Donner Camp at Donner Pass

The bright sunshine outside the car windows on that clear June day was deceiving. Instead of warm June air, it was 48 degrees F (8.89 C) when we stepped outside the car into the parking lot at the historical site of Donner Camp in the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California. At an elevation of 7,085 FT. (2,160 M) above sea level, the breeze was brisk and sent a chill through those without a coat. This was June. Imagine what it is and was like in the winter.

Donner Pass and Donner Camp (now located in Tahoe National Forest) is a site that every child in the American West learned about in public school, particularly California-educated children during their year of focusing on California history.

Millions of motorists drive by the site every winter on their way to the ski slopes of the Tahoe area. I don't know how many actually stop at Donner Camp. Thanks to the proddng of my mother, we did. I'm glad we did.

What follows are quotes from the signage and plaques throughout the site accompanied by the photos I took while we were there. It is a somber place yet is so beautiful and full of natural pristine beauty as well as many Sierra wildflowers. It is a striking paradox that I couldn't ignore. Read on and hopefully you'll see the paradox I did.

Westward, Ho!
For Oregon and California!

Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accomodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the first of April. Come, boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The government of California gives large tracts of lands to persons who have to move there. The first suitable persons to apply, will be engaged.
G. Donner and Others

[From an advertisement placed by George Donner - Springfield, Illinois - March 18, 1846 - one year, almost to the day, before he died here in Alder Creek Valley.]

"What started out as a hopeful journey toward prosperity ended tragically for the eighty-nine member Donner Party. During the winter of 1846/47, heavy snowfalls trapped twenty-five of these emigrants here in Alder Creek Valley. The others were stranded at Donner Lake.

"Nearly half of the Donner Party died in these mountains. The rest survived the ordeal with bitter memories of cold, hunger and death."

"On October 28, 1846 the six covered wagons brought West by George and Jacob Donner and their families halted here for repairs..."

"In the Fall of 1846, 25 members of The Donner Party became trapped by an early snowstorm here at Alder Creek Valley. The George and Jacob Donner families, their teamsters, and fellow travelers suffered extreme hardship and starvation. They spent the winter here cut off from the rest of their party who camped at Donner Lake..."

"By December, the outlook was grim. Jacob Donner and five of the teamsters had died. The cold and the dampness were constant. As the snow piled higher, firewood was harder to get... Tall tree stumps were once numerous throughout this area. They were cut by the Donner Party during their winter-long mission of gathering firewood. Stump heights, up to 12 feet, indicated the snow depths that winter."

"Food was scarce. Hunting opportunities were rare. When the meat from the oxen and horses was gone, the starving emigrants resorted to boiling hides, eating the resultant gluey mass. Crushed bones were boiled into broth."

"In February, 1847, the first relief party from Sutter's Fort arrived. Two more relief parties came in March. They guided 14 of the Alder Creek emigrants out across the frozen Sierra. 11 survived."

"By March of 1847 one half of the party of 22 adults and children had died of starvation and cold. They came West seeking a new life and found misery and death."

"Mother stood on the snow where she could see all go forth. They moved in single file, the leaders on snowshoes, the weak stepping in the tracks made by the strong. Leanna, the last in line, was scarcely able to keep up... I was made to understand that this was the long-hoped-for relief party." --Eliza Donner Houghton (She turned 4 year old while traveling with the third relief party.)

Those Left Behind

"Elizabeth Donner and her two youngest sons died here at Alder Creek. Only Tamsen and her dying husband remained. George had begged Tamsen to leave him and save her own life. She refused. When the fourth and final relief party arrived in April, George Donner's dead body lay in camp. Tamsen's body was never found."

"Did the Donners eventually resort to cannibalism here at Alder Creek? Many say they did. Others disagree. Would you if it was the only way to keep your loved ones alive?"

"What really happened to Tamsen Donner? Did cannibalism occur here?"

"Donner Party survivors quickly blended into California life. Some shared their tales of that tragic winter. Many of their stories were not in written form. Conflicting accounts even emerged, leaving several mysteries."

Dedicatory Plaque to Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner:

"They gave unselfishly, their fortunes and their lives that their children should survive.

"Near this site, in the winter of 1846, two pioneer women gave up their lives for their families. Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner feared their many children could not survive the ravages of cold and starvation when the party was caught in an early blizzard. They provided care and comfort to their families and companions throughout the snowbound winter, desperately trying to prevent the death of their loved ones. Both lost their lives. However, most of their children survived to carry their mothers' dreams of new life and new beginnings to the valleys of California. The summit that they never crossed now bears their family name.

"An inspiration to all who followed their footsteps across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we herein honor the memory and the sacrifices of these women. Their struggle to survive, enduring hardships we can barely imagine, remains a legacy of the pioneer spirit. On this the 150th anniversary of their tragic encampment the Chief Truckee Chapter of E. Clampus Vitus dedicates this monument to their spirit and the preservation of their memory that we not forget the sacrifices they made in opening California to its destiny."

An Ounce of Pretension is Worth a Pound of Manure

Last Thursday, Hubby and I flew to Southern California via JetBlue because Hubby had a business trip in Pasadena, California.

For those not familiar with the state of California (of which I'm a resident of the northern vicinity), this U.S. state is very large geographically, hence having to fly 1 1/2 hours to get to the Los Angeles area. If we drove by car, it would take about 7 hours (depending on traffic conditions).

So traveling to Southern California is always like traveling to a completely different state. The climate is different. The geography is different. The culture is different. The air quality is different. The differences are so striking that it's really hard to explain to people only familiar with the southern part of our state that we in the northern part have a vastly different living experience.

I mention all of this, because I have a difficult time traveling to Southern California because of those differences. Twenty years ago, I lived in Pasadena for a brief blip in time (2 months give or take a day). Since I was a child traveling to the L.A. area to go to Disneyland with my family, I was drawn to it as so many others are for various reasons usually related to the entertainment industry. The dream that brought me there was my dream to work for Disney as an Imagineer. That dream no longer has the vibrance it did when I was a young pup, but every time I visit Southern California I still have to battle with my inner gremlins. Because L.A. is known as the home of "the beautiful people" it always takes a lot of mental preparation (and careful wardrobe selection) for me to be ready to enter that world.

This trip was no different. In fact, the problems were heightened because we would be staying at the Westin in beautiful downtown historic Old Pasadena. There's money rolling around there. It's hard for a girl that likes to play in the dirt in her jeans to feel "fancy" enough for that crowd. But I screwed up my courage and dove in as Hubby and I drove our rental car from the Long Beach airport north to Pasadena and the elegant Westin.

Check-in went smoothly although the attendant at the desk had an air of "I should be a stylist for the Oscars" about him. At the very end of check-in, he casually mentioned, "I hope you enjoy your city hall view."

"Hmm. Wonder what he means by that?" I thought to myself, "Guess I'll find out soon enough."

Hubby and I went up the elevator to find an elegant and chic room awaiting us with crisp white linens already turned down for the night. Once our bags were deposited Hubby had to leave to go "self park" our rental car to avoid the expense of valet parking (I'm so pleased with how budget-conscious Hubby is for his company). His little errand left me to snoop around our room and discover everything before he got back. It also gave me time to photograph our room before it got messed up by us sacking out for the night.

The entire room was a "standard" room and not a suite but it had the feeling of a suite to it. The colors were soothing neutrals that had an understated elegance. One wall had a built-in benchseat spanning its length with crisp round bolsters along the wall. It was quite chic.

The bathroom was very spa-like in its decor. The lines of the furniture and accessories had a mid-century Hollywood element to them (so did the fixtures in the hotel hallway leading to our room). The bathroom was "posh" without being "in your face posh".

Since I love earthtones and all shades of green, I found the bathroom and bedroom decor quite to my liking. I didn't feel uneasy or out of place. I felt like I could truly relax instead of worrying whether or not I should touch anything. That's a sign of a good hotel in my opinion--classiness without stuffiness.

After exploring the room, I ventured onto our balcony, and I discovered what the hotel attendant had meant by "city hall view". The photo at right says it all! I was stunned and it took my breath away. I don't know how many photos I took of this view alone. I wanted to make sure I captured it in just the right way. [Click on the image to see it larger if you like.] I was so excited to show Hubby when he got back to the room! He was appropriately impressed as well.

Now I'm not a "country bumpkin", but I'm also not one to be too impressed by worldly prestige, fame, money or designer labels. I often feel put off by that sort of thing while at the same time I don't want to stick out like a Baby Ruth candy bar in a swimming pool when I'm a visitor in someone else's "natural habitat" where those elements are the norm.

The following day I got the rental car while Hubby was in meetings. As I explored Pasadena after being gone for almost 20 years, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pasadena has the same feeling that our hotel room did--classiness without stuffiness. As our trip drew to a close a day later, I found myself saying to Hubby that if we ever have to move because of his job (which I pray NEVER happens), I would want it to be to Pasadena. Seems like that pull is still there just a little bit--but in a more mature and subtle way that was comfortable like the neutral earthtones of our hotel room's decor.

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Beautiful Downtown Portland, Oregon... in January

In late January, Hubby and I had to go on a business trip to Portland, Oregon. We flew up from the San Francisco Bay Area on an early morning Alaska Airlines flight (can you say "4:15 a.m. alarms should be outlawed?").

Once we deplaned and got our rental car, we drove in to downtown Portland to the Westin where we would be staying (thanks to Hubby's company). As I waited for Hubby to get our accommodations settled and have the car parked by the valets, I got to sit in the opulent first floor lounge of the Westin. Of course I took photographs so I could share. The colors were rich and plush--navy, beige, rust, and deep red. The fire in the fireplace was a welcome sight after entering from the sunny but chilly 31°F morning outside. I just sat down on the plush settee and enjoyed the luxury. Ahhhhhh...

After snapping the above photos, I let myself sink back into the plush settee cushions, and I looked up. Oh my goodness! Imagine my sheer delight when I looked up to see this...

I immediately thought of all my talented blogging friends that could probably have painted this ceiling! After I snapped the above photo, I just sat back and stared.

Despite our quite early arrival, the Westin was able to accommodate us and get us right into our room. Thank goodness, because I was bushed, and Hubby needed to connect up his laptop to take a conference call.

Click here to read about where we dined for lunch after resting for a bit in our hotel room.

Hubby and I took advantage of the unseasonably sunny January day to walk around downtown Portland around the Westin hotel where we were staying. Although it was sunny, it was quite frigid with the temp hovering around 31°F. It was that kind of nippy chill that numbs one's lips. The dewpoint was so low at about 14°F that condensation didn't ever form on our drinking glasses of ice water when we ate lunch at the Daily Grill restaurant. That's really low humidity for anywhere, but particularly for the Pacific Northwest! But because of the lovely sun, we made a concerted effort to walk on the sunny side of every street, literally. In the shadow of buildings (as in the photo at left) the chill would go right through us namby-pamby Bay Area Californians. But on the sunny side of the street it was quite lovely.

We enjoyed the architecture of Portland immensely. There are many historic buildings, lamp posts, sidewalk grates, and other historic elements of urban living that I was able to take photos of for my resource file for graphic design inspiration.

We found the people of Portland to be very friendly (as we find to be the case throughout the Pacific Northwest). We enjoyed walking past the Culinary Institute with delicious aromas emanating from within and then chatting with a student chef about what they made that day (bread). We also chatted with the women in the optical store that had a great selection of fun and funky glasses frames. Just outside that store we found this lovely pink bicycle with live begonias in the basket (photo at right). Doesn't the photo look like it was taken in the spring or early summer? Ha! Don't be fooled. It was below freezing in the shade!

Throughout the downtown area where we strolled, we came across large sidewalk planters with various plantings in them. The purple ornamental kale was quite happy despite the cold and simply gleamed in all its brilliance in the January sun. Some pansies in other planters we came upon were just as miserable as the kale was happy. Droopy, pathetic, and downright frost-bitten the normally cold-hearty pansies just couldn't take it. We were told repeatedly by locals that it was unusually cold as well as unusually sunny. I think if the pansies could have talked, they would have agreed.

What we found the most amusing about our trip was that we hadn't seen the sun for a week back home in the San Francisco Bay Area and that we had to fly to Portland in order to find the sun! I was soaking it up through the entire two days. I'm gonna get my sun (and the Vitamin D) wherever I can!

The Westin hotel is one of many fine Starwood properties around the world where we prefer to stay as Starwood Preferred Guests.

Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. Apply now.

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Clovis--Gateway to the Sierras

On a Saturday in October, we drove to Clovis, California for a day trip and had a wonderful day enjoying the bright autumn sunshine and strolling around the quaint Old Towne District of Clovis.

Clovis is in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley just south of the Sierras and Yosemite. Because of its locale, agriculture and ranching have historically been the life blood for Clovis. That influence is still felt in Clovis in its historical district full of antique stores, fun shops, corner cafes, and even a sweet Victorian-style tea room.

The town of Clovis has done an amazing job in retaining the feeling and flavor of its roots in the Old Towne District. Unlike many California towns that have put money and energy into revitalizing their historic centers, Clovis feels unpretentious and relaxed. The shops aren't so high-end and hoity-toity that merchandise is overpriced. Ultimately, it's a wonderful atmosphere of nostalgia and charm.

At our favorite antique establishment, we had some success in finding "treasures" to add to our vintage red kitchen and dining area that is themed like a retro ice cream parlour/sweet shop. I also found that the dealers give great care to merchandise their items in a visually pleasing way--so much so that I had to snap some photographs of the wonderfully composed displays.

We ate lunch at The Corner Cafe (a favorite Clovis eatery). With a sense of an old diner, The Corner Cafe has affordable food and a laid back atmosphere. I was very happy with my grilled cheese sandwich and french fries (a calorie splurge for me). Hubby was equally pleased with his juicy burger and fries. The service was excellent and their pleasant kindness was a perfect accent to a great afternoon.

"Old Hawai'i" Still Exists on the Island of O'ahu

Pros: North Shore is the place to discover (or rediscover) Oahu

Cons: Most budget packages don't send you to North Shore

Many island travelers often believe that in order to enjoy the "old Hawai'i" one must go to any island BUT O'ahu. Not true.

The biggest mistake most first-timers make is remaining in Honolulu and Waikiki during their first visit to the island. When the first-time visitor has pre-conceived visions of swaying palm trees and vistas of sandy beaches, the thriving urban center of Honolulu with its metropolitan air and energy can often be frustrating and disappointing.

However, just a short drive to the northern shores of O'ahu (a.k.a., North Shore), takes you into a different world. You can drive there either through the center of the island or take the long scenic coastal route along the eastern shore and heading north. Either drive is spectacular and breathtaking in its own right and will help you familiarize yourself with the island and get acclimated. Make sure and tune in to a classic Hawaiian music station to set the tone right for the drive and put yourself into the Aloha mindset.

We always recommend staying on the north side of the island even if it's your first time to Hawai'i.

Turtle Bay Resort is a beautiful property boasting over 800 acres of tropical paradise.Staying at the resort is a wonderful and unforgettable experience. Constructed on a point of land that juts out into the Pacific, all rooms have an ocean view. The pool and spa area is gorgeously situated so one can sit in either and look right out to the waves rolling in from the open sea. There are horseback riding, golfing, tennis, surfing lessons, and other spa activites available for an additional cost. For free you can just lounge by the pool, walk along the unspoiled western beaches looking at the tidepools, or use a cheap snorkel to look at brighly colored fish in the calmer eastern cove.

Don't be scared away by the rates posted on the resort's website. Known in the industry as "rack rates", the rates are higher than what you pay if you book through another portal. The best bet for affordable rates is to go with a vacation package through an airline or tour operator.

Another option for accommodations on the North Shore are the Kuilima Estates condos located on the Turtle Bay property which are owned and operated separately from the hotel. Nestled amid the green and fairways of the resort's gorgeous golf courses, the condos are a very reasonably priced option particularly for families or multiple couples that want to split the cost of a two or three bedroom condo to reduce the overall cost of the vacation.

The use of Turtle Bay's beaches and facilities are not exclusive to guests, so even if you choose less grandiose accommodations, you can still enjoy some of the resort's amenities for the price of parking.

Another must for a well-rounded visit to O'ahu is to plan a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie (on the northeastern side of O'ahu). This fabulous cultural mecca is geared toward adults and children alike. Your day will be filled with learning and discovering the Polynesian cultures that exist throughout the South Pacific. Your evening at the nightly stage show will leave you awestruck. The experience is definitely worth the price of admission.

Finally, take the time to drive along the Kamehameha Highway ("Kam" Highway for short) that runs around the outer edge of the eastern and northern sides of the island and drink in the "real" Hawai'i. Stop at roadside produce stands for locally grown veggies and fruit. Have a shave ice to cool yourself down. Drive along the rim Waimea Bay and then on to the western most side of the island where the road ends. You will go away from the island having a piece of it with you always in your heart and having left a piece of your heart with the island always.

Beautiful Scenery, Good Food, and Great Jazz--Jack London Square After Dark

Pros: No crowds, mostly locals, low-key and unpretentious class
Cons: Parking is sometimes hard to come by unless you know where to look

A well-kept secret treasure lies along the waterfront in Oakland--Jack London Square. In fact, there are lots of secret treasures in Oakland that many overlook in lieu of the enticing lights of the city across the bay. However, Jack London Square, in particular, can offer a complete evening of low-key and unpretentious class all its own.

For me, the highlight of Jack London Square is its waterfront location. Quiet walks along well-lit wooden walkways offer a safe way to enjoy the lights and sounds of the bay. Sheltered from the noise of the street by upscale hotels, this wooden walk can be found as you enter Jack London Square and hang an immediate right at the statue of Jack London. Curving back behind the restaurants and hotels, the walk takes you by docked marine beauties and skirts the very edge of the bay.

You can take in the scenery either before or after a meal at any of the fine restaurants found at Jack London Square. I prefer the Old Spaghetti Factory because of its fun ambiance. Once a turn-of-the-century bank with all its Victorian elegance, the restaurant has retained and restored the fantastic interior and now allows a diner to enjoy it while feasting on fantastic pasta.

To top off the evening, I enjoy catching a jazz set at Yoshi's. In fact, if you go on the right evening, you may be able to chat with the owner herself. A Japanese restaurant of the same name (with great Japanese food) fronts the jazz club where big names can be seen in a relatively intimate setting. Servers quietly shuttle drinks and appetizers to the tables while the best jazz musicians in the country enthrall you with their musical prowess. And you can enjoy it all in a smoke-free environment. It's the smokey nightclub without the smoke!

And if you're parked in one of the parking garages close by, don't forget to have your parking ticket validated at Yoshi's before you head back to your vehicle. Who can beat that?

Why I'm Tempted To Become A Canadian Citizen

For the price of an extended weekend in just about any major U.S. city, you can enjoy a taste of European charm, British elegance, and breathtaking natural beauty. British Columbia's city of Victoria (located on Vancouver Island) has something to offer just about any taste and personality and is certain to win a special place in your heart if you visit.

I have had the privilege of visiting Victoria during two times of the year--autumn and early spring. Both seasons proved to be magnificent, and I am told that summer and the winter holidays are just as wonderful. In autumn, I found the glorious colors of the season (reds so brilliant it took my breath away) contrasted against lush dark green deciduous foliage. In spring, I was dazzled by the crisp pastel colors of tulips and daffodils and found myself heady from spring breezes saturated with the scent of hyacinths of all imaginable shades and hues.

Victoria's crowning glory as far as lodging is without a doubt the Empress Hotel. An historic landmark and exquisite place to lay one's head, it is located along the waterfront kitty-corner from another historic edifice, the Parliament Building. In the Empress, guests travel fantastic antique corridors to retreat to their rooms where they will find the accommodations quite warm and inviting. If you want a bargain, look for special off-season deals (particularly in autumn, late winter, and early spring). For Americans, the exchange rate makes these deals even more attractive.

Speaking of exchange rates, when traveling to Victoria, don't forget to keep some U.S. cash on hand. Most shops are eager to accept U.S. currency and will give you an even better exchange rate than any bank. Taxi drivers and waiters also are quite pleased when given a tip in U.S. currency. You will, however, want to exchange some money into Canadian currency for vending machines and such.

Victoria is an easily "walkable" town with small city blocks and easily navigated streets. Make use of the tourist information center across from the Empress Hotel. Located in a large kiosk, you can find free brochures and tourist maps for everything imaginable. Victoria and Vancouver Island have a lot to discover for the curious traveler including the Parliament Building, Crystal Garden (an indoor tropical paradise), Butchart Gardens, lovely city parks great for picnics, Craigdarroch Castle, and much more.

Eating is a real treat in Victoria. Inexpensive yet succulent meals can be found at many of the eateries about town. Much of the produce served in restaurants has been grown on Vancouver Island with its mild climate. Repeatedly, we have found the food in Victoria to taste better than its equivalent in the states. Even pre-packaged foods and sodas taste better (try the Cadbury chocolate or a can of Canadian Diet Coke).

The Empress Hotel houses a tea room serving a daily British-style tea with all the trimmings as well as Kipling's which serves the most elaborate and vast breakfast buffet I have ever encountered. Often, off-season packages will include the Kipling's breakfast buffet for every morning of your stay at the Empress.

Getting to Victoria can be an adventure as well. I have taken two options, both of which I recommend. You can take a high speed ferry like the Victoria Clipper from Seattle, WA into Victoria or from the north an auto-carrying ferry from Vancouver. [We also found exceptional values utilizing the vacation packages on their website.] You can also catch a connection out of Seattle into Victoria's smallish airport (I flew Horizon Air, a commuter airline of Alaska Airlines). The ferry ride can be quite exhilarating and the views of the Puget Sound are unparalleled. However, flying in is quicker and gives one a bird's eye view of the Sound. It's fun to experience each of them.

How much time should you allot for your visit? That's up to you. I've done an extended 3-day weekend as well as a full-blown 10-day stay. It is close enough to Seattle to even make a day-trip of it, although an overnighter at the Empress is something not to be missed. Victoria is a romantic city for couples (my husband and I honeymooned there), however, singles can enjoy it immensely as well (I went first as a single gal). Traveling families seem to have just as enjoyable a time as visiting college students. What can I say? It's got something for everyone!