October 2007 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts








Click on the 4Runner or contact us at info@explorehistoricalif.com for tour information.




Friends of Last Chance Canyon is a new organization interested in sustaining and protecting areas within the El Paso Mountains, near Ridgecrest, California. The main focus is preserving and protecting historic sites like Burro Schmidt's tunnel and the Walt Bickel Camp.

Please click on either logo to visit the FLCC site.







We support


Mules can taste the difference--so can you





It's FIRE SEASON! Click the NIFC logo above to see what's burning.





Click on the bag to find out how.





Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway.

     Click your mouse through the website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at: info@explorehistoricalif.com.

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

Haunting Travels with the Donner Party

by Cecile Page Vargo


          It’s mid October. Supplies are dwindling down, particularly after raids on the cattle by Paiute Indians only a few days before.  A man was sent ahead and has finally arrived with a mule heavy laden with food. He brings along peaceful Indian guides and good word that mountain passes should remain open for at least another month.

          “The weather was already very cold and the heavy clouds hanging over the mountains to the west were strong indications of an approaching winter. Some wanted to stop and rest their cattle. Others, in fear of the snow, were in favor of pushing ahead as fast as possible,” a fellow traveler notes in his diary, as we stop in a meadow.

The Donner Party stranded in the Sierras, 1847. Image courtesy: True Tales of the West, (Castle Books, 1985)

          With clouds darkening the skies overhead, we decide to rest a few more days amongst the grass near the river. Here, remaining cattle can graze and gain strength in preparation for the steep granite ascent ahead of us.  In the distant elevations, snows have already frosted many of the peaks. These early storms are few and far between, we are told, so I agree with the others to pause. Soon, I’m sipping from a mug of strong dark coffee prepared in a grey spackled pot over a warming campfire.

          I had been a loner pretty much until now, only a shy and quiet observer on the trail.  I didn‘t really know anyone, so figured it was time to find out. The coffee warmed the faint chill to my bones, but my stomach growled, so I reached in my personal pack for a snack before mustering the courage to ask a few names and offer my own.  There were too many to remember, but the names,  “Reed” and   “Donner” stood out like a frost bitten thumb.

          I strangled on the now bitter coffee as it melted the chocolate from the bite of store bought croissant I had been savoring in my mouth. A cold wind gust blew down the mountain pass as I recovered from the choke. The coffee pot clattered as it blew to the ground. The campfire shuddered. Only moments later the snow flurries began to fall from the sky, tickling my face. I had a strange inkling that the story that I hungered after was going to be hard earned.

          A hundred and many more years pass before my very eyes and I’m suddenly safe in my office, wiping chocolate from the next bite of croissant from my mouth. Frigid fingers struggle over the computer keyboard as I Google the names of my pioneer traveling companions. I sip from my Starbucks brew as a haunting tale soon reveals itself in plenty of time for October.

          Days later as I sit at my computer pondering pioneer tails over coffee and croissant once again, a packet arrives with copies of letters, diaries, and an author’s notes revealing the true story.

          "Monday morning, 20th Oct., Dear Sir, Yesterday the large mule became lame with his heavy pack. I got Mr. Rhodes, one of the emigrants, to examine him who said that his lameness was caused by a Sweency. I have tried hard to get another horse but could not succeed. If I find the mule will not stand the journey, I will send it back by some of the companies and cache his load."

          The party continued up the Truckee River Canyon on this day, pretty much following the course of present day Interstate 80 between Wadsworth and Reno.

.......To rescue these people Stanton had coming riding like a knight upon a quest. Having once delivered his provisions, he would have been justified, any one would think, in taking Indians and mules, and spurring for the pass. Three days would have taken him to safety in Bear Valley. Instead he took up Virginia Reed behind him on the mule, and thus they came into the broad-stretching Truckee meadows.

          Here the company reassembled, and emigrants camped in the fine grassland which reached along the river for several miles. They were really leaving the arid country behind now; on the mountains round about the meadows pine trees were growing. This was the best place to recruit cattle before attempting the passage of the mountains, and so the emigrants faced another dilemma. It had come to October 20. The weather was cloudy and threatening, and some snow had fallen on the higher mountains around them. Prudence bade them press on with all haste. But prudence also bade them stay, and let the oxen rest and build up their strength. To attempt the passage of the mountains with worn-out teams was only to invite catastrophe. Above Truckee Lake, as Stanton could tell them, the trail went right up over broken domes of granite."

          Stanton's party had met snow crossing the summit around October 7th. However, he had also been told at Sutter's Fort that the pass would not be snowed in until the middle of November. Even if there was early snow, it would melt between storms, or so they thought, thus the ill fated party took Stanton's advice. The cattle were put out to feast on the rich grass of Truckee Meadows...


George R. Stewart   

Ordeal By Hunger




          We’ll leave the Donner party in Truckee Meadows for now. Perhaps we’ll run across them again in another issue of Explore Historic California.

Mojave Expedition Scrapbook

October 6, 2007

Photos by Roger Vargo

The rest of the group watches as Mitch (top) and John (below head their 4Runners down the Zuna grade.

Steve and his passengers haul their Rover down the Zuna as well.


Marty uses his Tacoma's lockers to climb back up the Zuna.

Bickel Camp caretaker, Jose,  displays some artifacts.

Below, coyote melons ripen among the rusting pipes at Bickel Camp.

After lunch, Bill and Marty try a hill climb in the soft stuff near Burro Schmidt's Tunnel (top), but only Bill makes it to the top.


Thieves have recently stolen sections of track from Burro Schmidt's Tunnel.
Mitch's 4Runner (top), Steve's Land Rover and Marty's Tacoma navigate through Goler Narrows at the end of the day.
explorehistoricalif.com Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved.                           Powered by ebray.net