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California dream still going strong after 167 years

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POSTED July 12, 2013 12:01 a.m.

(Editor’s note: Dennis Wyatt is on vacation. This column appeared in May of 1999.)

The Donner Party came to California 167 years ago.

The ill-fated company of immigrants got stuck in a heavy, early December snow at the eastern end of Donner Lake below the imposing Donner Summit.

They had crossed the desert without benefit of trains or Interstate 80. The trail that took them through the Great Basin to the Sierra didn’t include a way station in what is now Reno. They were on their own against the elements.

My grandmother often talked about the pioneers. It was easy to understand why. Her blood-line was pure California pioneers. The Towles had arrived in California from New England a full year ahead of the Donner Party and settled near Camp Far West in Nevada County. Camp Far West was the end of the Sierra crossing that cut through what is now known as Donner Summit.

Her stories kept my attention but as a child I couldn’t begin to understand the hardship.

I’ve crossed Donner Summit hundreds of times in a car and even twice on a full-loading touring bicycle. But even struggling up the summit on a self-powered bicycle didn’t help me fully appreciate the sacrifice and the amazing effort that was required to settle California.

It wasn’t until a trip aboard Amtrak across the snow-covered summit from Reno to Sacramento that I could fully comprehend the undertaking.

Riding the rails gives you a perspective one just doesn’t get from a car of the grandeur of the Sierra or the incredible challenge it imposed for someone crossing it without benefit of paved roads or railroad tracks.

It is humbling to realize that just 167 years ago, California was a vast wilderness.

There were occasional settlements along the coast, but they were mere outposts.

California was settled by men and women whose dreams were as big as its mountains, as wide as its Great Central Valley and as vast as its deserts.

Californians — and Americans for that matter — tend to forget just how young this land is both in terms of Old World civilization and nature.

The Golden State is the newest piece of real estate in the contiguous United States. The great forces of nature are still pushing up the Sierra, molding the coastline and cutting deep into the earth’s crust to continue to build such stark geological features as Death Valley.

The power and strength of California is underscored by numerous faults, two active volcanoes and an annual show of the power of snow and water that are still carving the face of the Golden State today.

The men and women who created the California Dream were in the same league of the mighty forces of nature.

They flocked to the wilderness in search of gold and built two of the world’s greatest cities — Los Angeles and San Francisco — in just more than a hundred years.

They harnessed the power of nature. They built massive dams and aqueducts.

The desert-flood cycles of the Central Valley were put in check to create the most bountiful agricultural region in earth’s history.

When you reflect upon California’s natural and manmade wealth, it is easy to see why the men and women of the Donner Party left the comfort of the East and risked it all.

They had a vision.

Dreaming and risk taking is part of the California psyche. It is what transformed the Santa Clara Valley into the cradle of high-tech. It is what created the aerospace and entertainment industries. It helped create not just fertile farms where there once was barren wilderness but the modern farming practices and tools that made the transformation complete.

It is what brings farm laborers north from Mexico to work the fields. It is what brings immigrants by the thousands from other states and lands.

It is easy to lose sight of California’s bounty when we allow ourselves to be caught in the modern-day Greek Chorus of doom. It is an easy song to sing.

Skepticism abounds because we don’t appreciate how far we have truly come in a short time.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the Donner Party headed west and less than 50,000 people inhabited California.

Had the Donner Party been bombarded with pundits and others with negative views on developing California, they never would have left the relative comfort of their East Coast homes.

Many would never have lost their lives stranded below Donner Summit in winter conditions that are difficult for us to fathom even as we cross the Sierra at 40 mph in a heated Amtrak coach car with all the luxuries of 21st century living.

The Donner Party would be pretty amazed today to see the land they reached in a wicked winter 167 years ago.

They would be even more amazed, though, to listen to the doomsdayers who say the challenges we face as California are insurmountable.

Nothing is unattainable in a land that is just seven generations removed from a time when men and women refused to play the odds and instead opted to turn dreams into reality even if it meant their lives.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.

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