One hundred and sixty-five years ago, 87 people took off in a wagon train to find milk and honey in California. Only 48 of those people survived to find it. The base of the monument in this photo is 20 feet high. That’s how high the snow piled up that year. The worst storm in a hundred years. Bad decisions. Bad timing. Bad luck. What a horrendous ordeal to live through. Aside from the monument and artifacts, there’s nothing left to show for it, only memories of people now long dead. It’s just a fact that people live and die everyday–millions, and we don’t know anything about who they were or what they did. If they are famous we hear about them. If not, only those close to them will remember. I’m so sorry that the people in the Donner party had to suffer what they did, but at least we know something about them. Their lives are remembered, however infamously.
Fifty year ago, I lived on Donner Summit in a tiny town called Norden. That’s why I feel for the history of the place. My father was railroad man and we lived in a row of houses close to the railroad tracks and the train station. All the front doors of the houses were connected to a long hallway that ran up the hill to a central parking area. In the winter time we would have been snowed in if not for that hallway that led up to where snow plows cleared an opening. The snow-covered the houses and we could climb over the roofs, but were forbidden to because the power lines were so close. I have fond memories of building snowmen and snow caves with my siblings and friends. We took skiing lessons at the nearby Sugar Bowl ski resort. I was so sad to move and leave my beautiful blue skis behind for the next family who would use them.
Today, nothing remains of those houses we lived in at Norden, they’ve all been torn down. There’s nothing left, only new concrete tunnels for the trains to travel through unhindered. I visited the Sugar Bowl resort a few years ago and found an oldtimer who remembered some of the people I could name. He said we were called the Mole People because we traveled through the tunnels to get in and out in the winter. (In the summer we could park directly in front of our house.) If not for his memories and ours, it would be as if our little community in Norden never existed. Interstate 80 rushes over the mountains carrying people into a present day far removed from the Donner Party or the Mole People.
I often think about posterity. Maybe that’s why I write. I don’t like to think about someone’s life ending and not being remembered. Everyone has a story. Everyone. I encourage memoir writers. Sometimes they’re the only ones who still remember, and when they are gone, some lives are lost forever. You should think about that. Your grandchildren will thank you.