So I Met This Guy, Oh La La! Mais oui!
Friday night at Butte Lake Campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
It was reasonably quiet here on Thursday night. Only a fraction of the campsites were occupied, and other than the lord of the Kennedy-like compound behind me, Cathy’s man, it was very peaceful. Friday night, as I enjoyed my birthday dinner, built my raging campfire, drank my IPAs and red wine, and blew out the candles on my snickerbutter cookie, car after car arrived. There are 106 campsites in this campground. If you figure every campsite probably has an average of three to four people, that’s a pretty crazy party in the woods!
I watched cars, trucks, minivans, trailers, RVs and everything imaginable drive up the dirt road and into the campground. As it grew darker, you could tell folks were having a hard time finding their reserved sites. Thursday night, I had only the loud guy behind me, and the dude and his dog across from me. I had the “biffy”(bathroom in (the) forest for you – biffy) next to me on one side, a vacant site on my other side. It was all fine. A group of really loud, female, school teachers took up residence across the way, where Mr. “Wood” had been. The got louder and louder with the more Chardonnay and Grand Marnier they drank. Mr. Loud and his browbeaten Cathy had a couple of plump, drunk, loud, middle-aged women, with roaring, smoker, lumberjack laughs, join their ranks. And, then, a white Chrysler minivan pulled up in the spot immediately adjacent to me. I tried not to act disappointed. I am, after all, a little more used to backpacking, where it is very remote, very quiet, and very serene. This is like camping at Grand Central Station. At rush hour.
All of the doors of the minivan opened at once; the hatch in back, the sliding door on the side, the passenger door, and the driver’s door. I was terrified at what may emerge, possibly one of the families I’d encountered at the “day care parking lot” earlier in the morning. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it. But, no. From the van emerged a very tall, dark, slender man, his equally slight, very petite, wife (I assume), and three boys, probably ranging from nine to fifteen years in age. They were quiet and seemed quite mannerly, especially compared to the rest of the campground. They began to speak, but not in English. I recognized words, I could interpret phrases. They were French! Bien!
The man looked at me like I was Angelina Jolie, or an American hamburger, or macaroni and cheese, or something yummy. The little missus looked at him, then at me, then away. The French are different about these things. I pretended not to notice and continued on with my existence.
Before long the missus disappeared, along with the boys. I’m imagining they probably walked down to the lake before dark set in. The man of the family took to making camp, unloading tents and gear from the minivan. I’m wondering if they brought it all here from France, or if they acquired it once they arrived, and, if so, what the hell they were going to do with it all when they left. The rented minivan was packed to the hilt. I’m watching, but not. You know. And then, this tall, dark and French man begins to do the most unthinkable, unimaginable, inscrutable, thing, ever; he begins to gather firewood. From the tone of the signs posted everywhere (in English), this is all but a capital offense. I leapt to my feet and ran into his campsite, waving a piece of my coveted firewood, “would you like some firewood, I have plenty?” In the most divine French accent and adorably broken English, he thanked me and said he just didn’t know where one was supposed to obtain firewood. I told him that gathering wood was sort of frowned upon, I told him of the store in the nearby town, and that a nice gentleman had left me with some prime firewood, in addition to what I’d purchased. I had more than enough. I offered him several pieces, which he gladly accepted and graciously thanked me for. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside for my charitable contribution. Bien sur.
Later, tall, dark, and French came visiting. He strode into my campsite and asked how one was to go about doing dishes when camping. He explained, again, that they were on holiday from France and didn’t know what was to be done. I sympathized, because the signs I had seen around the campground were all prefaced with “don’t”. Don’t do dishes in the bathroom. Don’t do dishes at the faucet. Don’t leave food or food scraps out that may attract bears. Not one sign suggested how to “do”. I told him, as I usually backpacked, I usually wiped everything as clean as I could with a bit of paper towel which I then packed out. I washed my dishes out with boiling water and “campsuds”, and scattered the dishwater across a large area at least two hundred feet from my tent. As that isn’t possible in a crowded campground, though after all the noise last night, it suddenly sounded like a fun form of retribution, I told him, in a crowded camp, I wiped all the food scraps out of my dishes with a paper towel, disposed of it in the appropriately marked refuse container, boiled water and used a drop of “campsuds” to clean up, rinsed (really, really well), and then I just poured the barely dirty wash water and rinse water over the ashes in my campfire ring. He smiled and thanked me for the suggestion. I may consider an occupation as a camping consultant for foreign holidayers.
Later, I observed little missus French doing the dishes, exactly as I’d suggested.
As the evening wore on, I enjoyed my fire, and the French family next door enjoyed theirs. And, as the evening wore further on, the cars kept arriving, the partying was raging in about 104 of 106 of the campsites. My campsite was quiet. The Frenchies, “next door”, were quiet.
Upon the very tippy top of Mt. Lassen, with a surprisingly strong cell signal, much earlier in the day, I’d managed to exchange text messages and even a brief phone call, with my sweetie. A somewhat clandestine date had been arranged for Saturday night. As I had a bunch of adventure to cram into my birthday celebration still, and it was almost midnight, and so, almost Saturday, I headed to my tent to try to sleep so I could hike and paddle and then drive, and manage to look like a lady, again, for the much anticipated date. Quiet time, per campground law is from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM, and we were, at this point, well beyond quiet time. It was anything but.
I was in my tent, reading, and writing. It’s what I do. My bear box was dutifully latched, my picnic table cleared of everything but my tiny, propane lantern. In fact, the only thing “out” was that tiny, nearly indestructible, propane lantern and my sturdy, folding, mesh, camp chair. Everything was in its proper place; my food, cooler, backpacking stove, and other “smellables” were all in the securely latched bear box. My essentials for the night were in my tiny tent, with me. Other gear was stashed in the car. As the last embers of my campfire pulsed orange and red, I noticed not the thick blanket of crisp, bright, clear stars I’d observed the night before, but a few pinholes of diffused light through cloud cover. I really gave it little thought, because, when I leave my campsite for the day, or ready myself for sleep at night, everything is always away and ready for rain. This is the mountains, whether it is crowded and noisy like Grand Central Station, or not, matters not to the weather in the mountains. Rain happens, whether you are expecting it or are prepared for it, or not. I am always prepared for it.
I did decide to leave both tent flaps on the more private side of my tent open, and one in the back. That way, from inside my tent, I could see the last embers of my fire, and the last flames of the Frenchy’s. I have carried this tent hundreds and hundreds of miles. It has seen summer, mountain, rain in several mountain ranges. I am intimately familiar with this tent. I can erect it in the darkest of nights, probably with one arm tied behind my back. To make it really interesting, with my right arm behind my back. Yes, I am right handed. I can erect it and strike it, in pouring rain, without getting a single drop inside. I. Am. A. Master.
Almost as soon as the din died down and the last of the partiers stumbled into their oversized, WalMart, super-sized, tents, I heard the first big raindrop hit the top of my tent. I smiled wickedly. Another drop struck my tent. Another. For about ten minutes, the drops fell infrequently and very sporadically. As soon as I could detect a steady pattern, though not really “raining” yet, I blindly unzipped my mesh tent door, zipped shut my rain fly on one side, then repeated the process on the other, all from the comfort of my lovely, lavender, down, mummy bag. I was almost back asleep a few seconds later when the sky opened up. The entire campground sprung into action. It was mayhem, chaos, it was great! It was justice. Drunk people everywhere! Yelling, shouting, staggering about, trying to figure out what was happening and what to do about it. It was like a zombie apocalypse! Lanterns were lit, I could hear people seek refuge in their cars. Car alarms sounded. I’m pretty sure someone took cover in the biffy. I was perfectly warm, dry, and comfortable in my tent. My gear was stowed. I pulled my sleeping bag a little tighter around me and drifted off into blissful sleep, occasionally opening my eyes to observe a bright flash of lightning, followed by the magical sound of thunder, to breathe in deeply the glorious smell of rain in the forest. Happy Birthday to me!
Morning came. As the first light began to push the dark away, I opened one of the rainfly flaps a little to peer at the sky. While I love rain while camping, I was hoping to hike somewhere high up and paddle across an open lake, neither of which are a good idea if there may be lightning nearby. As I looked upward, I saw a few clouds on the edges of the sky, but, mostly a clear, blue, sky. Five minutes later, my sleeping bag was stowed in its stuff sack, my backpacking mattress flattened and rolled into an impossibly tight roll. I had my hiking pants on, my other clothes all stashed, and I emerged from my tent. Five minutes later, my tent was down, in its proper pack and placed neatly in the trunk of my car. I opened the bear box (as loudly as I could), boiled water, got out my nifty backpacking drip coffee maker, made coffee, ate breakfast, did dishes, and packed everything from the bear box into my car. I was ready to go. It was 7:00 AM.
By this point in time, the tiny, slight, missus French, next door, was doing some stretches on a mat in the middle of her campsite. The rest of the family were still in their tents (each boy had their own). Before I got in my car, destined for my last adventures of the weekend, I loaded the last several pieces of firewood into my arms and delivered them to missus French, in the neighboring campsite. She thanked me and smiled warmly. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.
I abandoned my campsite, leaving it, as I always do, cleaner than I’d found it. I drove the short distance to Butte Lake and parked by the trailhead to the Cinder Cone. I was going to follow donut man, and dude with a dog’s advice, and hike to the top. It was a two mile hike to the top, with an 864 foot elevation gain. Piece of cake. Except that the trail was deep, fine, black sand the mile and a half out to the Cinder Cone itself. Have you ever tried hiking on deep, dry sand, in rigid soled, high-shanked, hiking boots? Once I made it to the Cinder Cone, the trail rose at an alarming grade and became, not deep sand, but very deep, very loose, black, lava rock. It was like hiking up a very tall, steep mountain of landscaping material. I’m a strong hiker and I can power up a hill at a fairly impressive rate. I was absolutely humbled by this ascent, and, I’ll admit, even stopped a couple of times to “take pictures” (translation; catch my breath). When I hike, I am always in the lead, I am always the one eager to go on beyond the next bend to see what there is to see. As I finally approached the crest of the trail, maybe three quarters of the way up the slope, there was a bend I could not see around. For the first time since was an eight year old Girl Scout and my leader was “making” us hike up Mt. St. Helena, I dreaded what might be around the bend. Steeper trail? Looser footing? I kept hiking, tiny little steps, head down, trying not to notice the sheer lack of progress I was making. I felt like a wimp.
I finally crested the trail and rounded the bend. I glanced up for the first time in quite a while. The trail curved down and around a seemingly bottomless crater in one direction, and up along the crest in the other, to the summit. The footing was hard, packed, sand, easy to walk on. I could’ve run. As I’m all about summits, and not too fond of bottomless craters, though, truthfully, I have a respectful fear of both heights and bottomless pits, I headed up. My goal had been the summit, the view of the Painted Dunes and Butte Lake below, as some guy I’d met at a greasy donut shop in Cottonwood had promised would be the most worthwhile part of my adventure.
The views were amazing, the sun just dusting the Painted Dunes, making them look more like a painting than reality. The lakes resembled mirrors seen from an angle, reflective, but without an image apparent within. In the other direction, the sun made brilliant the peak of Mt. Lassen, where just twenty-four hours ago, I hoisted a beer in toast to the world that spread out below me, in hundreds of miles in every direction. This morning, equally celebratory, I opened my last IPA and, again, toasted the sky, the Earth, the ground I walked upon, the trees, and lakes, and streams that graced it, my dusty boots, my crazy, curly hair, my sunburned shoulders. I acknowledged my gratitude for the opportunity to get away, the courage to do so alone, and for all the wonderful people in my life, at home and in other destinations around the world. I never, for a moment, felt lonely, okay, I did, but only for a brief moment, and I feel far lonelier, often, at home. I know I am loved, valued, and cherished. I don’t need constant companionship to know that I am family, that I am a friend, that I am a partner.
I am a lucky, lucky girl! Cheers!