Last weekend, I returned to the annual Donner Party Hike which I last did many years ago, when we still lived in Oakland. This hike (which has now evolved into many different hike selections over two days, depending on your preferred level of strenuousness) follows part of the emigrants’ trail. I remember last time spending all day hiking to sites where the guides pointed out scars on tree trunks, from where the wagons scraped through, and where we saw the infamous Roller Pass.
|Our group: there were maybe 25 of us|
This year I chose to do the hike (maybe more like a tour--not much walking involved) that focused on Alder Creek, the separate encampment area seven miles from Donner Lake, where the two Donner families and a few others set up their fragile domiciles to wait out the winter of 1846-47.
|Tree long thought to be where Tamsen and family built shelter against|
I was obliged to leave the house at 6:45 a.m. in order to get there in time. Just like the Donners leaving Springfield, Missouri, I got a bit of a late start. My delay was only 10 minutes, but still…
Barely a mile from my house, I looked down at my gas gauge. I had a third of a tank. Definitely enough to make it there, but maybe not enough to make it back? I reasoned I could fill up on the return trip, but maybe I’d be rushing even more then, so I stopped to fill up my tank. This might be akin to the Donners during one of their many time-killers: maybe the reason they were so late starting on the trail was that they stopped for the equivalent of gas. Remember Tamzene wrote that, “Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.”
|Plaque: how the shelter may have been constructed against tree trunk|
Now, you’ll think I’m making this up for purposes of parallelism, but as I drove along I began to feel excruciatingly hungry. I had left the house without breakfast because of the early hour, reasoning I’d grab coffee and something quick along the way. But I was really, really hungry. I let the feeling sit for a while, thinking it was good practice to imagine how the Donners felt this way for months on end. Ultimately, I had to stop. I was trying for a breakfast burrito, but driving around the strip mall I couldn’t locate the intended purveyor, so instead I went to a donut shop in that outlet. I picked a cake donut, thinking it looked a little healthier than its fluffier peers (I got it chocolate frosted; I’m not a martyr), and some decaf coffee and was back on the road.
|Close-up of tree: aging Peter Weddell sign and Earl Rhoads blaze|
I made good time, but my “Wasatch Mountains/Great Salt Desert” was the fact that I couldn’t determine the proper exit off the highway. I got off and suddenly somehow thanks to a roundabout found myself back on it. I drove, I looked at the time, I started to panic. I pulled into a ranger station and got some good advice, unlike the Donners. I made it to the hike rendez-vous with 15 minutes to spare.
At their registration table ("Johnson Ranch")? Coffee and donuts. Ha!
Their restroom was completely locked up thanks to the government shutdown. I had to walk into the woods and wonder if I was watering the same soil the Donners had.
|Where I guiltily ate almonds. Excellent guides: Carrie Smith, left, and Gayle Green|
And there the coincidences stop. I was not entrapped at Alder Creek. Snow did not fall. No one’s hand was injured. Buffalo hides were not eaten, nor were shoestrings nor fire rugs. I had brought a little sack lunch in my backpack that satisfied. I did feel like a turncoat standing there at the tree once thought to be the one the George Donner family had built their structure against, munching on a handful of almonds. If I could’ve slipped that food back in time, believe me, I would have.
|This young tree was planted by Donner descendants|
This story pulls at my gut, has me obsessively reading three books at a time on the topic, carrying on a wonderful email correspondence with a highly-regarded Donner Party historian, and even giving my poor community college students writing assignments like, “Write a letter to Lansford Hastings, pretending you’re a survivor.”
Not too long ago, I told my husband a particularly disturbing anecdote from the Donner Party annals—not about cannibalism; oddly enough, I don’t find that aspect that compelling or interesting—and he said, “That’s why you can’t sleep at night. You read this stuff right before you go to bed.” He was, well, suggesting I stop doing so. It was a gentle suggestion on his part, so I didn't say what I thought, which was, “If you want me to stop reading about the Donner Party, then you married the wrong woman!”
He just wants me to sleep soundly. In our warm bed, where we can hardly even hear the wind blow outside, where a few rooms away cupboards await us, filled with food.
. . . . .