Cinder Cone 1, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
Driving to Lassen Volcanic National Park, I was disturbed by the amount of logging trucks that passed me in the opposite direction. All throughout my drive from the coast inland, flatbed after flatbed, loaded with the limbless corpses of fallen trees, stacked one on top of the other, bound for the processing mill. Once I was within the boundaries of the park, the trucks disappeared, and the surrounding vegetation seemed to breathe a collected sigh of relief, as did I. I drove to the northeast corner of the park, to the secluded Butte Lake Campground, located in a grove of tall pines. The weather couldn’t have been better, sunny & 78 degrees, a strong breeze blowing through the branches above, making a sound not unlike rushing waves, dropping needles down on my head like prickly snowflakes. There was a camper far off at the other side of the campground, but no one else. I set up my tent, wrote in my journal, and just let my surroundings sink in. All the animal experiences, all the danger and discovery, the challenges, the victories and failures. None of that could ever be as fulfilling as these quiet moments, the moments alone under stars or swaying branches, the moments that heal my soul and make me a complete human being. There is nothing that better exemplifies my idea of a perfect life. If only these moments could last a lifetime.
Cinder Cone 2, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
No perfect moment can be truly appreciated without something not-so-perfect to compare it to, so I decided to climb to the top of the nearby Cinder Cone. Thought to have formed about 350 years ago, the 700-foot-high volcanic cone is made of loose scoria, or porous volcanic rock. Lightweight but extremely rugged, scoria is probably the worst type of surface one could ever find themselves hiking over. As I followed the trail up and out of the grove, the pine needle carpet gave way to a soft black surface, tiny bits of scoria crushed down from decades of being trampled underfoot. To my left was a massive wall of black lava rock, jagged boulders piled high in the form of a natural barrier that followed parallel to my path, but eventually broke off as the Cinder Cone rose up ahead of me. The tree cover thinned and only a few young saplings sprouted up from the black earth. There was a sign warning that the path ahead was strenuous, but I was already over 4 months into my trip and had hiked at least 200 miles so far. The cone looked simple enough. Just a big hill of soft rock. This wasn’t Canyonlands. I could probably get to the top and back in an hour at most, returning to my campsite long before the sunset, leaving plenty of time to grill the salmon I had bought in Oregon. I began my ascent up the leveled path that wound around Cinder Cone.
Looking back down the trail, Cinder Cone, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
About ten minutes into my ascent, I was wheezing and doubled over. The soft ground just swallowed every step, requiring extra effort just to pull my boots up and move them eight inches ahead. I was also sliding back a little each step, so my progress was akin to “two steps forward, one step back”. I continued upwards at a pitiful rate, often taking three or four steps at most, then stopping to catch my breath and to rest my aching legs. I looked back down at the path behind me, praying that there wouldn’t be some family making it’s way up the trail, some seven-year-old brat from wherever-the-fuck passing me without even breaking a sweat. Luckily I was the only person on the trail, so my embarrassment became less a driving factor, which didn’t help my motivation. I began to pick a stone or a scrub brush that I could focus on, setting that as my goal, as a kind of measurement for my “progress”. As I gained altitude, a strong wind began to blow down the side of the cinder cone, offering even more resistance to what little momentum I could gather. I cursed and considered giving up. Looking back down at the landscape below, I saw that the trees were much smaller now. I could see Butte Lake shimmering in the late afternoon sun, a surface of glass framed by a forest of ponderosa pines. Looking back up, the top of the cone seemed only a few hundred feet away. How long I had been climbing, I have no idea. It felt like at least an hour. I was more than half way, and I began to tell myself there was no other option but to reach the top. If I gave up, I’d never be able to erase that stinging memory of failure. I came all the way out here, drove across the entire country, almost 3000 miles from Brooklyn to Lassen, just to give up within 200 feet of my goal? There were only so many hikes left on this trip, so I kept going. Slowly.
Cinder Cone 3, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
Cinder Cone 4, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
I reached the windy summit in record time (slowest) and looked down into the awesome crater at the center of the cone. It sunk down about 200 feet, but there was no way I was hiking into it and then hiking back out. I was through with inclines for the day. I circumnavigated the perimeter of the crater, getting a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, made up of brilliant red and orange dunes on one side, then an abrupt line cut by the pitch-black lava fields that stretched for miles. Beyond that, forests and lakes that grew fuzzy in the haze of the setting sun, distant mountain lines layered like paper cut-outs in soft shades of blue and grey. I lingered on the rim of the crater until the fading light began to rush me back down the opposite side of the cinder cone. I practically slid down the entire way, like a skier without skis, almost tumbling forward numerous times before finally reaching the base of the slope. I reached my campsite after dusk, and grilled salmon over a fire as the shadows faded into the gathering dark. The branches above became silhouettes before a starry sky, and I once again found myself ending the day sitting in my collapsible camp chair, sipping whiskey and wondering if life could get any better.
Painted Dunes & Fantastic Lava Fields, Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA