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Modern day snow storm yields a lesson for us all
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The tragedy of the Donner Party may seem like some remote California experience buried deep in history. That is, until you actually get to experience, in some small way, being trapped in a snow storm as they had been 163 years ago.

I've managed to live in California nearly my entire life without ever having been in the unfortunate situation of my schedule being delayed by snow. You see, as a flat-lander I generally have no reason to tempt fate by heading over the craggy peaks and ridges that flank the east side of our Valley. Wednesday evening changed all that.

I'm a history buff well versed in what happened to the Donners and Reeds near Truckee Lake, but I confess that their fate was far from my mind on last week's drive to Kingman, Ariz. I was, after all, trekking through Southern California, famous for its great weather. Skies were clear and the sun was fading as we proceeded with plan to escape the Valley through the Tehachapi Pass. I was zipping along dry but bone chilling Bakersfield freeways in an attempt to beat an impending storm over the rocky Sierra wall and reach a motel in Mojave on the arid cusp of the desert. But like the Donners, my plans were rudely interrupted, mine actually destroyed in a short span of about 15 minutes. Rain turned to snow the higher my car climbed. Sporadic flakes that seemed entertaining at first turned into flurries that seemed far less cute (I'm sorry Bing, but why would anyone wish for a white Christmas?). My 75 mph Pontiac missile was converted into a pathetically slow baby carriage crawling amidst a sky of falling white and break light red. The snow was flying in sideways. Perhaps overconfidence - maybe stupidity - kept me on course. I steered my tires in the ever-growing channels of slush at 25 mph. Nothing was letting up, and slush eventually gave way to ice.

Suddenly the Donner Party seemed a bit less ancient with the sight of a pickup which had spun out in the wrong direction. A snowstorm had its fingers wrapped around our neck.

Like me, the Donners had it all figured out. Their wagon train departed Independence, Mo., in May 1846 on what they thought would be a four- to six-month trip to opportunities in California. They made a grave error in choosing to follow the unproven "Hastings' cutoff" in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, which slowed them down to effectively plant themselves in the unforgiving Sierras at the beginning of an early series of unrelenting snow storms. You probably know the rest of the horrible story; they were buried in early November snows and many starved to death with some survivors resorting to eating the flesh of some who died. Rescue attempts failed and tragically some didn't get to leave camp until March. It was five long and miserable months of snowbound hell. Of the 87 members of the Donner Party, only 48 survived to reach the Sacramento area of our Valley.

I was starting to feel rather stupid for not heeding the weather forecasts that placed snow on the 4,000-foot ridge at about the same time as my arrival. (The problem with so much information at our fingertips comes the responsibility of doing something with it. The Donner Party certainly had no website to consult, no inkling of the disaster that awaited them in California, which just happened to experience the worst winter in centuries).

I feel some guilt for drawing a comparison with my experience and the Donner-Reed Party. My wife and I were lucky. By divine guidance, flashing lights of a CHP car in front of us steered off Highway 58 like a beacon. I followed the patrol car but did a bit of sliding in the process. Through the blizzard we saw the lights of La Quinta Inn looking like a sanctuary. The last-minute seeking of refuge may have cost me double what I planned to spend on lodging in Mohave - and a half hour stand in line - but I was happy that I had a warm room for the night. Imagine being stuck months in a makeshift cabin entombed by snow and having to feed your children leather saddles, rugs and blankets just to stay alive. The next morning I was a bit miffed to see the snowbound crowd had gobbled up all the apples and bananas and muffins in the complimentary breakfast room. But I was equally appalled to hear one guest berate the manager in her in-the-face manner about the shortage of muffins. I was able to scrape up a bowl of cereal for which I'm sure Mr. Donner would have given his eye teeth.

Another woman unleashed her own frosty blast of criticism at the hotel manager. She verbally cannabilized him because her car was couched in a snow blanket in his parking lot - and she wasn't even a guest. He allowed her to stay in the warm lobby overnight.

I offered to assist one gentleman whose car and trailer were trapped in a berm of snow, but for lack of another shovel my offer was met with a thanks.

The sun liberated us as it melted the ice on the Highway 58.

Thursday morning we were able to navigate over patches of ice and snow to escape to Arizona. I escaped with a growing appreciation for what the pioneers endured in extreme summers and winters. With heater keeping us toasty, we zipped through the Mohave Desert through Boron, Barstow and Ludlow - areas that spelled doom for many a traveler during extreme temperatures a century ago.

I'm ashamed. Far too many of us fail to know how good we have it. I chewed on that thought last month as I sat in a dentist chair and was allowed to select the movie I wanted to watch to keep my mind off of two cavities being drilled - relatively free of pain - and filled. Do we need to be reminded that dentistry was pure hell for the patient in the 1880s and that people died for lack of dental care when they found it?

I'm afraid that modern luxuries - whether it be smooth highways cut through the Sierra or food on demand in the grocery store - have made us all a bunch of sniveling urban pansies who complain when we have to wait longer than 3.2 minutes for a Whopper at a drive-thru. And I also have a sinking feeling that we will never be half as hardy or possess half the character of those who had to shoot and skin their own game or had to clear a field of trees to plant corn, or nurse a sick child burning up with fever out on the prairie with not so much as a trauma center in even the largest town in the state. We may be minus such adversities, but wow, we are liberal with our complaints and short on our appreciation to God. That saddens me but saddens me more knowing most people don't know any different.

How do you feel? Let Jeff by e-mailing him at