displays of the ill-fated Donner Party crossing of
the Sierra are at the new Donner Memorial State Park
visitors center in Truckee, Calif.
Calif. — Sometimes AutoCorrect, bane of our digital
existence, unintentionally makes the perfect and perfectly
ridiculous word choice that serves both as cogent
commentary and comic relief.
the other day. I was stopped at a traffic light in
Truckee, heading toward a certain state park visitors
center, and received a text from a loved one asking my
whereabouts. Quickly, before the light changed, I punched
in "donn …" and, before I could finish,
AutoCorrect had changed it to "dinner."
Such an old joke — "Paging Donner, party of
six" — seemingly never gets tiresome because the
tragic pioneer saga of the ill-fated Donner Party’s
demise, and documented cannibalism, continue to fascinate
169 years after the fact. If, when chugging up Interstate
80 on the way to Tahoe, you don’t think, even
fleetingly, of the Donner Party and its horrible death by
starvation, then you have no sense of imagination.
June, travelers can do more than just crack wise as they
breeze pass the Donner Pass Road exit and motor on. A new
visitors center at Donner Memorial State Park — nearly
10,000 square feet in size and $9.6 million in cost —
charts, in detail, the successes and failures of pioneer
families blazing a trail through the Sierra. It also
sketches the original settlement by the Washoe tribe,
details the Chinese construction of the railroad tunnel
through the pass, and the advent of Interstate 80 and ease
of motor traffic over the summit.
a fine monument to all forms of travel and the innately
American yen for exploration and adventure. But, be
honest, it’s the Donner Party and the C-word (not
sensationally featured in museum displays and literature
but duly noted in the aptly titled "Desperation"
display) that drew the healthy crowd of tourists I
encountered roaming the halls one recent afternoon.
lingered over the life-size cardboard cutouts of women and
children huddled in threadbare blankets, accompanied by a
broken wagon wheel half buried in fake snow. They stared
at the exploded text stenciled on the wall:
"STARVING, they ate the bodies of dead
museum exhibits tend to lend themselves to quiet
contemplation in even the most buoyant of galleries, but
no one said a word here for minutes at a time as they read
display boards with unsettling headings such as
"Trapped by Snow," "A Fateful
Decision," "Death and Banishment" and
as if seeking to lighten everyone’s psychic load, a
woman in a sleeveless red polka-dotted blouse and khaki
shorts turned to a stranger beside her and said, in a deep
Southern drawl, "Always stay on the trail." Then
she shook her head and repeated the admonition, wise words
even today. The guy next to her nodded, but kept staring
at a landscape painting of people with walking sticks
trudging through snow drifts high as cabin chimneys.
Michele Sides, of Hillsboro, Texas, pointed out with her
"Always stay on the trail" refrain is that, at
its most basic, the Donner Party story is just a family
(actually, multiple families) road trip gone horribly
haven’t we all been there? Our GPS sent us the wrong
way, or we misheard Siri’s instructions, and we wind up
out in the middle of a whole lot of nothing and see our
culinary options are reduced to scrounging the gaps in the
seat cushions for stray french fries from yesterday’s
lunch and maybe an odd lozenge or two.
presented at the visitors center, the Donner Party tragedy
also is a cautionary tale about patience, or lack thereof.
Rather than traveling by the established route, the Reed
and Donner men were hellbent on taking this 300-mile
shortcut an explorer named Lansford Hastings swore would
get them there. As Jesse Quinn Thornton wrote in an 1848
account of the trek, "Mrs. George Donner was …
gloomy, sad and dispirited … that her husband and others
could think for a moment of leaving the old road."
you just picture George, a pioneer version of Chevy Chase’s
Clark Griswold, clutching a hastily sketched map and
swearing that this was the right way to go as the
89-person wagon train pushed on heedlessly into the
the cannibalism angle is basically glossed over, we do get
a good idea of the entrees upon which the Donner Party
feasted: a thin soup of boiled animal hides and bones,
bark and pine twigs, dirt. Many in the party stayed alive
on such a diet until rescued. (About three dozen people
perished.) One of the more popular displays bears the
heading, "Why Did Women Survive?" Answer:
"Women’s smaller bodies give them an advantage
because they need fewer calories than men. With more body
fat, women have more energy reserves."
pleased a visitor from San Rafael, Calif., who declined to
give her name, who turned to me and commented on the
resilience of women, crowing, "That speaks
rest of the visitors center is decidedly more upbeat,
extolling the wonders of the road, with exhibits titled
"The Freedom of Travel" and "Open Road
Adventures," and "From Dirt to Asphalt:
Transforming Donner Pass" — perfect for tourists
wanting affirmation that they are partaking in a grand
tradition of travel.
is really nice," said visitor Steve Overhoff, with
his wife, Bethany. "We didn’t expect to see all the
stuff about the train tunnels and old Highway 40."
But he admitted they came for the Donner Party.
thinks of the cannibalism story, but in reality it was the
don’t-take-a-short-cut-that’s-not-proven story and how
easy it was to mislead everybody," Overhoff said.
"Google maps can mislead you, too."
two were soon done perusing the aisles and back in their
car. But other travelers kept streaming in to what already
has proved to be a popular state-park stop.
thing to know, though, before making the long trek up the
mountain: Bring your own provisions, because they don’t
sell food at the Donner visitors center.
Memorial State Park visitors center
12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee
10 a.m.-5 p.m., daily
Free, but $8 for parking
info: www.parks.ca.gov; 530-582-7892
The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at