Though just a short distance away from each other, Daufuskie & Hilton Head Islands couldn't have been more different landscapes during the Revolutionary War. The Loyalists on Daufuskie Island constantly clashed with their Patriot neighbors on Hilton Head Island, most of the time on their shared waters. These "row boat wars" resulted in blood shed on more than a few occasions, especially those surrounding Captain Phillip Martinangel of Daufuskie Island.
In the fading pastel light of a Sierra Nevada winter afternoon, I park my car, grab my jacket and walk toward a distant visitor’s center. It is quiet, so still, so beautiful, so deathly quiet.
“Hi. How are you?” I say to the young woman behind the desk. “I’d like to visit the park.”
“The winter rate is two dollars,” she says. “We don’t get many visitors in the winter, so please give me a few minutes to rewind the movie. If you wish to visit the site of the Donner cabin, there is a path with guided signs behind this building.”
I sit and watch the movie. I already know much about the Donner Expedition, how in 1846 a large group of settlers left Missouri for California way too late in the season, how they made a series of mistakes in their westward journey, how they could have stayed in Reno for the winter but they decided to cross the Sierras in the hopes of reaching California, only to get stuck, right here. Some of the party lived, many died, and a few resorted to cannibalism. Some were selfish, but many were heroic and died so others could live.
The movie ends. I walk out of the building and make my way to where the Donner party hunkered down. It is early December and only a couple of inches of snow are on the ground, so much different from 1846 when the snows began in October, and did not quit. Today, weather experts believe that 1846 was one of the worst winters in California history.
I find the area where the makeshift cabin once stood. I see the huge boulder that served as a back wall, so I remove my glove, run my fingers over the cold stone, and in the twilight of a Sierra Nevada afternoon, I hear the voices.
I walked back to my car that afternoon, thinking that I would never again find such an evocative, deserted historic landmark, but I was wrong.