I just wrote this piece for Adam Perry at his online literary journal Stays. Saw it as an opportunity to try my hand at the first-person adventure narrative thing, I guess. Results? Cloudy ... like the skies over Lassen when we visited, as you'll read in the story. But yeah, I think it's pretty alright -- and, for these purposes, an ideal illustration of the simple joys of human-powered exploration.


And it begins ...


Within the first half-mile, I felt the weight. So did my friend Tom, who was out of shape. I’m not sure if Ben did; he was too tough to show. The trail was still wide, the parking lot barely out of sight. We stopped to yank on our shoulder straps, bounce up and down on our toes, and let the packs settle on our hips. This eased the pinching on our collarbones. The soreness in our shoulders was surprisingly prompt — they’d toted hardback books across campus, but never this; never food and clothes and gear and fuel, and too much of each, for five nights in the wild. Never the foldable metal shovel and clay poker chips we’d foolishly brought along, yet not without some pride. They weighed heavy on our backs now, but I wouldn’t undo it; they’d come in handy.

Our steps were proud as we strode along, down a gentle path among pine and fir trees. The path narrowed. Within another half-mile, we hit a shaded patch of icy snow. It bridged the trail, festering in a spot the sun never saw. It’d last snowed here over a month ago. Pools of water gathered in divots in the snow. Mosquitoes hovered there, sling-shotting toward our hot skin as we passed. Our boots crunched in the snow. I snapped a picture or two, not realizing we’d encounter much more – of the snow, but especially of the mosquitoes.

I’d last been backpacking about five years earlier. Two friends and I descended into a gorgeous side canyon of the Grand Canyon to celebrate our high school graduation. When we hiked out five days later, we were brown with dirt and sweat. We drove from the rim and across the Hoover Dam straight to Las Vegas. We weren’t 21, and the Strip shone infinitely glamorous. Reeking of exertion and looking worse, we tried for a room at the Luxor. The price was too high, so we ended up down the street at New York New York. That evening, we cleaned up in our $150 room and made a go of it in the world outside. We were college grads. We drank rum and coke. Pat instigated an altercation with a sidewalk mime. We got lost in a service entrance to the Bellagio. I think.

Tom and Ben had never been backpacking. It was my chance to share with them the incomparable joys of self-reliance in the great outdoors. We were three suburban kids from well-to-do high schools and a posh liberal arts university. Lassen National Park didn’t know much about that. It knew about mosquitoes, thunderstorms, dry creeks, and steep trails — and soon we’d know, too. We’d figure out what had been hiding inside us all along. We’d learn how far and how long we could carry too much weight and what we’d do with three Ziploc freezer bags full of clay poker chips.

It was mid-June. Still winter, nearly, in the high country. This we hadn’t exactly planned on. But it meant we had the park to ourselves. No one in the parking lot. No one on the trail. Not yet, at least. This was a good thing. The illusion of our strength might’ve been shattered by a fitter compatriot trotting into the wild.

I remember the first lake we came upon. It was wild, for sure. Thin, golden reeds grew up from the bottom. They broke the surface like pins through a bed sheet. The mosquitoes were there. It was midday. They were everywhere. Not necessarily swarming, but poised. Waiting. We were hot; our shoulders ached, so we swam. The earth on the lake floor was soft and muddy, unsettled. We went to the middle, and the lake was shallow all the way out. Even here there was danger. Leaches? Bacteria? Fear was part of the game.

We dried off and continued along. A few miles later, we entered a dense forest and decided we were ready to call it a day. We set a branch across the trail and headed into the forest at a ninety degree angle. We stopped when we found a clearing, the trail effectively left behind. Fresh water was, too; we’d not considered one of the most important rules of camp. Still, the mosquitoes found us and feasted on us – particularly as we spent an hour at dusk attempting to hang our food bags high in nearby trees to discourage tampering by the bears whose droppings we’d passed along the way. We opened our bags of poker chips and a deck of cards and played on a tree stump at least four feet in diameter. We sipped whiskey. We nursed sore feet. It was good.

The next day, it rained on us as we crossed a massive, lunar field of pulverized grey volcanic stone. Our footsteps left a three-inch-deep path behind us. The raindrops left little dark splatters on the ground, more paint than mud. We sprawled in exhaustion among a stand of three or four fir trees and devoured Vienna sausages and tuna and beef jerky. I did, at least. Our food load lessened only slightly. Tom found hiking made him lose his appetite.

Six miles more and we arrived at our stopping point. It was mid-afternoon and we were more than ready to rest. But the unnamed creek, a thin, blue, promising, jagged, bastard of a line on the topographical map, was dry. It wasn’t so much dry as nonexistent. It didn’t exist. We were tired, hungry, sore, thirsty. But, we might’ve told ourselves, this was part of the game. Outside we traded moans and feigned resignation. Inside we needed something to keep us going, something more than thirst and a poker game at the end of the line. Poor preparation and untested fitness and a nonexistent creek: this was survival.

We trudged along the shoreline of Snag Lake, the second-largest lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park – so named, perhaps, because I’d lose a fishing rod in it the next day after yanking too hard on a snag. We walked another four miles to the other end of the lake before we found an inlet that was flowing. It was beautiful, beautiful: clear, clean, fresh, flowing water. From snowmelt or a spring. Into a massive lake that we had all to ourselves. We still hadn’t seen or heard another human soul – only the soul of the wild, if that was what it was.

Above this creek, also unnamed and curiously absent from the laminated trail map I’d highlighted and brought along, was a gentle slope that rose to a few hundred feet above the lake. Tom collapsed there at the bottom, head and chest on one side on the creek and legs extended across it like a bridge, resting on a rock on the other side. He placed his round-brimmed hat over his face like a cowboy and snoozed deeply for at least an hour. Ben and I hiked up the hill to make camp, a camp away from mosquitoes and offering a fine vantage point of Snag Lake. Incomparable, really. Utterly magical. We’d all soon agree.

We lit cigars. We started boiling water on our pair of small camp stoves, as poor planning left us already almost out of iodine tablets. Dehydrated and exhausted, we drank hot water into the night. It was cooled only through submergence in the creek for as long as we could bear to wait. We found that water went down our throats easiest when cooled to about 100 degrees. It refreshed and almost felt cold. Survival, again.

The view. It was spiritual. Here was this massive lake and we had it entirely to ourselves. Up high on the hill, we almost owned it. We spent two nights there, drinking, relaxing, hiking, watching, resting. We played poker – outside during the day, inside the tent at night.
The second night, a thunderstorm rolled in. We watched it approach from the north, a heavy, dense mass in a darkening sky. We watched it scatter lighting bolts and dump thunder across the quiet landscape and upon us. When the hail came, we scurried inside our tent, in awe at this performance only we beheld. It is not easy to fit three college students inside a tidy two-man backpacking tent. It’s even harder when they’re sitting. But we were too charged to sleep, so we played poker and we talked. For hours. At one point, I made a dazzling comeback. In the end, Ben won. Five more dollars out the door.

We awoke on the morning of the fourth day much as we had the three before it: emerged from the tent, boiled water for breakfast, absorbed the view, appreciated where we were. Few moments can compare. Yet, hiking away from our hillside paradise a few hours later, we were back where we started: sore, unprepared, laden with unnecessary weight.
Headed for a trio of lakes in the backcountry for our next night’s stay, we hoped it’d be an easy jaunt. The terrain was, at least, flat: flat under cold rain, over icy patches of snow, through plagues of mosquitoes. We knew we were within a quarter-mile of water whenever the bastards reappeared. Ben, God bless him, had sprayed a whole can of mosquito repellent on his arms and legs the first day, so we were left with about half of a can for the three of us to share: somewhat less than ideal. And so, exhausted as we were, we kept on – past the lakes, away from the worst of the bloodthirsty buzzers, through a sizeable region of the map for which I’d allotted two days.

We finally reached a point about five easy miles from our exit and located camp under the only tree in a field peppered with volcanic rocks. I don’t recall the type, but I remember it was short – maybe thirty feet – and scraggly. Not much protection, at least, from the onslaught visited upon us by yet more storm clouds overhead. It rained when we set up our tent, it rained when we made dinner, and it rained when we went searching for another huge stump to roll across the field to our camp and employ as an ersatz poker table.

Tom sacrificed his thin plastic poncho to fashion an awning over the table. We procured smaller logs to serve as seats. We dug Ziploc bags from our packs and stacked chips in front of us. We laid out the cards. We lit cigars and grinned at what we’d done. Though the cards immediately became damp, we played, and we became damp, too, thanks to an inconvenient arm hole in the poncho. I don’t know how long we lasted; whatever it was, it was long enough to prove something worth proving: that we could lug unfit bodies, a folding metal shovel, too much food, too much fuel, poor mosquito protection, not nearly enough water purification tablets, suburban histories and urban sensibilities, an innocence to nature, and a certain obliviousness to all of this that only young men possess, miles into a wilderness free of other humans, and emerge both the same and changed forever.