My children stirred sleepily in the next room as I gripped my book more tightly. And then suddenly I wasn't reading anymore. My eyes had frozen, still. The last word blurred. My fingertips and lips numbed in horror. With an awe that is beyond expression, beyond tears, I reeled under the impact of my new awareness of a dimension in human suffering and endurance.
The book that changed my life, Ordeal By Hunger, is a true narrative about the Donner Party, a group of 87 pioneers who emigrated to California in 1846. I had identified with the individuals, especially the women described in the book. I actually tensed my muscles reading of their back-breaking struggle through the Wahsatch Mountains and worked my mouth for saliva as they strained thirst crazed across the Great Salt Desert. Through a hundred calamities I walked with them across the pages of the book. Despite incredibly difficult circumstances, they came within a hairsbreadth of their goal, Sutter’s Fort in California, but were stopped by early winter snowstorm in the great mountainous wall of the Sierras. With credulity stretched taut, I hovered with them through the narration of that unspeakable winter in their wet hovels under the 30 foot deep snow. Death by starvation and the bitter poignancy of mothers frantically striving to keep their children alive riveted me to the horror story.
My own moment of truth in the Donner saga came over an incident no more or less crucial than any number of similar horrors. Recitation of death and cannibalism had passed before my intense eyes, but when a carefully cached food store was found to be rifled and eaten by wild animals during a desperate rescue effort, well, that was too much. It was then that my eyes halted and blurred, my fingers and lips numbed and my perception of the world and the human spirit was forever altered.
My own children, then babies, began to fret hungrily from the next room. I laid aside Ordeal By Hunger and reentered my own similar yet different world of diapers and baby food. Later I finished the book, but the memory and pall lingered, fading very slowly.
A few years later in 1965, our family moved to California to stay for a period of 2 years. A born and bread northeasterner, I was stirred by the big sky and flat expanses as early in our western trip as Ohio. By the time we reached South Dakota, my amazement and awe at the treeless emptiness bordered on panic. I felt downright irresponsible traveling with two small children in the terrifying vacant expanse. The car seemed an inadequate and too slow vehicle to deliver us across the madness. Why what if it broke down! We'd sizzle to death like hotdogs in a frying pan, no trees for shade, no hills for hiding, no water for cooking, no people for comfort and no doctors. (When my children were young, I viewed doctors as an essential tool for survival.) Behind the panic lurked the guilt. Dear God, just let us get across these eternal plains and I’ll promise I'll never do anything to risk my children’s lives so foolishly again.
“Howard go faster!” I irrationally ordered my puzzled husband.
“The thing that gets me,” he retorted charging the subject, “is how
in hell the pioneers crossed this country in slow, lumbering covered wagons. Sometimes, I understand, they made only 8 miles a day!”
For the rest of the trip I immersed myself in imagining the infinitely more frightening situation the pioneer mother faced. My son, Cliff, promptly developed an allergic reaction to an insect bite, and Paula, my daughter, got an earache. Hour after hour we rode across the plains, my fear and panic for myself turning to awe, respect and admiration for my imagined pioneer mother. An almost imperceptible hump in the distance would hover within her vision a whole day, while we would speed past it within ten minutes. How did she endure it?
We arrived in California after a relatively slow 15 day crossing of the country. (To a pioneer it would have been unimaginably fast.) California life swept my Great Plains moods and thoughts, but the seed of fascination for emigrant crossings had been planted. After two years we returned to the east where my children grew to teenagers.
In 1976 in a bicentennial spirit, we pulled the children from school and went on a four month camping trip throughout the west. I was determined that they get a dose of Americana and history, a smell of the land and an eye for the landscape for this nation. As usual the adults probably soaked up more than the kids. As a crusty old rancher in Nevada said, "History is too precious to squander on the young. Like great literature, history should be reserved for the mature adult when there's more experience under the belt to appreciate it." Maybe so...
While camping in Death Valley, a garrulous retired man began relating tales of his fervent love of history. A friend of his had flown over the Great Salt Desert in a private plane and had located what was left of pioneer wagons abandoned in 1846. ''And only two weeks ago, I stood on the very spot where these ravaged pioneers were forced to abandon their wagons. Ahhhh, I felt their despair as I looked around at the desolation.”
His emotional recitation was moving. My pulse quickened as half forgotten memories stirred. “Was it the...the...the ones that got snowed in, in the Sierras? The Donner party?"
"Yes," he exclaimed, delighted to meet another who at least had heard of them, ''and you can still see the wagon ruts from 130 years ago, but," he cautioned, “it's dangerous out there.''
By this time the memories of Ordeal By Hunger were flooding me and I spilled a torrent of questions. There we stood in the scorching heat of Death Valley, two united kindred spirits jabbering in a state of mutual excitement; only seconds before we'd been total strangers. He led me to his camper where he dragged forth a box of relics he'd retrieved from the desert wagon mounds. I approached as if it were a shrine. There were pieces of wood and metal and oxen bones, but the most heart rendering was a tight wad of covered wagon canvas ripped and balled with desert salt. In a spontaneous burst of generosity he reached down and grabbed an oxen bone and piece of wood which he extended to me. “Here, these are for you because you appreciate and love these great pioneers as much as I do." I was humbled and honored. I still am.
The next day we left Death Valley through desert similar to that on the more northerly Donner Trail. On the seat beside me cushioned in a tissue box rested the Donner oxen bone and salt twisted wood. I stared motionless at the bleak distant desert landscape through the windows of the humming car. It would take a whole day for a wagon train to cross the horizon I was scanning. I imagined a line of rocking lumbering white topped wagons, their movement barely perceptible against the distant mesas and buttes. The oxen toiled under the broiling sun while some of the weary women must have stared resignedly from under the sun bleached fabric. So many days, so many weeks, so many nights and horizons and minor and major crises and so much tedium, yet it all added up to crossing a country! What must it have been really like? What did it really FEEL like? How was it to breathe new air daily and to travel through changing scenes, ...to be an emigrant pioneer? To cross a country? And then with a stunning bolt of recognition I knew that someday I would walk the Donner Trail myself. I KNEW it suddenly and completely and that certain knowledge wafted over me in waves and chills of alternating joy and fear. I shivered and giggled and cried and flinched and sweated and tried to come to grips with my newly revealed knowledge. From that instant there was never any doubt I would do it; the only question was when. I had never heard of so dramatic a beginning to a major undertaking, but there it was.
To explain my strange behavior I merely told my family that I was excited about my Donner relics. The truth was still too new, fragile and precious to be spoken aloud.
I felt a need and an urge to track down the Donner story immediately while we were still in the west, so we decided to drive the extra 300 miles north to Salt Lake City, the closest major city right on the Donner Trail. Our brief search there revealed no Donner information so we turned away from thoughts of the Donner Party and pulled out the campground guide to find the nearest cheap campground. It was 40 miles away, a place called East Canyon Reservoir. As navigator, I held the open book on my lap reading aloud the directions:
camp ground guide
As we headed into the Wahsatch Mountains I picked up another book I had been reading, The Gathering of Zion. On page 164 I suddenly found myself reading about the decidedly non-Mormon group, the Donner Party! My languid perusal flared to an avid interest as their struggle through the Wahsatch was described. Wahsatch! The mountains we were now driving through! As the car was shifted to a lower gear, I glanced up from the book just as we passed a tiny road sign, Dixie Hollow. One of my kids asked for the graham crackers which I passed to the back seat as I resumed reading, ''then seven miles of equally stiff down along the side hill into what is now called Dixie Hollow..." and ''up what Pratt called Canyon Creek (now East Canyon Creek) for 6 exhausting miles." Puzzled, I glanced to my left knee where I reread the directions to . . . what campground again? EAST CANYON!...DIXIE HOLLOW!... WAHSATCH MOUNTAINS!! It was one of those rare moments in time and fate when incredible coincidences collide, and what an impact it was!
I had been drawn to Salt Lake City in search of Donner information only to find nothing. Then, having given up, we blindly but unerringly stumbled over their very path camping that night within a stone's throw of their campsite 130 years before. The catalyst for this Donner knowledge had been a book about Mormons, a campground guide, and a graham cracker! It seemed a final affirmation of my intention to retrace the Donner Trail.
I have been pressed hundreds of times to explain why I, a presumably normal 37 year old mother, decided to leave home for seven months and retrace on foot the route of the Donner Party. I have here described the series of occasions over the years which eventually led to the first naive steps, but the why remains not satisfactorily answered.
It was, no doubt, partly to revel in pioneer experience, to feel alkali dust in the wind, to see the desert mirage, to hear the coyotes howl after a storm and to feel the hunger of a hard day on the trail satisfied. It was to get a hint of the 1846 sense of time and distance so greatly different from 1978's. As a Nevada Mormon suggested, it was ''to pay a little reverence'' to the pioneers, my own personal pilgrimage of honor and respect, especially for the women.
But yet, the sum of all small reasons does not equal a full answer of why. In the end the reasons remain hidden and inscrutable. Yet I am as deeply confident now as when on the trail that it was the right thing, the perfect thing for me to be doing at that time. I never wavered in that conviction. It felt right, always, every step.
It mattered to lots of people that I have a definite reason for the journey, but it never mattered to me; I just did it...