by Todd Walker
Can you get there from here?
Dirt Road Girl loves mapping our trips – even if I know how to get there. She claims I have a built-in GPS in my head. That doesn’t stop her from whipping out her trusty atlas from behind her seat. She’s the first to admit that she’s directionally challenged. She doesn’t use her smart phone map. She likes the paper version.
I’ve been “lost” a few times due to poor planning. Being of the male persuasion, I never admit to being lost. I call it exploring. Here are three strategies that will help you navigate the not so clear path to preparedness in Lewis and Clark fashion.
How to Avoid a Donner Party Bug Out
Over 160 years ago, a bunch of pilgrims hitched about 90 wagons and let the dust fly on the “Great Highway of the West” chasing their dream of a better life. The tragedy that followed in the Sierra Nevada happened to everyday folk like you and me – merchants, teachers, farmers, fathers, mothers, and children. Almost half of the group died.
Keep in mind, they weren’t bugging out as we know the term today. The pressure and stress of bugging out runs through my mind like a bad taco through my business end. If you’ve ever packed for an extended vacation, or visit to the in-laws, you know what I’m saying. I once packed my young family of four and moved to Siberia for 6 months. The amount of stress involved in carrying a two-year old on my back, carry on luggage, my four-year old by the hand, and wife #1 by the feet, was memorable – but doable with modern transportation. How about trying it Donner style with primitive means of locomotion? I now understand why death visited these pilgrims even before the winter snows reduced them to eating each other.
Reading survival fiction makes me go hum at times. Some authors portray what I think would be a fairly accurate journey in the land of TEOTWAWKI. For some, not so much. Who knows what to expect? I’m certain that it won’t be a drive or walk in the park. To get a glimpse of a real-life SHTF event, look no further than the Donner Party tragedy. Their life and death struggle offers many lessons on survival. Here’s a few.
Beware of untested advice
Decisions made by ‘leaders’ of the group didn’t end well. Leaders lead only if they have followers. I’ve seen many self-proclaimed leaders and leaders-by-title in this category. All they’re doing is taking a long walk by themselves…with no followers. It’s always easy to follow leaders when they make good decisions and the journey is easy. No one makes all the right choices. I’ve made many horrible decisions that not only effected me, but those following me. That’s the worst part. Knowing I’ve caused pain to those closest to me. There’s no easy way or short cut to right the ship. And the bigger the ship (group), the longer it takes to turn it in the right direction.
James Reed, the unofficial leader of the party, read “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California” by Landsford W. Hastings before their departure. Granted, Reed had no way of knowing that Hastings route was untested when they packed their last cast iron skillet on the wagons in Springfield, IL. Hastings claimed his short cut would shave 400 miles on easy trails for westward pioneers. It didn’t. Pay close attention to snake oil salesmen like Hastings. Examining his motives, one finds his vision of building his financial empire in the Golden State. Nothing wrong with making money. However, choosing to follow untested advice from his little book was one cause of the Donner Party’s doom.
Even with new information available along the journey, proving this short cut to be a hoax, the ‘leader’ decided to stay the course. If you’ve read advice or watched videos on preparedness and survival, follow your gut – no matter what the ‘experts’ say. Some in the Donner wagon train followed their gut and a proven route and dodged disaster.
Beware of untested equipment
There’s nothing wrong with owning quality equipment. In fact, I encourage it. However, all the high-tech gadgetry promoted to ensure your survival is worthless if used stupidly. Mr. Reed had a two-story bug out wagon with extravagant suspension, sleeping quarters, and a stove for heat and cooking. His daughter called it “The Pioneer Palace Car.” This pimped out BOV (Bug Out Vehicle) might have made the journey in tact had the head-strong owner, hell-bent on saving a few miles, not pushed it and his family over the proverbial hill of destruction.
Accidents happen. I get it. This was no accident. He was warned. Here’s an account of Reed’s stupid decision from Legends of America:
At Fort Laramie James Reed ran into an old friend from Illinois by the name of James Clyman, who had just traveled the new route eastwardly with Lansford Hastings. Clyman advised Reed not to take the Hastings Route, stating that the road was barely passable on foot and would be impossible with wagons [Emphasis mine]; also warning him of the great desert and the Sierra Nevadas. Though he strongly suggested that the party take the regular wagon trail rather than this new false route, Reed would later ignore his warning in an attempt to reach their destination more quickly.
If your Survive-O-Meter is pegged on red-alert, back off and reassess. Getting to your destination alive is the objective, right? Experience is a great teacher. Why would Reed jeopardize the lives under his care after hearing first hand advice from an old friend? Pride? Belief in untested equipment? Whatever drove him, it cost him and his party dearly.
Putting confidence in your equipment you personally have never tested is dangerous. I’m afraid too many in the preparedness community fall into this category. My nephew and I had a conversation around the fire pit about his ability to make fire. He told me about his journey to making fire from friction. When he was in middle school, he wanted to make fire with a bow drill using only what he had on his person – a pocket knife and his clothing. He’d read “how to” do it. Now he wanted to test the methods in the book. He gathered wood from behind his house, used his boot lace as cordage, and constructed the bow drill. On the second day and many disappointing hours later, his labor paid off. He created fire from friction! Something I’ve yet to manage, even with training wheels.
Doing the stuff trumps knowing the stuff. Have you tested that new pressure canner, rifle, solar charger, or other shiny survival gizmo?
“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.”
— Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut
I’ve ignored experience-based advice before and have the scares to prove it. If an alternative route to your “destination” is proven, take it. Weigh the risks and calculate the potential pros and costly cons. Follow your gut. Arriving off schedule is better than dying. Stay prayed up and laid back.
Beware of untested relationships
Iron sharpens iron, but there’s a lot of heat in the process. How do you plan for the internal stress that will visit any group on the run to their hide-y-hole? Even if you are able to shelter in place to weather an extended TEOTWAWKI event, plan on tempers flaring. Will arguments over those struggling to keep up or pull their weight with the party end in death? James Reed was banished (some of the group wanted to hang him) for stabbing one of his fellow stragglers. Geez, keep up or die, eh! Other accounts say he killed a teamster for excessively whipping the oxen. Whatever the cause of the attack, it highlights our susceptibility to stress when facing less than predictable situations.
Even if you’re in a group of people you really like and respect, sparks can fly. It would be wise to develop a plan for the added stress and pressure of bugging out or staying put in a world of ‘zombies’ when civilization collapses. The Donner Party had to deal with their own ‘zombies’ – some from within, some from outside their group. Mr. Wolfinger hung back with a few others to cache his wagon in Nevada. Not wise. The survivors in his small group said he fell prey to Indians. The oxen and cattle were easy targets for the natives as well.
From within the group, there was an accidental shooting, minor accidents leading to infection and death, and in the most extreme stage, cannibalism. I’m in no position to judge. I’ve never been close to this kind of extreme survival situation.
In our unpredictable futures (maybe the future is predictable to a degree), it would be wise for us all to heed lessons from the tragic trip of the Donner party. Practicing resilience, self-reliance, and preparedness might keep our names out of the history books.