Fun Facts Part 2 - A Night In Donner Pass

Saturday, June 14, 2014

After I wrote the last fun facts post, it came to me that my life hadn't been quite as boring as I usually remember it. There was the time I got stuck in Donner Pass in a blizzard.

Donner Pass is most famous for the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers headed for California who got to the mountains too late in the season to cross and had to stop for the winter. The Donner Pass isn't a friendly place in the winter. High in the Sierra Nevadas, it is one of the snowiest places in the U.S. The average snowfall is over 411 inches. In 1846, with nothing but the contents of their wagons, it was impossible for them to go any farther. They built three rude cabins and hunkered down for the winter. They ran short of food. They resorted to cannibalism.

Anyway, when I was at Michigan State University in the late sixties, my roommate came to me with a plan on how to spend spring break. Some friends of Valerie's boyfriend were driving out west, with a stop in Las Vegas, and, for the price of a few tanks of gas and maybe a hotel room or two, we could have an adventure. This sounded like a grand idea, especially since I had a high school friend living in Oakland, California whom I hadn't seen in a few years. From Las Vegas, Valerie and I would head up to Oakland while the guys took a side trip to Mexico. We'd meet up afterwards to head back to East Lansing.

I remember little of the drive from East Lansing to Las Vegas other than it was long. Since I had never met the guys before, we had lots to talk about as we got to know one another. We took turns driving, although Valerie and I did a lot less of that since it was the first time either one of us had driven a stick shift. I mostly remember that Valerie had chili for almost every meal. She was determined to sample the chili all across America. She never told me why.

Las Vegas was amazing. I'd never seen so much neon in my life--and I'd been to Times Square plenty of times. We walked up and down the strip, visited a few casinos, stuck some coins in the slot machines, and overall had a great time. The only wrinkle was that Valerie wasn't twenty-one yet, so they wouldn't admit her to the shows. For some reason, there was no problem with her being on the casino floor, but they wouldn't let her in to see any of the performers. So we didn't see any of those.

The next morning, Valerie and I got on a Greyhound bus bound for San Francisco. Another new experience. I wish I could remember the people on it because I remember looking at them with interest, this cross-section of Americans who rode buses to go from one place to another. I rode in cars or, for long distances, took planes, but we were on the bus for the same reason all those others were: it was a lot less expensive than flying. In some ways, it was like a movie of a bus trip. I remember stopping at little gas stations with an attached cafe out in the middle of nowhere for a rest stop. We all filed off, used the restrooms, bought another cup of coffee, then filed back on.

We loved California. After a Michigan winter, the blue skies and warm temperatures of California in March were wonderful. We stayed with Margie and Pete, visited Haight-Ashbury while they worked, met some of their friends at a party, and had a great time.

I don't remember exactly where we met the guys. They had to have driven up to California to meet up with us because we eventually wound up on Route 80 headed back home. They had a great time in Mexico and had brought back a souvenir bottle of tequila, which they'd stashed in the trunk with our luggage. We were bubbling over with the joy and excitement of this trip as we drove east.

As we started to climb into the mountains, it got colder. When we stopped for lunch (more chili for Valerie), we got our Michigan coats out of the trunk and put them on. The warm, blue skies had turned gray with clouds.

It started to snow. Little flakes at first, nothing at all for four Michiganders. The snow got thicker as we climbed higher. Evening was coming on. The car struggled in the mounting snow on the roads.

There were other cars on the road with us. They were struggling as well. Eventually, we had to pull to the side of the road and stop. The snow was too deep. And it was still falling, swirling around us as we huddled in the car. It was now full night. We slouched down in our seats and wondered what we should do next.

A short time later, we saw headlights behind us and knew it was a snowplow. I'm not sure whether it was height of the headlights or if we could hear the roar of the engine or the speed at which it was traveling, but there was something about it that said snowplow. We all sat up straighter, and the driver put his hands on the wheel and the car into drive and waited for the plow to catch up to us. If we got right behind it, we stood a chance of getting through.

The roar of the plow's motor came closer and, as it went past us, the driver hit the gas. And couldn't get out of the snow. He tried rocking it, shifting between first and reverse, but we were truly stuck. We watched with dismay as the plow continued on, leaving us in the snow and the cold and the dark.

Now what?

We huddled back down and waited. We could see the lights of other cars who were stuck on the mountain with us. We discussed a plan. If another plow came along, I would get behind the wheel and the guys would get out and push. When I asked why me, they said I was better with the clutch than Valerie. Remember where I said this was the first time I'd driven a stick? I'd had all I could do to manage shifting through the gears to get to cruising speed on the open highway. I knew this was going to be a much stickier situation.

After a time, we saw another plow coming up behind us. I got out of the backseat, the guys jumped out of the front seat and ran behind the car, and I got behind the wheel. The monster snowplow came up to us, the guys pushed, and I managed to get us out of the snowbank and into the track that had opened up behind the plow.

Now in the clear, the guys ran to the front of the car and I got out and handed the driving over to one of them. As we started forward again, we were whooping and cheering.

I don't think we traveled more than ten feet before getting stuck again. The snow was falling so hard, it didn't take long for it to bury the road.

We knew then that we were going to have to spend the night on the mountain. I tried to remember how long it was you were supposed to run the motor to keep the car warm and how long you were supposed to shut it off to balance keeping warm with not running out of gas. And the tale of the Donner Party kept trying to worm its way to the surface of my thoughts.

We kept up a running banter, false bravado I think as I look back on it. We'd make a party of it, break out that bottle of tequila. Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

We hadn't quite gotten to the bottle of tequila yet when we were rescued. The Nevada Highway Patrol showed up and led us all back down the mountain going the wrong way on the highway. Everything I see online now says the Donner Pass is in California, but I'm certain it said Nevada on the cars that led us down to a small town. We got a couple of motel rooms, the guys broke out that tequila, and the next morning the sky was blue and sunny again.

The driver bought a set of chains before we started out again. It was an easy trip over the mountains in daylight with the sun shining. A very different experience than what we'd had in the snow and the dark of the night before. We got to Reno, took off the chains, and drove back to Michigan. The fact that I don't remember the rest of the trip tells me it was uneventful. But the night in Donner Pass is something I'll never forget.

Photo Credits:
Donner Summit Sign : Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr
Snowpack Height: Donner Summit Then and Now by PDTillman via Flickr

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