The Donner pass through the Sierra Nevada mountain range is not for the weak. It’s also apparently not for the strong, as even the indefatigable Jeep four-liter engine couldn’t save this Cherokee from being consumed by old-man winter.
The Donner pass got its name from two brothers who led an ill-fated group of emigrants from Springfield, Illinois to California in the mid 19th century. I say “ill-fated,” because that naive group may or may not have resorted to cannibalism after getting trapped by deep snow.
Well now, 150 years later, history has repeated itself, except instead of optimistic, hopeful human travelers, it was a group of autonomous Jeep Cherokees headed west from Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago, desperate for a life free from crippling underbody rust. These determined Jeeps must have broken free from the shackles of their owners to live happily in the land of the solid rocker panels—California.
But like the Donner party, this group of sentient Cherokees was trapped by over 20 feet of snow. Idle air control and crankshaft position sensors started failing left and right. Water pumps, ignition coils, fuel pumps and engine mount bolts gave up the ghost. But there were no parts stores in sight.
That’s when the Jeeps turned on one another, with the strong XJs yanking all the useable parts from the weak. By the end of the Jeep cannibalism, all XJs with the GM 2.8-liter V6, AMC 2.5-liter four-banger, and Peugeot BA-10 transmission were no more, leaving only the well-maintained four-liter XJs to continue on to the promised land.
This Jeep here must have been one of the weaklings whose owner skipped one too many oil changes:
OK, so that’s all made up. But I did call the California Highway Patrol in Truckee, and they told me this Jeep—sitting by the Serene Lakes neighborhood near Donner Summit—has over 20 feet of snow on top of it.
The representative from CHP-Truckee told me the owner must have left the boxy Jeep on the shoulder, after which a plow shoveled snow on top. Then, a big snowblower came through to cut the giant snowbanks, and crashed right into the Jeep, eating its rear bumper and fiberglass hatch.
Based on all the snow, the representative told me, that Jeep has probably been there most of the winter, and will remain there for quite some time, as there’s no rush to move it since the Jeep isn’t blocking the road.
The exact reason why that XJ was left on the shoulder in the first place is unknown, the CHP rep admitted, which means there is a tiny, tiny chance that an autonomous XJ “Donner Party” fleet from rust-stricken states tried making it to salvation.
Or maybe I’ve inhaled a bit too much penetrating oil, and it was just a standard breakdown. Either way.