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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