There are a few great events in Northern California history that form our identity, at least for those who have been here more than a few years. The Gold Rush is one. Then there were Zoro and Dirty Harry. But the one that really stands out is the Donner Expedition where 87 immigrants were stranded near the present town of Truckee, California and next to what is now Donner Lake. Heavy snows came early that year, burying the trail and making it impossible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in their weakened state. I know roughly of the story from the plaque that is stationed there. These days Intestate 80 makes travel over the pass a two hour journey, but it still shuts down for heavy snows and I have a 4-wheel drive because I really don't like dealing with putting chains on and off the car.
The version of this that I am listening to is "The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate", by Eliza P. Donner, who survived this trip as a 3 year old girl. She had few memories herself, but compiled her work from notes of others and the memories of her sisters. Of the original 87, only 48 survived. The problems began in Wyoming when an adventurer promised a shortcut to California, and the group succumbed to the temptation. This resulted in much wasted energy and time crossing the Wasatch mountains in Utah, followed by a terrible ordeal crossing the basin of the Salt Lake. The group distrusted each other, spread out, and made themselves a tempting target for Indians. The situation was already terrible before they reached their winter camp. The starving time soon set in, and a few were reduced to cannibalism to survive.