Home » Rivers and Roads: Retracing Time in Lassen National Park

Rivers and Roads: Retracing Time in Lassen National Park

Every summer, my family makes the five hour drive from Berkeley, California to the Warner Valley — home to lush green meadows and tall pine trees nestled amidst three mountains. For thirteen miles from Chester, the nearest logging town, you pass through dense, dark forest only to have the road open up into a pale yellow and spring green clearing. Mountains Harkness and Kelly frame the road. The narrow asphalt leads directly towards Mt. Lassen in the north. An outcropping of rock on the volcano’s face looks like an eye from miles away. My dad and I always joke that it’s the villain Count Olaf’s hideout from A Series of Unfortunate Events[1].

This stream has been redirected countless times by aspiring hydraulic engineers such as these, equipped with sticks and shovels. Pictured: My little sister Eva (left) and her friend (right) Note: All photos in this essay were taken by the author.

The road skims the perimeter of the meadow, which quickly transitions into a bog, shrouded from view by a dry line of evergreen trees. Two simple wooden cabins on stilts with big decks face each other next to a little bubbling creek. My grandparents built these cabins a generation ago after purchasing the land from one Mr. Lee, a cattle rancher who owned the valley (“Warner Valley Wildlife Area”). My dad came here every summer as a kid, and now the familiar greenery and crisp air mark my own time off from school.

The Lassen National Park boundary signs create a ring around our property, little aluminum plaques painted white with matte olive text, nailed into the soft bark of conifer trees. Long before this place was mine, its natural beauty captivated travelers’ imagination. I recently discovered a guidebook for the park from 1929. The author speaks with reverence about the power of the natural processes that shaped the land, capturing my wonder over seventy years before I was born.

Time, and Nature in her further processes of creation, caused decomposition of the lavas by which soil was formed. Forest growth commenced—to hold in storage moisture from the rains. Gradually in outward appearance this barren lava field was softened by the beauty of lake and forest, pleasant brooks and lovely flowers. The work of the old volcano was done, yet it has continued from time to time in less significant bursts of present-day activity, as though, like some old gentleman impelled by vanity, to voice in later generations the importance of past accomplishment. (Lassen Glimpses: The Lassen Park Guide Book, 3)

Each trip to Lassen is marked by the same traditions.

Each trip to Lassen is marked by the same traditions. We swim in the Feather River; we visit Drakesbad Guest Ranch to feed carrots to their horses. If we’re lucky, we get to hang out in the pool, which is directly fed by water from the mineral hot springs in the neighboring foothills. According to a historical report by the Park Service, Drakesbad was originally just a series of campsites and a log cabin built by a trapper named Drake in the late 1800s. The Sifford family bought the property around the turn of the century and brought in guests by the hundreds to drink from the mineral springs, fish, and hunt. In 1914, Mt. Lassen erupted and continued to expel ash for the better part of a decade, drawing in adventurous tourists and getting the resort on its feet (Hoke, Warner, 9).

Now, when we get cabin fever, the short drive down the road provides a welcome excursion. My dad knows the people who run the place by name, even though we’ve never once stayed there as guests. Drakesbad boasts several trailheads, so we usually hike into some primordial wasteland with a name like “Devil’s Kitchen,” marked by the smell of sulfur and steam pouring out of the ground. An excerpt from the book Romance of the National Parks (2009) referred to Lassen as “an arena where interpretation of the processes of creation may be graphically illustrated for laymen” (James). The earth seems to breathe through these geothermal hotspots, and the landscape comes alive right in front of us.

But first, the Feather River. The walk down to the swimming hole is always rich with anticipation. The dusty path curves through brittle trees until broad boulders come into view. Now comes the choice, to scramble down the sunbaked rocks or keep to the dirt path down to a grassy rectangle the size of a patio. The river glistens, and you can see every calico stone that lines its floor. When I see the water, I feel the freezing burn in my throat, a premonition, the feeling of all my nerves lighting up when I dive into the river of snow melt. The sun relentlessly beats down on my already sunburned shoulders. Pine needles prickle my unprotected bare feet. We lay out our beach towels, bright crayola-box hues of turquoise, orange, and magenta. Shirts come off, sunscreen sprayed on, egg salad sandwiches and green grapes enjoyed in the spotted shade of sparse, young evergreen trees.

This is the mountains to me. Reading on the rocks with my feet dangling in the icy water. Turning sideways to squeeze through a diagonal crevice between two boulders, a pathway down to a secret grotto. My brother claims that he saw a frog in there once. Dad said he’d pay us a quarter for every frog we saw. They’d died out in droves over the past few decades. When he was a kid, the brooks were bubbling with amphibian croaking, but the frogs only exist in our collective memory now.

A leap into first exhilarating nothingness and then an iciness shooting through every vein. And a moment of peace.

I stand on the edge of the grey rock, toes inches from the edge, peering down at sunlight flickering on deep green water. I can just barely see the pebbles several feet beneath the surface. A deep breath. A glance back at the boy behind me. A leap into first exhilarating nothingness and then an iciness shooting through every vein. And a moment of peace. And then my head bursts out of the water. I consider whooping like my dad always does, then think better of it. I am seven years old, and then fourteen, and then seventeen. When I’m a kid, the boy is my brother, cheekily telling me to kiss my biceps and yell “Firepower!” to work up the courage to leap into the water. In middle school, the boy is a teenage family friend. He’s loud and teases me for being “basic” when I wear knee socks with shorts. He and his twin sister are a year older, and I desperately want their approval. Last summer, the boy is my boyfriend, brought on family vacation as a last hurrah before he moves away and we break up for college. He tells me that this place feels like home now, too. I don’t want this spot to be his. It’s mine, my dad’s, my brother’s. We let visitors in for a look around and share the bliss of the Feather River with them for a week at a time. In the end, this spot holds our intertwined family history, ever growing.

Preparing to jump from just a few feet above the river always makes my hands shake, and I have to dance around to brush off my jitters. Meanwhile, my dad has no fear plunging in from the rock six feet above, which gives me heart palpitations. Back home, Dad works managing budgets for the city and county of San Francisco. I imagine him making million-dollar decisions for one of the biggest cities in the country, just by shifting over columns in a spreadsheet. It’s the kind of work that requires good sense and a level head. That responsible civil servant is another creature from this effortlessly adventurous mountain man.

Imagine, we’re already in the middle of nowhere and somewhere off far in the wilderness lies…something.

When I’m fourteen, my dad and I drive along the bumpy backroads to Cinder Cone. We have the only car on the flat highway from here to the horizon. We see an unkempt dirt road split off. The sign points to a town, eighty miles away. Imagine, we’re already in the middle of nowhere and somewhere off far in the wilderness lies…something. Someone. We swear that one day, we’d like to turn off on that road and drive for a few hours, just to see who lives out there.

We drive all the way to the side of Lassen National Park opposite the cabin. The beginning of the hike is just an average stroll through the forest, but normality is left behind when cooled lava beds become a wall along the trail. Soon, a black cone of sand towering into the sky comes into view. It looks like an artifact of an alien world, bare except for a few lonely trees poking out of the earth. From directly

There’s no shade on Cinder Cone, so you better bring your best floppy hat.
Pictured: My dad.

below, the path spiraling up its side looks like a forty-five degree angle. For every step up the black gravel, my feet slide a few inches back down the trail. I’m not sure you could even call it a trail. It is a flat stretch of sand that blends into the slope. Dad teaches me the “Sierra Step,” a tired backpacker’s method of taking nano-sized breaks to avoid stopping completely. For every three steps, you pause for a beat. One, two, three, rest. One, two, three, rest. I try not to look down.

To pass the time, he tells me about his time in the Peace Corps. These are my favorite stories because the young, male protagonist is simultaneously courageous and naive, lost and virtuous. This adventurer joined the Peace Corps because he didn’t know what to do after graduating college. He learned Ciluba (a central African language) and fish farming and set off for two years in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Arrogantly, he brushed off warnings from members of his first village while choosing where to build his home. Within months, his new hut was eaten from the inside out by termites, since he had it built directly on an underground termite mound. Another time, my dad (or this Tin Tin-like[2]hero whom my dad talks about) accidentally bought rotten hippopotamus meat from the market and only realized his error a bite away from painful food poisoning. When he walked into a new village, there to build fish ponds and make friends, children would run away screaming. They thought he was a ghost or the bogeyman, there to punish them for not doing their chores.

My dad knows everything, and in the mountains he is both a novel and an encyclopedia. Swashbuckling and rule breaking, world traveler, adventurer, explorer. He once convinced a National Park Ranger to go off trail with him in a geothermal area where falling through the brittle ground would mean third-degree burns. If they made one wrong step, getting help would require a helicopter lift to the nearest hospital, at least fifty miles away, after someone hiked far enough to find cell service to call the authorities. Luckily, they made it through unscathed, but I could never imagine taking that risk on a whim.

With no distractions but the butterflies looping through the breeze and lizards peeking over the edges of rocks, we talk deeply and for hours. It feels like we’ve gone back in time. The internet seems but a twinkle in some military computer scientist’s eye, and I am hiking up an ancient cone of volcanic sand in the middle of the wilderness. We reach the peak.

A fever dream of a landscape.

In one direction, the Painted Dunes look like someone took buckets of rusty red and violet hues and poured them over a windy beach. Next to them, the Fantastic Lava Beds are a harsh field of jagged, porous igneous rock. Visible in a far corner of the park, Mt. Lassen winks its eye behind miles and miles of burned forest; the leafless trees are veterans of the wildfires. Where I am at a loss for words, the 1929 guidebook describes the scene for me:

In part a fertile land of Nature’s agriculture, contrasted by bits of present-day volcanics; all combined to make more interesting the magnificent spectacle of the old volcano rising in the midst. Perhaps nowhere in the world is the work of Nature in relation to physical geography evidenced more clearly or more interestingly. Here is a museum—a rather special treasure chest of Nature’s varied handiwork. (Lassen Glimpses: The Lassen Park Guidebook, 4)

The landscape is oblivious to the breath caught in my throat. I don’t think my presence would even register on its geological timeline. I like to think that my family has etched some dent into its surface, our notch nicked into the bark of a massive Jeffrey pine tree. Still, I suppose we are just passing through.

This alien world is one where my mind feels clear and exhilarated. The wind picks up as we walk the perimeter of the crater at the top of Cinder Cone, and I grab my dad’s hand. I picture myself falling down the mountain, scraping my hands and knees on the sand. He keeps me upright and stands in between me and the edge.

[1]A Series of Unfortunate Events is a children’s series by Lemony Snicket, which follows the miserable lives of three orphans. Their dastardly relative, Count Olaf, perpetually tries to steal the siblings’ fortune in cruel and creative ways. Olaf’s symbol is an eye, tattooed on his bony ankle.

[2]The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé is a 20th-century Belgian comic book series that follows a reporter (Tintin) who gets in trouble and goes on worldwide adventures. My dad tried to read me the original French versions as a kid, but that didn’t go too well because I don’t speak French. We had to settle for the translations.

Works Referenced

Collins, G.L. and Lind, H.C. Lassen Glimpses: The Lassen Park Guide Book. 1929. <archives.csuchico.edu/cdm/ref/collection/coll24/id/552.>

Hergé. The Adventures of Tintin. London:Egmont Group, 1929 – 1976.

Hoke, Amy, and Len Warner. “Cultural Landscape Report for Drakesbad Guest Ranch.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Mar. 2005. <https://www.nps.gov/lavo/learn/management/upload/Drakesbad_CLR.pdf.>

James, Harlean. “Romance of the National Parks (Chapter 8).” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 18 Nov. 2009, <www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/james/chap8.htm.>

Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events. New York: HarperCollins,1999 – 2004.

“Warner Valley Wildlife Area.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife, State of California, <www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Warner-Valley-WA#11946194-history.>

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Emily Levenson

Emily Levenson

About the author

Emily Levenson, Class of 2022, was born and raised in Berkeley, California. She’s grateful for the city’s proximity to nature, but doesn’t mind driving a ways to see more of her golden state. This essay’s title refers to one of her favorite songs by The Head and the Heart; the lyrics sum up the nostalgia that hits her in waves when she’s thinking about spending time in Lassen with her family. Emily is an art editor for Rune–MIT’s literature and art magazine–and a member of Peer Ears. She just declared an Urban Planning major with a minor in Writing, but she’s considering tossing an Environment and Sustainability minor in there because she wants to learn about policy and environmental science all day.

Subject: 21W.o22:  Louise Harrison Lepera

Writing Assignment: Personal Investigative Essay