The Donner Party came to California 170 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 three times on a full-loading touring bicycle. But even struggling up the infamous 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 is humbling to realize that just 170 years ago the Golden State 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, five 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. They built two of the world’s greatest cities — Los Angeles and San Francisco — in just 60 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. The refrain is simple and to the point. California has 39 million people today and more are coming, therefore we are doomed.
Skepticism abounds in 2016 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 15,000 people — native and otherwise — 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.
But, then again, the odds are we wouldn’t be crossing Donner Summit today by rail or by car.
The greatness of this land is in the ability of its people to dream big and to pursue their dreams.
It isn’t by accident that the United States is responsible for the lion’s share of man’s progress during the last 200 years. Many of those ideas are generated and implemented here in California.
The Donner Party would be pretty amazed today to see the land they reached in a wicked winter 170 years ago.
They would be even more amazed, though, to listen to the naysayers that say the challenges we face as California as we go deeper into the 21st century are insurmountable.
Nothing is unattainable in a land that is just eight generations removed from a time when men and women defied the odds and the great unknown to turn dreams into reality even if it meant their lives.