“Well I’ll tell you something, this is no longer a vacation…it’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun! I’m gonna have fun and you’re gonna have fun! We’re all gonna have so much f***in’ fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our damn smiles! You’ll be whistling Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah out of your assholes!!!!”– Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Vacation
Yesterday, I packed the car for what will not be the last time. It’s a never ending game of Tetris that I can’t seem to win. Just when I think I’ve got it all crammed into the car perfectly, I turn around to see that I left the damn cat carrier in the drive way. Of course, I can’t just pack our favorite feline anywhere in the car. He’s family after all. So he needs a seat next to his buddy, Boy Wonder, the two year old who has made it his life’s mission to release the cat while we are driving.
“Dada, kitty! Kitty out!”
“Leave him alone buddy. The kitty wants to sleep.”
“I mean it. Stop playing with the cage. Don’t make me pull over.”
“What’s uh oh? Ah, I understand now. Bex wake up, the cat is under my brake pedal.”
Two days earlier, my mom joked that Bex and I might not be on speaking terms when this cross country road trip was over but I can you imagine my horror when Bex casually mentioned cannibalism two hours into the trip? My road trip playlist couldn’t be that bad. Could it? In hind sight, I can’t blame her. I went pretty heavy on the pre-school tunes but with a two year old in the car, Bert and Ernie’s Greatest Hits seemed like a good idea at the time. It was around my ninth chorus of “The Daddy’s on the bus say please for the love of God, change this song, all through the town.” that Bex told me we were traveling along the Donner Pass. THE Donner Pass, as in the famous group of stranded travelers who wound up eating each other. What twelve year old boy’s imagination wasn’t captured by this story in school? Thankfully my wife is as morbid as I am and allowed us the chance to experience this “educational” moment with our son.
“The place where it all happened is just off the highway.”
She said it so calmly as if she were telling me what nice weather we were having. I don’t think I’ve ever merged lanes faster. Well there was one time I had to cross five lanes of L.A. traffic in under two seconds so I wouldn’t miss my exit, but to be fair, I was motivated by the promise of Randy’s Donuts. The texture of one of those is somewhere between cotton candy and heaven. Anyways, back to the cannibals.
For anyone that slept through American History in high school, the Donner Party was not a feuding family on a road trip, like I originally thought. Nor were they a fraternity on a spring break trip that went very, very, wrong. They were actually a group of settlers led by a farmer, George Donner and a furniture manufacturer James F. Reed. No relation, not even the same frat house. But they both came from Illinois and they were heading west to California.
Someone suggested that they take Hastings Cutoff, a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and that’s when all the trouble started. Smells like a set up if you ask me. I can imagine Mr. Reed sitting atop his wagon and twirling his mustache.
“I’ll show that Donner. Guy has some nerve naming our party after him. Not much of a party anyway. No one brought any cookies. They’ll be calling it the Reed party after they get a load of my shortcut.”
I’m sure he was relieved that his name frequently gets lost in history. Rough terrain and an early snowfall trapped the eighty-one men, women, and children. The members of the party were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive their brutal ordeal. Or like I told my two year old son, “The hungry people made meat s’mores buddy!”
The outside of the rest stop was surrounded by a really cool forest that we let Boy Wonder stretch his legs in. Don’t worry, he outran the bear. Just in front of the woods was a building with restrooms that looked like it could have been a cabin at one time. Judging by the state of it’s vending machines, I could see why visitors would be forced to resort to alternative nutrition. There wasn’t a snickers bar in sight! There wasn’t even a bag of those rice cakes that everyone hates but the stores still sell anyways.
It turns out there was an actual Donner Party museum off another exit but Bex swears this was the spot where the actual cannibal-izing got done. I didn’t want her to feel like I was disappointed so I suggested that we take a picture of us pretending to bite Boy Wonder’s arms. She told me to get back in the car and never repeat what I just said to anyone. And I certainly intend to to keep that promise.