Truckee's Trail

Celia Hayes 2006, paperback 272 pages.

Third November, 1843…"With a heavy heart and much trepidation, I am resov'd [sic] to leave this place, and remove to California, first for the sake of my Dearest Darling…..I fear for her health….She has a delicate constitution and cannot bear another cold winter,….Moses [Schallenberger for whom Schallenberger Ridge on the south side of Donner Lake is named] has been all talk this year past about the marvels of fabled California and its wonderfully mild and temperate climate. He is impatient for emigration and adventure…."

So starts Truckee's Trail, the fictionalized story of the Stephens (for whom Mt. Stephens on Donner Summit is named), Murphy, Townsend Party that crossed the Sierra and Donner Summit in 1844. The book is written in a combination of author's exposition, the fictional diary of Dr. John Townsend, and the fictional reminiscences of 95 year old E.S. Patterson, one of the children on the journey.

While the dialogue and daily activities are fictional the story's outlines are true and reading and reflecting on the story, the reader has to realize those folks in the old days were way tougher than we are today. They were also very brave leaving everything they'd known to go off into the wilderness and face its dangers. You have to do the reflecting though because Celia Hayes has not written an exciting book. The book is a recitation of daily activities and interpersonal dialogue during the fictionalized trip. It could have been so much more.

The book is exciting however, if you reflect on the kind of people making the trip and the hardships they had to overcome. Dr. Townsend talks about his "Dearest Darling's" weak constitution and how the arrival in California would save her. She must have been pretty tough despite how weak she sounds. The trip should have killed her. Ironically she died a few years after arrival because of getting cholera while helping others.

You can also reflect on 17 year old Moses Schallenburger who volunteered to stay alone with the wagons at Donner Lake for most of the winter. That's bravery but all that's mentioned is that "There is no way on earth to cook a coyote and make it edible" and he did some reading.

You can reflect on the Stephens Party escape over the pass due to November snows. It must have been so cold and so wet and so scary. They went up Donner Summit before there was even a route let alone a road. Some went ahead to try and find rescuers at Sutter's Fort while the children and some adults came along later. That later group abandoned the few wagons they'd hauled up the Summit and then ended up staying the entire winter somewhere in the Sierra where a second a baby was born. They lived in two hurriedly erected cabins and were reduced to boiling the hide cabin coverings into "gruel" at the end. Imagine what that was like! The desperation they must felt. They could never get dry or warm. How many feet of snow would fall with this storm? Would anyone come to rescue them? Could anyone even find them? What if they were buried alive by the snow? A trip to the "privy" must have been an adventure and uncomfortable. Ms. Hays doesn't imagine it or relate it however.