Donner Pass?


I had mentioned that “Earth Abides” has been one of my favorite books. When I was in high school I frequented a very small junk store that had a fairly large collection of paperback books. Appropriately enough, it was called Lane’s Hole in the Wall. It really had an amazing assortment of, well…crap, as my father would say. Lane collected everything, and then put a price on it for his store. Classic!

At least once a week I would stop by and look through the paperbacks. This was where I found my first battered copies of Henry Miller’s work. I also found a well worn collection of Walt Whitman. The bulk of my purchases were in science fiction. I wanted everything that Robert Heinlein had every written for example.
One day, after I had found a half-dozen random books, Lane reached under the counter and brought out “Earth Abides”. He said it was pretty cool, and it was written with local neighborhoods mentioned. I had never heard of the writer, but if Lane said it was good, then I went along with the .25 price tag.
I could not put the book down. It was absolutely wonderful! Filled with great natural science, and an amazing story set in the hills of Berkeley. I could even figure out where the invented streets were. Such a good book, and it remains so.
Fast forward fifteen years.
I was about thirty years old, and I was planning to hike the California Trail from St. Louis to Sacramento. I had purchased all the topographical maps necessary, I had read many of the journals, and I was thinking about setting out that summer. I had one more thing left to research. In general, the route taken once they crossed the Sierras was not well documented, particularly after gold was discovered. There were about five passes across the Sierra Nevada mountains that handled about 80% of all the trail traffic. Sonora Pass, Carson Pass, Ebbets Pass, Echo Lake Pass, and lastly the famous, or infamous, Donner Pass.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should break-in my equipment and maybe even train my body for the trail. My new plan was to delay the main trail, and use the summer to hike from Sonora Pass going north to Donner Pass and maybe a little beyond. I could spend several days at each one of the passes, going down the east approach, and then crossing to descend the western slope. It was a good plan and it would help me get ready for the larger trip on the following summer.
Naturally I did as much reading as possible, before my hike. I was going to use the Pacific Crest trail to get me from pass to pass. I had to mail food and supplies to several post offices near the trail in order to be resupplied. I had a recent copy of the Pacific Crest trail book which pointed out where the trail was still not well marked. Something about ribbons in the trees. My pack was about 65 lbs with my map borders trimmed and my toothbrush shaved. I had to save ounces.
I also had read everything about Donner Pass because my plan was to use this pass as the one used on the California Trail. The Donner Pass story was widely written about, but the best research was detailed in books by a University of California professor of history at Berkeley. I read everything that he had, but then I thought I would visit him to ask for more specific information. That’s when I found out that he had been retired for several years. But the history department secretary said that he lived in San Francisco, and that he often made time for students and researchers. She gave me his number and I called for an appointment.
I had notebooks of questions, I really wanted to know things about the land, and if the wagon guides were following hunting trails. I suppose I wanted to know stuff that he hadn’t written about. Maybe even some secret places that he knew, where I could still see some evidence of prior trail use.
I made two visits, and he was very gracious in providing everything I wanted. There was a little confusion around the first visit. Upon entering I said that wanted more information about the book that he had written. He said fine, ask away. I then mentioned my plan to investigate the passes. He looked a little perplexed and said, “That book? People don’t ask me about the Sierras anymore, I just get visitors about that other little book I wrote.” “What book was that professor?”, I asked. “Oh, um, ‘Earth Abides’, nice little fiction book I wrote in 1949”
I was speaking to Professor Stewart, but I was also speaking to George R. Stewart, the author of my favorite science fiction book. By the way, he got the title from the Bible, the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. It was the best day!