My dad grew up in Canada, so vacations for our family usually meant trips to the Sierras. But we weren’t a family who liked to rough it. My parents rented vacation homes and one of our favorites was on the far side of Donner Lake. Access was by a narrow, unpaved road that wound poetically through the trees along the shore. The road ended abruptly a few houses down.
The few who survived did so by eating the flesh of others.
Being a child of California, I had grown up hearing the story of the ill-fated Donner Party expedition of 1846: How they had suffered hardships and tragedy crossing half the country by wagon train only to be stopped at Donner Lake in October by an unseasonably early snow storm. Out of food, sick and dying, legend has it that the few who survived did so by eating the flesh of others.
Our August idyll started out far differently. The six of us spent several days fishing, hiking, boating, doing all the sorts of things young families do when they’re having fun together. We brought our two favorite games with us, Yahtzee and Monopoly, and we played countless rollicking games after dinner each night. Then, on the fourth day, it started to snow…
At first, we thought it was great fun. We could have snowball fights! We could build a snowman! We could make a fire and roast marshmallows! But the snow didn’t stop and by the fifth day we were snowed in. No snowplow on the road, no chains on the car, no appropriate clothes or shoes or mittens. It was damn cold and we couldn’t leave the cabin.
That’s when we found the book upstairs, the only book in the place: Ordeal by Hunger, the Legend of the Donner Party. We took turns reading it. We read parts out loud. We had endless discussions about the ordeal, mistakes made, the murders, the controversies. We forgot about Yahtzee and Monopoly. We forgot about having fun. We checked our cupboards each day to see what was left…
It was one of our most memorable vacations ever!