Tuesday, April 10

The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party (1999)

By Marian Calabro

Probably the Hares' biggest family vacation when I was a kid was ten days to two weeks to Colorado and Wyoming in June of 1970, I believe. I was about eight years old. I have a lot of “flash-memories” of that trip: My dad driving almost a thousand miles, all the way from north Louisiana into Colorado, on the first day. Taking an enclosed ski lift up to the top of a snow-covered mountain. Seeing Colorado's Royal Gorge. Staying in rustic cabins at several different locations. Yellowstone Park. My kid brother (four years younger) belting out Home on the Range (I think) incessantly, giving us someone to blame when we didn't see any bears in Yellowstone. “Home, home on the range! Where the deer and the cantaloupe play!” Old Faithful. Hippies departing from the marked routes along the wooden walkways through the geyser field, my father filming them as they leaned over bubbling pools and commenting that if they fell in he was sending his 8mm home movie to Walter Cronkite. Buffalo Bill Cody Museum. Jackson Hole. My father fishing on one of those lakes. My father gritting his teeth in the night and breaking a tooth. Playing in the snow along the side of the highway … in June! And I'm sure I could come up with more, even though I also remember being fussed at because – laying on the back seat of the green Oldsmobile with the white top as I was, reading and rereading the stack of comic books I'd brought along – I was missing everything!

But among those disjointed memories is a clear recollection of first hearing about the Donner Party. I have no memory of why or where exactly, because we were nowhere near where those horrific events transpired. I have a clear memory of laying in bed in one of those rustic cabins during that trip, being scared spitless. Stranded in the snow! Cannibalism! The stuff of which an eight-year-old's nightmares are made!

Of course, the Donner Party is one of those cultural touchstones that everybody has heard of, that has given birth to a myriad of macabre jokes. It's a subject of endless fascination – how civilized beings can be reduced by desperate circumstance to breaking “the final taboo.” But I have known nothing more than the basic fact of a wagon train snowbound in the mountains through a grueling winter, slowly starving to death, until now.

A couple of weeks ago, our local parish public library (remember, this is Louisiana, so a parish is a civil unit, basically what all you other states call a “county”) had its annual book fair, selling off both discards from the library's own holdings and donated books for next to nothing to help finance buying new books. My wife and I try to hit it whenever we have the chance. This year my haul included (in addition to an almost complete and pristine set of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in paperback – fifty cents apiece – each of the two that I was missing cost me more than all those I walked away with combined when I compulsively picked them up later, one in a bookstore, the other off Abebooks.com) a slim volume, ostensibly a discard from the youngsters' section of the library, Marian Calabro's The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party.

At about 180 pages, it's a quick read – I flew through it in about three hours. Partly it's the compelling narrative compounded with the horrific subject matter. Calabro bases her account mainly on the observations of Virginia Reed, the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the leaders of the ill-fated group, but succeeds in bringing many of the other characters in the drama to life even as the reader knows that many of them will be snuffed out, one by one, mostly by starvation and exposure, in a few cases by more direct means. She analyses very well the varying emotional costs the experiences had on the survivors – somewhere around half of the number who had begun the journey early in 1846. And she augments the narrative with a wealth of photographs of individuals, the landscape, their (or similar) tools and transportation, several helpful maps, charts of the members of the various groups who made up the “Donner Party” (named for one of the other men, who was ultimately elected leader but who did not survive), a chronology, and a list of the victims along with the date and circumstance of their demise (whenever that can be determined).

Going into the book with nothing more, as I said, than the most basic knowledge of the event, I can say I've learned a lot. Among many other things, I had no idea where the events actually took place, and how close – on a map at least – they had actually come to their destination when winter slammed shut their way forward and locked them down, many of them to die. As I said above, they were nowhere near where I was during that 1970 trip in the Rocky Mountains but much further west, just west of modern Reno, Nevada, within their destination territory of California, just shy of the eastern ridge of the Sierra Nevada.

Its late, I'm headed to bed … but 42 years later I admit that after this gripping read I dread the darkness just a little. I find myself shuddering a little when I think about being placed in a similarly desperate situation.

Thanks for reading.  Good night.

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