Sometimes it just takes a little seasonal change to revive a treasured memory from the past. That happened for me this week as I was driving interstate 80 on my way to a Lutheran pastors’ conference at Squaw Valley’s Olympic Village. I remembered how, as a child in New York State, I eagerly awaited the first snow on the fall foliage, and here it was, unfolding before me, as I approached Donner Pass. It was only noon, but the temperature had dropped from the 65° of San Francisco to below freezing.
The Donner Party, sometimes called the Donner-Reed Party, was a group of American pioneers who, in May, 1846, set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois, for the 2,500 mile journey to California. The journey west usually took between four and six months, but the group was slowed by following a new, untested route.
After six tumultuous months the pioneers had reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near what is now the town of Truckee and the lake that became called Donner Lake. The rugged terrain and difficulties they had encountered on the journey resulted in the loss of many cattle and wagons, and even split the group. In mid-December, with their oxen and cattle gone and their food supplies running low, some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. At the same time, rescuers from California were trying to reach the settlers, but, sadly, the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February, 1847, almost four months after the wagon train had become trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento), many of them having eaten their dead companions for survival. The dreams these folks had of building a new empire ended up as one of the great tragedies in the history of westward migration.
With the Donner party in mind, I approached the summit named after them. Despite having remembered their tragic story, I was hoping, like in my childhood, for a dusting of snow on the trees while the fall foliage was still in full and blazing color. And indeed it happened – the pines were majestically dressed in white evening gowns as in lace made of snowflakes.
Every once in a while, even an ocean lover like myself needs to go to the mountains. John Muir once said, “When you go to the mountains, it is like going home.” And so it was. When I pulled into the rest stop at Donner summit, opened the car door and allowed the white flakes to blow against my skin with their cold refreshment, I began to sing my prayer to the Mountain Mother:
Mountain Mother, in the winds you are calling
as you decorate the blue-vaulted heavens
with moon and sun and stars
and dress the trees that stretch limbs in praise
with snowflake linens of mystery,
as you fill the land with beauty and peace.
Breathe your vitality into our journeys
and every day activities that we may
find in our contemplation your luminous love.
Together with the cosmos we sing
the joy of your ever-creative powers.
Mountain Mother, Nurturer,
and the One Who Brings Us Home,
we rest and rise in your wholeness.
My parents taught me down-hill skiing when I was three years old. I loved those times on the “mountains” in upstate New York and Vermont, but it wasn’t until years later, when I arrived on the West Coast to finish seminary, that I realized what a real mountain looked like. Certainly the Adirondacks were tall and grand, but they weren’t like the Sierras whose summits touch the edge of the heavens.
Travel is much easier these days. We jump in a car or on an airplane, but the ancient call remains the same: Come to the mountains and dance and play and be refreshed by the great mother of us all. At times there are still travel challenges, but blessings also abound in the journey.
Images and prayer ©Stacy Boorn