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donner, party of 87…

Airstream camping at Donner Memorial State Park


Later: “Donner, party of 84…” (And so on. Ha! I never tire of this joke, once told by restaurant lounge cover bands who used to call names when tables were ready.)

Returning from Bend during a holiday snowstorm on the Santiam Pass (my knuckles are still white), the subject of the ill-fated Donner party arose. What would that trip have been like without a heated, 4WD, 8 cylinder SUV with traction tires?

Well, it was unpleasant. The Emigrant Trail Museum near Donner Summit in Truckee recounts the scary story of the Donner Company of 1846: 42 men, women and children who “lost their desperate struggle for life” and the 49 who survived the bitter winter at 7227 feet. There by the grace of God go us all—what happened to the Donner party could be repeated by any traveler today; they simply got delayed by the weather and one bad decision led to another.

The tragic losses, unthinkable hardships and complicated stories (settlers coming and going, splitting up and forming new parties; animals and their people starving, freezing, and dying right and left) are detailed in the museum. A sculpture depicting hopeful emigrants heading west rises up 22 feet, poignantly illustrating the height of the snow that year. An instructive sign outside about "Winter Survival" lists emergency how-to’s; talk about the teachable moment.

The museum disappoints in one regard: I was looking forward to a gory diorama about cannibalism, but there’s only the merest mention of it (five words). Turns out that particular survival practice is greatly exaggerated; only a few people in the party dined on those that didn’t make it to spring.

A word about the adjacent Donner Memorial State Park campground: don’t. I stubbornly stayed three nights because I prepaid online and was too cheap to move along. It’s expensive ($35/night) and there’s no electricity, not even a plug for a blow dryer in the sorry excuse for a bathroom. (Time for that solar upgrade we’ve been talking about for the Airstream). 

Any item that smells (Trisquits, toothpaste, Captain Morgan’s) must be secured in a bear box, an inconvenience one puts up with in Yosemite, but worth the trouble in Truckee? Not so much. Upon entering the park campers are forewarned by “the bear picture” (of a mother Black Bear boosting her cub up into the window of a camper, Ocean’s Eleven style) and required to sign a statement that absolves the state from blame for damages. This bear tyranny in California really must stop.

The campsites are nonplus in every way, it’s windy, dirty, covered in red ants, inexplicably crowded, and if you arrive from the Bay Area on the 680 and the 80, the drive is a teeth-gritting horror with POTHOLES on the freeway; the right hand truck and trailer lanes are the worst. At 60 mph and you can hear the contents of your trailer hitting the ceiling.

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