I anticipated the trip would be the greatest experience of my life, almost a sacred pilgrimage. I assumed I would share it with one or two other women, for it had been the women pioneers who had moved me so deeply. After careful deliberation I wrote to an old friend inviting her to share this journey. She had recently converted to Mormonism, and much of the Donner Trail later became the Mormon Trail. With a sense that had honored her, I waited eagerly and naively for the return mail...

I approached the mailbox with tingling anticipation...but it was empty. The next day my heart jumped...but the white letter was only a phone bill. I felt strangely embarrassed. Days passed and I stared in disbelief as the mailbox yawned empty of the letter I sought. Four months later my answer came tacked as a P.S. at the end of a Christmas card, "Oh yes, about your trip-no thanks." Chastened I approached a few other friends and shyly invited them to join me. "Are you kidding?! And not have my hot shower every night?" "You must be crazy I can't take the time." "Oh, Barbara, don't go; you'll miss the height of the selling season." (I was a real estate broker.) I was wounded when people did not take me or my plans seriously. It shook my fragile confidence. I became secretive about the trip. Then I faced the truth. I would have to go alone or not at all.  I chose to go alone.

Early March in Massachusetts when the dusk is a rainy gray and the cold seeps inside along the leaky windowsill, reality crowded out the vague sunny visions I'd had of the trip ahead. Until then I had hummed The Grand Canyon Suite, ”We're on the trail . My mule and I, we haven't a care.” While   envisioning an amble through waving tan grasses with a road a safe distance on the left and a river, the Platte, vaguely to my right. ''Clipitty clippity clipping clop, over the rim of a hill." I'd hum as a yellow butterfly [8] darted jaggedly across my imaginary path.

The mule went away in my mind before March but not without a fight.  "My mule and I" was too romantic an image to give way easily to the reality of impracticability, but admittedly, I knew nothing about mules.

Now my departure date was less than six weeks away, and I opened my eyes to the real world around me. I frowned. I'd be outside there in Kansas next month where it got dark like nowhere and rained and where some little towns wouldn't have campgrounds or motels or friends and then just exactly what would I do?...It was my first panic attack. When night fell out there and I was alone, where would I hide? Visions of me sneaking behind sheds or crouching in back yards crowded me as I searched outside my own Massachusetts window. The houses on our street looked cozy and warm behind the lighted windows, but I was watching the imaginary me cold and frightened outside on the menacing dark street. With the dreadful sinking feeling that I wouldn't be able to cope, that my precious trip was the delusion of a psychotic, that I'd bitten off more than I could chew, 1 all but gave it up right then.

But there is security in conviction and my conviction was firm; I would do the trip period. The moment of gut wrenching fear subsided slowly. If the pioneers did it in the wilds of 1846, I'd do it in 1978.  And then solutions came. I stopped mentally crouching out there in fear and defeat and went to the police station, or the nearest church parsonage or the town clerk or mayor or librarian or.....suddenly towns seemed full of nice safe people who'd let me sleep on a porch or in a yard. The panic attack passed. It was the first and not the last, but a tiny seed of coping confidence had been planted.

For a while I felt compelled to envision every possible eventuality so as to mentally prepare, but the situations were limitless. What would I [9] do if a pack of half wild dogs attacked while I camped alone? What if my trick back went into spasm in the wilderness and I couldn't move? A co-worker said testily, "Tell me just exactly what you are going to do when two burly truck drivers pull up and say, "Honey, get in the truck?" And then I realized the futility of imagining let alone preparing for every possible catastrophe. A heavy burden slipped away with the realization that I could not expect to anticipate every contingency but would have to rely on my own ability to cope as the trip unfolded. Absolved of that responsibility, I breathed easier as dreary Massachusetts March passed to still leafless April.

From other people I needed practical help, such as maps and equipment.  I also thought I needed supportive approval and enthusiasm so I peppered the mails with 35 letters to western trail experts, rangers, friends, historians, transportation departments, etc. I briefly (described my plans, asked for help and signed my name ambiguously ''B. Maat" to foil any anti-woman prejudice. I met a wall of indifference and discouragement which unhappily armored and numbed me.

One day a letter came from the ranger at Donner Memorial State Park, Steve Moore "Dear Ms. or Mr. Maat” it read. "Ms"!!! I loved him already! I held my breath. A long thoughtful and encouraging letter followed. Alone in the house, I leaped with joy, giggled, and kissed the letter. I twirled on tiptoes girlishly about the room. I sat on the floor and reread it. My eyes brimmed with tears realizing how deprived of encouragement I had been and how sorely I had needed it. I hugged the letter to myself. It was almost as good as having a friend go with me.

Inevitably the few people who knew about the trip inquired about how I was going to protect myself. Everyone assumed I'd carry a gun, [10] or mace or bring a dog to repel assault. A colleague shook his head ''Barbara, why don't you stay here where you belong. You'll be subjecting yourself to all kinds of danger."

I approached a friend, a captain in the Massachusetts State Police.  Somewhat belligerently I said, "Now don't tell be to stay home because I AM going, but what kind of protection should I carry, a gun?" I braced for has disapproving lecture.

With a twinkling amused smile he replied "Naw, you can't carry a gun. It's against the law in many states, besides there's not much you can do against a determined attacker anyway. Why don't you forget all this talk about weaponry. Go ahead with your trip and have a wonderful time. It's something you’ll be talking about for the rest of your life. As for danger, it'll be no different from walking down the street of your own town." (A questionable comfort!) I never could picture how the quick draw would have worked anyway. Ludicrous! It's just not my style.

With the gun issue settled and the burro image gone I begin researching and collecting in earnest equipment for backpacking. Good boots and pack were items of supreme importance. I would pay any price for either.  A poor selection of either would jeopardize the trip. The pack selection was easiest. I chose the one that was most comfortable when loaded with sandbags. It hugged tightly against my back with the weight on shoulders and riding on hip sides. It was $75, a Jan Sport Great Sack II, internal frame. I was outraged that for the price it was not waterproof, but as for comfort I never had a complaint.

I've always been a sneaker person but "backpacking with sneakers? HA! Ha! Ha! You've got to be kidding!'' said the muscled young salesman half my age. Ouch! Sometimes these outdoors mountaineering and backpacking people can be very intimidating, so I stole into the boot department [11] like a thief in the night. ''I'd like some very light weight hiking boots," I said with what I hoped was a passably assertive voice.

“What are you going to be using them for?" he parried.

Gulp. There I stood feeling feeble and inadequate before the out- doorsie young man. ''Oh just walking on the flat" I half lied. At that point I could not even faintly imagine my skinny legs and bony feet propelling me 2,000 miles across plains and mountains and deserts. To give away my secret was unthinkable.  If he laughed, . . .why it might evaporate! My dream was still dangerously fragile. I protected and guarded it from laughter, ridicule or doubt.

I bought a second pair of $43 boots (the first pair had given severe blisters) and faced the immediate problem of money. As a real estate broker I needed one more sale to give me the money I'd need for the trip.  Luckily I was working with a pleasant young couple motivated to buy, easy to please and financially able. But as my departure date neared and time pressures increased, the sale eluded me. For the last 3 weeks I ate up valuable conditioning time squiring around my exasperating young couple who never did buy.

In my free hours I walked up and down the streets of my town with my bright new pack and new fancy imported Italian hiking parts. How silly I felt! There was something worse than feeling silly, however, and that was feeling pain! A pinched nerve in my shoulder needled me mercilessly. My leg muscles ached and quivered with fatigue on the slightest upgrade and unmistakably the sore spot on my heel was topped by a small fluid filled lump. But I perservered and increased my mileage from two a day to eleven, the average per day needed to complete the trip. On the day I did 11, I staggered into my real estate office and collapsed into a chair too pained and stiff to even remove the pack. "How many miles did you do today?" said [12] my upbeat colleague. "Eleven." I whispered.

"Hey! Greatl!" He chortled. "Now you've got it made!"

I'm forever and ever indebted to him for his optimism. The fact that it took two days to recover was never mentioned. ''Oh well," I secretly rationalized, ''the pioneers were all kinds of people. Some were conditioned but many had to become trail toughened while on the way." I'd be one of those.

All in all I don't think a less qualified specimen ever attempted a pioneer trail. I had never backpacked. I was not conditioned. I suffered for years from intermittent severe muscle spasms in my back. I was also prone to Meneere's Syndrome, periodic attacks of incapacitating dizziness. I did not have adequate funds. My maps were incomplete. I was walking out on my two teenage children who I was told would need their mother especially at this crucial teen stage. My old house was only half renovated and barely livable for my family I was leaving behind. I was rather sheltered and naive, plunging ahead with conviction and faith backed by scant experience and shaky confidence.

But in truth, is there ever a right time, a convenient time for such a trip as this? I would have waited in vain for the perfect time to work it in. This year was as good, or bad, as any, I thought, so I carved it out of or into my life and made the time.

My real estate office gave me a surprise party singing, ''Happy trails to you, until we meet again. Happy trails to you. Keep smiling until then.  Happy trails to you, till we meet again." The broker who had oozed contempt the day before, "Do you have any idea at all how hot it is in the desert? Obviously you don't," had a tear in his eye. It was a touching send off for a seemingly impossible dream. [13]

Donner Party
Trail Route