Reaching out to embrace the random! Reaching out to embrace whatever may come!
9/20/18 – Ohanapecosh Campground, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington.
The fire crackles warmly to my left as I sit back on my reclining camp chair, beer at my side.
It is dark, and late- though how late I cannot say. All I know is that the rest of the campground is long asleep. The only sounds are the crackling fire, the bubbling brook. Not even a breeze stirs the hundred-thousand trees which surround us here on the southeastern slopes of Mount Rainier in the evergreen state of Washington.
Our journey here has been both long and swift.
Long with the nine-hour drive from Crater Lake in southern Oregon, where we had woken into a 30 degree morning to eat and pack before sunrise. Bundled against the frigid morn in layers and scarves and beanies, we painstakingly folded our luxurious portable mansion of a 9-person tent and shoved our many camping accoutrements into our blue Ford Escape, wondering all the while how me managed to fit all our shit in the car to begin with. We paused only momentarily to warm our freezing bodies by the small fire I had coaxed out of twigs and leftover scraps of wood from our previous three nights.
Those three days and nights at Crater Lake had been divine. After first investigating the park’s Lost Creek Campground (our pre-planned destination, tent only and $5/night) and finding it to be a wasp-ridden hellhole where campfires were banned due to low rainfall, we decided it was worth the $20/night cost to camp at Mazama Campground instead.
Disheartened by the situation at Lost Creek, I was riddled with anxiety over whether we could even find a spot at Mazama. As is often the case, however, my concerns were over nothing. The lateness of the season blessed us with no crowds and an ample selection of available sites.
We soon found the perfect spot. Huge, with plenty of space for our monstrous tent in a secluded glen at the back of the site. Trash can and water spigot nearby. It was a long walk to the restrooms, but that just turned late-night shits into an adventure through a moonlit forest.
Our first night we recuperated from the drive with books and videogames around the campfire until it became too cold to stay outside, when we crawled into our cushy sleeping bags and bundled up as much as we could against the icy night.
The next day, after a rousing breakfast of instant oatmeal and instant coffee, we drove out to the Rim of Crater Lake, stopping at the Park Headquarters and Steel Visitor Center to pick up our Junior Ranger Handbook. We were already certified Junior Rangers in Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon National Parks, and intend to do so at every park we visit on our grand adventure.
To become a Junior Ranger and earn a fancy plastic badge, a child (of ANY age- this is key) must complete a series of interpretive, educational, and artistic tasks set forth in the Junior Ranger Handbook- things like drawing your favorite part of the Park or solving puzzles about the wildlife or geology in the area. Upon completion, you must present your Handbook to a park ranger, who will go over your work, ask questions, and confirm if you are worthy of the esteemed and honorable title of Junior Ranger.
Packing our booklets away, we set out from Rim Village to the Garfield Peak Trail. Ascending over 1,000 feet, this hike leads to the summit of Garfield Peak, sitting 1800ft above Crater Lake with panoramic views of its sapphire glow and the endless evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest.
After a tough climb punctuated by Clif Bar breaks in the sparse pockets of shade on the rocky volcanic slopes, we attained the summit and were silenced by an impossibly perfect vista.
To the north shone Crater Lake, a round blue ocean painted by a golden beam of glistening sunlight. In every direction, a dozen volcanic peaks dressed in coats of pine-green forest undulated across the landscape. Across the lake stood Mt. Thielson, a tall, sharp peak known as The Lightning Rod of the Cascades. Northeast was Mt. Scott, the small square of an old firewatch tower on its summit just barely visible at 8,929 feet, the highest point in the park. To the southwest was Union Peak, looming like a giant pillar of Stonehenge among the rolling forested hills. Far to the south across a dozen layers of hills and ridges, we could just make out the hazy silhouette of Mt. Shasta, whose glaciered slopes we had passed on yesterday’s drive from our motel in the sleepy mountain town of Burney.
We sat upon Garfield Peak, eating our lunches of trail mix, Oreos, Powerades, and more Clif Bars. We worked in our Junior Ranger Handbooks, reflecting on the things we saw, heard, and felt- inscribing those feelings into the Handbook as one of our many assignments. We took photos for many other hikers who reached the peak, and we sat in awed silence at the miracle of fantastic beauty sprawled about us.
Through my binoculars I inspected the 16-story tall Phantom Ship, a thin spiky island rising from Crater Lake’s dark blue depths, whose volcanic spires and tall whitebark pines gave the impression of a tattered ghost ship sailing across the deep blue. I spied Wizard Island, a volcanic cone emerging 755 feet out of the lake, a volcano-within-a-volcano. Llao Rock towered on the caldera to the north, a sharply sloped mountain of pumice and ancient lava flow which descended in a sheer cliff to the lake’s shimmering edge. Through my binoculars I searched along the northern rim of the lake and found the steep switchbacks of the Cleetwood Cove trail, the only access to the lakeshore among the precipitous and unstable walls of the caldera which held Crater Lake in its arms. I could see also the bright orange crenelated shape of Pumice Castle jutting out from the sheer caldera wall, its battlements forged of ancient lava tubes hardened against erosion by an ancient heat.
As I scan every inch of terrain with my binos, Allena is posing her ridiculously cute Dilophosaurus Pop! Figure for photos against the majestic background of the blue, blue Crater Lake. The lake’s color is legendary- thanks to its incredible depth (over 1900 feet, deepest in the US) and its incredible purity (the lake is fed only by rain and snowmelt), it is a shade of blue so deep and heavenly that it defies the constraints of language.
To become lost in the shimmering sunlight against the windblown whitecaps of that deep blue is to gaze into the face of the Divine.
Our second day at Crater Lake is dedicated to circling the 33-mile road encircling the caldera, stopping for pictures wherever-we-damn-feel-like and then hiking to the rocky lakeshore via the Cleetwood Cove Trail.
On our way to the trailhead, we journeyed down Pinnacles Road in the southeast corner of the park. After passing the Lost Creek Campground we parked and wandered down the short Pinnacles Trail. The path followed the edge of a valley whose walls were punctuated by striking, tall pillars of fused ash and pumice, looking like nothing so much as an otherworldly metropolis, the gray spires the skycrapers of some diminutive alien race on a strange planet.
These spires have an incredible origin story.
When Mount Mazama exploded in the catastrophic eruption which would ultimately bring it down, it sent millions of tons of ash and pumice billowing down this valley, burying it beneath hundreds of feet of volcanic dust and ash. As the mountain erupted, even more hot steam was pushing its way to the surface along the mountains slopes, forming steam vents where the ash was melded together into a hardened, erosion-resistant tube. Over thousands of years, the ash atop this valley eroded away to reveal the original landscape, with the addition of hundreds of ghostly gray pillars of melted dust, who stand naked in the wind among the still-recovering forest.
The trail “ended” a quarter mile out at the park’s boundary, but the path continued further out of the park. This part of the trail wasn’t on any of our maps, and its mystery called to us. We wandered down it only a short while, however, before heading back to the car- we would save this strange trail for our next inevitable visit. We had a lakeshore to reach, so we made haste to the Cleetwood Cove trailhead, readied our packs, and descended into the caldera.
We take turns striking poses from the Little Mermaid on an isolated rock near the shore. We lunch on an outcrop watching the sunlight dance on the windblown sapphire surface of the lake. We violently and exuberantly defend our snack-filled backpacks from ravenous white-tailed chipmunks intent on filching a meal. To the right, tourists more bold than we jump off the rocks into the icy lake, whereupon hitting the water they desperately paddle to shore, whimpering and laughing.
Somehow, the 700 foot climb back to the parking lot seems shorter than the descent. We continue along Rim Drive as I hunt for internet service on my phone. You see, the original plan was to dash up to the Mt. Baker wilderness along the border of Canada ASAP. But considering the fast-approaching winter season, we had realized that this could be our only chance to visit Washington’s Mt. Rainier before the campgrounds closed and the snow moved in. The plan had changed, and I needed a quick dash of internet to determine the drive time of our new route to Rainier.
After all, what is a plan? On the road, every day is new, and every morning sees the wakening of a new you. Plans are flexible, malleable, adaptable and changeable as the wind through the forest- and our lives, if we have the courage to allow it. The point of this journey is, in a way, to become pointless- to set out upon the sea of the unknown, our sails high, riding the winds of chance wherever the random might bring us.
I caught some signal and we pulled over as I confirmed the seven and a half hour drive from Crater Lake’s Mazama Campground to the Ohanapecosh Campground of Mt. Rainier. We would wake and pack the next morning accordingly.
It was now 4:30. The visitor center closed at 5:00 so we made haste around the western rim of the lake, reminiscing as we passed spots where we had hiked last winter when the snowbanks towered 30 feet above the road. We reached the Rim Visitor Center just in time to have a ranger go over our Junior Ranger Handbooks. Ranger Foster examined our work in turn, admiring the National Parks we had designed and reading our Crater Lake poems. Here’s mine:
Rends the earth and sky
And tears the world a new one-
The plants and animals die.
Even so, the mountain shorn-
Rebirth! And Crater Lake is born.
Satisfied with our hard work, Ranger Foster presented us with gleaming gold Crater Lake Junior Ranger badges. Our hearts swelled with pride.
Now, after hours of training, we finally had the authority to yell at park visitors who litter while waving a badge in their faces. I’m pretty sure that’s what the whole Junior Ranger program is all about. A worthy goal.
I said before that our journey to Rainier has been both long and swift. It was long for all I have just told you- enough adventure and beauty in three days at Crater Lake that our aching bodies and uplifted souls could spend weeks digesting all we saw. Yet the journey was also swift, for only one week ago we we had set out upon on the road. Three nights of beach camping just north of Santa Barbara, CA. A night in a small motel in the friendly mountain town of Burney. Three days at Crater Lake.
Only seven days ago we had been moored in the suburbs between Los Angeles and the coast.
Now, we were in central Washington, deep in the heart of the fantastically green Pacific Northwest, camping in an old-growth forest on the slopes of the ancient volcano Mt. Rainier.
My Eden to the north, the Mount Baker Wilderness, could wait a few more days.
For now, the wonders of Mount Rainier await us.
The Adventure Has Begun! Stay tuned for more!
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