So I Met this Guy. He had wood.
I made record time. I made it to my campsite, parked, peed, and had my tent set up before 11:30 AM. At this point, I jumped back in my car and drove the short distance to the boat ramp to plop Prudence (my kayak) into Butte Lake. Where I parked my car (Meep), I made mental note of the trailhead for Cinder Cone, the hike the old crony at the café in Cottonwood had all but insisted I make. This was still only under advisement.
The lake was smaller than I anticipated and was surrounded on one side by lava fields; hill after hill after hill of jagged, porous, black rock. It was interesting, though not pretty. The other side of the lake was bordered by a steep hillside covered in pine trees, which was far more aesthetically pleasing. I circumnavigated the lake, drank two beers and sunbathed in two different places along the shore by 2:20 PM. I found a quiet cove and drifted for a bit, trying to see how still the water would become. I dared not even fart so as not to cause a ripple in the glassy lake. I was trying to see if there was any evidence of piscis piscis (fish). As the water became still and was undisturbed for a while, and as the afternoon grew into late afternoon, every now and then, I noticed a fish rise to the surface, breach the surface in quest for an invisible (to me) bug. There were fish. I’d had my doubts. The water was clear, but I’d seen no sign of life in my (brief) journey around the lake.
I paddled to a shady beach with calm water, got out my new fly-fishing rod and attached the reel my great friend (former boyfriend) sent me from Alaska, as a gift. I fastened a super cheap fly from the collection my son had left behind from his Boy Scouting days. I had flies I’d bought, but for practice, I decided to go with the cheap, free, disposable, variety. This may explain why I caught no fish, but, more likely, I just need more practice. I’ve caught trout, in a stream, in Alaska, along the Dalton Highway. I know I possess some very basic skills, or, perhaps, that particular fish won the equivalent of the Darwin Award, for a fish. Practice is what it takes, and, truthfully, that’s all I was there for; practice. I was not prepared to catch, cook and eat a fish. I had only a JetBoil backpacking stove with me. Catch and release was the plan, if I managed to find another really stupid fish. I lost three flies, but was beginning to remember the back cast and forward cast, I was beginning to make nice loops, and, most importantly, I was having fun. As the sun dipped behind the edge of the black lava rock mounds, I paddled back to the shore near the boat ramp and pulled the kayak up on the beach.
I was pulling out my stuff; empty beer bottles, tangles of fishing line, rods, poles, paddles, the requisite life vest I had stuffed beyond my reach in the bowels of my kayak, my cool, camo, soft-sided tackle bag, my little cooler, and even the fly-fishing book that had accompanied the reel, as a gift, a delightful read, and a handy reference. A man about my vintage sauntered past, an excited Australian Shepherd at his side. Dude with a dog. He stated regretfully, “I wish I’d brought my kayak.” As I struggled with emptying many of my earthly possessions from mine and considered the walk back to the car and having to hoist the awkward thing atop my car with arms limp as overcooked spaghetti after paddling, then casting, then paddling, I made some off-handed remark like, “yah, it’s almost worth all the effort.” I realized I probably sounded like a typical, surly, pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman, so I added something about how nice it was out there and how pretty the lake was.
We continued a brief exchange about kayaks and his dog and he continued down the beach. I drug Prudence up the hill towards the “ramp” and walked on to retrieve Meep, carrying the impressive pile of gear I’d managed to cram behind the kayak seat and between my feet. I hoisted the kayak atop the car, strapped it in place, and drove the short distance back to my campsite where I prepared to reheat my dinner.
I am a car camper turned backpacker who is, again, on occasion, car camping. I don’t have “car camping” gear anymore, I successfully lost it in the division of assets, thank God. The only thing I brought with me that might suggest “car camping” was the full-size pillow I snagged from my bed as a last moment splurge and the comfy camp chair that lives, permanently, in the trunk of my car. I cook, still, with a JetBoil, sleep in a tent barely large enough for me and my daypack, weighing a hefty (if you’re a backpacker) six pounds, complete with rainfly and footprint (ground cloth). I use a ¾ length, ultra-light ThermaRest “air mattress” and my very lightweight and super pretty lavender and gray down sleeping bag weighing several ounces less than a pound. Everything I bring is stuffed in compression sacks and takes up less room on the floor of my car than the empty, drive-thru espresso coffee cups that have accumulated the past couple of weeks.
I marvel at the shit show at all of the other surrounding campsites. The people behind me have a good sized trailer, but have assembled something resembling the Kennedy Family Compound around it. There are a myriad of tarps draped over rope, suspended between trees. Behind the tarps, a “camp shower” that is larger than some shower stalls I’ve had in homes I’ve owned, I deemed this “the baths”. There was a dining tent that I began to refer to as “the pavilion”. Within the pavilion was a full on glass top patio table, with rocking, bouncy, metal chairs, complete with cushions, a full on gas grill, and a bunch of other really big stuff. There was also a full size tent erected across from the trailer I began to call the “guest house”. A bossy man lorded over this kingdom and was constantly harping after his mate, or slave, I couldn’t really tell. Her name, I came to hear far too often, was Cathy. “Cathy!” Five minutes later, “Cathy!” Five minutes later, “Cathy!” I’m thinking, “Run, Cathy, run, Cathy, run!!!”
Across the dirt road from my site was a tidy trailer, a neat looking 4-door Jeep, a couple of chairs standing at attention by the fire ring, and an enviable pile of firewood. And, I noticed, not the firewood you buy from the market thirty minutes away, you know, that dry, split, pitchy, lightweight pine that has zero BTUs and incinerates from wood to ash in about thirty seconds. This is like heavy, but seasoned, nicely cut, dense, rounds. Oak, I’d imagine. Not that I’m lusting after anyone’s wood, that “wood” be wrong. I’ve seen no people associated with this campsite in my comings and goings, so I figured they’re inside the trailer watching television or partaking of the many possible activities away from the campsite.
I was busying myself reheating my homemade, spicy, Sloppy Joe filling in my JetBoil atop the bear box. I’m excited to know that, as the warnings read, “Bears frequent the area”. I love bears. I’m pretty sure bears are my spirit animal. I may have been a bear, or will be a bear, in another life. As my favorite foods consist of fish and berries, though I will eat absolutely anything, it seems more than coincidental. I have my bear barrel with me, just in case I’d found the bear box inadequate. I can place my food in there, fasten the lid, and no bear in the world can open it. I can barely (bearly, haha) open it. But, this campsite is equipped with a large, metal bear “box” that, if a bear did invade my camp, given a head start, I could run from my tent and hide my whole self AND all my food within and live quite comfortably for a period of time. It is practically as large as some houses I’ve owned (I am exaggerating, you realize).
I enjoyed my dinner and as I began to do my dishes and store my “smellables” away in the bear box for the evening, a man, with a dog, sauntered past. It was the dude with the dog. From the lake. Moments later, they sauntered back and entered the campsite across the way, the one with the tidy trailer, the neat Jeep and the enviable pile of firewood. I pretended not to notice. I’m a woman of honor and integrity, I have a guy I’m super happy with and don’t want to give anyone the incorrect impression. I’m only camping alone because my guy’s kids are visiting from across the country, for a month, and, as it has been explained to me, as his divorce isn’t final and the kids are young, I’m a persona non grata. I don’t exist. I’ll admit, it feels like I’ve been exiled, or disowned, and I really hate Facebook right now, but things will be back to normal soon. I think. Besides, this was now my weekend for adventure and activity that I don’t think anyone I know could endure. I like my insane adventures and I really wouldn’t ever dare to impose them on anyone I wasn’t sure was 200% willing and 300% able to keep up. So, I while I noticed the dude with a dog, and his wood, I didn’t really.
My birthday is tomorrow, Friday. I’d wanted a birthday cookie, in lieu of a cake, but didn’t manage to acquire one before leaving my hometown. I attempted to find a cookie en route to Lassen Volcanic National Park, but failed, miserably, and had to make do with a bear claw. It was that or toxic looking, glowing, neon donuts. The bear claw I bought was placed in a small brown paper sack upon purchase. I bought it about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, from my final destination. About ten minutes from the “bakery” I bought it at, I glanced at the brown paper bag on my car seat. It was saturated with grease. I quickly moved it and placed it on top of my daypack so as not to stain my car upholstery. The daypack is, at least, washable. I was more than a little disgusted. I’d stolen some birthday candles from my mom’s collection. She is a child of the depression and part Scottish. Need I say more? These candles have been used, probably, for all 51 of my previous birthdays, and for several other family members and friends, too. I’d put them in an envelope so they would get crushed, then in a Ziploc, then in my ice chest, so they wouldn’t melt on the long drive. I intend to return them to their rightful location before they are missed. I’m pretty sure they are inventoried in some manner.
I thought I’d probably better try a dry run with the candles and the bear claw before the actual birthday festivities to follow tomorrow. I pulled the greasy bag, which I’d placed in a quart sized Ziploc and put in the cooler in an effort to stop the grease from oozing out and to, hopefully, keep the “pastry” from getting to mangled, before the big day, the candles, and the required selfie to follow. The bear claw was alarmingly weighty. I managed to dislodge it from the now slimy Ziploc and to extract it from the brown paper bag that is, now, so greasy, it looks like it has been dunked in the lake! I forcefully crammed the candles into the soggy, yet surprisingly dense pastry and set them alight with a match. It looked awful. I snapped a picture, without my selfie in the frame. I extinguished the candles, quickly, and placed them back in the envelope, the Ziploc, and the cooler. I took a nibble of a corner of the bear claw and am repulsed beyond being able to swallow. It tasted like donuts, really bad, really greasy, really stale, really dense, overly sweet, and perhaps even, slightly underbaked donut. I shoved the whole affair back into the various bags and vowed to look for a more suitable sweet to support my birthday candles for the main event the following evening.
By this time, it is a bit beyond dusk and I’m a few beers and maybe a glass or two of red wine into my solo celebration. I’m sitting sideways in my camp chair, my back resting against one arm, my legs draped over the other. My Shake-Shack squishable wine glass is nestled in the not quite level cup holder in the armchair closest to my face. I am writing. Actually writing. I did not bring with me a laptop, a tablet, or anything. My phone has no signal, is blissfully turned off, and is safely ensconced in the tent, to be an alarm clock in the morning. I have pen to paper and I am writing the first chapter of this series of articles. I notice my writing is getting progressively sloppier, but that’s okay. I’ll be able to transcribe it when I get home, I am confident. I get to the bit about spending my birthday alone and I find myself almost tearing up. A late night packing gear, and early morning, a long drive, no sex for a few days, sun, paddling, a big, yummy sloppy joe for dinner, a lousy pastry, a few beers and a couple glasses of wine may have that affect. Not sure. I’m guessing. I’m torn between just letting it flow and calling it a night, or being stoic and staying put.
Dude and the dog appear in my campsite. Dude took a seat on the picnic bench, dog wandered over for me to greet. We had a cordial exchange and I was invited to sit by his crackling, welcoming, warm, friendly campfire. I accepted. I took a seat in one of the super tidy camp chairs, near the perfectly stacked firewood. We chatted for, probably, a couple of hours. He was interesting, I like to think I’m fairly interesting, and we had a lot of stories to share. It was all perfectly innocent. Perfectly. I mean, yes, he was attractive, but I, honestly, was the furthest thing from my usually, at least well-groomed, if not somewhat attractive self. I had not showered in a couple of days, I had no makeup on, I was wearing about the least flattering, grungiest clothes I could find, I’d been driving and setting up tents, and paddling, and fishing. I mean, maybe he mistook me for a man, for all I know. I’m so not in the market, besides. The conversation was delightful and as I made my way back to my campsite and he and the dog back to his trailer, he said he’d be leaving the next day. I told him of my plans to get up before sunrise and make my way the hour or so to the Lassen Peak trailhead. He promised me, as he’d not be using the remainder of his enviable woodpile, that he’d bring it over and stack it by my fire ring for my birthday campfire, before he departed. Sweet!
I awoke at 5:00 AM, as planned, but decided to wait until 6:00 AM when I could “officially” make noise, according to campground law. I needed to open the bear box to make coffee, which was most definitely required this morning. My bear box was a bit cattywampus, like maybe a bear had once attacked it with all its might. The doors were terribly misaligned which caused me to have to kind of brace my body up against one door, my foot against the other, and wrestle the latch open, which made a horrific metal on metal, grinding sound, followed by a horrendous banging sound, followed by a squeaking sound that echoed through the entire campground. When the magical hour of noise making privilege arrived, I emerged from my tiny tent, dressed for my adventure, daypack packed and all ready to go. I wrangled the bear box open, made coffee, ate breakfast, cleaned up, and made my way toward my car, ready to set off for my birthday adventure; summiting Mt. Lassen.
Dog appeared. Followed by dude. Dude remarked at how true to my word I was about getting up early and beginning my adventure. He’d vacationed many times here in his youth and said he’d climbed Lassen on several occasions. Since then, though, the Park Service has engineered a “kinder, gentler” trail up to the summit, so I’m certain his youthful experience was going to be a far cry from my contemporary experience. I was excited for my lesser adventure, nonetheless. I bid the dude, and the dog, adieu. There was no mention of the firewood, and I really didn’t want to seem greedy and remind him. If it was there when I returned, great, otherwise, I’d make do.
I set off for the trailhead. It was a little over an hour drive to the other side of the park, into the park, and to the trailhead. I arrived at precisely 8:00 AM, according to my revised plan. The parking lot, to my dismay, resembled a daycare parking lot at drop off time. Families, kids, toddlers, infants, grandparents, minivans, crying, screaming, wailing, frustrated parental voices. I put on my hiking boots, taking my time, hoping the throng would make their way up the trail and leave me in peace.
My parents took me to marvelous wonders of the world when I was tiny; Yosemite when I was two years old, the Redwoods not long after, the Sierras to the snow, once, camping at the beach once, the top of Pikes Peak, the San Diego Zoo, and Tijuana (okay, perhaps not a world marvel, but I got a poncho and a puppet), all by the time I was, like, four years old. It was like they felt obligated to fulfill these parental duties and just got the shit done as soon as possible. Of course, I remember none of it, except for the poncho and the puppet, and have spent much of my adult life retracing some of those paths and absorbing the experiences I’m sure I didn’t appreciate as a toddler, excluding Tijuana. I looked around at the multitude of young parents and tiny kids and shook my head. Unless the parents were truly doing this for their own joy, they were wasting their time and lessening the joy of the other hikers, myself included, for all the din and chaos that results from travelling with infants, toddlers, grandparents, and the occasional surly pre-adolescent or teen, all in a minivan. Ah, but I wasn’t going to actually let anyone interfere with my good time!
There was a lull in the throng of families ascending the trail from the parking lot about a half an hour after I arrived at the trailhead. I struck out. Two and a half miles and about 2,500 feet of elevation gain to the summit. The literature said to allow five hours for the round trip. An hour from the parking lot, after passing no less than two dozen people of all ages, shapes, and sizes, and, in fact, everyone in front of me (not a single soul passed me up), I reached the very tippy top of the mountain. Not the “false summit” where, thankfully, most of the overburdened families stopped, the big round flat area with all the informative signs, no, I bouldered my way up through the scree field to where only the hardiest of souls went. Up to where the “drink coaster” was, the U.S.G.S. summit marker, the very highest point of the mountain. The hardy souls who shared the sketchy footing and dizzying heights with me? All German. As in, from Germany. As in, spoke only German and only a smidgen of awkward, broken, English.
I performed my summit ritual, I cracked a beer, at 9:30 AM, took some pictures, ate some cheese and crackers, caught up on text messages, Instagram, Snapchats, and Facebook messages, there were lots, it’s my birthday, and I seemed to have a very healthy signal atop the 10,457 foot peak in the middle of the “wilderness”. As altitude and alcohol don’t mix well, though I’ve been practicing, I sat for a while before attempting the steep scree scattered descent back to the perfectly engineered, perfectly groomed, precisely pitched, trail with its carefully positioned switchbacks and Disney like landscaping. Today’s venture, while lovely, makes not one a mountaineer. As I made my way down the trail, hordes of people made their way up. Some looked like they had just risen from their armchairs, muted the TV, and trudged up the mountain.
After arriving back at the parking lot, I mulled over what I should do with the rest of my day. I looked at the glossy brochure map I picked up at the “serve yourself” park entrance/fee station. Dude with a dog said that “Bumpass Hell” was worthwhile, as was Cinder Cone, in agreement with Donut Guy of Cottonwood from yesterday. Cinder Cone was another four mile hike with a steep 864 foot ascent. I decided to save it for tomorrow. So, as Bumpass Hell was just up the road, I made my way there.
Another three mile hike, not hard, just hot in the midday sun, and very crowded. I got the very last parking spot in the lot. It was worthwhile, I’m glad I went, but, curiosity equals satisfied, no need to return to that particular spot. I likely won’t want to eat hard boiled eggs for quite some time, which is unfortunate, because that’s what I’ve packed for breakfast!
I decided to make my way back towards camp. I planned to stop at Manzanita Lake and the store there to see if there might be a cookie worthy of my antique candles and my planned celebration. Oh, and beer, I seemed to be out and a cool, local beer, or two, or three, would be a fun way to solo party tonight. Plus, there were showers and lord knows, I needed a shower yesterday, I most certainly would be doing the world a favor by showering today! An added benefit, I wanted to check out Manzanita Lake itself, it was supposed to be a great place to paddle. I was beginning to hatch a plan for tomorrow, before heading home.
I scored on so many levels! Not one, but two cookies! I couldn’t decide between an enormous snickerdoodle and an enormous peanut butter cookie. I bought both, with a plan to cut them in half, make a “peanutdoodle” cookie, and take the leftovers home to my sweetie. I found a couple of cool, local IPAs, and the shower was heaven. The lake, better than heaven. I drove the hour back towards camp. There was a cute, touristy store in Old Station, the last bit of civilization before the six miles of dirt road leading to my campground. I was fretting a little about the firewood. What if dude with a dog forgot about leaving the firewood for me? I decided to stop and buy a bundle, just to be sure, as I knew if I made my way the whole six miles down the dirt road to find no enviable pile of perfectly stacked, oak, rounds, I wouldn’t make my way back to Old Station to buy cheap, split, pitchy, pine. I parked by the woodpile in front of the Old Station store and went inside. There was an impressive display of fishing gear, junk food, sodas, and a couple of local beers in large format. I snagged another IPA, paid for it and a bundle of wood, and headed for camp.
I made my way to my campsite and was delighted to find that dude, and the dog, had indeed, very neatly made an enviable pile of perfectly stacked, oak, rounds by my campfire ring. I unloaded the cheap, split, pitchy, fast burning pine next to it. I laid a nice fire for later, using the nasty, greasy, bear claw in the greasy saturated paper bag as starter, placing the fast burning pine atop. As evening set in, I set it all ablaze.
Once the fire got going, I added, piece by piece, the lovely, dense, oak rounds. I had my dinner and prepared my “snickerbutter” cookie with the ancient birthday candles.
I read my book, enjoyed my fire, wrote a little bit, pen to paper, and people watched as the campground filled up on this mid-summer, Friday night. It was, all in all, a perfectly executed birthday, thanks in part, to dude and his dog, and his wood.