By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
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An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Moon over Donner Pass

I spent last night in Donner Pass, at 7,326 feet above sea level, with snow piled around in great white mounds that glowed faintly in the moonlight. Tall pines towered higher still, their branches combing the tendrils of cloud that drifted through them.

The pass, through which modern I-80 makes its way from Reno, Nevada to Sacramento, California, is named after George Donner. Donner was the 19th century's answer to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Instead of deciding to put on a show in the barn, he got together with a few of his friends, and said, "Hey—I know! Let's get some wagons and move to California!" And his friends said, "Yeah! Let's do that!"

They say timing is everything, and the Donner Party, as it was called, was ill-timed. They left later in the summer of 1846 than they should have, and never made up the time. It was an 18th century fleet of motor homes, called Conestoga wagons, in which the families lived and played while making the trek to the new lives they planned. But, by the time they made it to the lofty Sierra Nevada mountains, it was the beginning of November. They were caught in a blizzard a few miles east of the pass. "Hey, I know!" George cried. "Let's just spend the winter here!" And the others said, "Yeah! Let's do that!" The fact that they hadn't brought sufficient provisions for a winter there didn't seem to have crossed their minds.

They set up camp, as they called it, near Truckee Lake—today called Donner Lake—and, being the resourceful types, most built cabins in which to better weather the weather (though the Donner family themselves made a "brush tent", a sort of family-sized pup tent by throwing some pine branches together, then covering them with the canopy of their wagon).

It was a severe winter. This was long before the onset of global warming, and the snow fell feet at a time and then fell some more. The Donner Party had brought supplies enough for the expected trip; there was inadequate surplus for a winter's camp. They hunted, of course; but the game had moved to lower elevations, and the remaining animals hibernated. The Donner party had to kill and eat their own cattle, originally brought to start herds for the ranches they planned to own in California. Then they had to kill and eat the horses.

With no more meat available, the travelers became hungrier and more malnourished. For some reason the grown men began to die first; it may have been that they gave their rations to their wives and children. However, the single men died, too. Then the children began to die. The snow was so deep, the bodies could only be buried in it a few feet deep. It didn't matter; in the sub-freezing temperatures there was no decomposition, anyway.

With all the four-footed food supplies exhausted, it was inevitable that the survivors start looking hungrily at those snow-covered mounds of perfectly preserved meat.

When the Donner Party was finally discovered and rescued in May, thanks to the generosity of none other than John Sutter, whose mill was the site of the first gold find, the half-eaten carcasses revealed the manner in which the survivors had managed to live. The survivors resisted telling the tales, however. People who've been driven to cannibalism to avoid starvation, have always reported it to be a spiritually enriching experience. The Christian practice of Communion, which of course is ritual cannibalism, echoes the reality these people report. It seems likely that the Donner Party, having been changed forever by the intimacy of consuming the flesh of their deceased loved ones, knew they could never explain to the people of their day what they had gone through and how it had affected them. Rather than cheapen it by releasing to the press—as tawdry in their day as it is in ours—they simply kept quiet about it. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the press from printing details they had to make up.

Eventually, the Donner Party, now settled in California, drifted out of the public eye, leaving behind Donner Pass, Donner Lake, and a few other place names to immortalize their trying journey.

The adventure of the Donner Party is one that fires the imagination. I can imagine going hunting in that pass, the silence so complete my own breath sounds like a hurricane in my head. Every step in the unbroken snow crunches loudly, the sound almost instantly swallowed by the thickness of the winter blanket and the pine needles, on branches bent low beneath their white burden. I can imagine the growing despair as days go by and I am unable to shoot as much as a rabbit to feed my family.

I can imagine being the guy who tries to keep everyone's spirits up as the months drag on and the supplies get lower and lower. I can imagine being the guy who gets killed to be eaten, as it becomes clear that, when people are experiencing a tragedy, no one likes a smart ass.

The men are huddled around an outdoor fire, trying to decide who will be next.

"What about Granny Keyes?"

"No, she's knitting a blanket. Can't eat her till it's done."

"How about Cilwa?"

"There's a thought! If he tells me one more time to look at the bright side, I'm gonna hafta kill him, anyway."

"Besides, he's got plenty of meat on his bones. He could feed a family of three for a month, by himself!"

"A family of four, if the rumors about the size of his manhood are true."

Thinking about the Donner Party as I wandered in the pre-dawn fog among the pines and the snowdrifts, I realized that time has put a new perspective on the affair. I can empathize, as if I were there, the anguish and guilt of those wives as they watched their husbands and babies die of hunger. But it's now 156 years later, and those babies would now be dead now even if they hadn't died prematurely. What is premature death, anyhow? Is it more appropriate to die at forty? Seventy? 150? Everyone on Earth dies, sooner or later. It seems to me that how one lives is far more important than for how long.

"Sierra Nevada" means Snow Mountain in Spanish. If only the members of the Donner Party had studied Spanish, they might have known to winter in the lower, more hospitable lands of Nevada east of the mountains.

Our culture has fixated on a fear of death. We look back at the ancient Egyptians and think they were obsessed with death, but we are obsessed with fearing it. We don't speak of it. We don't plan for it. We don't even like to see it coming, so we pack our old folks off to retirement communities and assisted living centers, so we won't have to actually see them pass on. We treat every death as a tragedy, a trauma that is suppressed before it even occurs.

But everyone dies. It would be a poor god, it seems to me, who would design an entire planet so that everyone on it had to undergo some awful sort of transition ritual. It seems much more likely to me, that death isn't a bad thing at all, when it comes; and our culture has made it a bad thing by fearing it so much.

Those three and five-year-olds who were lost that fateful winter: Had they lived, by now their descendents would number in the dozens, maybe even hundreds. Those people would have married people that, in our reality, married others. They would have had children. They would have taken jobs that went to other people. In a small but measurable way, the world would be a different place than it is. By dying when they did, the victims of the Donner Party helped create the world of today. In a sense, they did today's world a favor.

Is there any tragedy of today that won't be looked on similarly in the future? Are there any tragedies of the past that didn't contribute to the world we know today? Isn't it true that, in this sense, every tragedy does the world of the future a favor, by actually creating it?

The survivors of the Donner Party wrote in their journals that God "saved" them, implying that God didn't choose to save the ones who didn't survive. That's nonsense. I think those survivors, like many people who narrowly escape death and then say that God "blessed" them for some reason, have missed the point, which is that death, for all our obsessing and fear, is not a big deal for God. Some of us live longer because it takes us longer to learn our lessons, not because we are "favored" by a deity. I do believe in God, but I don't think He Or She personally cares whether I part my hair on the left or the right, or die this week or next. The mechanism that selects my time of death may be metaphysical, but I don't think God has to run it moment-by-moment any more than the mayor personally controls when the traffic lights change from red to green.

Or that, as I eat my Egg McMuffin near Donner Lake, is how it seems to me.