A wilderness expert treks through central Nevada in search of answers to questions about the Donner Party.
Bergthold has long wondered whether the 39 pioneers from the Donner Party who starved and froze to death in the snowbound Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846–47 would have survived if they had taken a different route. During the similarly severe winter of 1996–97, he set out to satisfy his curiosity by trekking for 35 days through the remote badlands of central Nevada, an arduous 350-mile odyssey from Battle Mountain to Death Valley that he chronicles exhaustively though somewhat monotonously. “[T]he historic struggles of the Donner Party continue to haunt me,” he says. In the course of his journey, Bergthold and companion Christina “Tina” Bowers encountered plenty of struggles of their own, courtesy of the desolate landscape and severe weather, their only assistance coming from two food drops and a friend tracking their progress in a camper. One night, they were forced to camp in an abandoned house—“nothing more than a lonely island plopped down in the middle of a vast sea of wet muck”—with a dead cow. “We weren’t about to try and shove the beast aside,” Bergthold recalls. “He, or she, could have all the space it wanted.” So cold were the conditions that, at one bivouac spot, their tent froze to the ground. Bowers even experienced the early stages of hypothermia. The author vividly captures the physical pounding he endured, which included losing toenails to frostbite, and the fearsomeness of the elements—a blizzard was so fierce that he felt like they “were stuck on the railroad tracks and a huge, snorting engine was bearing down upon us.” But the book can be a heavy slog, in part since, unlike the better extreme-travel memoirs, it reveals so little about its author and fails to suggest that his journey inspired any self-discovery. At one point, Bergthold muses, “And what the hell am I trying to prove?”—a type of thought that, if properly developed, would make the book harder to walk away from.
Captures the physical toll of the author’s quest but reveals little self-discovery.