One of the beauties of San Francisco is that you can always escape. More car friendly than New York, though nowhere near as ensconced in driving culture as Los Angeles, SF will always offer up a friend or two with a vehicle. This will be required for Ikea runs, flea marketing, and those times when you absolutely, immediately, must get out. Apart from quick hops across the Golden Gate Bridge–Sausalito, Muir Woods, or Mt. Tamalpais–and a few other choice locales, San Francisco is close enough to the Sierra Nevada for a sustained trip away from whatever it is about urban living that has you down. Yosemite and Tahoe are two of my favorites, especially with half-day-plus driving times from Southern California now shortened to a manageable jaunt for the weekend.
I’ve been reading The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and exploring Gary Snyder’s work over the past month, yearning, I think, for the wild. One of the things that has most struck me was Kerouac’s struggle to remain a dedicated student of Buddhism while being a focal point of the Beat scene. He describes sitting outside all night, meditating in nature, and then chugging wine, using drugs, and womanizing on the same page (1)*. Throughout, he finds purity in nature and excitement in the city but is never able to commit to one or the other. Reading the book today, it is an inescapable fact that Kerouac died of cirrhosis ten years after its publication. For Kerouac, life was a search for balance that was anything but level.
I think most people who live in cities face a similar struggle: yearning for the calm that comes with a rural life but unable or unwilling to give up the things that make city living so spectacular. 3AM bacon wrapped hot dogs in the Mission. Live music seven days a week. Museums and their cultural ilk. People everywhere, all the time, doing interesting things. The solution? Get out. Just for a bit. Just for a day. I headed out to Truckee last weekend for just such a reason. As well as a friend’s birthday. Like Kerouac, I felt the pull between simplicity and decadence, slipping away for a walk in the snow or reading by the fire and then drinking beers all night, yelling and hooting.
Short historical detour: Truckee is near Donner Lake, the site of the infamous Donner Party tragedy. This was one of my favorite stories as a child, as I was obsessed with the Oregon Trail, Western history and mythology, and anything even remotely morbid. Setting out from Independence, Missouri, in April 1846, members of what would become the Donner Party made a fatal error when they decided to take a shortcut in Utah, called Hasting’s Cutoff, that actually added 125 miles to their route. They lost two months, much of their livestock and supplies, and the cohesiveness of their group before reaching Truckee (now Donner) Lake on November 3, 1846 (2).
Winter snows thwarted the pioneers from crossing the high mountain passes, and they returned to a lone cabin at Donner Lake. They settled in two groups, one next to the lake and the others a few miles away at Alder Creek, hoping their meager supplies would hold until the snow melted enough to make the climb. This would not be the case. As food dwindled, a group of fifteen on snowshoes calling themselves “Forlorn Hope” set out from the encampments on December 16 to try to reach help over the mountains (3). Beset by snowstorms and low on food and clothes, they began “casting lots” to see who would give his or her life to sustain the others. Men began dying before this was necessary–for a time (4). After several pioneers died and were eaten, the two American Indian guides sent from Sacramento by John Sutter to help the group were most likely murdered for food. On January 17, the seven Forlorn Hope survivors staggered into Johnson’s Ranch on the western side of the Sierra: five women and two men, all white. They brought news of the trapped party in the mountains, galvanizing rescue efforts. In all, it took four attempts to reach and rescue the members of the Donner Party. With each foray into the mountains, rescue teams found the “grisly remains of cannibalism” at both sites near Donner Lake. Only half of the 80-odd people who made it to Donner Lake survived the winter months in the Sierra (3). The story of the Donner Party is one of the most famous of the pioneer period, and a horrifying account of what human beings can do to survive. It is also the Truckee area’s claim to fame, and it seems that every other business or landmark is named for the hapless travelers.
Places like Truckee are imbued with their frontier past, which is as romanticized as you might expect. Western-style false facades line the main street, with covered promenades that feel on the verge of a High Noon confrontation. Nearby locales include Soda Springs and Lake of the Pines, names that feel pulled from a folk song or tall tale: the places where Paul Bunyan had an egg cream the size of a swimming pool and took a bath, using a whole conifer for a hairbrush. Truckee is also stunningly beautiful, especially in several feet of fresh snow. The wind really does sigh or sough through the trees. Everything smells a bit like woodsmoke, with that clean, alpine sharpness that can’t be properly described. There is nothing quite like starlight on snowy pines. Although it is not rugged, Truckee is place to come find tranquility and a little equilibrium.
Which is why I retreated from group activities here and there: to take a moment and breathe. On one such occasion, I took a walk out among the cabins and trees in our neighborhood. Almost everyone was holed up or out skiing, and it was dead quiet, apart from a few children sledding, a chattering squirrel or two, and the creak of snow falling from the pines. I kept hearing a rhythmic cry or rusty creak. I wasn’t sure if it was an animal or some unknown snow or skiing machinery–maybe a lift. After all, I’m fairly ignorant of what happens in places where snow falls. On the way up, I nervously Googled how to drive in ice or snow, which was not on the driving test in Southern California. Casting about, I finally found the source: vees of geese, migrating. With the weather so warm this winter, it was unclear whether they were headed north or south. It was one of the most beautiful and tranquil things I’ve ever seen.
(1) Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958. *As his accounts of “yabyum” allege, other Buddhist peers may have had a different opinion about what is or is not “pure” or acceptable in one’s practice. At the same time, many religious leaders and scholars criticized Kerouac’s ignorance of Zen and other Buddhist tenets after the book was published–which should be a surprise to no one who has read The Dharma Bums.
(2) McCurdy, Stephen A. ”Epidemiology of Disaster: The Donner Party (1846-1847).” Western Journal of Medicine, April 1994: Vol. 160, No. 4, 338-342. Web PDF. 9 March 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1022425/pdf/westjmed00068-0044.pdf. This is a fascinating short article about the demographics of who survived (and died) in the Donner Party. For example, women, who have lower daily calorie needs and higher fat stores, had a higher survival rate. Obviously (which is not discussed in this article), not being of Caucasian descent carried the extra risk of dying from unnatural causes.
(3) Johnson, Kristin. ”Donner Party Chronology.” New Light on the Donner Party, 2006. Web. 9 March 2012. http://www.utahcrossroads.org/DonnerParty/Chronology.htm. Despite some much-publicized, sketchy scholarship in 2010 alleging that the Donner party did not engage in cannibalism, it seems pretty clear that it did happen.
(4) “Distressing News.” The California Star, 13 February 1847. Via the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. 9 March 2012. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/donner.html