Rite of Passage
Eating this coyote meat, Moses thought to himself, has to be worse than chewing on a lumberjack’s boot.
But Moses kept on chewing, because the tough, stringy meat dangling from the blade of his knife was the only thing hanging between him and death, and the foul taste which was filling his mouth was the only thing reminding him that he was still trying to breathe, sucking air through his mouth and around the foul meat because his nostrils were frozen shut; but still clinging to life as the snow piled up around him on this freezing November evening high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. So he chewed, and swallowed, then filled his mouth again and chewed some more as he watched the daylight fade and the cascade of a million snowflakes blurred into just one continuous white wall, limiting his world view to just the few feet surrounding him and his fire, until that too faded and he was left with only the small dancing flames.
This isn’t how I thought it would happen, he mused. This isn’t how I thought I would die.
Not many seventeen year old boys spend time pondering how they will die. But then, not many seventeen year old boys find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly left to face a Sierra winter, and to face it all alone, not knowing if it will last three months or eight; not knowing if the first man to pass this way in the Spring will find him, or instead by chance just come across the remains of his body.
In the year 1844 Moses Schallenberger was just a boy who was emigrating to California, making his way west with his family and neighbors in a train of wagons in what would later come to be remembered as the Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party. They are remembered in the history books primarily because they were the first party of immigrants to arrive successfully in California with covered wagons. Yet what history tends to forget is that they were also famous for abandoning a seventeen year old boy in the wilderness, leaving him to find a way to survive alone as winter descended into the mountains – or, more likely, instead leaving him to starve and freeze.
The Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party arrived at the eastern base of the Sierra late in the Autumn of 1844; later than they had planned because of a dozen delays along the way; none of which were serious but all of which resulted in them staring up at the Sierra from the East as October drew to a close instead of from the West. Scouts were sent out to try to discover an easy and quick way to cross the mountains, but no such path was to be found. Yet time was pressing, so they decided to begin the crossing on what appeared to be the least arduous route. They had barely begun when the trail led them to a Native American who was catching fish in a rocky stream that tumbled out of the narrow gorge. So they paused and talked to him – or tried to talk, but their communication ended up being mostly hand gestures, pointing, and a few words they optimistically hoped were mutually understood.
The native, whose name they understood to be Truckee, was very emphatic that they would not be able to cross the Sierra on the route they had chosen. He instead directed them farther North where they would find a passage by which they could ascend the mountains. He bid them to hurry, indicating that winter’s arrival was very close.
So the Stephen’s Party turned around and went looking for the path indicated by the helpful native. When they found the entrance next to a raging stream they wasted no time and immediately started up, naming it the Truckee Trail after the man who had guided them to the path. But the Truckee Trail soon turned into a series of zigzagging rocky declivities filled with one obstruction after another. Soon they were forced into the river itself as that offered the only way wide enough for the wagons to pass. Then they reached rock outcroppings ten feet high and more and had to lead the oxen around one at a time, then haul the wagons up by ropes. It was exhausting work, and November was entering its latter days when they reached a lake where they made camp, and they christened it Truckee Lake in memory of the helpful native whose advice had gotten them this far. There was little grass to be found for the livestock this late in the year, but the lean, boney creatures dug along the shore for what green shoots they could find. Game, at least, was still plentiful, and the men managed to shoot a few deer for food as well as a nice fat bear. With full stomachs they went to sleep hopeful that the coming days might see them safely across and down the other side.
But that night snow fell, and the camp awoke to more than a foot of the white stuff covering the ground. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing and the Truckee Trail lay buried and hidden. They knew that the wagons were not going any farther, so each of them bundled up food and some possessions and set out on foot, hoping to finish the crossing while they could still walk through the snow. Seventeen year old Moses, along with two other men, was chosen to stay behind for the winter and guard the wagons.
As the snow continued to fall, Moses and his two companions chopped down trees and hastily built a log cabin, a small enclosure measuring about twelve feet by fourteen feet in size. They had nothing with which to fill the cracks between the logs or the spaces between the roof poles, so they piled brush on top and along the sides. They also built a stone hearth with a chimney made of thick limbs going up one side. The cabin had no windows; just one low doorway for entrance and egress. But there was no door to close - just an old blanket hung across the opening to keep out the elements. They cut as much firewood as they could as the storm continued. The party had left them two oxen, which they slaughtered and butchered and hung outside to freeze. Then they settled down to wait out the winter.
The snow continued to fall without letup. Within a few days there was over ten feet of snow on the ground, and there was no end in sight. The three had quickly come to the realization that they were not going to survive the winter if they just continued to sit and do nothing. The wild game, which had been so plentiful upon their arrival at the lake barely a week ago, had now completely disappeared, and the two stringy oxen were not going to feed them for long. They decided they had to get out, and get out fast.
The next morning they cut branches to fashion some makeshift snowshoes, then headed out in a westerly direction. The snow was soft and they sank several inches with each step, then had to lift their feet back up out of the snow along with several pounds of snow that would fall in on top of the snowshoes with each step. Progress was slow and painful. Not knowing how many miles they had gone that first day the men made camp, cutting branches for a fire then huddling around it in their blankets. When they awoke the next morning they saw that their still smoldering campfire had melted down through the snow and now lay on bare dirt at the bottom of a fifteen foot deep circular hole in the snow. Without cooking a breakfast, they moved on. It was still snowing.
They had just started out when Moses began to get cramps in his legs. He could soon barely take twenty steps without excruciating pain lancing through his muscles, and had to stop to rest every few minutes. After only a couple of hours of this he knew he couldn’t go on. The three men sat down in the snow to talk, and Moses volunteered to stay behind. He said that he could probably find his way back to the cabin by Truckee Lake, and he would spend the winter there while his two companions went on. The others agreed. It was a brief but emotional farewell; all of them thinking that they would never again see each other. Then they turned and went their separate ways while the snow continued to fall.
Moses was successful in finding his way back to the lake by the end of that day - which was no small feat for a boy now alone, trying to follow a trail buried in snow, and with only a few feet of visibility before him. He dug his way into the cabin, lit a fire, then he collapsed from exhaustion. When morning came he rekindled the fire and then settled down to munch on a frozen strip of ox meat as he pondered his options.
Moses knew he couldn’t survive a winter of seemingly endless snow on just the little bit of meat left to him. But he also remembered that he had several wagons parked close by. True, there was no food in any of them and they now lay buried in almost twenty feet of snow, but he realized there might be items hidden in them other than food which could prove useful. So he started digging and, when he found the wagons, he began to search through them. He brought up more blankets and thick clothing to cover the walls as well as the open doorway to keep more heat in. He brought up armloads of books to read, because he knew that most of his time was going to be spent sitting quietly with little physical activity throughout the endless snowfall of winter. And, in one wagon, he found what he thought just might get him through the winter – a set of traps that one of the party had left behind. The next morning Moses baited the traps with pieces of ox meat from the precious little that was left, then set the traps out in a circle around his camp, and he smiled to himself as he walked across part of the now frozen Truckee Lake.
Moses is walking on water.
And he laughed, startled as his own voice echoed back to him across the frozen stillness. Then he went back to the cabin to wait. The next morning he got up and at first light went out to walk his trap line. To his surprise and delight one of the traps held a coyote. He killed it, reset the trap, then went back home to feast. After he had roasted it over the fire to a nice medium rare, he blew on it and then took a bite. It was horrible – the worst thing he had ever tasted. And he knew that it must really be bad because, in his starving state, anything should taste good. Yet no seasonings of any kind – not even salt – had been found in any of the wagons. Later that day he tried frying a coyote steak, but it tasted just as bad. The next day he tried boiling it, but that didn’t help. The day after he slow-cooked what was left in a Dutch oven, but even that didn’t improve the flavor of the meat as its taste seemed to grow even more vile with each attempt at cooking it. Each morning he went out to check the trap line, hoping for some variety. But, for the next three days, the traps remained empty.
I was wrong, he mused as he chewed. I think coyote must taste more like cow dung than a lumberjack’s boot.
Then, one morning, two of the traps held foxes. Moses was ecstatic, knowing in his heart that anything was going to taste better than that damned coyote meat. Moses hung one of the foxes along the back of the cabin to freeze and butchered the other, then cut a leg from the carcass and roasted it over his fire. The aroma of the roasting meat drove his stomach into a frenzy of noisy anticipation, and he could hardly wait until the meat was warmed through. Then he took his first bite, and smiled. It was delicious.
As the days passed the trap line continued to yield a steady supply of food. Coyotes and foxes, it seemed, were the only two local animals which didn’t migrate or hibernate in this part of the high Sierra at Truckee Lake, and Moses found himself living on a diet of fox, which continued to taste delicious no matter how much he ate. Fortunately, those tasty foxes comprised most of what he caught in his traps. When he did trap a coyote he would keep it in the event of wild game again becoming suddenly scarce, hanging it and letting it freeze along the back wall of the cabin; a supply of emergency meat if winter eventually drove all the game away and into hiding.
As December passed, Moses kept count of the days and celebrated Christmas all by himself. In one of the wagons he had found a small folded paper with a few spoons of coffee grounds inside, and he had saved that as a Christmas present for himself. On Christmas Day the aroma of coffee boiling in a pot joined that of roasted fox, and the cabin was host to a happy and warm Christmas.
As December passed into January, Moses continued in his solitary existence. It was easy for him to believe that he was the only person in the world; a world which he shared only with foxes and coyotes, spied on by the occasional crow flying overhead. Firewood was plentiful, as all Moses had to do was snap off tree limbs to keep his fire fed. His cabin now lay totally buried in snow – except for the tunnel he had dug – and the insulation the snow offered helped to keep him and his shelves of books warm.
January turned into February, and still the snow continued to fall. But wherever the foxes had hidden their dens they still managed to come out and up to the surface, enticed by the small pieces of meat in Moses’ traps. After walking his trap line every morning and starting a pot of meat cooking, most of Moses’ day was then spent reading. There were dozens of books in the wagons, enough to keep him entertained and educated for months.
It was at the end of February that Moses suddenly felt he was hallucinating; that the winter had finally gotten to him and driven him mad. He was out walking his trap line when he glanced up and swore that he could see the figure of a man walking out of the trees along the shore of the lake. Moses blinked, then rubbed his eyes and blinked some more. But the man was still there; still walking toward him. And when the man shouted and waved, Moses knew that he wasn’t alone in the world any more. It was the twenty-eighth of February, 1845, and Moses’ winter of isolation had ended.
For many months Moses’ sister had been begging members of the Stephen’s Party to return to Truckee Lake to rescue her brother, and for months her entreaties had been refused. No one wanted to return to face the mountain winter on foot, and all had felt that Moses had probably passed on to the next world very quickly after he’d last been seen to walk off into the snowy wilderness. But finally Moses’ sister had been able to cajole, or to shame, one man into going back to save Moses if he could, or to discover Moses’ fate if he couldn’t. When that man finally got to the lake, he was surprised to find Moses very much alive and not at all in need of saving. So after catching up on news over a meal of roasted fox he helped Moses construct some new snowshoes and together they walked out of the mountains. Moses left behind a string of eleven uneaten coyotes hanging outside on the wall of his cabin, forever grateful that he wouldn’t be forced to taste that meat ever again.
A few years later another party of immigrants got stuck at that same lake when winter fell, and they didn’t do nearly as well as that seventeen year old boy. Instead of taking the initiative to save themselves they instead sat down and waited to be saved. They starved, and they ate each other, and the lake got renamed in their memory, forever becoming Donner Lake - now a lasting memory of an epic failure instead of a tribute to a helpful native called Truckee. But in that winter of 1844 – 45 a young boy not only survived there alone by his own wits but he thrived, ending his winter in the mountains with more food than he started it with. He began that winter as a seventeen year old boy, and ended it as an eighteen year old man.
It was a Rite of Passage; a test which few men of any age or experience could pass. Moses did so with determination and intelligence, a passage through the mountains and into manhood.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.