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August 17, 2007

looking at the lake

bierstadt donner lake.jpg [illustration source: Albert Bierstadt, View of Donner Lake, California, 1871-72] A vast sun over my shoulder, a cloudless sky, delicate shades of lichen breaking down over centuries the rocks they live on, the dry debris of shattered pines. Here and there, a few tufts of yellowed plant, a cigarette butt, something rusted, a tiny piece of green glass....

I am crouching, blasted by hot summer winds, on a bare ledge somewhere near the summit of Donner Peak in the Sierra Nevada, just about 7,900 feet above sea level. I sent my older son Hugo back a bit from the rock's edge because there is a sheer drop there of hundreds of feet down into a thick stand of tress. I am feeling a bit exposed, a bit vertiginous… Around me to the left (north) and right (south) there are even higher mountain tops. Not far off, I-80 slices across Donner Pass and if I turn my head in that direction I can see a steady-flowing stream of powerful SUVs surging up the ascent, weaving in and out of a more sporadic trickle of RVs, articulated trucks and Lexuses. I turn my head back and I sit, gazing down from the west almost 2,000 feet onto the sunny glitter of Donner Lake. Occasionally, as the wind drops for a moment, I can hear the scurry of a tiny sagebrush lizard’s tail as it darts across a nearby boulder. Far below me, an ant-like jetskier incises a small, white "V" into the dark blue water. This place is extreme, even in the height of summer.

When I was a 10 year-old, standing in school assemblies, bored as we mumbled out the day’s hymn, I remember thinking it was incomprehensible that I would ever turn into a forty year-old, like, well, like one of those sad sack teachers. Similarly, like most children I knew, I was almost intravenously connected to the family TV and thus to its steady drip-feed of American programming. But the idea that I myself would ever live in the United States, let alone would become an American, never crossed my mind. Too remote, too impossible. And for what reason? Life seemed so stable, so local, so enclosing in childhood.

Here I am in middle-age, though, in the far West, hunkered momentarily on a windy mountain-top one blazingly bright afternoon, looking down on one of the primal sites of American frontier myth. The eastern end of Donner Lake, then known as Truckee Lake (and also Alder Creek, six miles off), is where the Donner Party of settlers camped in the winter of 1846-47, after they had been prevented by snow from crossing the Sierra Nevada and reaching the safety of California before winter set in. In essence, the settlers arrived too late in the year to reach exactly the high, sun-baked spot where I am crouching now in the summer of 2007. My family — hot, tired and, in the children’s cases, er, "plaintive" — is waiting for me a little further back in the shade of some statically writhing pine trees. I must go.

The Sierra Nevada's brutally asymmetrical formation means that the highest peaks, and the most rapid changes in elevation are almost all on the eastern side of the range. After, or in the old days if, you reach the range's crest from the east, it is lengthily but relatively gently sloping run downhill all the way to Sacramento. So for settlers coming from the east, the final challenge, crossing the Sierras, was the most difficult, dangerous and maddening task of all. The first crossing of the country by a settler party with wagons, a journey which necessarily included surmounting the Sierra, was made as late as 1844. It was as if God were, to these often intensely religious people, playing the role of a drill instructor with a clipboard and a wry smile, waiting for them near the end of an almighty obstacle course:

OK, very good. You got this far. You have somehow survived predators of all kinds, human and microbial on my vast Plains. And not all did survive. Some whom you knew well, you saw die slowly or suddenly, turn back, give up or go mad. You have not killed each other. Though half crazed with thirst, you have managed to heave your wagons and animals across the deserts of Utah and Nevada. I confess that I wasn't expecting you to manage that. Very well, then. Let's see how you shape up to the Sierra. If you get over them, you pass the test. Now, if there are no further questions, go! I will see some of you on the other side.

It is not surprising that California became known as the "Golden State". There is the notion of the state's vast mineral wealth inhering within the epithet of course. And of its temperateness (in certain parts). But the "Golden State" has a druggy connotation to it as well. A high percentage of the settlers who made it all the way must have in delirious, semi-psychotic or delusional states by the time when they first saw the Central Valley spreading out before them in the west. How many contemporary Navy SEALS would pass the wagon-train test, I wonder?

The "Donner Party" was an ill-planned, fractious, over-loaded, and badly-delayed collection of families of German, Irish and English extraction, totaling some 87 people, which had coalesced as various settlers crossed the Great Plains and the Rockies in the spring and summer of 1846. The Party had left Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on 31 July 1846. They made poor choices about their route from then on, and arrived exhausted at the eastern end of Donner Lake (then known as Truckee Lake) in early November 1846 only to be prevented by a gigantic snowstorm from attempting the final and most difficult crossing of all: the numbing trek across the Sierra Nevada. During the winter of 1846-47, the Donner settlers who remained in their camps at the eastern end of Donner Lake and at Alder Creek (after other members of the party had stumbled off on amateurishly-constructed snowshoes to try and fetch help) hunted for what food they could catch, trap or pick. Increasingly, though, they supplemented this scanty fare with the intensively-mined carcasses of their pack animals, then of their pets (the Donners themselves ate the family dog). Then they made a gluey soup out of hides and blankets. Finally, as winter wore on, some of them succumbed to the ultimate transgression of consuming human flesh (with the rather twee proviso that "no one would partake of his or her own relative's body").

The Donner Pioneer Statue in the beautiful State Park stretching out below my feet is (plinth and sculpture together) exactly 22-feet high, the same height as the snows covering this area during the winter of 1846-47 when the ragged, emaciated members of the Donner Party were struggling to survive on that spot. Dedicated in June 1918 by the Native Daughters and Native Sons of the Golden West, the monument was designed by the San Francisco artist John MacQuarrie (1871-1944).

MacQuarrie specialized in a sub-Saint-Gaudens version of the sonorous "heroic" note; he also did the McKinley statue in Golden Gate Park, the Bear Flag Monument in Sonoma as well as the murals in the Southern Pacific Terminals and Grand Central Station in Houston, Texas. The central, leading and largest figure in his Donner Pioneer Statue shows a rugged, bearded man, evoking the steady, Protestant spirits of the group’s leaders George and Jacob Donner and James Reed. The figure' right hand is raised to shield his eyes from the westwards-travelling sun as he stands resolute before the adversity which faces him, his brood and his followers. A bending, bare-breasted woman suckling a baby and hurrying to keep up with her man is partially sheltered by the leader's boldly and confidently upright body. This message of male hardiness is subtly naturalized by its geometric "rhyme" with the numerous, tall, straight pines which surround the site of the statue. The wording on the plaque, sounding the aggressively pro-masculine note again, reads: "VIRILE TO RISK AND FIND; KINDLY WITHAL AND A READY HELP. FACING THE BRUNT OF FATE; INDOMITABLE, — UNAFRAID."

But if Jared Diamond is right in his calm, lucid analysis of the type of person who was mostly likely to live through the conditions to which the Donner Party was exposed here in the winter of 1846-47, then the prototypical survivor was a girl or woman between the ages of 5 and 39, either married or a daughter or sister travelling with her family. 40 "pioneers" and two Native Americans, who had later on been sent to help them, died out of a total group of 87 people. The overall casualty rate for both sexes was thus some 47%, far worse than the front-line killing ratios would be during the Civil War or during World War One. But the men in the party were far more likely to die than the women, for reasons which had very little to do with idealistic self-sacrifice. The mortality rate for men was 57% compared with 29% for women. And of the men who survived, some only did so by acting truly disgracefully. The last person hauled babbling out of the Donner Lake settlement by soldiers on 17 April 1847 was a polylingual German immigrant Lewis Keseberg whom rescuers found:

alone, surrounded by indescribable filth and mutilated corpses. George Donner’s body lay with his skull split open to permit the extraction of his brains. Three frozen ox legs lay in plain view almost uneaten beside a kettle of cut-up human flesh. Near Keseberg sat two kettles of blood and a large pan full of fresh human liver and lungs. He alleged that his four companions had died natural deaths, but he was frank about having eaten them. As to why he had not eaten ox leg instead, he explained that it was too dry: human liver and lungs tasted better, and human brains made a good soup. As for Tamsen Donner, Keseberg noted that she tasted the best, being well endowed with fat. In a bundle held by Keseberg the rescuers found silk, jewelry, pistols, and money that had belonged to George Donner.*

After Keseberg was safely in Sutter's Fort in the spring of 1847, several of the other survivors accused him of murder and grave robbing. There was not enough evidence to prosecute (as if this were all taking place within a rather cerebral whodunit, Keseberg had eaten most of the witnesses who could have talked about his guilt or innocence), and he sued for slander. He won his case but the jury awarded him only a single dollar.

Slowly, the memory of the Donner Party's fate has become rather an impediment to the area's commercial upswing. Smart young San Franciscans gliding downwards towards their après-ski activities as the sun falls do not want to be reminded of the 22-feet of horror which the weather once inflicted here on elderly, festering, badly-equipped pioneers. Diners, teasing open their braised Cornish hens with an orange glaze in Truckee's forthcoming bistros, will not want even to risk experiencing a brief, subliminal flash of terror as if Tamsen Donner's weary face were again and again falling apart under the application of their knifes and forks. A new, more pluralistic museum is now planned for the area. Its name will be the "High Sierra Crossings Museum", and it will be designed to illustrate a much broader, more variegated history than that of the Donner Party alone. As the superintendent for the Sierra district of the California State Parks has put it, "People have been crossing Donner Pass for thousands of years and camping at the lake. After the Donner Party, the pass was the main route for wagons, and then the railroad and now the highway."*

The wind, dusty and hot, is still whipping round this peak and me. I have no idea how long I have been here. I must go: Siri, Hugo and Owen are waiting for me. I realize that, as I have been staring down from this high ledge into the dark history which was acted out in this corner of a summer paradise, what I have had undeclared on my mind the whole time is some knowledge which I do not know how to react to. The knowledge is that in the lush heart of England, nearly 100 years ago, my deranged great-great-grandfather destroyed my great-great-grandmother and three other people before annulling himself as well. It lies like something hard, alien, indigestible in my mind. I feel I can think about it only indirectly, in terms of something else. Is that what "reflecting on a subject" means? In the west, I am still looking east, backwards, from the heat into the recalled or imagined cold. Another blue lizard scurries by. I must go.

Posted by njenkins at August 17, 2007 10:10 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins