Perhaps there is nothing worse than an REI on a weekend. Every cliche of outdoor lifestyle is out in force. Discarded latte cups and lounging human North Face ads littered the aisles of the REI of Medford, OR. It was the closest REI to the campsite where our tent sprung a leak, back 150 miles to the southwest. To make things worse, this particular joint seemed to hire people who were not at all outdoorsy, just to make our trip especially drawn out and painful. But really the entire shopping excursion was just confirming my belief that something terrible was waiting for me out there in the unknown and the universe was trying to get me to go home. A leaky tent? Try to replace said tent and get classically incompetent employees instead (“Uh, campgrounds? In Oregon? I mean, there’s a KOA. Like, is that what you mean?” <— That really happened.)? Everything of interest is closed, including half of the mountain passes? And how about this fucking weather??? All signs point to home. Well. Maybe not.
I am a superstitious person and this trip has jolted my brain just a bit too much thus far. Getting sick on the eve of our departure was only the beginning of my handwringing, but it did not end there. As we left the safety and comfort of the last familiar home of the last familiar person I would see for weeks- my grandma- and headed for the freeway, a giant, glistening, white-bellied snake dropped seemingly from the sky and landed in a writhing pile in the middle of the suburban road. My brain, unable to compute, momentarily lapsed into a mythical setting in which we were driving along in some kind of chariot and where things like snakes could, indeed, just drop out of the sky. No way could this happen in Davis, California, home of bike lanes and the square tomato. But it did. And there it was. As we shot past the unlucky reptile, a cloud of ravens descended upon its helplessly tangled body. I am still thinking up all of the possible horrific meanings behind this strange event. Naturally I am avoiding the worst possible meaning: that I will end up a stranger in strange lands, dropped there by unknown forces, hunted by the unfamiliar. I pretend I am Dory the fish. I just keep swimming.
Last Sunday evening we arrived in Stewart State Park in Rogue Valley, Oregon. It was raining, that kind of rain that isn’t hard but is more subtly irritating. Constant, cold rain with a constant, cold wind that barreled down the snow-topped mountains across the expansive reservoir known as Lost Creek Lake. We set up our tent, which turned out to be blessedly dry but considerably smaller, the getting in and out of resembling some kind of vaguely violent expulsion; never the less: dry. We then bought some firewood from the obliging camp host, a tall, bearish man with a camp banter that rivals your stereotypical woodsman ideal. He even wore a plaid cap, if I am recalling correctly, though that may have been travel fatigue.
In the morning I was the first to wake, to the sound of rain on the lake and the eerie, mournful keening of Roosevelt elk calling back and forth across the glassy expanse. We spent the morning acting like we knew how to build a fire in the rain (we don’t), and then hiked the lakeside path. Paved a long time ago but mostly forgotten, the path was brown and overrun with beautiful bright green moss, which permeated the fallen trees, stumps, and rocks alongside it. We followed this Wonderland pathway around a bend and came upon this postcard scene:
I immediately decided it had to be a good omen. The rain had let up, and there were no human sounds to be heard. No cars, though we weren’t far from Highway 62. A Canada goose landed at the mouth of the jade-hued stream with such precision and effortlessness that the water seemed to part around him in silent welcome. After all of the rain and cold and creepy imagery I constantly had in my head, to come upon a portion of nature so utterly peaceful and pristine, it made everything else seem foolish. I was foolish. The camp host was foolish. The old couples in RVs staring into the sunsets and using a generator for absolutely everything were wonderfully foolish.
When we got back to camp we hauled out the enormous AAA Atlas already curling at the edges and opened it to the rippled box that is Oregon. We decided we could make it to Crater Lake National Park the next day if we wanted to stay at our campsite and brave the overnight freeze warning. Everyone, from the waitresses to the rangers, had been warning us that at best there would be nothing to see due to low cloud cover, and at worst we would get stuck in some vague snow-shaped hell creation and die from freezer burn. We thumbed our noses at them, bundled ourselves in 17 layers of cold-proof camp clothing for the night, and left bright and early the next morning.
Nothing prepares you for the sight of that which is bigger than you. By that I mean, we cannot fathom how much beauty this planet holds because most of the time it is too huge and beyond us to fathom. Our brains are stuck in a cycle of micromanagement. “Big” becomes a trip to the city or an excursion to a nearby park. “Adventure” ends up being a brief respite from the everyday; nothing wrong with that, of course. But how often do we escape our brains? How often does something appear to us so marvelous we are rendered speechless? As we drove up, up, up the highway and deeper into the snowy territory of Crater Lake’s outer regions, the sky opened wider than we’d seen it for the entire trip thus far. It had never been clearer or brighter or bluer. What low cloud cover? What roaring winter menace? The snow sparkled alongside us, smooth, creamy hillsides dotted with firs whose branches hung heavy with powder. When we reached the summit, I was dazzled by the this new, mirrored reality.
Words kept trying to form in my mind, and dying miserable deaths. How could I describe such a place? I tried and tried. The only thing that seemed to arise with perfect clarity was the phrase “bowl of whipped cream”. Over and over again, the only way I could register what I was looking at was by considering how much I’d like to eat that entire National Park with a spoon.
This marvelous lake was once a mountain, the tallest peak in the region. Due to greedy lava beds and the pushy, mean Pacific sea that mountain sank into the abyss, and left a bowl waiting to be filled. It did, with snow melt. The lake is truly a mirror of the sky. At times I would look down into it and see a lake; at other times a blue bowl filled with clouds, and I’d wonder if I was upside down. I have no idea what it is like to live in the snow, nor to be a person who works at the kiosks and cafes at the tourist attractions in winter. But I have to thank all of them for giving me one afternoon of an utterly empty, worry-free head.
Astoundingly, upon our return we got out of the car and entered a brand new world. The air, which had been at freezing temperatures the night before, was suddenly soft and warm, tinged with a golden sunset hue and alive with the hum of winged things. It wrapped around my entire body like a lover. My dreams, restless for so long, were calm that night.