the latest research trip — Donner Pass

September 23, 2015

I spent a few days last week in Truckee, California, researching the Donner Pass area for my current WIP.  (Dark Divide, the new Cormac book, which some of you had a sneak preview of if you’ve been to certain recent readings.)

Irony abounds here.


There’s a Taco Bell not more than a quarter of a mile from the primary camp where the Donner Party wintered over, with disastrous consequences.  There are at least four ski areas around the pass itself.  I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading, and accounts of the Donner Party tragedy — which happened more than 150 years ago — make the area sound so remote and inhospitable.  It’s part of the storytelling of the incident, to get across the sense of isolation and desperation.

But the thing about the Donner Pass is it’s about the easiest place to cross the north Sierra Nevadas.  Lots of wagon trains went that way, even before the Donner Party.  Then the transcontinental railroad.  Then the first transcontinental highway.  Then the interstate.  I-80 runs pretty much straight over the primary site of the Donner Party camp.  Now, the place is a congested tourist area.  It’s a huge mental disconnect, between reading about tragic isolation to actually being here and not being able to shut out the noise of semi trucks roaring down the interstate.

It’s also a really massively beautiful area and I had a good time.  The highlight was a 6 mile hike through some of the most gorgeous mountain forest I’ve ever been in.  It was a research trip, but it was also a really nice vacation.


3 Responses to “the latest research trip — Donner Pass”

  1. N. E. White Says:

    I’ve lived in Truckee for close to twenty years now. When a heavy snow storm comes in and closes the freeway, it gets very very quiet. I’ve done lots of backcountry skiing off the Pacific Crest Trail in some very remote places and believe me, when that highway is shut down by snow, you feel very isolated. One thing to remember is that before the freeway and railroad were literally blasted through, while it was the easiest place to cross, it was by no means an easy thing to do in winter. It sounds like you had a great time, though. It is a beautiful place.

  2. I was just doing research on this area and couldn’t believe how built up it is. I was looking at the old railroad route and the tunnels there.

  3. carriev Says:

    N.E. White, I kept wondering what it must be like there in winter — alternating between quiet storms and hordes of skiers maybe? Thanks for the perspective!

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