Lassen Volcanic

Dancin’, won’t let’cha slip
We’re dancin’, let the lava rip
We’re dancin’, on the lip of a volcano – New York Dolls

No roads directly cross the Santa Lucia Range, from Pinnacles National Park to Big Sur, which sits on the Pacific Ocean, directly west. I can loop around south through King City, or north through Hollister. Either way you hit a stretch of Highway 101, before the ocean hugging Highway 1. I choose the northern loop so I can slide down the coast through Monterey and Carmel By The Sea. Check up on Clint Eastwood. See if he’s still talking to empty chairs.

Driving along the ocean from Monterey to Big Sur, is like driving through one continuous Chevy commercial from the 1960’s. ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet’! Windswept trees lean away from the water, permanently stooped eastward. Gulls silently drift on cliffside updrafts, never beating a wing. Large boulders, monoliths left behind by a shifting continent, rest in deep water, beaten smooth by whitecaps. Wildflowers play on precipice clinging grass. Shoulders of folded mountains slope gently to the sea. It’s a robin’s egg day. I roll down the window and start singing show tunes from ‘South Pacific.’ Giorgio Tozzi or Ezio Pinza I am not.

Some enchanted evening, someone may be laughing,
You may hear her laughing across a crowded room,
And night after night, as strange as it seems,
The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams.

Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger…

After several hours of roaming seaside trails along the coast and sitting in the sun, I head northeast, skirting San Jose and San Francisco. Picking up Highway 99 to Lodi, where I was afraid of being stuck, I arrive in Elk Grove, California, home of the Smith Family. Emmett, Frannie and their two sons, Alex and Bobo. For the last four years, Alex played baseball at Capital University in Ohio, with my son Preston. Each year in February, when the team ducked south for spring, we would travel to Florida to watch Preston play for ten days in the warm sun. During those trips I got to know Emmett and Frannie. I was told that if I ever passed through their neck of the California woods and didn’t stop, there would be hell to pay. Far be it from me to go against orders.

Nestled between the Sierras and the ocean, Elk Grove cuts a small green path into California’s central valley. The Smith’s live in a beautiful low slung ranch home, on a beautiful tree-lined street. When I turned into the neighborhood, it felt like I was entering an episode of ‘Leave It To Beaver’. Contemporarily idyllic. Small manicured lawns, with trimmed trees and bushes. People waved back as they walked their dog. It reminded me a bit of home.

When I was introduced to Bobo, their youngest son, I immediately thought of Oliver. Bobo’s mannerisms, voice and the easy way he carried himself. Later in the evening, when he was trying to convince his parents that he didn’t need to go to school the following day, I sat back and laughed. It was a page right out of Oliver’s playbook, delivered in the same graceful, unflinching style. Apparently this tactic had been used before, because the response from both mom and dad was a rather quick ‘no’. To his credit, Bobo shrugged off their reply and walked down the hallway to his bedroom. But not before telling his parents ‘I love you’. Both boys told their parents they loved them before going to bed. I wanted to cry. God I miss my boys saying ‘I love you dad’, before walking down that long hallway to bed.

Most of the next two days were spent laughing, eating (Frannie magically makes meals appear!) and storytelling. Being baseball families, television was glued to the MLB Network and all of us lent our commentary to any game or play we felt had be explained. I stayed two nights with the Smith’s and it is difficult to imagine a family making someone feel more at home. Thank you Emmett, Frannie, Alex and Bobo, for making me feel like part of your family. That’s not an easy thing to do in a short time frame. You did it with warmth, humor and generosity. I love you guys.

LV smiths
Alex and Bobo. Two very fine young men.

As Sacramento and the suburbs fade to the south, grey buildings and factory outlets give way to wide open fields. Like most of the central valley this time of year, the caramel colored soil lays perfectly turned. Hunched workers dot the fields. At a distance, insect-like tractors, wings spread, move effortlessly down row after row, leaving a wake of chemicals and brown dust. Yuba and Chico City momentarily interrupt the flat landscape, before Highway 32 juts north, swallowed by Lassen National Forest. Giant Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine soar above Grey and Lodgepole pine. A vertical sea of needled green.

On May 22, 1915, Lassen Peak, one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes, erupted. A wall of mud, ash and melted snow rushed down the mountain. Lava exploded from the crater. Later, gasses and ashes shot out of the volcano, devastating miles of terrain. Volcanic steam rose 30,000 feet into the air. Nature’s most brutal forces were on clear display. Since 1921, Lassen Peak has been quiet, but is still considered active. Today, Lassen Volcanic National Park is testament to the destruction of volcanism. Disfigured mountains and ravaged land. Mint colored cauldrons, bubbling mud and rivers of steam. But the landscape of nature’s carnage, dovetails into forests, high meadows and lakes seemingly untouched. This is a park of stark contrast and contradiction. A park where nature’s fury and delicate beauty are on full display.

Entering from the south, Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway winds 30 miles north, then east, before exiting near Manzanita Lake. Along the way, evidence of a violent history is visible at every turn. Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area in the park, is a 3 mile hike traversing Bumpass Mountain, before providing views of ancient Mt. Tehama. Tehama’s rim, born of countless layers of oozing lava from inner Earth over 600,000 years ago, reached 11,000 feet before eruptions hollowed her walls into a bowl shaped caldera. Sulphurous vapors hang in the air as a wooden boardwalk leads you between roiling mud pots and Dante inspired fumaroles. Small golden flakes float in steamy pools. Fool’s goal, carried along in the feverish streams.

Climbing toward Reading Peak, the road turns back on itself several times, before reaching Summit Lake at 7,000 feet. Surrounded by a skirt of black-flecked white snow, clear water melds into royal blue before reaching the opposite shore, greeted by stately firs. Hat Mountain, rounded and tree covered, stands alone. Further east, the ground is littered with fallen trees, snapped like a kid’s balsom airplane and frightfully scattered downhill in 1915. Marked on maps as ‘Devastated Area’, they lay silent, amid young trees and hearty grasses.

A few miles east of the park’s western boundary, rocks and boulders gather in fields. Over 300 years ago, a volcanic dome collapsed, sending millions of tons of rocks on a two mile horizontal lightspeed wave of terror. As you walk among the fields, it is difficult to comprehend the force required to move boulders of this size. It is impossible to imagine the rubble in Chaos Crags and Chaos Jumbles, speeding over the ground with frightening force before coming to rest in a small creek bed, damming its waters, forming Manzanita Lake. All of this is beyond imagination, even though the evidence is under my feet.

The aptly named Chaos Crags.

Lassen Peak, snow covered and perfectly formed, looks down on its reflection above the eastern shore of Lake Manzanita. The 1.8 mile loop around the lake leads you through great forests on a root stumbling path. Clearings along the way let you approach the water’s edge. It is clear and cold, rocks visible on the bottom several feet below. Near the middle of the lake, the water is dark, almost navy blue. Rainbow, brook and brown trout swim lidlessly lensed near the tangled, knooked shore. Above, the sky competes with the blue of the lake. Preening to see who wins the affection of the prodigious Lassen.

The clear water of Manzanita Lake, with Lassen Peak in the background.

If you look at a map of the park, in the lower right you will see a small road leading into Warner Valley. A ranger tells me this rarely visited part of the park is home to a few of the most uniques hydrothermal features. Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyer. But to get to this part of the park, you have to exit the park and circle 100 miles through the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness, the small town of Chester and then tempt several miles of bad logging road before reaching the trailhead. I’m in.

Looping around the park took much longer than anticipated, so I arrived in the town of Chester in the dark. The road leading to the park pulls you through the small town streets before dropping you onto a road so poorly maintained and isolated, I had to pull over several times to consult my map. Dipping and winding its way into deep woods, my headlights cut a slim path in the darkness. After several miles without a signpost, I pull into a small clearing. When I turn off my lights, everything disappears. The woods, the ground, my hand. I am in total darkness until my eyes begin to adjust to the night. Finally, stars hang from the limbs of majestic firs. The cradled moon sits above, a bright Christmas ornament decorating the top of the trees. These are the last images before I close my eyes and sleep.

Sometimes it’s okay to simply be lucky. As bright sun greeted me at 6:30 in the morning, I looked around and realized that I had parked only about 100 yards past the small lot of Boiling Springs Lake trailhead. I was also within strides of a section the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs north-south through the eastern section of the park. Since the trails run parallel between Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser, my plan was to hike the 3.8 miles out on the PCT and back on the National Park trail.

Immediately the PCT crosses a vast meadow of bright green grasses and wild hostas, colors stunning in the morning sun. To the west, in the distance, Drakesbad Guest Ranch bustles with springtime movement. Passing into a forest of incense cedar, sugar pine and Douglas fir, there is no hint of the mint colored lake ahead. You smell it before it fully comes into view. As you walk the shore of this otherworldly body of water, it takes a moment to gain perspective. It’s early and steam lifts from the surface, prehistoric and ghostly. Mud bubbles from vents in the earth, heated by a body of molten rock beneath Lassen Peak. In places the water is yellowish brown. In others a sickly green. The acidic water is blurred, still and opaque. Near the shore, my feet rupture shallow crusts, mimicking the sound of broken ice. I slowly make my way around the lake, at each turn waiting for a creature to emerge from the lake and pull me under.

Boiling Springs Lake. Perfect setting for the next Jordan Peele movie.

Beyond the lake, the trail slowly begins to rise through a meadow along a broad ridgeline, before steeply descending back into the forest. You emerge near a pair of odd colored streams, with deep green banks of grass and wildflowers. The path then disappears into a jumble of rocks and boulders. A red sign says to proceed with caution, but it is unclear where to safely proceed. Steam billows from a large fumerole. I reach down and touch one of the larger rocks away from the steam. It’s warm but not hot. I wait for a geyser that doesn’t come. I turned around and hiked back to the mint colored lake.

I don’t care what name they’ve given it. This is not a geyser. It’s similar to a broken pipe on 47th Street.

It’s early afternoon and I’m looping underneath the park to re-enter from the south. Mill Creek Falls is a 4 mile out and back hike that begins directly behind the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor center. Dropping down into a series of meadows, the well worn path leads through a blaze of yellow. Mountain Mule Ear covers the craggy slopes, each centered on an olive green stem, crisp in the afternoon sun. Ponderosa pine stand in single file, like candlesticks on a cake. Bleeding hearts droop scarlet. As the trails rises through a series of switchbacks, a faint roar drifts in on the wind. A small break in the trees opens to a perfect view of the falls rushing out of the mountains. The sound is powerful.

I continue climbing the trail and reach a footbridge crossing one of the streams feeding the falls. Below the bridge, an inviting outcrop of rocks makes a great resting place. I sit and drink some water. I’m tired. With the exception of the few glorious days spent with the Smith’s in Elk Grove, I have been hiking, driving, writing, eating and sleeping for months. No breaks. No days off. I put my backpack beneath my head and leaned back, the sound of the water lulling me to sleep, Eric Burton ambling through my head.

I was once out strolling one very hot summer’s day
When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest
In a big field of tall grass
I laid there in the sun and felt it caressing my face
As I fell asleep and dreamed

I proposed building a small one room apartment on the rocks across from the falls and was soundly rejected.
Taken from the footbridge directly above my bed.
Fields and fields of lime green in the sun.
PCT. I slept about 50 yards from this sign.
Sunset in Lassen Volcanic NP. Someone left a light on.
Snow and clouds on Summit Lake.
Water about to enter the falls.
Just in case you get lost.


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