Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Get Your Kicks on Route 126

August 26, 2013 – Get Your Kicks on Route 126

We're only one hour off of our tentative schedule when I pull out of the driveway and start in the direction of Main Street. My friend had suggested that while we have access to a car (we didn't steal it and I'm sure we have permission to take it on weekend road trips) we should go drive the Oregon Scenic Byway, and I, not one for missing out on adventures, had agreed. It's a good day for a drive. Despite the forecast it's not raining and the dismal all-encompassing cloud cover I'd expected is broken up into pleasant fluffy clouds with joyous blue sky underneath. This is a much better way to spend the day than sitting in front of my computer trying to hatch up ideas for how to manage the rest of my life. I've been doing that all week. The freedom of being behind the wheel, having an open road before me, and a day promising unlimited possibilities has come at just the right time.

My friend is the idea originator, music controller, and the navigator. Her plan is for us to take Main Street/Highway 126 east from Springfield through Leaburg, Vida, and Blue River until we hit Highway 242 and the way to Sisters which will then loop us back to Highway 126 and take us back home. It's really quite a simple plan; one with excellent scenery.

“It's about fifty miles each way and the guidebook suggests allowing two to three hours for the trip,” my friend tells me. Given our penchant for turning hours into hours I estimate five to seven hours and glibly say, “So we'll be back Monday morning then.” After all we did turn a 33 mile trip around Crater Lake into a seven hour event. I settle my hands around the wheel and smile. What would it matter if it did take us days? We’re tourists with in-state license plates. We’ve packed our snacks for the day, bid the cat adieu, and are on the road.

“We've got just over half tank of gas,” I say, doing driver’s inventory.

“There are plenty of stations on the way out of town,” my friend says. “When you find one you like stop.”

Oregon doesn't have self-service gas stations. They don't have 24-hour gas stations (that I've seen). And I'm not sure that I like this. Especially on road trips I've always enjoyed the independence of fueling my own car, using the time to stretch my legs, cleaning off the windows, and checking tires and oil levels. I'm a do-it-yourself, get it done kind of person (most of the time) and served gas stations don't cater well to that. It's probably one of my control issue issues. “Sometimes there are really long lines or the attendant takes forever to come,” my friend says. “But it's really nice when it's raining not have to get out.” However, since neither of us owns a car we only occasionally have to worry about our likes and dislikes with regards to Oregon’s fuel stops. Times like now.

I find a station and pull in. The attendant is helping someone else and eventually he makes his way to us. I hand him the credit card for payment, tell him which octane to pump, and how much. He gets started on it. 
“Are we allowed to ask him to do the windows?” I ask my friend, peering through the rain-dirt-speckled windshield.

“I guess so,” my friend says.

“Are we supposed to tip?”

“I don't think so.”

When the attendant hands the card back I tentatively ask him, “Would it be possible for you to clean the windows?”

He says sure as if it's not such an unusual request (to my relief) and proceeds to squeegee off the front windshield, my friend’s side when she requests it, and the rear window. I guess my side windows are not included in the free wash. Or it's by request only. Window by window. I’ve still got a lot to learn about Oregonian gas station rules.

On our way out of Springfield we pass a ridiculous amount of car parts stores, some strip clubs, fast food restaurants, mini marts, and other edge-of-the-city types of places and then we leave the town behind us and head into farm country. Blueberry farms, hazelnut orchards, farms that sell corn, peaches, and baskets (of all things) shift the countryside’s landscape with their differing crops and buildings. There in the distance are the rising mountains of the Cascades.

Our agenda is easy. There is no frantic rush. All we have to do is enjoy the day. I'm not even sure what we'll see--I'm just along for the ride. I'm just along to drive. Songs flit through my head: Life is a highway I'm gonna ride it all night long. On the road again. Country road take me home to the place I belong. It's a long and winding road. Only it's not. Not here. Not yet. Ahead of me the road stretches out straight as far as I can see leading us through the sky-reaching trees that line both sides of the highway.

We stop at the ranger station just before Highway 126 turns off to Highway 242 to mill about and read the informational plaques inside. We stop again down the road at a trailhead and walk along the path so we can smell the fresh pine, hear the wind in the trees, and get a sense of the forest.

 I take us on a detour to find a lake. We both agree that it won’t compete with Crater Lake, but I still want to give this lake its fair chance. After all, I’m not an “if you’ve seen one lake you’ve seen them all” kind of girl. Next we stop at a historical marker that tells us about Scott Road and how in 1862 Felix Scott “blazed a trail across the Cascade Mountains.” My friend reads the sign to me in a documentary voice and I gaze into the trees, up at the sky as I listen. “Portions of his old trail, found 1000 feet north of this point, are still maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and are used by hikers and horsemen.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Horsemen, huh?”

“Apparently someone else took issue with that,” my friend says, pointing at the sign. And we both laugh to discover that someone had scratched men out with a penknife X and written persons next to it. “Horsepeople is what they should have written.”

But we have no knife to correct the correction. “Alas,” as my friend says.

As we get back into the car I say, ““We're getting into the bad habit of stopping an awful lot.” I say this more as a reminder to me than anything else. After all I am the driver. Stopping at everything site, every pullout, every place with a view can be very addictive. And we've still got the lava fields, the Dee Wright Observatory, Sahalie and Koosah Falls to find ahead of us. But some bad habits aren’t all that bad. Right? I’ve heard it said that it’s the journey and not… well, you know.

When we come to the point of road where left will take us north on 126, curve east for a ways, and then slink us south to the 242 Junction and lead us back around to 126 I go right. My friend had left the direction of the loop up to me and it feels more natural to head this way. “I approve of your decision,” she says. Which is good because I've already made it. And we zip along at our sightseers’ pace.

I can’t help it. I abandoned the road when I see other cars pulled off and people clambering over hills of uneven, dark rock. “Is this the lava field?” Last fall when I was here I'd met up with a friend of a friend and he’d told me that the lava fields were a must see. I hadn't seen them. I'd been travel weary and worn down, not wanting to leave the house and not having the transportation to go very far. But now, here they are. Not anything like I'd imagined. I’d formed the impression (somewhere in my life) that lava fields were smooth, that lava rock made molten designs like cake batter in pan or honey dripped over the counter and then solidified in just that form. Not this lava field. Not these jagged black rocks. Belknap Crater has its own sharp-edged charm. And my friend and I get out and begin to make our way over the rocks toward the lip of the crater that we can see ahead of us. It's so desolate, a land blown up.

Another woman has gone farther than us--we've watched her make her way around--and we pass her as she comes back.

“Pretty amazing,” she says.

“Do you know all the history of this crater?” I ask hopefully.

“No,” she says, “that's what Google is for.”

“I wish she had known,” I tell my friend, probably too loudly, probably before the woman is out of earshot. But then, like a child, I'm distracted by the next shiny rock, the next slope to climb up, the lip of the crater, the horizon of mountains beyond.

At the Dee Wright Observatory we peer out at the mountains through the slots in the walls of the stone observatory. Mount Jefferson, Cache Mountain, Dugout Butte, Black Butte, Bluegrass Butte, Black Crater, North Sister, Middle Sister, Little Brother, Condon Butte, Scott Mountain, South Belknap Cone, Little Belknap, and Mount Washington, Mount Hood, Bald Peter, Green Ridge, and Horsepasture Mountain are all visible when the weather is optimal. I'm too distracted by the three little boys being shown around by their grandparents to pay too much attention to which mountains I see and which ones I don't. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Not that I need much help with my own. At the top of the observatory one of the little boys drops to his stomach to look through the rain hole (at least that's what I assume it is) and shouts, “A telescope!” The other two boys drop to their stomachs and take their turns looking through the square slot. I want to follow their lead, to scoot them out of the way and plead, “Let me see.”

“I wish it were a telescope,” I say under my breath. “Wouldn't that be awesome?”

“Can you imagine being here at night?” my friend asks. We both pause for a moment to imagine the darkness and the stars.

Then it's time to get back in the car. We drive through the town of Sisters, a quaint and somewhat touristy town with ice cream shops and knickknack stores and spinning lawn ornaments set out for sale. We could stop, shop around, visit the vintage store, but it feels too busy and I don't want to get out here. So I turn the car around and head us back to the Byway.

Our final stop is the Sahalie Falls viewpoint. It's still summer and there are a lot of people here just like us to see the falls. We traipse behind a couple and find our way down the trail. I hear the roar of Sahalie Falls before I see it. The water churns from the heights at top speed, falling gallons at a time to foam at the drop and then rush on ahead. Continuous movement. We take some pictures and press on. Trees make a barrier between the river and the path. More trees line the other side. Sunlight trickles over us through the leaves. The air gathers cold into its hands off the Mackenzie River and blows it at us. It's a far cry from the heat glinting off the lava rocks we’ve only recently come from. Braving the chill and wanting to know just how cold it is we stick our feet into the Mackenzie. Sure enough, it's icy cold, refreshing, and blue. Blue with cold.

“It seems cold enough to put in your hand and come back out with a handful of ice cubes,” I say. It really 

With our feet mostly dry and our shoes back on we descend the trail toward Koosah Falls. A quarter of a mile, half a mile, I'm not really sure. Again, I hear it before I see it. Not as many people are here and we stand and enjoy the deafening roar of the water.

“This reminds me of the waterfall in The Mission,” my friend says. The Mission is a film about the Spanish conquest in South America, religion and love and revenge, a heartrending tale about life and pain and joy and hope. At one point the Jesuit missionary and his new recruit played by Robert De Niro climb the falls in order to reach the South American tribe they’re working to convert. Robert De Niro, ex-slave trader and murderer, in an act of penitence climbs the falls carrying his armor and sword in a treacherous bundle behind him. He almost hopes to fall, he almost hopes to let the baggage of his past carry him down to his death. I think about this as I stare at Koosah Falls. I think about the punishment we inflict upon ourselves, the depths of pain people experience, and the overwhelming grief-joy when redemption is discovered. I think about the strength needed to climb up a roaring falls. I think about how cold it is here in this water.

As we head back to the car I hum the main melody--a haunting, beautiful melody--from the film. And when we buckle in I ask my friend if she'll play the soundtrack for our drive home.

The music accompanies us, the sun lowers itself into the western sky, and we keep our thoughts to ourselves for a few miles.

I'm thinking about what's next for me. Where will I go? What will I do? How will I make it work? And then I think, Be here, be here now. For just this moment.

Because maybe this trip is a metaphor for life or life is a metaphor for this trip. Anticipate the coming road, but be sure to look at the sights the current road has to offer. After all, that old Good Book did say, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” Sure, it might be nice to be a tad bit taller but I know that I’ll find my way my own way. With or without worry. Somehow. Someway. That’ll I’ll do what I can to keep living my life the way I feel it should be lived. And of course, today, while I’m here, I’ll get my kicks on Route 126.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Going Commando at Crater Lake

August 4, 2013 – Going Commando at Crater Lake

I pack my swimsuit in anticipation of swimming at Crater Lake. I'd never heard of it until my friend told me that we were going there to celebrate her birthday, that there was no way out of it, and that I was to be the designated driver. When I mentioned my impending trip to a new acquaintance named Ty he said he’d been there in the spring to go hiking and that he'd even swum in the lake. “Well,” he said, “I got in long enough so that I could say I had been swimming but it was really too cold for much else. Though there was this fat guy who stayed in there for a long time.”

Always the masochist (don't “they” say that swimming or bathing in cold water extends your life?) and with a not-so-latent athletic desire to outdo myself and others (how fast? How long? With what stroke did you swim?) I set my intention. Above all else, I want to swim in Crater Lake. I even convince my friend to pack her swimsuit although she hadn’t planned to. 

“What are your expectations for this trip?” I ask her the day before we leave.

“To do some hiking and maybe take the boat ride tour if we can get tickets for it.” To enjoy life, to see the National Park, to celebrate her birthday, to eat good food, to take a road trip, to revel in the summer. All these things are easy enough to achieve.

We pick up the rental car on Friday and I drive us one hundred and fifty miles up the gently sloping mountains to Union Creek Resort. We arrive in time to settle in, check out the little gift shop, get dinner from Beckie’s Café (“Nearly everyone knows about Beckie’s Café, celebrated across the country for delicious homemade pies, home-style cooking, and friendly, down-home service,” the website proclaims, and I wonder how I've gone my whole life without having heard of it ever at all. I never celebrated it once before this moment) and then go in search of the Rogue River and some waterfalls. Part of which we find.

Time has no need to rush. Neither do we. We spend a pleasant evening together, chit chatting the hours away. The sun retreats. The air chills. The river babbles on and on and then we call it a night.

The next morning we drive down a long and magical tree-lined road to Crater Lake and discover that the boat tours are already booked for the day but there are some slots available for the next day which my friend books just in the nick of time. These tickets cannot be purchased online, there are a limited number of seats per tour, a limited amount of tours per day, and lots of people who want to go for the ride. We're some of the lucky ones. We don’t even have to arm wrestle anyone for them.

It's here, on the veranda of the historic Crater Lake Lodge that I get my first glimpse of Crater Lake, of Wizard Island, of the brilliant blue of both the water and sky. There’s a part in the (unfortunately) short-lived TV show Life about a girl who has scored a speaking role in a movie. Her one line is, “I’ve never seen a sky that blue.” That’s how I feel about this water. I’ve never seen a lake that blue. And like the girl in that show I go around practicing my line (though in my head) to balance it against the truth of what I’m seeing. I’ve never seen water so richly that blue.

 So blue it seems like I’d be able to scoop it up like paint in my hand and smear it bluely on my skin, in the air, across my memory.

With our boat tour tickets set for the next day and the afternoon free before us we decide to drive around the crater rim. The rim is approximately 33 miles around with lookout points strategically placed for picture taking and viewing, and trailheads branching out at various parts. The Crater Lake guide suggests allowing between one and three hours for the drive, and as we get started I wonder what we'll do after we’re finished. Mill about? Twiddle our thumbs? Eat up all our snacks? Make awkward small talk to pass the time? Politely go insane while asking each other “what would you like to do now?” Go back to Union Creek? But I needn’t worry. We're comfortable in each other's company. There's no pressure to the day. The sun is shining. The air is fresh. My friend suggests that we stop at each and every lookout and so we do. Seven hours, 700 pictures, plenty of walked paths, and a myriad of conversations later we arrive back to our starting point.

I'm exhausted. It's the kind of exhaustion that comes from a day in the sun, the concentration of driving, and just plain fun. A good kind of exhaustion. A little dusty and a tad bit sun-scorched we end up in the rocking chairs on the veranda of Crater Lake Lodge and order appetizers and cocktails for our dinner. It's one of those moments when as I'm looking out over the mirror-like purity of the water and watching the sun’s setting turn the sky into the soft pastels evocative of a southwestern landscape painting that I wonder to myself how I got so lucky to have so many perfect moments like these in my life.

“I like celebrating your birthday,” I tell my friend.

We sit and rock until the sun is gone and the lake is blanketed in darkness. We’re waiting for the stars to come out. But they remain hidden behind a veil of smoke that’s blown in from the fires burning several counties away. Eventually we get to our feet, walk back to the car, and I drive us through the night (watchful of the deer that stare white-eyed at us as we pass them on the road) back to our lodge, to our waiting beds, to our dreams.

Not quite as early as the crack of dawn, but close enough, we are up, breakfasted, and ready to go. We stop off in a town 11 miles from Union Creek to fill the car up with gas and then I drive us as quickly as I can without breaking too many speed limit laws, careening us off the side of a mountain, or crashing us into a copse of evergreens back to Crater Lake National Park. We've got to be at the Cleetwood Trailhead (about half way around the rim) forty-five minutes before our scheduled boat departure in order to collect our tickets and make it down the 1.1 mile trail from the rim to the lake. We've given ourselves a buffer time and it's a good thing. We have about five minutes of it left when I park. My friend collects the tickets then we make our way to the mouth of the trail. I’ve remembered my snacks, water, sensible shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, a cap, my camera, my sense of adventure, and as always my sense of humor.

It's not until we reached the bottom of the trail (the trail that the Crater Lake guidebook marks as arduous) and see small pockets of people frolicking in the water and along the shoreline that I realize I've forgotten my swimsuit.

“Oh no!” I exclaim. “I forgot my swimsuit!” Which is strangely reminiscent of the story my grandmother tells of when I was four or five years old and at a dance recital. My ballet group wore red sequined outfits with frilly sequined tutus and we had headbands with dyed red feathers in our hair. We danced to the song “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along” as sung by Bing Crosby. We’d gotten our cue to come on stage and as I traipsed in behind my fellow dancers I stopped midstride and exclaimed for the whole auditorium to hear, “Oh no! I forgot my tutu!” and then darted offstage to go find it. Once properly attired and back onstage the show went on.

Here. Now. At the bottom of that 1.1 mile trail I'm crestfallen. It’d be no fun task to run uphill to the car to retrieve my suit and then run back down. Not as easy as finding a red sequined tutu. It’s not that I’m entirely lazy, only somewhat. It’s not like I haven’t done arduous hikes before. I just can’t believe I didn’t even think to remember my suit. I sigh. “I really wanted to swim,” I say.

My friend, always one to find a solution, says, “Well, what underwear are you wearing?”

I take stock. Clean, decent, sporty, more modest than a lot of girls’ bikinis. Check it out, kids, I’m going swimming after all! I think triumphantly to myself.

Joy of mind restored (mine at least), we line up with the other visitors and then board the motorboat that will take us around the lake.

The boat tour is informative, entertaining, two hours long, and entirely enjoyable. Even with sunscreen and my baseball cap on I can tell I’m getting sunburned. As we make our way around the inside of the rim with the sun beating relentlessly down on us the idea of the cold, cold water of the lake begins to sound more and more appealing.

Back at the dock we disembark and my friend and I head over to the rocks. We clamber down to the water’s edge. I think back to yesterday when another tourist had stopped us at one of the lookouts to ask, “How far have you come? Do you think it's worth it to drive all the way around?” She was worried about time, she still had to drive on another two hours to get to Bend before nightfall. “After all,” she went on, “it's just a lake.”

Just a lake.

Here at our shore side spot, I'm chattering. Excited. Listening to a group of guys and girls next to us as the girls are trying to talk one of the guys into getting into the water. I probably join the conversation without even realizing what I'm doing. We’re all adventurers here together. In this moment we’re all one group. In this moment we're all here.

I’m talking to them, to myself, to my friend.

I'm halfway out of my clothes when I think a little about modesty. What would my grandmother say? What would my mother think? My dad might not appreciate me swimming in my skivvies, but he would advocate for going with the adventure.

Modesty. And these people, when will I ever see them again, when will they ever see me again? To heck with it all.

I fold my jeans and my shirt and put them next to my dusty shoes. Then I scamper carefully down, stick my feet in the water, lower myself in, and slide across a smooth, wet rock all the way in to the lake. It's gloriously, skin-chillingly, beautifully cold. I shiver my way out away from the shore.

“How is it?” my friend asks.

“Amazing!” I called back through chattering teeth.

“Are you over the ledge yet?” one of the girls from the other group asks.

The ledge? I look down and there it is. The ledge separating the shallow from the deep.
The shallow portion of the lake is a shimmering green like blown glass or dragonfly wings. The ledge is this same green, spotted dark here and there with the smoothed over shapes of rocks, and then just past that there is deep blue. Deep, deep blue.

I’ve never seen a blue that blue.

“I’m just over it,” I call back.

“Amazing, right?” the girl yells back.

“Yeah!” I hover there for a moment over that “safe” greenness. Then I swim out over the blue. 

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States going down 1,943 feet deep. It's the ninth deepest lake in the world. In this moment I'm not thinking about the depth in numbers, in fact I'm trying not to think about it too much at all. There’s something frightening about depth. Something alarming about things that appear bottomless, infinite, fathomless. I could be sucked down into the abyss. I could vanish forever into this blue. At least there are no sharks, I think. Okay, there may not be sharks (and this is a plus in my book) but there are crawdads. I have a childhood story about crawdads too. My mom's youngest brother, my uncle, used to catch crawdads from the creek and keep them in the giant metal tub he used for his dog Hannah Banana’s water bowl before he boiled them up in a crawdad stew. They weren't grand, these crawdads, but they had pinchers and I always had this fear of being pinched; we’d been warned to keep our hands and feet out of the tub. One day I was sitting up on the rock wall in my grandparents’ backyard when I slipped and fell over backwards into Hannah Banana’s water bowl. I don't know that I've ever moved as fast as I moved that day. I was up and out of that tub faster than you could say fried frog legs with nothing more than a scrape on my back and the surging adrenaline from my near death experience to etch that moment into my mind forever. I cried more from fear of the crawdads than I did from the fall. You see, I've always been plagued with an over-active imagination. 

But the crawdads here are not my imagination. They’re real, and the park staff encourages anyone to catch as many of them as possible along with the fish (which are not native to the lake but were brought in to increase the appeal of the park to as many possible outdoorspeople). Crawdads are apparently native to this area because the Klamath Indians have a legend about a giant crawdad that would occasionally leap up out of the depths of Crater Lake to grab a tasty human morsel from off of the crater’s rim. I learned about this from a placard on yesterday's rim drive.

“This is amazing!” I shout back to my friend (giant crawdads or no giant crawdads). “You should come in!”

And then, to my surprise and joy, she also strips down to her most modest make-shift swim apparel and joins me in the lake. We tread the fifty degree water shifting warm and cold patches to and from each other while trying to catch our breathes from the high altitude and the cold.

“I’ll swim back in and take your picture,” I say, breathlessly, “so you can prove you got in too.” I swim to shore and scramble back up the rocks. They’re warm against my skin. Delightfully hot. I root around in our bags to find the cameras and then get to work taking some pictures.

“Was it worth it?” the guy in the group next to me asks, the guy they’d tried to talk into going in the water.

“Absolutely!” I say, teeth chattering. Absolutely! And I’m going right back in, I think. With the photos taken and the cameras returned to their spots I slip back in the water and swim through the cold, back over the ledge, near my friend. We tread. Talk. Tread. Then with no discussion, no visible sign, we both begin to head back to shore.  

The rocks are just as warm, just as delightfully hot as before but a breeze has started up. I wrap my arms around myself and think lizard thoughts. My friend and I get dressed as soon as our skin is dry enough. I tuck my wet underwear into a plastic bag and store it in my satchel. It’s a day of firsts. And here’s another with me going commando under my clothes. So shocking! What would people say?!

I laugh because I just don’t care.

I’ve been swimming in a crater. I’ve just swum in a lake pooled up entirely of rain water and snow melt. I swam in Crater Lake.