Life would be simple if we knew precisely how it would all play out. Yes, and boring. Thankfully, our journey roaming around the 3rd rock from the sun never happens the way we plan. Getting from point A to point B isn’t the straight line we draw up in our minds.
So is the case for how we, the Donner Relief Expedition, got here.
It began eight years ago when two trail running pals, Tim and Bob, started swapping stories from books they’d read. Both loved adventure books, tales from history and discovery.
One such book was The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown. It told the story of the Donner Party and Forlorn Hope through the eyes of protagonist, Sarah Graves Fosdick. Bob and Tim were hooked. What spoke to them was the Forlorn Hope journey and the pathos the members of the party endured. And it all happened in their back yard.
Then the light bulb went off. “Let’s find the map of the Forlorn Hope trek and retrace their steps ourselves”. they thought. “It’ll be a great adventure. We can even go in the wintertime to get a feel for what it would’ve been like!”
So off they went searching for the map online, in books and historical records. They scoured the web and found nothing. There was nary a trace of any map. Huh, how can that be? Had no one ever plotted where they’d gone? Apparently not. And this is where the real obsession began.
Fast forward. What started innocently as a fast-packing hike/run through the Sierra, turned into a seven-year mission to discover, map and retrace the Forlorn Hope.This led Tim and Bob down a circuitous path of learning how to do proper historical research, field surveying and mapping and reconciling clues that diverged.
Their first visit was to the Donner Summit Historical Society where they met Norm Sayler, it’s proprietor, holding court. Norm’s connection to and knowledge of the Donner Pass region is unrivaled. He attentively listened to the hair brain scheme and uttered, “I like it. I like it a lot. You nee to meet Bill O.”
“Bill O.” was none other than Bill Oudegeest, resident editor and publisher of DSHS’s The Heirloom, a gem of a monthly e-magazine with stories, photos, facts and tales of the Donner Summit area. Bill came to meet Tim and Bob to hear this idea first-hand. As he listen, his eyebrows furrowed. “Uh oh, he’s not digging our plan”, thought the guys. When they finished pouring out their boundless enthusiasm for this crazy idea, Bill broke from the stern stare, which he’d likely refined during his years as an educator, and broadly smiled. He too liked the plan. And immediately offered to help. And help is just what we needed. Tim and Bob were neophytes when it came to historical research.
A team was forged that day. A bond of two vastly different worlds of historical research and endurance sports. Strange bedfellows indeed, but boy did it work.
Dozens of books, hundreds of documents and thousands of hours in the field later, by 2020 Tim and Bob felt they had a pretty good idea about where the Forlorn Hope had gone. Good enough that they were ready to reprise the journey.
Along the way, their quest of discovering the path of the Forlorn Hope gave way to their intrigue with the characters themselves. Now, having seen the landscape, harsh terrain and challenging elements while in the field, the guys became dumbfounded. “How did they do it?”, was the question they’d ask repeatedly after returning from researching a rugged, desolate portions of the path. What began as a trail discovery had now evolved into a study of ordinary people doing an extraordinary feat. At one point Tim, who is no stranger to endurance feats being the most decorated runner in the history of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, called it “The greatest endurance story in history.”
Bob and Tim recruited Jennifer Hemmen and Elke Reimer, two local veteran adventure and long distance endurance athletes, to join the Expedition Team. A date of December 16th, 2020 was set, the 174th anniversary of the departure of the Forlorn Hope from Truckee (now Donner) Lake.
The Forlorn Hope Expedition, completed on December 20th, 2020 at Johnson Ranch, near Wheatland, CA, was a success. The Team attracted a passionate audience of friends, history buffs, runners and even direct descendants of Donner Party members.
After much reflection, Tim and Bob decided there was work left to be done, and turned their attention to the Relief Parties who braved the elects to risk their own lives to save others – who were in most cases complete strangers. More research, more trail discovery, more fascination with the motivation – the “why” -these courageous souls did what they did.
The path taken to get from point A to point B in this story was hardly straight. But it was in the hidden corners, dead-ends, dark shadows and unanticipated challenges that the real meaning was revealed. Amen to the path less traveled, peering behind closed doors and curiosity to feeding the cat.