Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Donner Party (Trail of Cthulhu)

I've been doing some Old West research, looking for things to plug into The Vendetta Run. It's surprising how unhelpful the internet can be; more often than not the articles that are best optimized for search engines are also junk pieces cribbing frantically from Wikipedia. While there is useful stuff out there, most of it's buried way back in the weeds.

But I did find some helpful stuff, and in so doing was reminded of the tragic fate of the Donner Party.

For those who don't know the story, a brief recap: the Donner-Reed Party was a group of would-be migrants trying to find a way to California in 1846. They were grossly misled by The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested an alternate route from Fort Bridger, Green River Wyoming, to California via a mountain range and the Salt Lake Desert.

Theoretically this route is navigable, but not at the time of year the Donner-Reeds proposed to make the trip. By the time they finally got across the desert and the mountain range they had no chance of getting across the Sierra Nevadas before snowfall, and when they tried they were cut off, with no way forward and no way back.

Their options were few. Several of the party were too sick to travel. Those who were still healthy enough to go on had nowhere to go, at least not with their possessions; if they walked out with their clothes on their backs they might survive, and perhaps send help to the others. A party of 17 including women and children joined that Forlorn Hope, while the remainder stayed in a makeshift camp at Truckee Lake.

The Forlorn Hope soon ran into difficulties. Lost, snowblind and with little chance of finding their way to civilization, in desperation they began eating the corpses of those who fell. One macabre touch about the story I always find intriguing is that they took special care to label the dried-out meat they took, to ensure that nobody in the party mistakenly ate the flesh of a relative. About half the Hope ended up in the bellies of the other half before they finally found rescue.

Things were little better in the camp. Starvation and privation led them to do much as the Forlorn Hope had. All told, about half of the 89-strong group died in the Pass, and many of those who died were eaten. The full story can be had via Wikipedia here.

One curious footnote: many of the survivors preferred to pretend that they hadn't turned cannibal. They swore they found sustenance in other ways - the family dog, say. None of them outlived the stigma; all their lives they had to live with a ghoulish reputation. The last of the Donner Party survivors, one year old at the time, died in 1935.

The Lincoln Highway, constructed in 1913, traverses the Donner Pass. Though there are other highways today, in the Trail 1930s period the Lincoln would have been the only highway through the Pass. It's often described as one of the snowiest parts of the United States, and today it's a popular spot for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

With all that in mind, let's talk one-shot.

In the 1930s the Great Depression led to significant migration from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California, where there was the hope of work and food. Many of these Okies went along Route 66, but not all. Suppose some of them went up the Lincoln, along the Donner Pass. What might they find there?

The opening scene would be the departure from their ruined farms, the hot blasts of dust storms screaming at their heals. If the Expedition rules are being used - and I recommend they are - then whatever else they have they haven't many supplies. A lot of what they carry will be useless but have strong sentimental value. Photographs, dining room sets, perhaps a piano - that sort of thing.

They might start from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico or Kansas in addition to Oklahoma. Some photographs from the period illustrate the awesome power of the dust storms; it's like watching the hand of an angry God smash down on the land. Not unlike the migrant period of the 1840s you could see the dust-drowned remains of cars and people's lives scattered by or on the roadside as you travelled. At least one of the scenes after the opener should involve the group trying to cope with the aftermath of a storm, trying to get their sand-choked cars going again.

Nobody wanted to see these migrants. It was the Depression; jobs were few, and the Okies soon got a bad and undeserved reputation as an army of thieves and bumpkins on the march. The next scene should be an encounter on the outskirts of some little burg, perhaps in Arizona, where the townsfolk are united in their loathing for the Okies and the police come out to make sure the Okies move on as quickly as possible. There's a potential for a supplies refresh here, but it requires delicate negotiation.

Since we started this in the Old West it seems only right to have at least one Old West scene. What we think of as Ghost Towns these days aren't, really; they're tourist traps with a cobwebbed aesthetic, where T-shirt stalls, geegaws and costumed guides lurk alongside history. But in the 1930s these places would have been almost completely abandoned.

Tombstone itself for example, where this digression started, had only 700 residents in 1900, a huge drop from its 10,000 heyday. Its famous courthouse with gallows next door was left to rot from 1931 until its conversion to a museum in the 1950s. Imagine driving through a near-deserted place like this with nothing but the clothes on your back. Maybe you can scavenge some tinned food left behind by some long-dead inhabitant 30 years ago. More likely you can get water from a forgotten well. but in any case the echo of gunfire and the taint of sulfur still hangs over the streets, and only the unwise go near the gallows at night.

From here we go to the final scenes. By this point everyone's on their last legs. What little supplies they had to start with have long since been used up. Maybe they have water. It's less likely they have food. Their few remaining cars struggle up the Lincoln Highway, trying to get through the Sierra Nevadas. It's getting dark.

Then the snow comes.

Those cars would have had very little left in them even before this point. Now everything freezes. One by one the vehicles grind to a halt and will not start again. If the group has a map they can work out where the nearest civilization is; a ski lodge perhaps, or some kind of roadhouse. But that's a long walk away, and they're tired, hungry and worn out. It might be better to wait by the cars; after all someone's bound to come along the highway soon.

Then they see the hunched shapes in the shadows, watching them, alive with eager, hellish anticipation.

Keeper's choice as to what these are. Ghosts of the Donner Party? Ghoulish remnants? Wendigo? Cold Ones? Whichever it may be they are hungry for hot, fresh meat, and here come the characters stumbling into their cold little corner of the world. Now it's a straight survival horror narrative and the only question is whether or not the characters will survive the night. Maybe they struggle through to that roadhouse, or maybe they huddle up in their stranded cars and make a last stand. Whichever it is they won't see a friendly human face till dawn.

So who will live to see that dawn?


No comments:

Post a Comment