The First Day: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Wildflowers at Lassen National Park

Wildflowers at Lassen National Park

From July 12, 2019 (written on my iPad, laying on the floor of the van, so please forgive any typos):

3… 2… 1…

We have liftoff.

Today, I hit the road with Danica for the first time(well, the first time with real travel plans, I did spend the night in her after that wedding). But that’s pretty crazy to say. It’s all really happening.

I’m lucky enough to have a really good friend from Rotary Youth Exchange traveling with me. Zach is from Minnesota, speaks five (forgive me, six) languages, and is one of my best friends. We’ve actually been able to meet up a couple of times since returning from RYE five years ago, so this is a fairly comfortable reunion trip. (I’m going to try to get him to write a guest post about his experience in the van.)

We set out at 7:47, Danika sitting pretty at 2,023 miles. My parents waved us off (I’m told tears were shed), and we headed for our first stop: the gas station.

After filling up and swinging by Starbucks, we really did get on the road, taking Highway 88 out of Minden and past Woodfords, up into the mountains before turning onto Highway 89, which was our route all the way to Mt Shasta.

Highway 89 is incredibly scenic, and made for a beautiful and serene start to our journey. The first planned stop was Emerald Bay, which I knew required a bit of a hike to access, but (for some reason), I’ve always thought it was only half a mile or so each way.

I was wrong. The guy at the entrance said it would probably take us a few hours just to hike down and back, and since we had six hours of driving and a national park planned for today, it didn’t seem feasible. So we, unfortunately, decided to skip it. Pretty anticlimactic start. We did go to the overlook, which was beautiful, and saved us quite a bit of time.

View of Emerald Bay from the overlook

View of Emerald Bay from the overlook

((Guys, I’ve got to be honest, I’m struggling to write this. I want to get as much of it out as I can before I start to forget or get way behind, but the van isn’t finished, so I’m typing on my iPad (which is less than ideal for typing) while sitting on the floor (all hunched over), and my neck has already been killing me all day (the driving didn’t help any), we got up before 7 (early for me) and it’s 35* Celsius in here. I really just want to go to bed. But I’m going to try to keep pushing through, so please forgive the stilted tone of this post (or, what feels like a stilted tone as I’m writing it).))

Anyway! From Emerald Bay we continued on, stopped for groceries (which is only important because everything was fine at that point) and I managed to get a little lost in Truckee.

The 89 is beautiful, but it’s basically just a route along a bunch of other highways. So the turns and connections can be a little confusing. And I really think they need more signage at that intersection where the 89 passes through Truckee. It looks like there’s nothing straight across the intersection, let alone a highway.

We managed to figure out our way back on track, but we ended up coming into the 89 at the bottom of a short, but steep, hill, and it took me by surprise. I hit the brakes harder than I would have liked to, and everything came sliding towards the front. Zach looked back and said that everything looked ok, except there seemed to be something shiny — something that looked like water — on the floor. So I decided to pull over to see for myself.

The next good stopping point happened to be the Donner Party camp site, so I pulled in there, found some shade, and put Danica in park. I looked back, and saw what was very clearly a puddle between the two camp chairs. Which didn’t make any sense, because the water jug had slid towards the front, but it was still right side up and I rigorously tested it for leaks before we left. Plus, it was dry.

So what was on the floor?



Grape seed oil we’d bought for cooking. It had spread over half the floor, half the stuff, and half of my second cabinet. It had spread far enough that I think it must have broken even before my breaking screwup.

When we first realized what it was, I was frustrated, but it really just felt like another one of those build problems that has caused me so much frustration over the last six months. And then I saw what I’d put next to the oil.

My box of books. And the entire side of the box was soaked.

I completely panicked. Honestly, I didn’t even realize how important my books are to me until I felt my stomach drop straight through the center of the earth and completely lost my cool. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to keep my head in a situation. I don’t start acting out of character because of something frustrating, I keep thinking about others, and I try to be proactive. I still get frustrated (I think we all remember my meltdown when putting up the ceiling). But I’ve never been so panicked that I completely even forget about safety. And I’m kind of ashamed to admit that’s what happened when I realized nearly all the books I’d brought could be completely ruined. Broken glass sitting all around the box? Who cares, the sooner I got those books out of there the sooner I could try to salvage them.

Zach was awesome and totally kept his cool, despite my panicked, desperate demands for the box. He’d also blocked my path to grab for them myself, which is possibly the only reason I didn’t end up cutting myself. By the time he handed me the box, I was convinced they were all ruined, and I was crying and shaking, and almost dropped it.

It’s a little ridiculous. But I also realized that everyone has their ridiculousities (which is definitely a word, seeing as I’ve just made it one), and I’m kind of alright with mine being an excessive love for my books.

Good news: only three books were damaged, and none so badly that they’re unsalvageable. And honestly, it would have been really bad if they’d all been damaged. I only brought my most important books. The ones I need for work, the ones that I’ve had my whole life and read to cheer myself up when depression comes knocking, the ones that were gifts. The ones that I can’t imagine being without for six weeks.

There’s a lot of noise here. Cars whizzing by on the I-5, people slamming doors as they come by the rest stop, cars beeping as they lock, some guy hacking his lungs out (presumably over a cigarette). It isn’t awful, most of the noise is pretty ambient and I actually think it will help me sleep, but I’m nervous. This is my first night sleeping in the van where someone might actually come along and pound on the door and tell us to move along. Sure, it’s a reststop, so I doubt anyone will, but I can’t help feeling a little nervous.

And at that point, it was midnight, and I fell asleep. So I’ll do my best to fill in the rest of the day. It was a big one, and even by the time we finished cleaning up the oil (around 11 am), it had been an emotional one.

After we wiped everything down and quarantined (read: stuffed in garbage bags) the few things that needed proper cleaning later (to the tune of my dwindling sniffles), the disappointment really started to set in. After all of my work the last six months, within two hours it was an absolute mess. The floor is still discolored, 11 days later. Sure, the oil would eventually evaporate and basically act as a waterproof barrier over the wood it did sink into, and it hadn’t gotten on anything electronic, and the books were ok, and it hadn’t gotten on our clothes, and everything else was washable… but it would never again be quite new. When we finish the build and I take off for real, the interior of my second cabinet will still be visibly discolored.

Which really just sounds ridiculous now that I write it down, but at the time, it was discouraging. Just knowing how quickly things had gone awry.

So we ate the ice cream bars we brought from my parents’ house (they were more liquid than solid), and decided to walk around the short trail at the Donner rest stop.

It’s beautiful up there. The walk and the ice cream put us in a better frame of mind, and we climbed back in and hit the road again.

We were a few hours behind where I expected we’d be by this point, so we didn’t make any major stops on our way up to Lassen. Just a few pretty pullouts where we could stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery.

Finally, we pulled up to the entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park around 4:00. Our first stop was the Visitor’s Center (I’m really invested in stamping my National Parks Passport), and then we decided on our Top Priority stops throughout the park.

We headed to the Sulfer Works and Ridge Lakes hike, which was supposed to be moderate and just slightly over 1 mile. The volcanic activity was apparent almost immediately, with columns of steam curling their way up along the trail. We saw more and more of it, and came across a boiling green pond down the ridge from the trail.

Boiling green pond next to a stream

Boiling green pond next to a stream

We kept going, looking for the lakes. The trail followed the river, and we figured, “river, lake, the two are probably connected.” So we kept following it. But instead of a pair of little lakes, we found snow.


And a lot of it.

Soon, we were guessing where the trail might be beneath thick snowdrifts, going off of the last place we saw it, occasional markers on the trees, and the footprints of those who came before us.

Of course, those people didn’t know where they were going, either, so as we went on and the snow covered more and more of the terrain, there were fewer and fewer footprints, and they all started going in different directions.

But we pressed on, sure we must be getting close to the lakes, sure we couldn’t miss them.

We walked a whole lot further than 1.1 miles, I’ll tell you that much. And most of it over the snow. But we did, eventually, give up and turn back. It was a beautiful hike, regardless.

Wild lettuce growing up out of the snowy hillside

Wild lettuce growing up out of the snowy hillside

As we continued driving, we compared some of the other lakes we saw with their size on the map, and realized the lakes we’d been looking for were really tiny. We probably walked right over them without even realizing it.

Lassen is beautiful, even when it’s mostly buried in snow. We didn’t end up doing much more hiking, as the park’s most popular volcanic heat site, Bumpass Hell, was closed due to snow; we didn’t have time to hike Lassen itself (plus, it was also covered in snow); and the other stop we’d marked out, Cold Boiling Lake, was behind yet another wall of snow.


But let me repeat myself, just to emphasize: it was beautiful. And we had a blast. At the Lassen Peak trailhead, the snow was immense, which made for a great photo op with Danica. People had been using the walls of snow to carve out some temporary graffiti, so Zach and I found a spot to replicate a bit of graffiti from Berlin that became a bit of an emblem for the exchange students.

We stopped a lot along the road, and took pictures, and genuinely had a great time.

And it’s a good thing we didn’t do more hiking, because by the time we made it to Mt. Shasta, it was dark.

And I couldn’t remember where the rest stop I’d planned on staying at was.

So I drove, and hoped, and hedged around the fact that I really wasn’t sure where we were going anymore, and kept looking at the mountain to compared it to the view I remembered from the rest stop.

When we finally found it, we were more than ready to just go to bed. But I was convinced I’d be able to pound out a blog post, so when we turned off the lights at 11, I pulled out my iPad.

And here we are, 11 days later, and I’m finally finishing the post.

Right now, we’re at a campground that I sort ofhave service in, so I was hoping I might be able to post this tonight. But with all the pictures I want to include, I don’t think my cell service is strong enough to handle the upload. Plus, I’ve got limited data.

So the upload is going to have to wait. But hopefully, I’ll get a chance to post tomorrow. The dates are all sorts of mixed up at this point, but I want to try to keep things as real as I can, and part of that is being upfront about when I’m writing from.

So here I am, signing off, on July 23.

All my best,

Carson (and Danica (and Zach))