You never know where life’s opportunities will lead you. 5 weeks ago, I received an attention catching text: I have an adventure I want to discuss. Of course, I called immediately. Bob Crowley, Tim Tweitmeyer and Meghan Arbogast were looking for a fourth team member, and I was on the list. The adventure – to attempt to follow the route of the ill-fated Forlorn Hope, a group of 17 members of the Donner Party who left to save those stranded at Donner Lake in one of the worst snow years on record. Only 7 survived, and they paid a high price for the rest of their lives. Of course, I said yes. Who says no to such a request?
As much as I thought I knew about the infamous Donner Party, it wasn’t enough. There were dozens of books and the characters emerged in black and white in my mind as I researched. I had nightmares and would break down crying at red lights when I reflected on the individual choices that were made.
I have been compared to a border collie when it comes to temperament, so it was no surprise that my inclination was to act like one. I needed to be on the trails and get a sense of these people. I got a hold of the GAIA waypoints that Bob and Tim had laid down for 7 years (a little too technical for me, but my 10 year old showed me the ropes in about 10 minutes) and I headed out with snowshoes and my family to investigate the fateful “wrong turn” the Forlorn Hope Party had made. We quickly found trails and wilderness I had never seen in my 20 years of running here. The kids made cairns and arrows in the snow for my return trip.
The next weekend I went back by myself (with my super smart red heeler-pointer, Loki) and went on a walk-about: investigating every 1800s trail, modern road and off trail option in the “wrong turn area”. I talked out loud to myself, saying to the ghosts of the Forlorn Hope things like “It’s only Day 5…you’re just running out of food. You suspect your guide Charles Stanton has died behind you, but you don’t actually know that yet. So you have hope. The day is still nice, but the wind is changing. Weather is coming and the Indian guides are confused and can’t communicate in English with you. They have only been this way once, and it was the other direction. How do you make decisions?” I walk along until I see the North Fork of the North Fork. The terrain is beautiful and gentle. Since the Donner’s never lent them a compass, they don’t know this route isn’t towards Bear Valley, it’s such an easy mistake with so much snow. If I were them, I would stay along the river and do the exact same thing.
I look around and see there are high points of smooth granite to climb. Would a starving person bother to go up there? I ask the spirits. Did you send just Wm. Charles? He could have made the ascent that I find myself guided towards. Loki runs ahead skirting the white thorn and I take the easiest route possible, pretending I am tired and starving. I climb up to commanding view of – well, snow covered peaks to the North (not going there) and lots of pine to the West (not welcoming) and a lovely trail along the river to the Southwest. Hmmm…my tired soul follows the Forlorn Hope. I tell them I totally get it. I see a heart shaped rock and feel compelled to put it on a high rock to mark this spot.
If only they could have seen the tell-tale signs of the wagon wheels, they would have headed straight for Emigrant Gap to Bear Valley just to their right. But nothing in this landscape leads me there. Only the truly initiated or the people lucky enough to do it without snow could have seen the signs. I find myself wanting to go their wrong way.
Just like the settlers who decided to be the brave, the strong, the leaders, or the desperate who accepted the burden of heading out on handmade snowshoes into weather and terrain that turned back the strongest, I have accepted this adventure over staying still this winter. I want to know what they overcame to make it 98 miles under the very worst of circumstances. My warm, modern clothes make me feel ridiculous but I can use my imagination. One thing we have in common is our humanity, and maybe that will be enough to educate me on this journey.