Twisting and turning up a mountain road, you climb steadily through a sea of towering pines and evergreens. Above the tree canopies, the clouds take on a soft, underbelly glow of a dawning new day.
In a quite literal race against time, you take each bend in the mountain road as quickly as you can, without going too fast, that is. Flashbacks of the last time you took this road, almost one year ago now, run through your mind. It looked a bit different then, with a frosted blanket of snow and a biting cold, early winter wind.
The burgeoning sky finally opens up, freed from the barrier of treetop canopies as you reach the top of the mountain. You swing around a Visitor Center and pull into a lonely space within the empty parking lot.
Turning off the car, the engine cackles and cools as it powers down into a placid, lingering silence.
You step out and slip on a pair of boots before hustling over to the knee-high stone wall across the lot. With a deep inhale of that crisp, thin mountain air, you look out across Crater Lake as it lays nestled under the cusp of its mountain rim. The lake water below rests as still as glass, a blue so deep as to get lost in.
The sun emerges just above the mountain rim, jostling with the low-hanging clouds in its quest to be set free from its nocturnal slumber and finally shine its aching light.
In this environment, this moment, there is a sense of peace you could actually feel. It enfolds you like the comfort of your favorite blanket.
It’s the same kind of peace you’d feel throughout the rest of the day in Crater Lake National Park: from the freshwater flow of Plaikni Waterfall, to the field of summer wildflowers, and even now right here sitting on this rock.
You look down at your bare feet, sore after over ten miles worth of hiking now behind them. Resting at the edge of the rock, the lake’s icy water splashes on them rhythmically. The once burgeoning morning sun has now peaked on an absolutely cloudless day, having emerged victorious from its morning struggle to now bare its full heat down on this warmly-toasted lakeside rock.
* * *
The gravel crumbles under the tires as the car pulls around behind a tree. It’s not just any tree, though, but a Redwood that’s nearly wider than the car itself. You step out into the cool forest air, the shade of the giants shielding you from the blistering California sun above them.
Lacing up your boots, it’s off down a worn and beaten path in the subtle forest silence that permeates within Redwood National and State Parks. It’s not long before there’s a crick in the back of your neck from gazing up at the towering Redwoods for so long, stagnant in your disbelief that a tree could be so tall.
The sound of a peaceful stream catches your attention, so you jump down into a nearby ravine that in a way secretly slips by behind the Redwoods’ back. A mossy branch hangs low over the stream, offering a glimpse into a subtle window of tranquility.
After driving a few more miles on, you’re now walking along the sea-soaked sand of an afternoon high tide. Gusts of warm, salty air blow by as you climb through a tunnel of rocks to an obscure cove on the other side.
You wouldn’t know it to see it, but a wealth of sea life takes shelter beneath these rocks. Crayfish, starfish and other creatures linger below the surface of the water, hiding from the world in their own little havens.
Back into the forest, you’re now walking through the lush green walls of Fern Canyon. Another stream runs through the stony canyon floor, mindless of anyone else in its hasty rush to the Pacific. The air is heavy and moist, an almost tropical forest cool after what turned out to be a hot couple of hours you spent at Enderts Beach.
Looking back, the day endured a transition of environments akin to those early morning bush hikes and same-day afternoons at the beach on a certain Caribbean island you once knew.
* * *
A rotten stench stifles your nose, as pockets of sulfur bubble noisily from the rocky crevices around you. The surrounding rock is as bald as it is pale, with wafts of smoke seeping out from the sulfur springs.
It’s an unusual beauty. The kind of beauty that’s confident in who she is, no matter what anyone might think of her “flaws.”
You pass along the safety of the boardwalk, each hollow wooden step somehow reminiscent of a place once called home.
Away from the springs and back into a forest, the trail now clings to the mountainside before diving sharply down to a meadow far below. A hummingbird dances between the trees, indecisive about where it wants to go. Flowers pop up spontaneously along the trail as it curls around and dumps into the grassy meadow, a wall of tall grasses emerging along the perimeter of a freshwater pond.
A wooden sign is pegged in the soft, malleable ground. Behind it, hiding behind its own little curtain of tall grasses is Cold Boiling Lake. A somewhat baffling phenomenon, you still stay clear of its bursting gaseous bubbles.
Then after back-tracking through the late afternoon smokey haze of the springs, a wall of flowers appears like an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Purple coats the hillside, bringing a life of regal color to the otherwise tedious palette of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
* * *
Navigating a narrow channel of rock, you climb over the man-chiseled steps to the top of Moro Rock. A panoramic view of Sequoia National Park opens up before you, from the ridge-line of gray mountain peaks to the smokey canyon outlet in the distance.
Soon thereafter you’re on the Trail of the Sequoias and walking beneath some of the biggest trees you’ve ever seen.
“Or wait, were the Redwoods bigger?” you wonder to yourself.
But the Sequoias are definitely bigger, just ask the largest living tree known as “General Sherman.” With trees this size, you’d never want to know the sound it’d make if it ever fell to the ground. From top to bottom they stand broadly and proudly, asserting their dominance in the lay of the land. Yet some appear hollowed and charred, scars from wildfires left over the course of their thousand-years-long lifespan.
In a clear space between a few trees, a small black bear pries open a log in its desperate search for something to eat. It’s your first encounter with a black bear out in the open like this, something that is both exhilarating and intimidating all at the same time.
Then at last, a waterfall in a part of the park so isolated that it appeared suddenly and without name. A quiet little refuge of fresh-flowing water that was so crisp and cold, it was numb to the senses.
* * *
Your car barrels down the barren desert road, a hot and dry wind blowing through the windows. You had no choice but to roll the windows down, as running the AC risks overheating your car and leaving you stranded in arguably the world’s most God-forsaken place. A spontaneous stop in the remote desert town of Trona, California, proved to be a crucial decision for topping-up on engine coolant to prepare for a drive like this.
The dry heat is set at a stifling 117 degrees, allowing you to step out of the car and walk-around for just a few moments at a time before having to go back and drink another two bottles of water. The road runs straight across Death Valley National Park and past Burned Wagons Point, where a group of gold-seeking 49ers were desperately forced to burn their wagons, slay their oxen, and dry what meat they had left in order to make it out of this hell alive.
Our drive concluded in Beatty, Nevada, the small desert town known as the “Gateway to Death Valley.” Beatty had a certain audacity to it, stubborn and proud of its role in existing just outside of the Devil’s doorstep.
A 4:00 a.m. alarm rouses you from your sleep, as you mindlessly slip into your shoes and pour yourself a steaming cup of coffee. Settling into the driver’s seat of your car, it’s onward back into one of the most intense places on Earth.
The blanket of nighttime stars begins fading with the budding impressions of a breaking dawn. Every few miles a poorly-timed jackrabbit dashes across the road, a momentary flash of fur across the headlights as it rushes back to safety.
An hour later you’re at Zibriskie Point and its spirals of cream-and-brown-swirled rocks. The emerging sun casts its red glow from the top of the mountains before you, its light slowly slipping all the way down to the valley floor.
Then it’s to Badwater Basin, -278 feet below sea level and the lowest point in the United States. Aside from a small, salty basin pond that bore its namesake, a simple salt flat scatters in all directions. Although momentarily shaded, you stand in awe as the sun chases the shade away and back into the mountain behind you; leaving you once again sweltering in the dry heat of the Death Valley sun.
They say not to hike after 10:00 a.m. in Death Valley, and after the other day’s mid-day drive through the park you understood why. But your trip for the morning was not done without first stopping at the Artist’s Palette and getting lost in its Napoleon ice cream-esque colored display of desert rock.
The next morning, repeating itself in a way not unlike the one before it, you’re off to see the sunrise from Dante’s Viewpoint. The Badwater Basin salt flat is smeared across the valley floor below, like a careless mishap of a painter who knocked his paint can off the ladder. The sun once again cast its light on the mountaintops ahead, slowly emptying into the hellish valley below.
By the time you step into Golden Canyon and venture back to Beatty, you’re almost grateful to never have to go back again, having tempted Fate enough already.
* * *
I think I speak for all of us when I say the year of 2020 has been one unlike any other.
The years seem to be flying by now, this one being no exception. I had my first full summer in Reno, with limited options of what I could really do because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So I hit the road, with a series of friends and family taking part in the adventure. I explored nine National Parks and multiple cities across five states in a socially-distant and responsible manner, despite putting over 6,200 miles under my tires.
For this last series of parks, I was joined by my brother Tom and high school friends Connor McCoy and Douglas Carey.
It was a trip planned in relative spontaneity, just our way of trying to make this “Work-from-Home” thing fun and different.
Which brings me to something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I came across a new artist called Kota the Friend. His sophomore album EVERYTHING was released earlier this year, ironically not long after the world shutdown from COVID-19.
If you ever have the time, I highly recommend exploring it yourself. But in short, the overarching theme of the album addresses the question of what it means to us, “to have everything.”
A series of interludes, however, breaks up the songs in the album as people share their answers to the question: “What does it mean to you to have everything?”
Yet there’s one track in particular that has disrupted my life in the funny way that only music can.
It’s only 0:41 seconds long, so I’d like to share it with you now. It’s called Lakeith’s Interlude.
He has a fascinating answer, right?
The State of Neutrality…
I like that.
Lately, I’ve found myself already ready for the next step before it’s time for me to take it. I’ve become frustrated and restless with where I’m at, swimming in circles. The past few years, much like these past few months, have seemingly been a never-ending cycle of new places, faces, and things.
It can be exhausting.
But while the lifestyle of near-constant mobility that has always appealed to me now begins to wear on me, the idea of finally having my definition of “everything” has garnered a greater appeal.
Yet, my desire to jump to that stage of my life might not be, in fact, what I want or what I need right now. Maybe I don’t ever want to “have everything,” anyway. Maybe it’s time I remember that having something to strive for is a good thing…
Because that’s how we validate our existence.
I have new goals constantly emerging in my life. I’m always contemplating how I might ultimately validate my existence and leave this world a better place than how I found it.
But no, I’m not yet where I want to be and it may take months or even years before I get there; and that’s okay because I’m not alone.
With 2020 being the way that it is, there is a lot of hate and hurt in the world right now. There’s a conflict of beliefs that everything that can be attained, already has been.
But like any good essay, we can always do better.
Personally, I’ve been caught up in my ambition to already have what “everything” means to me; now recognizing that I may never get there and maybe I don’t ever want to.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying. So while I work toward these goals I have for myself and for this world in order to validate my existence, I take comfort in knowing there is one constant in my life that has and I hope always will, remain.
A constant that despite these unsettling times for so many, I now realize has remained with me throughout my summer in Reno and these road trips across the American West.
It exists, too, in the final message from Lakieth during his interlude, a message we must keep in mind in regards to what will ultimately be our never-ending quest to validate our own existence:
“Just try to have some fun while you doin’ it.”