There is nothing like laying on the camp bed, dozing in the afternoon heat, still pleasantly cool from swimming, and listening to the rumble of thunder in the distance. Outside the tent, the breeze ruffles the round aspen leaves in the grove of aspens that skirt our campsite. The cumulus clouds build over Eagle Lake, gulls and white pelicans circling the beach beyond the trees. Children's voices echo up from the beach and water, the thunder still too far away to be of concern. Our dog, Noodles, snaps at a fly, then stretches, before dozing off again. I listen to all of the summer sounds, Stellar's Jays calling out while hopping on our camp chairs, tiny chipmunks chirping in the underbrush, the higher call of the passing osprey, fish clutched in its talons, melodic songs from the blue birds, raucous crows and gulls, all lulling me to sleep. It is why I camp. To catch those moments of just being in a place and being able to quietly absorb it revives me.
It is work to camp, but eventually, after all the planning and packing, the last minute stop at Hawes to pick up the ripest and juiciest peaches, the road stretches out, rising up from the Sacramento Valley into the Southern Cascades, the miles disappearing beneath our tires. Ever upward, the terrain changes, the oaks turn to pines, the air cools, Mt. Lassen pops in and out of view, and I always marvel at how fate allowed me to come to live in this place.
We (my husband, Kim, our dog, Noodles, and I) pass our milestones, Shingletown, Viola, Mt. Lassen, Hat Creek, then Old Station. Next comes the climb to the top of Hat Creek Rim, and on, passing into Lassen County, and briefly stopping at Bogard rest stop. Now we are in the west that is a dream. Vast landscapes, forests, and mountains spread everywhere, making roads and power lines look insignificant. I listen to local radio, country and western twanging out of my pick up truck speakers, as I turn onto A21, the county dirt road that winds behind the Antelope Peak fire lookout and then cuts across a low pass to Eagle Lake. The dust streams out behind the truck.
You have to know your vehicle to drive here. You have to trust that it really is OK to drive 50 over the washboard, but let the truck naturally slow into the curves, avoiding the brake, and always keeping an eye out for range cattle. Sometimes I've been rewarded with clouds of butterflies, other times I've had swarms of locusts smash into my windshield, but I'm always fascinated with the minor changes each time I drive this road. This year, even with the drought, there was more water in the big valley, causing the cattle to stay far from the road, brown moving dots in the distance where water was more plentiful. The road bears to the right, to the northeast, and starts to climb back up into the forest. The cut off to the lookout, then Summit Camp, go by in the dust. We stop for firewood and fill the back of my truck with bone dry old limbs that lie everywhere on the forest floor.
We head downhill toward the lake, entering the crater that the lake fills. Eagle Lake sits in an ancient volcanic crater, and all of the geology in the area is volcanic. Huge lava flows spread out across the basin, marking the hellish nature of what must have been the birth of this lake eons ago. Soon, heading towards the southern part of the lake, we come to the road that leads to where we camp.
More work occurs as camp is set up in the afternoon heat. Our consolation is that it is much hotter back at home, and that a wonderful swim in the lake awaits. Back in camp, drenched in lake water, we sit in grateful rest. Days pass, and starry nights glide by, punctuated by meteors and the rising of Jupiter. We swim, and doze, and eat. We drive up to the top of Antelope Peak and talk to the ranger in the fire lookout. Up there we gaze at the lake down below, off all the way into Nevada to the east, at Lassen Peak to the west, and Mt. Shasta to the northwest. The vista is vast, and man's hand upon it is almost invisible. For a moment, in that rarefied air, there are just three people on earth, my husband, the ranger, and me. It is why we live here.
There are pictures to take, poking around in lava beds to do, and stopping to get ice cream in the tiny store in Spaulding. Back in camp, the clouds build, and we get a brief shower, with delicious thunder. The storm passes and we're back in the lake swimming with Noodles, who was born to be a fish rather than a canine. Our last evening in camp we are rewarded with a rare event. The thunderhead passing to the east picks up the sunlight cast by the setting sun and reflects its odd yellow light back down on us in a strange second dawn. To the west the sun has already dipped below the mountains, but the second dawn lingers as we walk in its fading golden light along the beach, bright enough at first to even cast shadows. A lucky moment, and well appreciated.