Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ordeal by Hunger

Me:  "What's the deal with my Donner party obsession?"

Spouse:  "I don't think you're obsessed with the Donner party.  I think you're obsessed with cannibalism."

It's true.  I have a thing for cannibalism.  I feel that cannibalism is a natural extension of the carnivore. Vegetarians can broaden their culinary horizons by eating meat, while we meat eaters must turn to people.  It's just the way it is.

Before I continue, let me just state for the record that as of May 18th, 2011, and to my knowledge, I have never eaten a person  – at least not in the institution of chew, swallow, and digest (grin.)  I find the premise of eating people fascinating, in much the same way that I find people who raise their own beef fascinating. It's always seemed strange that you'd give the family pet a name, slaughter it, then say graces and whatnot just before feasting.  "Dear Lord, we thank thee for Bessie."  See?  Weird.

Would I? Could I? Raise my own meat?  I think I could.  And you can bet a rear flank that I'd be perversely irreverent about the whole ordeal.  (I'm also perversely irreverent about most things, so please, my dear vedgies, don't take this personally.)

Care for an example of my perverse irreverence?  Yes?  Oh goodie!  I have a catalog of cannibal jokes that I'd like to share before embarking on this, my latest book report.  (This is a book report you know, and a good one, so don't go away just yet.)

  • If a cannibal eats a Chinese guy... is he hungry a half hour later?
  • Why don't cannibals eat divorced women?  Because they're very bitter.
  • What's a cannibal's favorite type of TV show?  A celebrity roast.
  • Why do cannibals prefer eating readers to writers?  Because writers cramp, but readers digest.
  • Where do cannibals shop for fine furniture?  Eatin' Allens.
  • What do cannibals eat for dessert?  Chocolate covered aunts.
  • What do cannibals make out of politicians?  Bologna sandwiches.
  • Did you hear about the cannibal that was expelled for buttering up his teacher?
Had enough?  Yes?  No?

I suppose my preoccupation with cannibalism is mostly a preoccupation with survival.  How far will we go to save our own lives?  At what lengths will we extend taboo, pain, and humiliation to keep the ticker ticking...?  Aron Ralston (loved 127 Hours!) amputated his own arm... a plane-crashed rugby team resorted to eating team members in order to live (read that story!)... and the Donner Party consumed each other when trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-1847.

(Oh and Sweeney Todd (love that show!) did some of that meat pies o' people business, but that's fiction.  I think.  Even still, Mr. Todd did this meat pie thing as a method of survival.  Incidentally, that A Little Priest song is one of my favorites in all of Broadway.)

Ordeal by Hunger
by George R. Stewart


A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend in Sparks with Megan and Jessica.  We three have a great time when we're together, and it was a great trip.

As many of you know, Sparks is a suburb of Reno, Nevada.  And many of you might also know that Reno is just east of a place called Donner Pass.  When I arrived in Sparks, I said "Girls.  I think it's time we visit Donner Pass."  Megan replied with something along the lines of "There's nothing to see... it's just I-80 now."  And I said, "Isn't there a museum?"

Sure enough, there's a museum.  We visited the museum.  We gawked at the artifacts and wax replicas.  We took photos.  We even watched their movie.







While killing time in the airport, I found this book called Ordeal by Hunger by George R. Stewart.  I started that book on the airplane and wouldn't you know... the girl sitting next to me on this plane ride was reading Hunger Games.... goh!

Ordeal by Hunger is a fantastic book – well written, and doesn't seem to take creative license with facts.  For example, Mr Stewart, when making assumptions, would say something like, "they probably..." or "chances are, they..."  There's also a great deal of controversy surrounding this little piece of history.  The author did an exceptional job of displaying two sides to a few of the controversies.

The Donner Party was a collection of families from the Illinois/Missouri area, who had decided to settle in the Sacramento Valley.   Most of the travelers were well-off financially, but had never seen a mountain.  They were great farmers, but not necessarily frontiersmen.  Ironically, the move to California was primarily based on avoiding winter.

Trouble for the group began at Fort Bridger, where a gent by the name of Lansford Hastings suggested they take the Hastings Cutoff – a route that traveled straight through the Salt Lake Valley.  The original Oregon Trail followed rivers through southern Idaho.  Hastings informed the clan that by going through the Salt Lake Valley they could shorten their trip by close to 300 miles.  This is great news, yes?  Well, to the emigrants it was a great idea; they were already short on time.


Traveling through Weber Canyon and across the Salt Lake Valley nearly killed them all, and delayed their already delayed expedition.  When the group entered the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, they were starving, short on supplies, and tired.  Their only choice was to push through.  And push through they did, until they were trapped by an early winter.

And so the Donner Party set up camp at a place formerly known as Truckee Lake (now named Donner Lake) for the winter, hoping to wait it out.  They had eaten their livestock, their dogs, any raw hides available, and boiled the leftover bones.  After some had run out of bones and raw hide, they began to eat the people who died.  This ordeal began October 20, 1846, and ended with the rescue of the last survivor on March 14, 1847.

There were a total of 87 in the party.  Only 48 survived.  Of those 87, there are many characters and personalities.  Many were driven mad by the extreme conditions, while others were driven to heroic rescue.  The villain from the story is a guy by the name of Keseburg.  Rumor has it that he ended up killing people for food while there were others already dead.  While this is not proven, he did do a fair amount of cannabilistic bragging after he was rescued.  And in the worst taste possible, he opened a restaurant.

There's another theme in this story that grabs me... it's the theory of time, and how crucial it is to our existence.  It cannot be replaced, and in most cases, we cannot play catch-up with the time we miss.  The Donner Party had loads of cash, but no time.  Cash without time is useless.

Time is our greatest treasure.

To quote Virginia Reed's moral of the story (12 years old when rescued): "Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as best you can."

Megan created a little placard with this genius quotation with a little of her own creations.  You can check it out here.


Anonymous said...

If you are interested in survival, hunger, and thoughts of cannibalism you may want to read this

Moral of the story; don't throw your coconuts overboard.

Winder said...

Sounds good. Wanna share?

LaurieJ said...

That there Harriet Pike, Sarah and William Foster, and all them Murphy's is a huge part of my family history. I have some fascinating journals and reading on them if you're ever interested :-)

megan said...

Only mildly disturbing...sort of similar to taking a photograph in the showers of Dachau...
Life of'll have to read it to the very very very end to get why I recommend... :)
As always thank you for such a colorful review - the pictures were a wonderful addition!

rabidrunner said...

Anonymous - I read that article in its entirety... then I had to go looking for photos. Good grief that's a great story; thanks for sharing.

Winder - But of course. I shall deliver it shortly. Or you can come if'n you're in the vicinity of my hood.

LaurieJ - YES! I would love to take a gander and them there journals you gots. Are the Fosters and Murphy's related? It seems that Sarah Foster was a Murphy daughter... or was that Fosdick? Please hold while I check my reference.

Checked the ref'ernce. Sarah is the daughter of Lavina Murphy (widowed before the trek?) as is Harriet Pike, married to William Pike, had Naomi and Cath'erne. Only Harriet and Naomi survived.

The Murphy boys that survived were all young... Mary (1), Simon (3), and William (1)... Wait are Mary and William twins? They're both chitlins of Lavina Murphy.

rabidrunner said...

Megan, you've been to Dachau? Wow. That place seems among the most intense on the planet. I will put Life of Pi on my list. Thanks for sharing!

Makell said...

Perverse Irreverene! That is my new way to describe you! Love it. It is a great quality and even more entertaining when articulated so well!
And I have to agree on the Dachau bit - I was there about 15 years ago and it was almost awkward to wander around the grounds. You feel like you shouldn't be there....but yet, there you are on vacation. Weird.

Aubrey said...

I want more of your jokes...they are so funny.