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Ramblings of a Ranger- What Lassen Volcanic National Park means
America's Crown Jewels: the National Parks
Entry from the Summit Lake Ranger Station log book, Lassen Volcanic National Park: 2230 hours: It's my Friday night! I'm bushed and beat and bound for bed... but Lassen, this place, it fills my mind with...? What IS Lassen? It's a pearl of sparkling rain clinging to an upturned needle on a wet-damp-storm-cleansed yellow pine. It is storms and brilliant sunsets and such clean air, and mice in my ranger station and visitor's beautiful smiles and a sky strewn with a million light years of jeweled twinkling stars. It's hot dusty summer days when the very air hums with a vibrant stillness, and it's a full moon reflected in the transparent mirror of a mountain lake. It's barbeques around the fire pit by that old log ranger station, and live music to come... it's alone time and howling at the night sky and parties and fear and excitement, and, most of all, it is a pure golden joy of happiness. That's a tiny piece, a part, of what this Lassen is.
A mountain, a thought, an idea, a presence and place of peace and soul are things that freely float through my mind when I think of Lassen Park. It's a place where, after one busy Fourth of July day, I stopped my ranger vehicle at Hat Lake and walked out on the bridge over Hat Creek. A full moon's silvery brilliance laid a ghostly shimmer over the landscape. Lassen Peak, dream mountain, snow thickly clinging upon its north and east flanks, rose like a great jagged tooth against the moon-dark sky. Hat Creek, a rushing, chattering water, spoke to me, like the fair, sweet voices of children singing out, from far away. I was mesmerized, swept away by the beauty, the cold, still, lonely fullness of it. The image stays in my mind, now and forever, to be brought back, if only I close my eyes and think... and dream.
So, here we are, another year's cycle winding down and time for nature's deep winter sleep. The winter is off to a good start here, with cold and snow and gorgeous skies. In this time of life reflection about the past year, or years, this time of giving and offering thanks, it's good to remember the natural world around us, give thanks for so much that nurtures us.
To me, having gotten to live and work part, or all of, 18 years in and around Lassen Volcanic National Park, this place means many things. Lassen is about having a gathering at my little ranger station, you know, a fiesta, an Hawaiian luau, and lots of park geeks are coming. My trampoline has been hauled up from the city and assembled; the fire ring,on the edge of the meadow, is ready to roar. A hideous horse skull, mounted on a post, with bright red tomatoes set in its eye sockets, and a tuft of pineapple green for a crown, stares out eerily. The ranger station is clean, candles and oil lamps glow (no electricity, here on the edge of the wilderness). It's the kind of place where park visitors, needing directions or having a minor medical issue, could pull in, see the gathering, get the assistance needed from a bunch of helpful park employees, then stay and chat, be welcomed, eat a burger while their kids play for a few minutes on the trampoline.
Lassen is being placed in that empty, awe-inspiring wilderness stretching out in all directions from the Summit Lake Ranger Station. It's a place where I could walk in the faint glow of starlight, down trails or through the woods, alone, using my other senses: guiding my walk by the tumult of East Hat Creek calling in the distance, or by the frog ponds full of frog song in the spring and early summer ( June and July at this elevation of 6000-7000 feet). After a wintertime spent in the city, being out in the real thing, this wildness that is so dark and deep is welcoming to my soul.
Lassen Park is a place where I brought groups of city kids, former students, up to do resource work, over a span of several years. Gee, I even received a national award in 1993 from the Department of Interior and George HW Bush ( the elder) for working with city kids: I am a 'Point of Light'. These kids stayed for two or three week stints in the wilderness... and there was always a wonder and a joy at being there and seeing things through their eyes. Once, walking up the old water road near Summit Lake, two boys and I spied a mama bear and her two cubs, just ahead, in the golden and warm late summer. She was tending to them, and guiding them, and we slipped behind a tree, unnoticed; the fineness of that thing is to be remembered.
Working and living out of that old log cabin (circa 1927) was a fantastic way to learn how to live more simply. Oil lamps and gas lamps were the only way to light the interior, and without electricity, there was also no phone, no computer, no television, and far less distractions. There was a small propane water heater and refrigerator, so it wasn't too tough. The nearest real, though small, grocery store, bank, and tiny community was Shingletown, 30 miles away. It was such an environmental place, so easy to be aware of what is still rich and alive and healthy about our planet, and not being such a part of that whole overdone consumer-consuming-exploitation thing. Time to write and draw and read and be out in nature every day, just by stepping out the door. Living simply, and richly, and close to nature, close to the earth, is an experience that everyone should get, and that far too many are denied.
I had many experiences over the summers of living there, and many opportunities to help others, to give back, to 'pass it on'. One night, one late summer night, there came a banging on the door and a call for help. I often slept outside, on the wide back porch, but this night found me in a big old squeaky bed in the bedroom I claimed as mine. Awakened and startled, and rushing with flashlight in hand to the door, I found a park employee, a researcher, standing in the doorway with bare, bloody feet. He had been at the park's north end, at Manzanita Lake, earlier, hanging out, playing volleyball, and sharing beers and enjoying a warm campfire with others, as we all often did in those summer evenings. I had been there earlier, too, but was a long time in bed by the time this fellow drove by, headed south to his own place outside the park's south end, in the town of Mineral.
Past my ranger station he had driven, and up the windy road to near the road summit, at the Terrace Lakes trail head and had fallen asleep while driving and driven off a low cliff, rolled the vehicle, could have gone off high cliffs, nearby, could have lost his life. He was banged and bruised, but basically okay and lost his sandals or shoes in the rollover. Crawling away from the wreckage, he cut up his feet on the broken glass, made it back up to the park highway and had to make a decision. Wait there for hours for the light of day and vehicles finally driving by, walk to the park's south entrance, 9 miles away, or walk back to Summit Lake, maybe 5 miles, where I was. Walk back to Summit Lake and the ranger station, he did, a smart decision. It's quite a connection to nature when one has to walk in darkness, alone in high mountains, with bare, bloody feet and the silent stars right above, to find another human being and get help. Feet cleaned and bandaged by me, and put to bed in the spare bedroom, no one he needed to call or notify at 3:30 a.m.; dealing with the rest of it could wait until morning!
If one is willing, head to the historic fire lookout atop Mt. Harkness. It is a steep and narrow, switchbacking trail, not for the faint of heart, but as with most difficult endeavors, there awaits rich reward at the end. Once there, above 8,000 feet in elevation, enjoy one of the world's finest shows. After dark, gather up tarps and blankets and sleeping bags, trudge over to the little cinder cone volcanic bowl near the fire lookout, and lie in the bottom of that bowl, warm under the covers, and watch the night sky. Do this during one of the meteor showers and know what Heaven is.
Lassen is hiking seemingly forever on dusty trails, backpack digging into the shoulders, tired and grumpy and hot, and coming along Lower Twin Lakes where an exotic visual treat is displayed. Twenty or thirty little black and yellow garter snakes, recently out from hibernation, lie sprawled and swirled across each other on an old fallen log near the water's edge: doing what I love to do, soaking up some rays. And Lassen is dozens of damselflies, smaller cousins of dragonflies, each a piece of summer's blue sky, buzzing and flying in shimmering clouds among the reeds. And it's a red fox sneaking up near us, gathered around the fire ring by the ranger station, hoping for a scrap of food. And it's people loving nature and teaching their kids to love her, too. And it's snow skiing in the summer, shushing down left over drifts, and a million other images and smells and sounds of beauty and fullness, the fullness of life.
National Parks have been called America's best idea and that's funny to me. Here are these wondrous places, millions of years in the making, and because we self-important humans decided to save some of it, it's as though we created nature. But a lot of that nature is fragile, is complex, is threatened, by this one species. So busy we are, swarming across the planet, using and abusing and losing a lot. But there is still a great deal worth saving, protecting, conserving... that's the drum call I frequently beat, a drum roll of awareness, being in a higher plane, using what we need, but giving thanks and praise for it. And as the year ends, during this time of sharing and being thankful, of reflecting on our lives, we could all sure use up a little less, save a little more, be grateful and thankful for the grandness of nature. We all could... I could...think I will: recycle a little more, buy a little less, turn off one more light, drive less and ride a bike more, I've even skied to work, when it has snowed enough!
There are certainly a lot of people hurting, struggling, finding it difficult not just to survive, but to enjoy this natural world. Wildlife has it hard, too, especially in the harshness of winter. A few winters ago, on my porch, up against the glass sliding door, nestled in a wreath of pine boughs, I discovered a tiny yellow finch. It was totally the wrong time of year to be there, how could it wind up on my porch in the frozen, cold, dead of winter? It was barely alive, and what brought it to me, what sign it might mean, that it had come to me, to hold this tiny life in my warm hands and bring it in from the cold, well, I cannot know. It sadly died a short time later, in the protective circle of my hands. So fragile, so delicate, if only I'd noticed it a little earlier, maybe I could have saved it. Maybe future generations will wonder the same thing about how people in this time didn't see the signs, didn't take the difficult steps needed to save nature before its collapse around us. Sounds like all misery and woe, but we all can look around and get a sense of what needs to be done, yes? Get off our fossil fuel addiction, quit consuming so much and multiplying our population by such leaps and bounds.
There are many ways to be patriotic and give due nod to one's country, this beloved country. Love of country is a powerful driving force in many. If it is the best idea, of all of our American ideas, to create National Parks, then one step further is to consider it a patriotic duty to really LOVE one's country. The real country, the wild and wonderous and harsh and delicate world outside the city edges, the fenced yard, the cemented parking lots and streets and buildings, the computer's noise, away from phones and gadgets and technology designed to catch us and trick us, addict us, keep us away from our love of country. Think of the bumper sticker possibilities: National Parks, love 'em or leave 'em alone! Or: National Parks, right or wrong! Or: National Parks: home of the trees, land of the saved!
This winter, this spring, this summer or autumn, take the time to love your country: hike it, ski it, run it, camp on it, bird watch in it, picnic on it, canoe, kayak, swim, or fish it. Photograph it, paint it and breathe deep in it, love it and nurture it. Show your red, white and blue spirit and see the bounty of this rich land we have. There is this one little slice of Heaven right up the road from Shingletown, California called Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here is one idea: this winter, on a full moon, when it is calm and still, when the freeze is deep and the roads are clear, drive carefully up to Lassen Park's north end, to the Manzanita Lake entrance and walk to the lake, thermos of hot cocoa or tea in hand. See its icy surface and all the snow reflected and refracted in the moon's cold brilliance, feel the stillness and calm of winter's sleep... now that's a touchstone to the soul.If you haven't been there lately, if you haven't been there at all. what are you waiting for? I have to tell you, take my word, I've spent a little time there and it's worth the time for the peace of mind. And if not Lassen, so many other beautiful places to experience, to reconnect to our deepest needs. And speaking of peace of mind, peace and blessings to us all!