The celebration had come to an end last night as most of the family departed from my parents’ house in Santa Rosa to return to their own homes. This morning the only people remaining were my parents, naturally, as well as myself and my sister-in-law’s parents. Thus the morning was leisurely and placid. We had a breakfast of left-overs, and I was yet satiated enough to decline offers of chocolate cake for my morning meal instead choosing a light dish of mixed fruit.
Breakfast being finished we all prepared to get along with our day. There being plenty of food left over from the previous night, I made a couple of sandwiches to take along with me for my journey. Pretty soon, I was the only guest remaining, and as I was feeling the urge to begin again my travels, I, too, made my farewells and began to travel. Ah, the first to arrive and the last to depart!
Although not good for solving the drought crisis, the blue skies make for fine traveling weather and I was eager to get out onto the highway. I made my way along Chanate Road to Montecito Boulevard. This area was home to many of my friends during high school but since that time there has been a new high school built in the area and in this eastern part of the city students no longer attend what would be my school.
I had decided earlier that I would like to take an alternate route to get to Yellowstone National Park, my next destination. The quickest and easiest way to get to the park would be to take Interstate 80 out through Nevada. However, I decide that I would rather swing immediately north and into Oregon and then pass through central Idaho and into southwestern Montana, dropping into the park from the north.
So, instead of turning right at Calistoga Road and making my way to California 12, which would have led me to the interstate, I turned left and made my way over that winding road, climbing into the hills covered with golden grass and live oaks. At Saint Helena Road, I turned right onto that narrower road and began to drive towards that summit of the ridge that is also the country line between Sonoma and Napa Counties. The road follows the upper reaches of Mark West Creek, and is thus dark and wooded. Some of boles are close enough to the road that the pavement must narrow to avoid them.
Passing the natural scenery along the way, I also drove by numerous vineyards. There has been an large amount of acreage converted into vineyards to help satiate the appetite for the local wineries. Of course, this hasn’t been done without a certain amount of controversy, especially with the onset of the drought. Once I descended into the town of Saint Helena, I turned right onto California 29 & 128 and headed south. Saint Helena is a vibrant town, full of tourists who come from the around the world to sample the wines. Even on a Monday in October there are buses full of visitors and the traffic is heavy.
I continued along my way for a few miles until the routes separated. California 29 continues south towards the Bay Area, but I turned left onto California 128 which would lead me to Winters and Davis. This road is relatively lightly traveled, although it crosses some hilly country and is still a slow drive. I pass Lake Berryessa, a major reservoir and recreation area, and I am thankful that I am driving on this road during a weekday rather than a weekend.
Soon after I pass the reservoir, I come upon an area below the dam that is called the Putah Creek State Wildlife Area. Putah Creek, it seems, is the major drainage that both feeds and drains Lake Berryessa. It doesn’t seem quite possible that it is already the noon hour, but it is and I am ready for a quick lunch. There are picnic tables set up here and there near the road, so I choose a salubrious location and set down for a bite to eat under the canopy of a large live oak. I take a short walk along a trail and am surprised at the large volume of water in the creek. This is a nice place, despite some graffiti, and I could stay here for a bit except that I want to make mileage.
I continue on my way, driving down the highway and out of the Vaca Mountains and into the great Sacramento Valley. The terrain behind me is surprisingly rugged. Not especially tall, but with so many folds in the land as to produce numerous small valleys and ridges. Now, suddenly, I am at the edge of the great valley that stretches across dozens of miles to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range. My view, previously hindered beyond a mile or two at most, is now expansive and the haze obscures the view before becoming topographically hindered.
The driving becomes less challenging, as the road goes from curvy to straight. Traffic, however, increases significantly now that I am back in a well populated area. I pass through Winters and continue on to Davis. At the latter city I turn north onto California 113 and make my way over the freeway first and then later the two-lane road. This area is intensively cultivated, and where there aren’t groves of fruit and nut trees there are open fields that have been plowed. North of Davis, I stop to look around at the plowed fields that have groves of live oaks studded here and there. I imagine what this area must have looked like hundreds of years ago as one, huge savanna teeming with open grasses and grazing wildlife.
At Knights Landing I turn north onto California 45, a narrow, rickety highway the traffic of which consists mainly of semis employed by the various agricultural interests. This road more or less follows the west bank of the Sacramento River. The large river is easily denoted by the foliage growing along its banks. Groves of willow compete with cottonwood and other trees to form a dense mat of vegetation. The river is now confined to its course by large dikes that line the banks. Sometimes the highway or an old railroad grade make use of these dikes but just as often the road is below them and the view is obscured by the mound of earth.
I pass through Colusa, a small city that, on the surface, reminds me of Gunnison. I continue north along California 45 and now pass through orchard after orchard of walnut trees. It seems that the majority of the nation’s walnut production must be located here in Colusa and Glenn Counties. Row after row of trees, in a never-ending march to the north. I know that walnuts are grown elsewhere, but seeing the immense orchards here makes me think that there is no need for production in other locales. It is harvest season, and everywhere I look there is activity and signs proclaiming the ability to process the crop of walnuts that must be measured by the ton.
I follow California 45 along its entire route and at the northern terminus with California 32 I turn to the east. Crossing over the Sacramento River, I pause to reflect on its enormity, even during the drought. I then pass through Chico, where the only real traffic backup is encountered. This situation is caused, in my opinion, by a set of incredibly poorly timed traffic lights. It is difficult to get a real feel for any place when merely driving through, and I can but scarcely get a glimpse of the medium sized city as I drive by. There does seem to be a certain amount of vibrancy here, possibly due to the presence of the state university.
Continuing past Chico, I drive east on California 32. Chico is located on the east side of the Sacramento Valley and almost as soon as I am out of the city limits the highway begins its long upward trek towards the mountains. I use the generic term “mountains” here, because the region that the highway leads to is the “in-between-zone” where the Cascade Range to the north meets the Sierra Nevada Range from the south. I am sure that there is much contention at where the exact boundary is between these two ranges, but I don’t really know except to say that it is somewhere in the vicinity.
The highway traverses the foothills, passing through grove after grove of live oak. Here is where I really notice the drought, as these live oaks seem wilted and near death. The trees seem ragged and forlorn, brown when they should be green. The road climbs continuously and soon passes from the savanna and oak habitat into that which is dominated by conifer. I drive and drive, and the afternoon is quickly changing into the evening and I must soon decide where I will bed down for the night.
Looking at the time remaining in the day, I decide that I would be able to spend a night in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Coming to the end of California 32, I turn again to the east on California 36 & 89, deciding to eschew the more popular western areas of the park for a small campground on the eastern edge of the park. California 89 diverges and leads south as I continue on California 36 to the east. At the town of Chester, I fill up on gas and buy a bottle of beer for later this evening. I drive up the road, unpaved for the last several miles, to Juniper Lake, where there is a small campground.
I am now in haste, as I would like to set up camp and take a small hike before the sun sets. The Autumn weather is generally fantastic and Fall is perhaps my favorite season of the year, but I do forget how little daylight there is after the Autumnal equinox. The campground has a few folks here and there but I am able to find a secluded campsite with a view of the lake. I choose my location, but decide to head out immediately for a hike rather than take time to set up camp.
Since I hadn’t planned on stopping here, I had left my topographic map of the area back in Colorado. Well, there isn’t time left in the day to do much except hike out a couple of miles and then return. I decide that I would like to hike to the summit of Mount Harkness, a large cinder cone that allows fantastic views in nearly every direction. For that reason, there is also a fire lookout on the summit. No map, no problem, as the trail should be a fairly easy to follow as it is a well marked National Park Service trail. I do not like hiking without a map, or compass, but am willing to forgo the former for this short hike. Much to my pleasant surprise, there is a small topographic map posted at the trailhead located within the campground. I am able to take a quick snapshot of this map before I begin to hike, and feel a bit better having at least this simple reference at my disposal.
Up and up I hike, making haste due to the rapidity of the setting sun. I meet one soul coming down from the summit, and we share a quick word and he grins as I tell him that I want to see the sun set from the peak. The forest here is especially thick, but soon enough I spy the summit, some twelve hundred feet above my starting point at the lake below. Mount Harkness is part of the great volcanic field that makes up the geologic history of this realm.
Approaching the summit, I am suddenly out of the forest and can see Mount Lassen and the other great peaks of the area. Far off to the north, I can even see Mount Shasta, that huge, lone peak that towers above everything else in this area. Mount Shasta tops fourteen thousand feet in elevation in an area were most peaks top out below ten thousand feet. As I approach the summit I am stricken by the red color of the soil and small cinders that make up this slope of the cone that is Mount Harkness. This red color is beautifully contrasted with the light green of a small forb that is growing profusely. The yellow shafted light from the low-angled sun combines with the green and red to produce a spectacular view of the area. I almost think that I am on another planet!
Once on the summit, I take out and consume the other sandwich that I had prepared at my parents house in Santa Rosa this morning. I have not been gone from there an entire day, yet already it seems like I have traveled for weeks on end, such is the diversity of the terrain that I have crossed this one day. I sit and stare out at the vast vistas, amazed at the landscape laid below me. Ridge after ridge, covered in conifer, stretching out to the horizon. To my south is Lake Almanor and the northern end of the Sierra Nevada Range. Dominating all is the fire lookout, a large stone structure that emits a certain feeling of by- gone days. I believe it is still used, and if not used then maintained. The outhouse on the south side must be one of the best views ever from such a venerable institution.
A doe deer pops out of the woods with her twin fawns. They munch away, grazing the grass found here at the summit. They don’t seen too concerned about my presence, and I sit and watch them from a respectable distance. The sun continues on its inexorable path towards the horizon and I realize that I must begin my descent. I start to hike and watch the sun sink below the horizon. I know that I should have enough light to make the two miles back to camp, but must not dally. So, hike I do, calling out ahead of me to ward off any bears that might have wandered onto the trail since I passed by earlier.
Walking down the trail, the light begins to fade, especially since I am on the east face of Mount Harkness, away from the western horizon and the light from the setting sun. I continue on, darkness approaching rapidly. I continue to clap and call out in advance to let any wildlife know that I am walking this way. The last half a mile I hike in near darkness, but as I have long ago learned how to use my night vision, I have no need to strap on the headlamp that I have stowed in my backpack. Finally, I arrive at camp just in time to see the first stars appearing in the sky overhead.
I hastily set up camp, simultaneously espying the night’s sky where I identify Polaris and thus gain a further firm grip on my directions. I am happy to discover that I had more or less correctly deduced the main points of the compass from the local topography. I then start a fire, once I am satisfied that camp and all other attendant chores are complete. What is a fire good for in this modern age? I didn’t particularly need it to keep warm nor for light, as modern conveniences can do both with less effort. Yet, a fire is cheerful and takes a soul back to an era that is now looked at from afar with a romantic flair. I sit up late into the night, slowly feeding the fire, keeping it small, as I consume my adult beverage, ruminating on the meaning of life and the strangeness of it all.
Nighttime finally engulfed my campsite as I let the last flames flicker out. Even with no moon, even with the thick tree canopy overhead, there is still enough light filtering down from the numerous stars to provide a smidgen of light. Just enough to give a hint of the location of various items, a slightly different tone of darkness. I pick up the bucket that I had thoughtfully filled with water earlier and douse the coals. The whole mess I stir with the shovel until I am satisfied that no spark remains. I always feel a tinge of sadness when putting out the fire, even if naught but coals remain, but would feel a whole lot worse if a stray spark were to set the forest ablaze.
The fire out, not even the sound of hissing steam remaining, I take a look at the night’s sky, picking out all the constellations that I am familiar with. The Milky Way is visible and at the southern tip of our galaxy, almost out of view, I can spot Sagittarius, its tea-pot shape appearing to emit the Milky Way from its spout like so much steam. My simple look at the night sky continues until I begin to feel the chill of the night’s cold air. I reluctantly head to bed, knowing that I have had a fine day of travel and that I will have another tomorrow. But in order to do that, I need to get a good night’s sleep, so off to bed I go. What a fine day I have had!