West Coast Road Trip, Part 5 (Lava Beds National Monument to Redwood National Park) – April 15, 2015

Fern Canyon with Home Creek flowing through the sunset lit forest on the California coast in Redwood National Park

Fern Canyon with Home Creek flowing through the sunset lit forest on the California coast in Redwood National Park

The dawn came on with the same clarity of sky that the previous evening’s dusk had predicted.  After a night up late sitting before a fire watching the starlight, I still managed to awake at first light, well before the sun rose, and packed up my gear and then aimed the car through the sparsely occupied campground on a route that would bring me to the Pacific ocean’s edge in the evening.

The clear sky, for me, is always a sign of joy, although it was well below freezing without the insulating layer of moisture to keep in the heat overnight.  Before I left the high California desert that makes up most of Lava Beds National Monument, I wanted to make one final stop at Fleener Chimneys.  These chimneys are similar to small splatter cones, and hundreds of years later the odd shapes of the ejaculated lava are strewn about the local landscape.  I was held in fascination, albeit briefly, by the smallest lava tube I had ever seen.  Although about six or seven feet across, the arch of basalt couldn’t have been more than six to eight inches thick and height perhaps only a foot or two.  There was no way to explore this tube, but as a miniature of the others that I had seen it was precious in its diminutivness.

The Park Service has a small picnic area here, and this is were I ate a quick, cold breakfast.  It was cold in the early sunlight, and it would be another hour or so before the spring warmth caressed the land.  The golden shafted light poured across the broad valleys and lit up distant peaks now shining brightly with their fresh coating of snow from two nights previous.  The desert landscape holds my grip, and I stare into the distant oblivion of the far horizon, my heart soaring like the raptors above.  Soon, though, the chill begins to work its way into my physical body and I make for the comfort of my automobile where the climate controls will restore feeling to my numb fingers.

I drive north, towards the Oregon border.  Oregon, a state I haven’t set foot in since the late Nineteen Eighties or perhaps the mid Nineteen Nineties (I don’t recall, exactly), beckons.  I plan on deliberately going slightly out of my way just so I can briefly explore the Beaver State.  However, before I am a mile down the road I am stopped again.  This time it is to explore the Black Crater.  Although I am anxious to see the coast and explore highways I haven’t previously driven I cannot resist the siren call that is this desert landscape studded with the geologically dynamic remnants of the cones, buttes and lava flows.

The crater has some evidence of ejecting the blobs of molten rock that are like so many small, lethal projectiles.  However, there is more here than at Fleener Chimneys since this crater was also belching forth flows of lava.  There are tree molds here and there, marking in time with fair accuracy when the hapless boles where surrounded by searing hot lava.  The lava flowed around the trees and when the trunks burned the newly solidified rock left a ghostly impression.  The lava, judging by the ripples left in the surface, was perhaps of the type that is referred to by geologists as pahoehoe lava.  Pahoehoe is lava that is liquefied and flows easily and quickly, leaving a ropy texture once cooled.  The Callahan Flow I had seen two afternoons earlier was made from the other major type of lava, called aa.  Aa is chunky and doesn’t flow well, moving slowly although inexorably downhill.

For thirty minutes or so, I bounced around with a juvenile attitude, scrambling from rock to rock, careful not to shred myself on the still sharp edges of the relatively fresh lava rock.  At times I am sure that anybody who had happened to come upon my revelry would have thought that it bordered on the puerile but I don’t necessarily believe that that, regressing to a more childlike state of awe, is such a bad thing.

After my brief interlude was completed, I sat down behind the steering wheel of the trusty Outback and drove north towards the Tule Lakes National Wildlife Refuge passing by the Devil’s Homestead Flow and Gillem Bluff.  Taking the Hill Road north to California State Highway 161, I drove past the Visitor Center of the wildlife refuge and now wished that I had stopped if for nothing else than to spend a brief amount of time reading whatever interpretive displays might have been available.  Directly west is the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and I can only imagine that the two combined are a birder’s paradise at the right time of year.

Reaching State Highway 161 I turned west and traveled over the narrow two-lane blacktop through rolling, open country, green despite the reputed lack of moisture in the region.  Sad to leave Lava Beds National Monument, I was nonetheless happy to be moving on, seeking the western horizon and looking forward to seeing country that was new to me.  I was enthralled, in my element and cruising along with scant effort beyond that being exerted by my right foot.

At the junction with U.S. 97 I turned north and in a few miles I officially crossed over into Oregon, a state whose name is almost as legendary, if not more so, than California.  I didn’t remain on U.S. 97 long.  Three miles into this state which I hadn’t seen in so many years, I turned onto a country road at Worden to take a short cut to Keno and Oregon State Highway 66.  At Keno I stopped to gas up the tank of the car and, remembering days gone by, realized that there would be someone there to fill it up for me, as per state law.  I wasn’t sure what to do with the person whose job it is to pump gas, what the social expectations might be.  Do you chat? Stay in your car?  Well, I got out to stretch my legs and since sirens didn’t wail nor the local militia get called out I suppose everything was all right. I think that the attendant was happy enough that this out-of-state rube at least had the common sense knowledge to not pump his own gas and he could go about his business without having to worry about me violating state law by having the audacity to fuel up my car without assistance.

State Highway 66 is a narrow and winding road that leads up to and over the crest of the Cascade Range, and through thick, dense forest.  Part of this forest has been converted into the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument due to the incredible diversity of bird life found here.  I didn’t see much of interest for the uneducated iterate tourist so I continued on, happy, at least, that there was a refuge for so many species of life.

Driving into Ashland, I stopped at the Wild Goose Cafe just after passing over Interstate 5.  I had some marionberry pancakes that were a welcome pick-me-up after my cold breakfast some hours ago.  Of course, I was really happy about the hot coffee that was repeatedly poured into my mug.  A nice respite from the road and in no real hurry to zip along on the busy freeway I chose to follow old U.S. 99, most of which has been re-signed as Oregon State Highway 99, up to Grants Pass.  I was amazed at the fecundity of the area; something that I had noticed as soon as I drove into Ashland.  I have heard people talking about the Rogue River Valley before and why they like it and now I understand.  I could live here contentedly and look forward to making another visit whenever the opportunity allows.

At Grants Pass I changed highways again and followed U.S. 199 southwest back into California, the Golden State.  The day was starting to slip by, and I had a goal in mind so I didn’t stop and drove on; not particularly fast, but just steady.  The scenery on both sides of the border is fine and I regret that I didn’t have more time to make one or two stops either in Oregon or along the Middle Fork of the Smith River in California.

At the terminus of U.S. 199 just north of Crescent City, California I turned south on U.S. 101 to begin the final leg of my journey to my natal home of Santa Rosa.  After passing through downtown I stopped on the southern side of Crescent City at Fisherman’s Restaurant.  A touristy type of place that I generally avoid, they were still serving breakfast in the middle of the afternoon, so at 3 p.m. I had a wonderful seafood omelet that satisfied a craving that I had had for weeks and could not satiate in Colorado, were I make my home.  The waitress was especially pleasant and we talked about the ups and downs of the business and the plus side of shift work, as well as the down sides.  All in all, a fine meal, large enough so that I knew I would only need to snack a bit for dinner tonight and that I wouldn’t need to cook.

I made another brief stop in Crescent City at the Information Center in downtown to purchase a map of Redwood National Park and then I was on my way south to my destination for the night at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground.  The park is actually an amalgamation of state and federal properties and this campground is part of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.  That would explain the heavy fees needed to simply enjoy a night of camping.  It set me back forty-two dollars, which seems a bit extreme, but given the budget woes that the state faces and the high demand for the campsites I suppose I am not surprised.

Pulling off of U.S. 101, I drove down narrow, unpaved Davison Road to the campground which is adjacent to the beach and under the bluffs of the same name that overlook the ocean.  The road was in extremely poor shape and I was hardly the only person who felt that a bit of maintenance needed to be done.  On the other hand, the folks that are here, like myself, must really want to be here.

It seemed like a hassle to drive all this way and pay so much for one short night to camp on the beach but ever since I saw this campground’s location months ago when I was planning this trip I knew that I wanted to spend a night here and had my heart set on it.   My biggest worry was that it would be full, but that did not materialize and I pulled into a site where the roar of the ocean’s pounding surf in my front was tempered by the quietude of the redwood forest to my back.

I didn’t have much time to spare, now.  It was late afternoon, and I still wanted to get a short hike in before the sun set.  There is a trailhead by the campground and so I quickly set up camp for the night and immediately set out to explore the redwood forest.  Already, it was dark under the canopy of tall, mighty redwood trees.  After the last many days spent in and traversing the desert, this jungle, one that soaks up all sound as well as moisture, was a complete change of seasons for me.  Not only the magnitude of the awe-inspiring trees but all the life found here was refreshingly damp.  I especially enjoyed seeing the large, white trillium growing, a flower that I had not seen in fifteen years since I lived briefly in Idaho.

It didn’t take long for me to get inland enough so that the white noise from the breakers was replaced with a pervading silence.  This silence is somehow different from that found in the desert or the Rocky Mountains.  There, there is just no noise; here, it is as if the noise might be there but somehow has been muffled or soaked up.  I also passed a small sign notifying me that I had just left the tsunami zone, something that I had not previously considered when deciding that I would spend the night near the waves.

I climbed the Miners Ridge Trail and then took the Clintonia Trail over a small summit to pass into Home Creek from the unnamed drainage that I had used to exit the beach.  At Home Creek itself, once descended from the dividing ridge, I turned downstream on the James Irvine Trail and made my way back to the beach, where I had a mile plus walk to get back to the campground.  The well maintained trails allowed for a freedom of movement that gave me an opportunity to enjoy the pristine nature growing abundantly in all directions.  I was, however, in a hurry since I wanted to make it to the beach before the sun set.  Hurry or not, I wasn’t hasty to the point of neglecting the splendid beauty all around, including the old, moss covered bridges set across some of the deeper waterways.

I do love my mountain sunsets, but I have to say that watching the sun pass beneath the horizon of the Pacific Ocean is something that I never tire of.  As I descended to the outlet of Home Creek, here named Fern Canyon for obvious reasons, I was rewarded with the late evening sun’s light pouring golden shafted rays of illumination through the forest.  The trees were back-lit in such a way as to sear the image in my mind, a beauty to be found only in the place at this time.

I crossed out of the forest and my hike back to the campground was spent with my neck craned to the west to watch the setting orb bestir the clouds with radiance.  The haze from the ocean was lit up as well and the whole put together was a sublime feast for the senses that can barely be described by my poor use of the English language.  Despite the oncoming darkness and my general unfamiliarity of the area, I couldn’t help but stop, bemused and enthralled, to watch the crepuscular spectacle unfold all the while the constant noise from the surf reminding me of the inherent dynamism found at the ocean’s edge.

Reaching the campground, I made my way out onto the beach to catch the last bits of light before night took over completely.  The soft, malleable sand made way for my butt and a perfect observation post was instantly created once I sat down.  Once night did come to stay for good the sky became illuminated again, but this time with the soft starlight that draws my vision to the heavens as if I were a moth seeking a porch light.  While distinctly earthbound in my physical body, my soul soared like the proverbial moth and fluttered about the various constellations, visiting each in their turn and wondering just what the hell it was all about.

There came a point were the demands of my physical body became paramount and the breeze off the ocean was surprisingly chilly, so with one last pass around the heavens, I bid the world, our solar system, the galaxy and the universe in general good tidings and went to find comfort in my shelter, hoping that in the even of a tsunami some good soul would wake me in time so I could make a mad dash to higher ground.  There wasn’t any real reason to worry, as I had already used an overabundance of caution and plotted out my escape route.  Once again, I found myself mocking myself that I was so important that gigantic waves would sweep across this beach on the night that I happened to be here, just like my worries a couple days ago that I would be the sole victim of one of the lava tubes collapsing.  Those thoughts were soon shunted aside and the constant noise from the crashing breakers soon had me sleeping deeply and contentedly, a heavenly repose from the worries that occupy the conscious mind.

West Coast Road Trip, Part 4 (Lava Beds National Monument) – April 14, 2015

The remnants from the previous night's storm, to the west, while hiking on the Three Sisters Trail

The remnants from the previous night’s storm, to the west, while hiking on the Three Sisters Trail

It just goes to show.  April is a strange month within the interior of the American West.  Here I am, in sunny California, a state where there is in progress a drought of epic proportions, and yet I wake up in mid-April with two inches of fresh snow on the ground.  The previous night I had almost decided not to bother setting up my rain fly over the tent, but fortunately my good habits prevailed and I did so.  Also, I had brought my winter clothing along, just in case, and was happy I did so.

Of course, Lava Beds National Monument is just east of the Cascade Range, and the weather here seems more akin to that which I am used to in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado than that which I grew up in, on the coast where the weather is directly affected by the huge mass of water known as the ocean.

So, when I rose this morning out of my warm, peaceful slumber, I was taken aback by the white crystalline coating covering the landscape.  Honestly, I had hoped to leave it behind in the Rockies.  However, it was obvious that this storm would be brief and already the clouds where burning off with the ever increasing power of the morning’s sun.  Therefore, I saw no reason to postpone or cancel my planned hike.  I scarfed down a quick breakfast and then made ready my pack and quickly walked the trailhead, the location of which I had scouted out the previous evening.  I was especially pleased that this day I would not need to start the car and drive anywhere to hike.

There are landmarks in all directions from the trail and they are easily seen and identified, especially since I was keeping track of them as I walked along the trail that passed through the endless parade of juniper and sagebrush.  However, I soon realized that if for some reason I strayed from the trail I would have a very difficult time of it.  The reason being that the old lava formation that I was walking through makes forward motion in one direction of the compass nearly impossible.  Following the trail, I could pass through with the utmost efficiency and ease, and I realized immediately the huge debt I owed to those who had come before and pioneered this path.  Those folks were (are) more hardy than me, a mere tourist passing through this landscape.  Those whose route finding skills were employed must walk along with some sort of magic abilities beyond my kenning abilities.  I would not be surprised to find that a stalwart equine was somehow involved, also.

Years ago, when I was a child, my folks brought the family here to this place, that is, the monument.  We were comfortably housed in our motor home and made visits to some of the various front-country sights.  I remember my dad in particular being fascinated by the weather machine, displaying temperature, wind speed and direction and humidity, in the Visitor Center.  Now, I am walking out into a different part of this strange world, and I am immediately stunned by how much there is out here.

The snow has moistened the various plants and the strong smell of sagebrush awakens my olfactory nerves.  The strong scent of the juniper, something akin to cedar, wafts through the air, and combined with the other organic smells that abound on this day, I am reminded how extraordinary the ordinary can become when the senses are heightened.

There is not much out here in these desert-like flats, just rolling mounds of basalt and relatively small, scrubby trees and brush.  What amazes me is finding even more caves that I had realized where in existence.  Once again, I am enthralled by the power and variety of the physical aspects of our Mother Earth.  Here I am, walking across a horizontal rocky face that was somewhat recently a molten flow of lava.  The power of life being strong and, despite our efforts to control and destroy, for all practical purposes timeless, this old flow has been completely colonized by the desert vegetation that is scenting the atmosphere as I stroll along.

The Three Sisters Trail is a large loop, about seven and a half miles long from the campground to the junction with the Lyons Trail.  I suppose that these trails out in the eastern wilderness of the monument are maintained generally for patrol activities of the Park Service rangers.  There are a few caves and other features to be seen, but not any true destination.  In fact, the “true destination” is the miles and miles of wilderness habitat home to the desert vegetation and all the creatures that call it home.

At the farthest extent to the east, the trail passes out of the monument and onto lands managed by the Modoc National Monument.  The Modoc peoples where one of numerous tribes or bands of Native Americans who have been treated poorly by the Great White Father and his subordinates to the east.  In the mid-1870’s there was a war here in the general vicinity of the monument, and the sense of injustice that resulted from that struggle still lingers.  I have decided not to focus on the historic sites found in the monument,  preferring to focus on the wondrous natural aspects found on the living Earth, yet I am aware of the past and current struggles and make silent prayers for those negatively affected by the indiscretion and what I believe are probably illegal actions of the Federal Government.

At the point where the trail suddenly turns from heading east back to the west, I make a short detour and follow a poorly marked and nearly obliterated trail farther east to the junction with an obscure Forest Service road.  No particular reason to do so, excepting that I know it is unlikely that I will be here again in the foreseeable future and I am curious and want to see what is here.  What is gratifying to my senses is that this old trail was actually a former road and has now been locked off to vehicular and motorized traffic; my sense of righteousness is elevated – here is one small victory for those of us who value quiet recreation and the primacy of nature.

As I walk back west, the trail passes closer to the Three Sisters for which it is named.  These small cinder cones are out here alone, away from others of their sort.  My sense of direction remains true, and as I hike along I am continuously keeping track of my relative location and the position of all the relevant landmarks.  Again I am reminded of the debt of gratitude that I owe to the pioneers who found their way through the tangled flows and ridges of cooled lava.  If I had to pioneer my own route through this flat but rugged landscape it is inevitable that I would have needed days and not hours to make my way across.  I can see where I want to go, yet pursuing that direction by a straight line might prove nearly impossible through the jumble of rocks and unexpected pitfalls.

Eventually I reach the junction with the Lyons Trail and turning left I will complete the loop and eventually reach the campground from where I started.  The day has passed by swiftly, although the weather has never really warmed up and the clouds continue to dominate the sky but without the threat of further snowfall.  Nonetheless, the two inches and change of fresh snow has never really had a chance of lasting the day, and it has slowly been melting and sublimating all day, leaving the gray grass, yet to green up for the season, exposed and ready to spring forth.

Near the trail junction I discover a large cave that has a user created trail leading to the entrance.  I scramble down into the valley created adjacent to the entrance by the collapse of the basalt roof.  However, the trail more or less ends here at the entrance, and as I am not truly prepared to explore a backcountry (or, for that matter, a front-country) cave, I stop and gaze in wonder at the static spectacle of the suspended basalt ceiling.  I climb back up the way I descended and wander around and over the cave, looking for a place to rest and gather my wits under a sheltering juniper.  Suddenly I am aware of the great void that is underneath my feet; nothing dramatic, just the spacial cognition that I am standing on firm ground that is suspended in a grand arch and for some reason this awareness creates a spiritual response in my soul to the beauty that is all around us.

Schonchin Butte, nearly a perfect cinder cone, has been my companion and guiding landmark most of the day.  As I approach the trailhead at Skull Cave the cone increases in proportion to my relative distance.  The black mass, speckled with shades of green from the colonizing vegetation, looms and even now, hundreds if not thousands of years after its last eruption, seems like a portal to the depths below.

The wind has been blowing all day.  When it was at my back, I didn’t notice too much since my backpack had blocked the gusts from my body.  However, once I made the turn-around and began to head west, the winds blasted my face and body with the ferocity that only early spring can produce.  The good news was that these fierce currents of air indicated that the clouds would soon move on.  Nevertheless, I was happy to enter into Skull Cave, a huge cave that reminded me of an underground metro station more than a natural phenomena.  The reason I was pleased with entering a confined space, even though fairly large, when I am normally adverse to doing so, was that as soon as I entered the cave, all was peace – no wind, no glaring sun, no ceaseless howling of the air currents passing by.  It is still and quiet here, and I am in another world.

The cave amazes and terrifies me at the same time.  I am sure that at this one moment in time, when I happen to be here, the roof will collapse.  Of course, that is arrogant of me to feel this way, that I am so important that such an unlikely and spectacular, if not deadly in a gruesome sort of way, event would occur in my presence.  Upon my return to the surface world, I feel a sense of relief, but it is like stepping out from a well-built house into a hurricane – the transition is quick and absolute from stillness to raging intensity.

There is so much to see and do, but I am tired and ready to make my way back to camp and take a nap.  So I stroll down the road from the trailhead until I find the aptly named Missing Link Trail that has been built to create a shortcut from the campground to this trailhead.  This trail’s other terminus is at the Bunchgrass Trail, and one more turn to the left brings me back to Indian Well Campground and as I stroll to my site I make a prayer of thanks to the Creator for allowing me this day and the glory that can be had in the ordinary.

There are so many caves to be seen, that I am not long for my nap before I get up and begin to go on further explorations along the Cave Loop Road.  The road is gated after five in the evening, and I soon had the place to myself, excepting two hardy souls who were better geared than I and were off to explore deeper depths of the cave systems that I would.  I walk down into the Mushpot Cave (I think) where the Park Service has provided lighting along a paved path.  It is a fine display, and I am amazed by the geological oddities found here.  It is like I entered an extinct version of Hell, so tortuous are the rocks.  Obviously, with a bit of imagination anyone can tell that the molten rock not often seen on the surface of our planet was the dominating force here.

I further explore other caves along the loop road, but can only see about a quarter of them all in all.  I don’t document exactly where I went out of carelessness, but I think I went to Lava Brook and Thunderbolt Caves, and for sure went to Sentinel Cave before I wrapped up the long day with exploring Indian Well Cave.  Some caves had multiple channels and branches, and some had what could only be called skylights.  All are fascinating in the story they tell of a living and dynamic Earth.

The Park Service recommends a number of safety guidelines, most of which I ignore due to my own sense of adventure and lack of equipment.  Yet, I do not relish the idea of getting lost in a cave, so I take it slow and easy and don’t stray much further than the boundary from where the natural light extends from the entrance.  I have one source of light, not the three that are recommended, and the prospect of getting lost and turned around in a cave does create fear in my breast.  Next time, I will come better prepared and explore deeper than this time, but for now, the short explorations are enough to keep me content.  Also, a helmet of some sort would be great to prevent a head injury.  I take care not to bang my head against an unforgiving protrusion of rock, but I see the potential for knocking myself out cold.

Returning to camp, I am annoyed to find that people have chosen a site next to mine, although there are plenty of open spaces elsewhere that could give us both some distance.  But, I put my mild angst aside as I realize that these two adjacent places are the only ones with a view of the valley to the east, the same gentle, flat lava field where I had hike this morning.  Had I really wanted peace and quiet, I shouldn’t have chosen the most choice location.  As it turns out, we are both after the same thing, solitude and a sense of space, and as the evening wears on  we all congregate around a blazing fire to watch the valley fade as the night sky becomes softly illuminated.

The clouds have now moved on entirely, and the evening is alight with the stunning reds, yellows and oranges found the world over at the crepuscular times.  The clouds, however, had kept some heat in, and with their disappearence the temperature has dropped rapidly and combined with the sharp wind, I am soon chilled to the bone.  It is rare that I have been so cold; mostly, this is due to my recalcitrance to don clothing appropriate for the temperature, as I am standing in front of a blazing inferno.  But the fire’s warmth does little to avail me from the frigid air and I finally, and grumpily, retreat to my tent and adorn myself with my expedition weight polypro before making haste back to the heat of the flames.  I am so stubborn at times that I can cause myself self-inflicted misery and suffering, but in a perverse way, it is all part of the fun, to see how much I can endure, especially when such a challenge most likely cause me any real harm.

The sunlight fades completely and now above our heads the clear sky is a deep blue canvas lit up with pinpricks of white light that we know are stars.  The night’s sky is a wonder in its own right, and beholding the constellations and navigating myself around them is something I never cease of amusing myself with.  There are occasional shooting stars and the entirety of the heavens seems close enough to reach out and grab one or two to take home with me.  My outstretched hands reach to the heavens, and those stars can’t be much beyond my fingertips…

The night continues on as the fire finally fades into a heap of warm coals.  My compatriots for the evening are enjoying the clear, dry skies as much as I am.  We are both seeking a deeper, spiritual connection with the world at large, a spirituality that is often found to clash with the modern world whose existence I am dependent on.  I want the best of both worlds:  Comfort of our modern trappings and the natural world’s ability to exist just for the sake of itself.  Life is grand, and as the coals’ heat ebbs into a heap of ash, I part ways with my new found friends and, I would dare say, spiritual co-conspirators, to lie in the warmth of the waiting sleeping bag, dreaming about and processing the day’s activities before tomorrow’s further adventures.

West Coast Road Trip, Part 3 (Travel to and Exploration of Lava Beds National Monument) – April 13, 2015

Hiking east on the Whitney Butte Trail, these clouds captured my attention

Hiking east on the Whitney Butte Trail, these clouds captured my attention

The previous evening I pulled into Laufman Campground near Milford, California after a long day’s drive that started just inside Colorado and passed through Utah and Nevada.  The quietude promised as I shut my eyes did not disappoint when I woke in the early morning to a clear sky that announced the coming of the morning sun.

Again I quickly packed up the car, not having bothered to set up a tent, and drove down to U.S. 395 and turned north towards Susanville, California.  Here I had breakfast at a pancake house and stocked up on a few needed supplies before I drove north on California State Highway 139 towards my destination for the day, Lava Beds National Monument.  This state highway was narrow and winds around through forests of ponderosa pine and I look forward to the time that I visit again and perhaps even spend a night or two under the stars among the big trees.

Arriving at the national monument, I headed for Indian Well Campground and found the ideal spot that allowed a fine view off to the east.  Here, I could see out to a distant range across a broad valley studded with cinder cones and other high buttes.  This land is somewhat dry and reminds me of the pinon-juniper lands in the Rocky Mountains.  Camp is set and I am ecstatic to be off the road, although I do enjoy the driving, and set out for some hiking and exploring.

The first thing I do is head out for the southeastern corner of the monument to see the Mammoth Crater.  This area has a long history of volcanic activity, sitting here near the southern end of the Cascade Range.  This crater I’m visiting today is what sent forth immense volumes of lava some thirty-two thousand years ago, and the lava formed tubes that have subsequently become the main reason for the founding of this monument.  The most recent volcanic activity in the are was some nine hundred and fifty years ago, very recent in geologic terms.

The crater itself is rimmed with the diminutive but heavy brush found in the area and also a number of ponderosa pines.  The crater is large and deep, but not huge but the standards of the mountains.  The real story is in the rock.  The mounds of aa and pahoehoe lava have long since cooled, obviously, but the texture found in the details gives hint to the power and fury of the molten rock spewed from the Earth’s core.  The rock varies in hue from dark brown to black and is pockmarked throughout by what were bubbles of gas escaping from solution.  The shape of the cooled lava differs depending on what manner the liquid rock was emitted:  some flowed, others were splattered but most looks like it could serve as a stand in for Hades.

It is high noon, or close to it, so my digital images don’t give a good idea of the crater’s extent.  Beyond the crater lies the Big Nasty Trail, a short, two-mile loop hike that passes through a forest of towering ponderosa pine.  These trees are large and the trunks coated with the orange-pink bark that signifies maturity and as I walk my olfactory senses are lit up with the odor of vanilla and butterscotch.

I soon find one particularly stately tree and sit myself down upon the bed of shed needles at the base of the trunk.  My view is enhanced by numerous cinder cones and lava flows and I am taken aback by the volume of cooled molten rock.  Even after thousands of years much of this rock has remained impervious to vegetative growth and remains dark and foreboding.

My hike continues after my short rest and upon reaching the trailhead I cross the road to the Hidden Valley Trail without breaking my stride.  The Hidden Valley is a small valley created from the collapse of a large lava tube.  The trail is short, but has been continued by hikers and other explorers and I continue on the rim until I find a slope that allows me to descend to the valley floor where I find more stately ponderosa.  I am exultant, having found a ponderosa park; a large swath of mature ponderosa interspersed by grass with very little undergrowth.  I wonder aimlessly for a while, amazed at my good fortune to find this little slice of heaven.

Returning to the car I am walking with a spring in my step, pleased with my first two forays into the interior of the monument.  Looking at the monument-wide map I have purchased at the Visitor Center I notice that there is an old railroad grade just outside of the monument and I am decided on visiting this relic from the logging days.  I am here, so why not go and see what remains?  I drive south into the Modoc National Forest and find the old grade but there isn’t much to see. I can’t find the part I really want to see and, becoming discouraged, I decide to set this exploration aside for another day realizing that I may never see it but, knowing that I have other things to see, I return to the monument.

I drive a short distance back towards the interior of the park stopping to walk the half a mile to the Heppe Cave and Chimney.  I explore the cave a bit, but since I don’t have proper gear my sense of exploration is tempered by the extent of the natural light that filters into the cave from its opening.  I am awed by the thought of this cave, nee tube, being filled with lava sweeping down from the crater above flowing on its way to lower elevations.

These tubes were formed when a crust formed on the relatively cool surface of the flowing lava.  This crust gradually built up into a surface thick enough to support its own weight when the lava evacuated the tube.  The caves were subsequently formed when certain structurally deficient portions of the roof collapsed and formed openings into the labyrinth below.

The Heppe Chimney, difficult to photograph, was impressive, as well.  This spout seems like it may have been something akin to a pressure relief valve found on a boiler.  I have, from time to time in my transects about the Rocky Mountains, come across vertical shafts made by miners in pursuit of God, glory and wealth.  They are frightening, those shafts that seem bottomless, due to my persistent thought of plunging to my demise some hundreds of feet down.  However, that being said, they are mere strolls in the park compared to the terror induced at looking down the shaft of this natural feature.  My honest impression is that is would be bottomless, although I know this can’t be true.  Still, I am impressed and spellbound by this formation made by the Creator and it is some time before I leave and walk back to the car, which sits idle under a large ponderosa.  I am happy to make it back safely and try to push aside the thoughts of Hell that have filled my mind.

It’s late in the day and I have a decision to make:  Do I head back to the camp or go see some other easily accessed features, or do I go for the gusto and hike out three and a half miles to Whitney Butte.  With the transition from Winter to Spring I have been lately chomping at the bit, as the saying goes, to get out and hike on the earth instead of over snow, so I decide to go ahead, and make my day.

So, soon I am headed out to Whitney Butte along the trail of the same name, my sense of boldness enhanced by the knowledge that there is little to no elevation gain over the three plus miles.  The wind is blasting my face head-on, but does little to slow my stride.  I now notice the clouds forming on the horizon and remember the weather synopsis I had seen in Susanville this morning while having breakfast.  It mentioned rain, and I see it coming but know that I have nothing to worry about until tonight.

There are flowers blooming in the dry desert and I take notice and appreciate the color added to the pale grays and greens of the vegetation and the dark browns and black of the rock.  The views are stupendous, stretching off for dozens of miles and I see cinder cones to my west and snow-capped peaks to my north.  I learn the names, but can’t reproduce them now as I write.  I will have to do some research and come back and edit this post at a future date.

I continue onward until I come down a small gully and walk up to the end of Callahan Flow, a vast flow of lava that streamed down from the highlands to the south.  The amazing thing is that as old as this flow is I can easily discern the exact ending.  Here is where the lava stopped:  It flowed no further and it is as evident now as it would have been then.  I continue on until I reach the first gate on this trail.  There was at one time a two-track road that crossed into the monument from the adjacent Modoc National Forest to the west.

I stand and stare at the lava upon my return along the trail.  This flow must be some thousands of years old but it seems to me that it could have cooled only a year or two ago.  I decide upon my return to climb to the short summit of Whitney Butte itself and am rewarded with a close up view into the old vent of the this cinder cone.  There are also stunning views to the four directions of the compass.  The view of the Callahan Flow to the south is enlightening but the other three directions are fantastic and broad.  I must relearn the names of the prominent topographic entities that are beyond the boundaries of the monument map, but I note Gillem Bluff and Schonchin Butte on the map.

There is something about these long-range views that allow my spirit to lift and soar, like the eagles and hawks.  I love being here, but also love to see what is over the next ridge or in the adjacent valley.  A conundrum in my character, but one which is easily solved by employing a balanced approach to appreciating what is in hand against what may be later had.  The winds on the summit are more approximating gusts and even in a good lee shelter I am jostled by the constant attention of the wind.  My thoughts wander between the philosophical and the practical.

I dismount the crater down the opposite, eastern slope and rejoin the trail for the walk back to the trailhead.  Now, the wind is at my back, but the gusts are such that my backpack moves me around, attempting to spin me one way or the other.  Distracting, but not quite annoying, and the views along the entire trail are more worth my attention than bemoaning my self-induced plight.

Upon reaching the trailhead I head over to the Merrill Cave, where metal ladders and scaffolding has been erected to easier facilitate entrance.  Again, since I don’t have proper gear, I enter the cave only a short distance, to where decent footing and light dictate.  The National Park Service recommends a helmet, multiple sources of light, gloves and other protective gear to explore the caves, and I only have one headlamp and long pants and hiking shoes.  It is surprisingly easy to bang your head or elbow or knee on protruding points of rock.

The storm predicted by the weather forecasters seems to be headed this way in earnest judging by the wind on the surface.  However, here in the cave, all is a still silence.  I might as well have closed a window, such is the abruptness between the gusty surface and the stillness of the subterranean strata.  These caves are mind-boggling, and I shake my head in wonder as I return to the surface and my waiting car.

I am now sated, and feel that my first day in Lava Beds National Monument has been well done.  I have seen a variety of habitats and geological oddities and am reveling in my further explorations of the American West.  Upon return to Indian Well Campground, I light a fire and grill up another marinated round steak of elk, additionally roasting onions, peppers and corn to complete the meal.  A beer rounds off the accouterments and I sit in my chair, warmed by the blaze, watching the swiftly changing colors of the evening sky.

The wind abates a bit as the sun sets, but the clouds have arrived and I double check my rain fly on my tent before I go to sleep for the night.  I am grateful for this day, having met and exceeded any expectations I could have had.  The road trip part of the day was revealing, and so was the hiking around the monument.  I lay snug now in my tent and think one final thought of thanks before slipping off into slumber.

Captions to come later… and, after a hiatus for a recent backpacking foray into the Rocky Mountains near my home, the captions have been added to this fine day of adventuring that I had in Lava Beds National Monument, in the northeast corner of the amazingly diverse state of California.

West Coast Road Trip, Part 2 (Rabbit Valley, Colorado to Laufman Campground, California) – April 12, 2015

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I do love road trips and the open road, especially in the western United States where the population is spread out a bit.  The ability to go where I want and when I want is a sort of freedom uniquely American, especially concerning our automobiles.  Now, on my second day out, I am ready to get moving and see new vistas, all the while joining the main flow of movement that I normally eschew.

Thus, I have woken up at half past four.  There isn’t even a hint of the coming dawn on the eastern horizon and packing is done by moonlight.  This isn’t a burden as the previous evening before I had turned in for sleep I had virtuously stowed and packed all that wasn’t necessary for the morning.  I had also remembered to set out fresh clothes, so when I woke all I had to do is quickly and quietly get dressed, put away my dirty clothes and roll up the sleeping bag.  Also, easing the way, is that this is nothing new to me, packing by moon or star light.  I am good at it, and five minutes after waking I have made a final check of the campsite and am ready to go.

I gaze around at the night time vista, softly illuminated by the dim light, and take a moment to appreciate the desert’s solemn beauty.  Somewhat guiltily, I turn over the car and without waiting I pull out of the campground, hoping that I don’t cause too much consternation among my fellow campers.  I dimmed the headlights as I drove out, guiding myself only by the parking lights.  Once out of the campground, I lit up the desert with my beams and noted the ubiquitous crunch of gravel as I navigated the one challenging wash along the short, desert road.

Within ten minutes I had left the public lands behind and found myself at Interstate 70, one of many such highways which cross the country and keep us all connected.  I drove the car over the overpass and turned onto the westbound entrance ramp and, noting the gloaming in the east, worked the gears through the pattern and was suddenly hurtling along at seventy-five miles an hour.  The radio was telling about the latest happenings throughout the world courtesy of the British Broadcasting Company, but I was more focused on the dashed line slipping by as I crossed the Colorado-Utah state border in the darkness now retreating before the oncoming sunrise.

I prefer not to drive at night only because I miss the scenery but the dark hours have their own charm when driving and even this busy interstate didn’t have much traffic.  I enjoy the relative solitude of the highway and the miles slip by easily as I look forward to dawn.  Many times have I made this crossing of the interior western United States and I know that to the north lie the Book Cliffs and to my south are the highlands where Arches National Park is found as well as the towering La Sal Mountains.

The small town of Green River, Utah, was open to travelers even at his early hour before six when I pulled over for fuel – gas for the car and coffee for me.  It was busy even at this hour with people from all over.  Los Angelenos headed to the mountains or vice-versa, Utahans headed east or returning home and Coloradans coming and going who-knows-where.  There were also a smattering of more distant states and the stories relating to the reason they were here would be as diverse as the people who told them.

Returning to the four-lane ribbon that drapes across the country, I find that I am suddenly in the envious position to catch the sun’s first rays striking the looming sandstone formations that are called the San Rafael Swell.  The eastern most stretch of Interstate 70 is fairly flat and tedious, but now the road begins to climb up and through the most amazing sculptures.  I have to slow to a crawl – fifty miles an hour – as I drive up onto the plateau.  The eastbound, downhill lanes show evidence of where lack of caution has caused numerous accidents despite the immense amount of signage warning of the coming perils.  Past the swell lie mountains and I am glad to be driving through the scenic west.  I have come to the conclusion that this is my favorite stretch of interstate, and some day I hope to come out here and explore at a pace slightly slower than highway speeds.

I try to outrace the sun, but to no avail.  Driving west, it is behind me and the sight brings my heart into my throat.  So golden.  Red.  Orange.  The clouds are lit up, and the sandstone is too.  I hurtle onward, onward, climbing to the high summit between Green River and Salina.  I pass trucks laboring up the grade and am passed by others who are making haste.  What a wonderland this is, a blessing on my soul and again time has lost meaning as I roll on, glad to be aware and alive.

It is have past seven when I roll into Salina, Utah, and here the Interstate and I part ways.  A blast to be in the mainstream, for sure, but I will also be happy to return to the slower, more ponderous two-lane roads that also, I feel, allow a slightly more personal touch with the land.  Not much, but a bit, a chance to further ponder the wonder of it all.  Before that transition is complete, however,  I drop into Mom’s Cafe and enjoy a hot, satisfying breakfast.  The sun has risen over the ridge to the east, and the main street has a slow, easy feel about it, the contemporary small western city in early morning.

The remainder of the day is navigating the Outback over U.S. 50 till I reach the western side of Nevada.  The towns and small cities are all familiar: Scipio, Delta, Ely, Eureka, Austin and finally Fallon.  This is country where towns and services might be eighty to a hundred miles apart.  Last year, taking the same route in late May, I stopped and explored a bit, but this year there is still too much snow in the higher country for me to want to get off the beaten path much and so I drive by, eager to reach Laufman Campground in California between Reno and Susanville.

The drive is uneventful and soothing to my nerves, and I am the master of my own fate.  Nevada is the land of basin and range, and the long desert is broken up repeatedly by passes and views of distant mountains.  All of this is familiar but unknown as I have hiked and explored this region only once, and that was many years ago.  Well, someday… but it feels like I’m saying that quite a bit lately and I have begun to wonder at what I will see and what will remain unknown to me.

Soon, I pass into the Golden State and find Laufman Campground in the Plumas National Forest.  A small six-unit facility, there is no fee for staying here.  It isn’t scenic, tucked into a small canyon, but it is pretty.  It is also quiet, being well off the main highway and this year like last I am the only person staying here.

I have made good time, stopping only once for breakfast and then again at the Hickman Petroglyph Recreation Area near Austin for a quick lunch.  After claiming a spot and setting up camp, I walk up the Milford Grade, curious about the drought that has afflicted the state.  I am glad to see some wildflowers in bloom and even an occasional small patch of snow.  But there isn’t much snow, and the dryness is evident even now in the early part of Spring when usually all is wet and the streams are overflowing with abundant runoff.

I began to work my way up the hillside away from the road and finally stop on a high ridge where I have a view to the north and northwest.  The sun is streaking through the high peaks along a distant ridge.  The drought is severe, but I notice that nature seems to be taking care of her own.  I hope the forest survives this latest challenge, but I still feel that the best policy is to let nature run her own show and we should interfere as little as possible.

I feel compelled to climb higher and find a view that goes three hundred and sixty degrees, but the sun is setting and I have yet to have dinner.  Dinner involves a fire and grilling marinated round steak of elk.  It is very satisfying and I am blessed to be in this green hole, quietude abounding as the stars blink on overhead.  Soon, the afterglow from the all-day drive catches up with me and I can still feel the vibrations that have made their way up from the pavement through the car and past the steering wheel into my hands.  The hike earlier has helped to dispel much of that energy, but before long, the coals are ash and I am sound asleep, my last though being amazement that I had woken this morning in Colorado and I was now resting my head in California.

West Coast Road Trip, Part 1 (Rabbit Valley) – April 11, 2015

Anticline seen from Rabbit Valley

Anticline seen from Rabbit Valley

All is ready.  The canines are at the kennel, safely ensconced in their cages during the night and able to get out and play with other doggies during the day.  They weren’t happy about being dropped off, but they never are, whether its for daycare or for a couple of weeks.  I loaded the car the previous evening, excepting perishables and now that is also done.  The heat is on for the duration of this trip, a couple of days short of a fortnight, just in case of a deep freeze; always possible in this high mountain valley I call home.  I have worked my shift at the gym today, but now that is also in the past, and I can focus on my forthcoming adventure.

I make my last check around the house, and simultaneously recheck to make sure that everything I want is stowed aboard the car that is now waiting for its summons to carry me swiftly across the intervening thousands of miles before I see my home once again.  All seems in order, and I make a short, quick shout of joy as I nearly run to the car, ready to get behind the wheel and pilot myself west on U.S. 50, into the setting sun.

The cold remains in my mountain home in Gunnison, Colorado, and I am ready for a change of scenery now that spring is here.  The miles slip by quickly along the familiar route to Montrose, and I note the change from mountains to plateau.  I have left later in the day than I usually do, but have also decided that it would be better to drive for two or three hours this evening than get up at three or four in the morning the next day and vainly hope to make a big push all the way across Nevada.

The familiar road takes me to Delta and then through the desert between the former place and Grand Junction, where the two ribbons of pavement that is Interstate 70 await.  My goal for the evening is to reach the Rabbit Valley Campground at Exit 2.  This pleasant campground is operated by the Bureau of Land Management and although it lacks amenities it is also free of charge.

Arriving just as the last light is about to fade, I have time for some quick snapshots of Rabbit Valley itself but I don’t make any effort to get out and explore a bit.  The sky is clear and there is no real possibility of rain.  This fact, combined with the relatively warm desert climate, convinces me to sleep under the stars and save the hassle of pitching a tent.

I summon forth a fire to keep me warm for a bit as I watch the light fade.  The flames catch eagerly and soon the wood is aflame, sending up licks of orange and yellow light that clashes with the surrounding darkness.  Dinner I had consumed earlier in Delta, Colorado, at my favorite fast Mexican joint, Don Gilberto, where I have two tacos lenguas and one camarones.  The fire illuminates my small corner of the planet and I sip a beer as I sit back to watch the stars illuminate the ever darkening sky.

The wood is soon reduced to a heap of ash and as the coals have lost most of their heat, I decided to slide into my sleeping bag, but not before I have soaked the fire.  The wind was blowing hard in the evening but after the sun set the wind died down.  Nonetheless, I don’t want any stray and errant sparks to be emitted from my fire ring.  As I lay on my back I look up and mentally check off the constellations I know.  The air is clear and I see the stars well, and happy I am that I have found this desert hideaway, a fine place for me to rest my weary bones while I am in transit to points west.  The continuation of the journey shall commence early in the morning, I hope before daybreak so that I am able to make the crossing to California all in one day.  This day has been an auspicious start and I am eagerly awaiting the morrow’s dawn.

Spring Conditions on Gold Creek – April 09, 2015

Leah, Gold Creek Campground, Lamphier Creek and Broncho Mountain on a blustery Spring day

Leah, Gold Creek Campground, Lamphier Creek and Broncho Mountain on a blustery Spring day

Spring! The Vernal equinox has passed and the days are longer than they are short. The snowpack reflects the new warmth and is diminishing rapidly.  To celebrate the Earth’s renewal, I took the dogs up to Gold Creek above Ohio City so that we could enjoy some time outdoors in the Rocky Mountains near my home in Gunnison, Colorado.

Parking at the customary winter trailhead, although I could have driven further up the road than I did, we hike up to and past the Gold Creek Campground where various trails lead off into the woods.  The trails may be prone to avalanche activity still, so I continued up the road to New Dollar Gulch where snow still blankets the ground, but that ground is nearly level and no slides will occur here.

Although the snow is prevalent there are places where it has been melted and the ground is exposed to the warmth of the strengthening sun.  In the forest, where the trees provide shade, the snow is still piled up deep.  However, there is now a hard crust that has formed on the surface of the snow and I am able to walk unimpeded.  Nonetheless, I carry my snowshoes on my pack, just in case the snow heats up enough to soften and thus becomes unable to support my weight.

I am not fond of walking across a stable surface and then suddenly plunging through the crust up to my knees or waist.  Even with snowshoes a weak crust could mean a challenging trek back to the trailhead.  Regardless of my apprehension, however, the crust maintains its integrity and I cautiously walk away from the packed snow on the road, courtesy of the snowmobiles, and stroll a bit uneasily out into a meadow and across Gold Creek where I find a small bit of land, alluded to earlier, that has been exposed to the warm sun and is free of snow.

All here is peace, the wind is blowing softly and the only noise is the soft gurgling of the passing waters of Gold Creek.  I stare at the higher peaks and ridges that are in my view and know that Spring is still in abeyance as Winter’s cold holds sway.  The sun is warm and I bask in its glow.  Draco and Leah do the same when not distracted by the sharp cry of one of the tree-going or ground-dwelling rodents that are actively going about engaged in their own form of busyness.

Excepting the usual evergreen vegetation nothing green is growing.  But as I watch the water drip off the melting snow, I know that a portion of this newly formed liquid water will soak into the ground and that then the roots of the various grasses and forbs will take up that water and use it to photosynthesize sunlight into energy and soon many green things will be sprouting forth from the thin, mountain soil.

Eventually, the sun’s potency begins to worry me and I become preoccupied with the thought of plunging through deep snow, step after step, mile after mile.  So, I get up and walk back down towards the trailhead.  Yet, the snow’s solidity holds firm and I stroll wherever I want.  In many ways this is the best conditions possible for exploring the realm as the snow covers all the barriers, such as fallen trunks and impassable brush, found on the ground’s surface.  But this covering won’t last too much longer as the temperatures climb and the crystalline snow continues its steady transformation into the fluid we are all so familiar with.

The day feels warm and the sun is a welcome friend.  Whenever I feel that I am about to overheat a cool gust of wind moderates my temperature and I then know the blessing of the mountains.  But what future these mountains?  There are those who want to steal these public lands from me and all the American people and give them to a small minority to exploit and profit from.  I suppose I could feel smug and grateful that I live now, when I can still scramble about at will, but I dread that future generations won’t have the same opportunity to enjoy the freedom that I now relish.

I am a bit worried about some of the early signs of beetle blight that I see on the trees here, but can only hope that this is part of the forest’s self-regulatory system and that even though it may be unsightly it is necessary in the long run for the health of the ecosystem.  I feel that the best thing that can be done, once the trees die, is to leave them be so that the nutrients from these dead giants will be recycled into the thin, nutrient-poor soil and new forests, grasslands or what have you, will grow.  Instead, the die-off is used as an excuse to fell timber for the benefit of industry.  Well, I can only hope that some significant percentage is set aside to continue the natural processes that sustain life, even if the results are contrary to our sense of beauty.

The German shepherds and I return down the road, leaving behind the melting snow and towering mountains.  Eventually, the green will return and the ancient cycle will continue unabated.  After the challenging hike yesterday, walking headlong into strong gusts, this hike was soft and warm and generally comfortable.  I bid farewell to Gold Creek, one of my favorite places in the Gunnison Country, as we return to the trailhead and know that although some aspects of my life are challenging, I am blessed to live in such a place that I can escape to the mountains’ soothing respite from civilization whenever the moods suits me.

Short, Windy Hike on the McCarty Trail – April 08, 2015

Looking east at the Gunnison River from Camp Ridge on the McCarty Trail

Looking east at the Gunnison River from Camp Ridge on the McCarty Trail

The spate of good weather, with clear, blue skies and windless days, came to an abrupt end one day when I had decided to get out of the Gunnison Country and make my way down to Delta, Colorado, and the nearby Uncompahgre Plateau for some hiking in the desert there.

While the top most portion of this plateau can collect an immense amount of snow, the lower portions on the eastern slope linger between five and six thousand feet in elevation, where the snow seldom falls.  Often, but not always, this is a good area to hike when seeking a snow-free locale.  I have hiked extensively in some of the nearby canyon systems but this is the first time that I have hiked on this, the McCarty, trail.

This entire area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is part of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.  The trail itself starts east of and leads to the Dominguez Canyons Wilderness Area.  This area does have a profound sense of wildness where the forces of nature are allowed to continue unimpeded.

The trailhead is located west of Delta off of U.S. 50, in Escalante Canyon just a couple of miles past the bridge over the Gunnison River.  The Uncompahgre Plateau is underlain by the ancient bedrock of the Rocky Mountains that has been pushed up during the Laramide Orogeny.   The sedimentary formations that settled above this uplift have been eroded into the various canyons that I enjoy exploring.

Unfortunately, the day I picked to explore this trail was violently windy and also hazy, the entire day having a melancholy outlook.  The initial part of the hike up out of Escalante Canyon and onto McCarty Bench, a mid-level layer between the canyon below and the ridge above, brought me to a fine, grassy meadow filled with desert vegetation.  Through the haze, I could make out Grand Mesa and the distant West Elk Mountains.

There were large chunks of rocks that had fallen from the ridge above strewn about the bench, and I examined a handful of these and imagined their former place up above.  The trail wound around and into a small gully that provided some shelter from the wind, but after I climbed up onto Camp Ridge the wind hit me in the face full on and made forward progress a challenge.

Camp Ridge is one massive forest of juniper and pinon that stretches as far as the eye can see.  This ridge is nearly nine or ten miles long from its beginning near the Gunnison River to its upper end near the Forks of the Escalante.  I would have loved to have hiked about half of that distance today, but the wind was so ferocious and the sky so gray and the air so dry that I decided to turn around after only a mile or so.

There weren’t any high points to visit near by, nothing but juniper and pinon trees bending and shaking.  Continuing the hike would expose my face to the constant flaying of the wind and my hat seemed reluctant to remain on my head.  The grit was getting into my eyes and my tears, vainly attempting to expel the foreign particles, dried out before being of any use.

It was here that the full force of the power of the wild hit me in the face, both literally and figuratively.  As I was thinking about how nice it would be to return to the trailhead and drive home to my house in the City of Gunnison, Colorado, (plus reliving the taste and overall sensation of the delicious lemon bar I had eaten in Montrose) I was reminding myself of the Utes, mountain men and other passers-by who had no choice but to face such conditions and make do as best they could.  This sere land has a certain charm, but may not always be best suited to salubrious explorations.

As I look back on this hike, I remember it with a bit of strange fondness.  The wind in early spring is nothing unusual and is a good reminder that the Earth, in the northern hemisphere, is warming up for the year.  The wind is a force, just like water, that can move mountains, and in a way my hike was audacious in its attempt to contradict the air’s movement.

Descending from Camp Ridge to McCarty Bench brought me back into a slight lee, where I found a large rock that provided additional shelter from the pelting wind.  Here I sat and watched out over the river below and again took in the view of the mountains that I call my home.  Perhaps I should have stayed at home this day, and let the wind run rampant before, after the gusts had died, I attempted further hikes.

Yet, sitting in the lee of the gusts, I also felt blessed to get out and hike today and at least taste some of the more challenging weather that the mountains brew up with customary tempestuousness.  Ah, Spring in the Rockies…  I didn’t linger too long before I began walking down the trail and into Escalante Canyon.  Undoubtedly, in the end, I was happy to reach my car and point it home.  The drive itself was a challenge as the car shimmied and shifted in my lane from side to side as we cut through the strongest of the gusts.  All in all, I was annoyed at the time, the wind generally setting my nerves on edge, but at the same time I look back at this hike with only a bit of trepidation and with a smidgen of appreciation for the atmospheric forces of the natural world.