Westward Wanderlust Day 16
Rest stop somewhere near Whiskeytown, CA
July 25th, 2012
The crow of concealed rooster woke us at dawn. The rest stop we spent the night in was nothing more than a small asphalt island, marooned between the sheer walls of red and brown rock. Hwy 299 appeared to the west, drew alongside the rest stop, and then disappeared east behind the ragged rock. There was no foul to be seen in this severe landscape; the cock-a-doodle-do seemed to be coming from the morning light itself. The golden arms of the California sun stretched across the face of the mountains, warming our skin as we rolled from slumber and unfolded our shadows on the asphalt. We were on the move by 7:30 am.
Our car had become a menagerie of sorts, inhabited by small warriors we had encountered on our journey. Each discarded, dropped, or forgotten by distracted hands and distrustful pockets, we recruited them for our dashboard militia.
The roads seemed much more manageable in the daylight, and D glided along the twisted trail toward Redding.
We ran into some road construction, slowing our progress.
We crept down South 299 then branched off on Hwy 44 East, passing through small mountain settlements like Millville and Shingletown where, as D observed, “your elevation is well over 3 times your population.”
It was 73 degrees and around 9:00 am when we entered Lassen Volcanic National Park.
The moss still clung to some of the trees here, dripping from the branches like lazy green ink.
The shell of Lassen Peak loomed behind the tall Ponderosa, Sugar, and White Pines.
Though we still had tall trees and distant peaks, the landscape around us was beginning to change. The ground here was noticeably bare, absent of any sort of under brush.
The eruption of Lassen Peak in May of 1915 had left the land barren; populated by dirt, scrub brush, and boulders.
We parked at the head of the Devastated Area Interpretive Trail.
We walked down the needle-covered trail and approached the educational signage. We were startled by a man’s voice. There was no one on sight. What the hell is happening? The voice had the cadence of a game show host, or the narrator of a 1950’s propaganda film.
“The sheer force caused them to roll all the way across the valley, ash and devastation in their wake,”
the voice reported. We looked down at the educational signage. Solar-powered audio guides recited text, that was already set before us on plaques illustrated by sepia-tone photographs.
The disembodied park ranger also described, in painstaking detail, the photographs, but not the live scenery around us. It was unexpected and very bizarre. Especially once we realized it was impossible as step in front of each sign without being bombarded by the historical stylings of Ranger Claude Raines because plaque each had a motion detector that would set off the history lesson audio recording. It was incredibly bizzare.
We were compelled to try and capture it.
It was riveting.
We continued down the trail.
It was 67 degrees at 11:15. We continued through the park, encountering the first wildlife we have seen here:
As we rolled down the road that curved along the edge of the sleeping volcano, we began to see subtle evidence of the adaptive stubbornness of nature.
Tree roots clutched the brittle, rocky soil holding fast against that which would destroy them, the arch of their trunks curving together like a sleeping silhouette.
Some trees were not so lucky, their misfortune standing stark before the generation of survivors.
The sky was a deep blue and the sun bright and warm. Peter Bjorn and John crooned “I got nothin’ to worry about, I got nothin’ to worry about” as we continued south on the curvaceous road.
Elevation 7,000 feet and climbing, we continued on the road as it ascended Reading Peak. Reading Peak itself tops of at 8,701 feet, and the road at 8,512 feet.
We descended toward Lake Helen and then the edge of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
We stopped for a quick bite and stretch in the sun. I enjoyed a delicious lunch, thanks to an experience earlier this summer with a Southern Belle friend of ours. In June we had camped with friends in The Smoky Mountains and Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky and I had been impressed by the versatility and simple work of southern style grits. Our beautiful Southern Belle, Steph, had introduced us a new “just add water and spices” type of camping food that I was eager to try again. Similar to tofu, grits sort of take on the flavor of whatever you add to it. D made the grits in the JetBoil, and I flavored them with cheese tomato, onion, garlic, and pepper. Yum! D was not as excited, but corn’s not really his thing.
We continued to descend toward the edge of Lassen Park and were on our way toward Yosemite by 1:00.
Pointed west on CA Hwy 86, we headed toward Red Bluff. An oil change in Red Bluff and a stop thrift shop stop resulting in D’s accumulation of a brand new used pair of drumsticks later, we were back on the road to Yosemite; south on Hwy 5.
We caught one or two travelers with decisive opinions on life:
The landscape had been steadily changing as we proceed with our journey. Lassen Volcanic was the first area of its kind on our trip so far, the lack of green on the ground and ashy palette of brown, tan, toupe, and grey. The rocks and boulders peppered the dusty fields and piled beneath the Jeffrey Pines. As we began to migrate further south, the our surroundings became increasingly sparse and rigid.
The tall trees were no longer growing from piles of rubble, but from sand. The needles on the California foothill pines were long, but spaced apart making this breed of pine look puffy and light, like thin green bubbles clustered over the terrain. Large rocks are widely spaced across this terrible pastureland, the soil exposed and thirsty for shade. It was 93 degrees, dry, and arid.
The parched panorama was interrupted by congested cities and steadily increasing traffic. We maneuvered through the asphalt obstacle course as the sun gradually began to golden and the shapes stretched their shadows.
We sped south through Willows, Woodland, Sacramento, Stockton, and Manteca, then veered west just north of Modesto onto Hwy 120. This was the home stretch that would lead us to Yosemite.
As the sun began to go down, ground began to go up. The road began to narrow, curve, and climb. It was my shift behind the wheel, and even though I was beginning to feel like I had the night before, driving through the intimidating mountain roads out between Eureka and Redding, I continued on.
I was determined to fight this fear, and hopefully conquer it before the trip was out, so on I went. The road skirted the absolute edge of the undulating hills, each turn closer to the next. I gripped the wheel and steered along the serpentine spine of the highway.
The road continued on like this for what seemed like 100 miles. But the mischief of the mountain road is the curves; you may tread on 20 miles of twisting and turning road, but you will really only be 10 miles from where you started. That’s why the crow always gets there before you.
It was dark when we reached the vicinity of the park. We chose a road and turned. We followed until we came to a turn off to the right. Fire Lane 15564 had led us to a round patch of sand that was large enough for our car and our tent. It felt good to get out of the car and stretch our limbs. Even though it was dark, we could tell that with each step we took, clouds of fine sand billowed in our wake. The sand was like powder, so light and fine that it was like walking on packed dust. It was a beautiful night and we were anxious to camp in our tent and not in the car. Paying little mind to the dust cloud that ensued, we pitched our tent and promptly passed out. Tomorrow held what John Muir called “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” Yosemite National Park.
Westward Wanderlust Soundtrack Day 16 –
Driving through Lassen Volcanic –
Peter Bjorn & John – “Nothin’ to Worry About”
Rage Against the Machine – Renegades of Funk