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Tamsen Donner is a part of her family now

October 11, 2009|By Gabrielle Burton

Last year, I won the lottery. After 36 years of writing about Tamsen Donner and the Donner Party, I sold two books on her: a memoir, "Searching for Tamsen Donner," and a novel, "Impatient With Desire."

This summer, I set up gigs in Truckee, Calif., and Reno, as well as at the Emigrant Museum at California's Donner Pass, to read "Searching for Tamsen Donner" in the heart of Donner Party country. The Emigrant Museum, in a state park, was a particular challenge. If you want to hold an "event" in a California state park -- a wedding, a rock concert, a reading -- there is a 20-page, one-size-fits-all application. You have to write a narrative of purpose; list your medical, security, traffic, concession and sanitation plans; send the processing fee; get a mandatory $1 million rider to your insurance policy; and promise 10% of any books sold.

Retail or wholesale, I wondered.

It was retail.

Why go to all that trouble? Sure, I thought I'd sell books, but for the same effort, I could have hustled them a lot closer to home.

"This means a lot to me," I said to my husband on the 10-hour drive.

"I know," he said.

I really didn't think about why it was important. I just knew I wanted to read there, where bodies and souls -- especially Tamsen Donner's -- were tested in inconceivable ways.

"It'll be a hoot," I kept saying, because that seemed likely, although I deeply hoped it would be more than that. There was definitely a carnival aspect to my "event," which involved reading every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The plan was to set a borrowed picnic table, umbrella and a dozen lawn chairs on a concrete patch next to the museum parking lot, with my husband and brother-in-law barking for me.

Then my daughter, seven months pregnant, and her husband decided to come and help bark too. My other daughters started talking about it. Their lives are busy, so I tried neither to encourage nor discourage them. Eventually, four daughters decided to join us, as well as four grandchildren, ages 7, 5, 2 and 1 -- the carnival aspect moving toward zoo. The fifth daughter, unable to rearrange a job commitment, was full of regret. "I just know I'll miss something," she said more than once.

I added to the agenda a seven-mile hike -- a retracing of a walk Tamsen Donner took twice -- almost as an afterthought.

The Donner Party, delayed and weakened by a disastrous "shortcut," left Truckee Meadows -- now Reno -- in sections. Twenty-one people made it to Alder Creek, a small clearing in the Sierra Nevada, before early snows trapped them from November 1846 to March 1847. The 60 other members of the party made it seven miles farther west, to Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake).

Roughly half the party survived, half perished.

There was some communication and traffic between the two campsites, teamsters from Alder Creek going back and forth.

Tamsen Donner made this walk two times, one of them round trip.

The first time was in mid-March 1847, when she learned that rescuers had abandoned her three youngest children at the lake camp. She hurried through snow, fear in her heart. After sending the children out with two newly arrived rescuers, she walked back to Alder Creek to her dying husband.

The second time was in late March or early April, after her husband died. "She arrived one midnight," Lewis Keseberg -- the only person still there -- told her daughter years later. "She had laid her husband out, and hurried away . . . over the snow alone to my cabin. She seemed very cold and her clothes were like ice. I think she had got in the creek in coming. She kept saying, 'My children! . . . I am bound to go to my children.' . . . She finally lay down and I spread a featherbed and some blankets over her. In the morning she was dead."

In 1977, our family spent a summer retracing the Donner Trail. On that trip, we tried to walk the seven miles between the camps. The weather was ideal, the mountainside green and beautiful, but the walk was hard and I quickly understood how this area could be a labyrinth. Someday, I thought, I want to come back and try again.

Now 32 years later, that someday had arrived.

We got off at 8 a.m. with our water bottles and backpacks: husband, four daughters, four grandchildren, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law who were Truckee natives, my college-age niece and me.

Nobody knows -- or has ever known -- the path Tamsen Donner took. The land has been completely altered by development: highways, houses, a golf course, a reservoir, a school, stores. But when engineers build highways, they follow the path of least resistance. Most likely, Tamsen and the others would have done so also, taking a route that today follows parts of Highway 89 South and Highway 80 West. I drove that route, and it clocked at 6.8 miles.

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