Christmas morning found me walking with Jasper the Wonderdog up a street called Slalom, approximately 6,500 feet above sea level in the Sierra, on the outskirts of the town of Truckee, which lies athwart Interstate 80, not far from Lake Tahoe, Calif. Jasper and I walked past some 30 houses, each of them selling for around a million dollars. All but three were vacant, their owners either preferring their third homes in Hawaii or discussing the beauties of Chapter 11 in some bankruptcy court. If the Donner party had staggered out of their graves and into those stately homes on Slalom, they probably would have found as little provender as they did on the snowbound shores of Mountain Lake in the winter of 1846-1847.

Later that day we all had Christmas lunch overlooking that same Mountain Lake, renamed Donner Lake in honor of the mostly doomed party of midwesterners who tried to survive one of the worst winters in the history of the Sierra on its eastern shore.

They got to the lake at the very end of October 1846, realized they couldn't make it over the pass, which was already covered with four feet of snow, and set up camp. As they ate their pack animals and the situation worsened, some men did manage to make it to Fort Sutter to sound the alarm. One of these returned, later to perish. In late December, another group of 15, later known as the Party of Forlorn Hope, set out for the pass on crude snow shoes. Eight men died, while two men and five women reached safety.

As Joanne Meschery writes in her vivid little book "Truckee," "These survivors could not have pushed through if they hadn't resorted to cannibalism." Clearly, the age of chivalry was alive and well that winter in the California Sierra. The weaker sex were mostly spared. Then again, maybe the women were simply better negotiators in the Survivor parleys before the bludgeon took its toll and another haunch of human was readied for the table.

The first relief party from Sutter's Fort reached the lake on Feb. 19, 1847. Little Virginia Reed, 13 years old, heard them come, crawled from a snowbound cabin, and greeted them with the words, "Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?" Of the 81 who had arrived at the lake in October, 45 survived by dint of cannibalism, of whom 32 were children.

Their travails had been observed by Paiute Indians, who'd fled into the mountains to escape the whites. Sarah Winnemucca later recalled, "All the Indian tribes had gone into the mountains to save their lives ... There was a fearful story told us children. Our mothers told us that the whites were killing everybody and eating them. These were the last white men that came along that fall ... We could have saved them, only my people were afraid of them." As I recall, there's a fine description of the Paiutes viewing the white cannibals at the start of Thomas Sanchez's novel "Rabbit Boss."

There's not too much to recommend Truckee, Calif., whose past is freighted not only with cannibalism but also the bloody eviction of the Chinese, who had come to the mountains to build the transcontinental railroad. Of the peak Chinese work force of 10,000, some 1,000 remained in Truckee once the job was done. By the 1870s, a national depression was fueling racism, and the stage was set for one of California's most terrible chapters. "The Chinks must go" was the cry in the saloons of Truckee, and a Caucasian League began to burn down Chinese dwellings. The Chinese fought back, but were finally burned out in 1880. According to Alexander Saxon, author of "The Indispensable Enemy," Truckee set the pace for anti-Chinese activities throughout the west. These activities included a law criminalizing the smoking of opium, a habit favored by the Chinese, though consumption of opium in liquid form, as practiced by the genteel classes, was not similarly penalized. Remind you of the varying penalties for powder and crack cocaine?

You either like snow or you don't, and these days, I'm of the latter persuasion, having spent too many winters of my adolescence at a fierce Scottish school where early morning runs in one's underclothes through the snow were mandatory. Our party, Jasper excepted, did make its way on Christmas Eve to Squaw Valley, Calif., south along highway 68 from Truckee. We were carried to the summit in a cable car ($58 per head for an all day ticket) filled with so many families of visibly Middle Eastern origin that I wondered whether, aside from the profuse Iranian families, some were detachments of the Al Qaeda forces that had successfully made their escape from Tora Bora and were now enjoying a spell of R&R.

Though we were suspended several hundred feet above the valley floor, sitting ducks for a terrorist attack, a spirit of interracial harmony prevailed, I'm glad to say, without so much as a downward glance at a ski boot or snow shoe to see any detonation was imminent. The entire carload of 100 or so listened cheerfully as a couple of Middle Eastern brothers on a bus excursion with their girlfriends from Reno, Nev., described their gambling misfortunes the previous night. It was one of those moments when one feels the human race, or at least that section of it roosting on these shores, has a fighting chance of vindicating one's most foolish optimistic hopes. These weren't notably rich or stylish folk, just crowds of genial holiday-makers clutching their boards or skis, having a good time and well disposed toward everyone else slithering and tumbling down the slopes, all set for another year ...

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at