They say hindsight is 20/20. I can imagine that's what the Donner and Reed families were thinking later in 1847 after the ordeal they had.
If they hadn't followed that dastardly Lansford Hastings and his shortcut that was anything but. If they'd wintered over in the Carson Valley instead of a late fall push over the mountains. If they'd tried to get some experience before they went. As they say, though, if "ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas."
It was four years before settlers would set up in the area as the party left Truckee Meadows in Nevada heading for Sacramento. It would be over twenty more before the area would become the railroad nucleus called "Reno."
Taking what they thought was a small risk to cross the Sierras in early November, the Donners and Reeds would get stuck in an historic snow fall and have to rely on their almost non-existent survival skills to make it through the winter in that unforgiving place.
Some would even have to resort to cannibalism...eating the bodies of those who died...to make it through. It's one of the most gruesome and infamous tales of early California pioneers there is.
We're following the path of the Donner Party, now a modern Interstate highway, also making our way from Reno to Sacramento. On this November day, 168 years later, we're in no danger of getting snowed in at what we hope is the end of the worst drought in California history.
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The story of the Donners and Reeds has always fascinated me so we make a stop at the Donner Memorial Park, just off Interstate 80 about a mile or two west of Truckee, California.
It's a chilly but dry, sunny day as we pull into the lot. A tall memorial stands at the east end. We make our way into the visitor's center to pay our fee and watch a movie about the Donner Party.
It just wasn't in the cards for them as mistakes, misfortune, or plain incompetence followed one after another.
Out back of the visitor's center is a large rock, against which a shelter was built by one of the families.
After the survivors were rescued, U.S. Army Captain Kearney and his troops came upon a cabin in which they found cannibalised remains of some of the party. The men dug a hole in the cabin, buried the bodies, and burned the cabin down.
It is upon the site of this burned cabin that the large memorial is built. The rocks in the memorial, over 20 feet tall, mark the depth of the snow that harsh winter.
For us, after we pay our respects, it's on to a much easier traverse over the mountains through the pass that now bears the party's name...Donner Pass.
It's a pretty but uneventful drive where we check into the Hyatt House hotel in Rancho Cordova, cross the street, take the trolley over to Old Town Folsom, and enjoy a deep dish Chicago pizza at Chicago Fire.
It's a cold night as we watch ice skaters navigate the old train turntable while we wait for our train home.
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