Donner Pass

After two nights in the redwood forest, we drove across the extremely curvy California route 36 to Red Bluff, then headed south on I-5 to route 20. After Yuba City, this climbs into the Sierra Nevada mountains, eventually merging with I-80, one of the few passable routes through the mountains. We arrived at Donner State Park in the evening and camped for the night.

I was never too interested in the stories of the Donner Party until I saw the Ric Burns documentary on the subject. It is the compelling story of the last immigrant group to cross the frontier in the summer of 1846. Due to a series of mishaps, they arrived at the eastern side of the Sierras just hours before the first blizzard of the winter. Many of them tried to get out, but most went crazy from starvation and died in the mountains. Those who remained set up a camp beside what is now called Donner Lake.

One hundred and fifty years later, the Donner Party remains a part of popular culture, mainly because of the cannibalism. Yes, some of them did eat the flesh of those who died from malnutrition. Those who survived the winter, mostly women, were rescued four months later. Some were found delirious, sitting beside those who had perished and later had strips of flesh ripped off their arms and legs. It is the most harrowing story of survival I've ever heard.

Today, visitors remember the Donner tragedy by hauling their motorboats and jet-skis to the lake that bore witness to this calamity.