from Logan, Utah, said he believes the cove couldn't be in better hands.
ACLU staffers "are good people doing what they believe in, and we are good people doing what we believe in," he said. "I just think in this case they are wrong."