Josna Rege

29. Incident at the Donner Pass

In 1970s, history, places, Stories, travel, United States on March 23, 2010 at 10:40 pm

January, 1977: Andrew and I had taken a driveaway car from Albuquerque to San Francisco to visit Eve. San Francisco was no longer the City of Love, but Eve lived near Haight-Ashbury, where we had joined a forlorn group of protesters chanting, “Keep McDonalds Out  of the Haight,” as Big Mac wrappers blew past us in the wind from the newly-opened store. It was time to return to Massachusetts and the coldest winter in 20 years, so we consulted the ride boards for a car headed Back East.

It was either at the food co-op where I had bought our muesli or at the alternative bookstore where Andrew had picked up an esoteric work called The New Gravity, that we found the notice announcing a car with room for four besides the driver, leaving for upstate New York as soon as possible. The contact address read, “the Living Love Center, Berkeley.” We hesitated at this name, because, despite the muesli and The New Gravity, Andrew and I maintained an East Coast skepticism of anything that sounded New Age-y, but we suppressed our doubts and dialled the number.

Arriving at the appointed time, we met our fellow passengers and the owner-driver of the car. In the back seat sat a thin, quiet young man clutching a bass guitar in an enormous case, and we squeezed in beside him. He introduced himself and his instrument, which, we were informed, would need to be carried on his lap all the way across the country, for fear of permanent damage being done to it if it were exposed to the temperature fluctuations in the trunk. In the front sat a freckled, healthy-looking young woman who seemed pleasant enough; she had been visiting San Francisco from Israel and was now beginning her journey back. Then there was the man who was to be our cross-country pilot. Lanky and morose, he didn’t look like much of an advertisement for the Living Love Center; he was heartbroken at having had to leave behind his Beloved at the Center. This trip East was an obligatory visit to his parents (to whom, apparently, his universal love did not extend). Gloomy about our prospects from the start, he was calling the journey ill-starred even as he drove out of Berkeley. Andrew and I looked at each other and knew that it was going to be a long ride.

We had barely begun the climb out of the city when the first flakes began to fall. It was Friday evening rush hour and, unused to snow, Bay Area drivers immediately began to panic. Weathermen issued dire warnings on the radio, asking people not to drive if they could possibly help it. Our leader decided to take this as a bad sign, and his dark predictions of disaster unnerved us all. Soon we were climbing steeply into the mountains, where the storm rapidly reached blizzard proportions. Signs with flashing lights loomed out of the swirling snow, urging us to stop and put chains on our tires.  We too urged our driver to stop, but he just scoffed at us. He was in an expansively fatalistic mood, regaling us with the story of himself and his Beloved  (“I call her my chocolate pudding,” he cooed, “and she calls me her wooden spoon”), as we prayed that he would keep his eyes on the road, and the heavily-laden car crawled and strained its way toward the Donner Pass.

The Donner Party (from iill.net)

I had never heard of the Donner Pass before that afternoon, but the anxiety levels in the vehicle told me that something bad must have happened there. We renewed our pleas to our leader to stop and put on the chains, but he only became more stubborn and more lugubrious.

“I knew it was a mistake,” he intoned. “I should never have left her behind, my little chocolate pudding.”

“The chains,” we begged, “Put on the chains.” It was no use.

The road that curved steeply round the mountain had a flimsy-looking guardrail and a steep drop beyond. After passing three sets of signs with flashing lights, we had seen no more for a while now. Ahead of us, cars were pulled off the road, their passengers struggling with chains in the blinding snow; and still our leader drove on, oblivious of it all, until the car immediately in front of us skidded off the road and plunged. I don’t know what happened to it, because I couldn’t bring myself to look, but the gravity of the situation finally got through to our driver. He pulled over without another word and put his chains on, while we all sat in tense silence, and our bass player clung tightly to his guitar.

Unfortunately this near-disaster did not mark the end of our problems. We made it over the pass without further incident, but soon after we had entered Nevada, we had a flat tire, and then another. Our lovelorn leader had somehow managed to put the chains on the wrong way round, so that their metal hooks were facing up, not down, and had torn the tires to ribbons. All I remember of the rest of that long, strange trip was our arrival in upstate New York, where Lover Man turned into a whining baby as soon as he crossed the threshold of his parents’ house.

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  1. I was afraid this would be the story of when you drove by that accident…

  2. I don’t think I would want to write about that one, Nikhil. This one, thankfully, had a happy ending; and I can only hope that it did for the car in front of us as well. (It certainly didn’t for the Donner Party of 1846.) Andrew said last night that he thinks that the police were there and set up a roadblock, but I can’t be sure of the the order of the events. xo

  3. Another winner, Josna, and probably just as well that you don’t remember more of the trip in detail. Oy.

    Your posts always raise my own memories, in this case: (1) Sending a letter, at age 13, addressed to “Anybody, Haight-Ashbury, SF.” I got a reply, addressed in multicolor crayon psychedelic lettering, with a letter inside that very kindly advised me to stay home, signed “Theo.” My mother threw it out one day. (2) Age 20, living in the mountains just outside of Boulder. My boyfriend and I rode from Allenspark to Boulder (maybe 40 miles?) with a happy-go-lucky friend who drove his rattletrap jalopy 80 mph while describing all the troubles he’d been having with his brakes!

    • I love these stories, Sarah. That letter…what a treasure. How could your mother have thrown it out? My only connection with San Francisco at that age was singing the pop song “If You’re Going to San Francisco” in our band at school in India. We called ourselves “The Strange Infatuation”! Embarrassing but true.

  4. Ah, The Strange Infatuation! I just remembered! You and Bina and I and Raja Sen and Binod Yonzon!
    Remember singing “These boots are made for walkin?”
    I was so sad to hear of Raja’s passing a few months ago. He was way too young to die! He and his wife apparently went to our home in Whispering Pines and asked for me right after we left there the last time! Ships passing in the night!
    He had the dubious honour of having given me my first kiss as we stood by the fence at MH in the mist! What memories!

    • How could I forget?
      I always thought that Raja was so cool–clearly the leader of the group, but in a quiet, unassuming way. He was the first to introduce us to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, when I couldn’t yet appreciate its departure from the earlier Beatles’ style; I remember that he liked “Lovely Rita.”

  5. Jojo
    I had a moment and was reading your response to my comments about Everett and saw another comment about this story, which I had not read. but would agree it is a great one. Having made the trip between Boston and Albuquerque a great mumber of times, this story reminded me of a trip that Danny M. and I made in his old Volvo wagon that was nowhere near as frightening, but is an amuseing story none the less. You should ask Danny what he remembers sometime.
    Love
    Michael

    • Ah road trips! I haven’t done a long one in a while, not since our cross-country trip in 2004. I think that trip you and Dan took is legendary, Michael, but all I remember of the story is some kind of major repair you had to do on the road. I will ask him to tell it to me next time I see him. Was it the trip from Boston to Albuquerque, leaving after the Who concert (or the other way round)?

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