11:00 pm, Thursday, July 3rd:
“I think we can put the GPS down, we’re almost there.”
The car full of heads nodded in agreement as we passed a sign indicating that it was only 52 miles east to Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.
“All we have to do is stay on 36– it will take us straight to the park,” I added.
Easy peasy. That’s what my roommates– Sarah and Paul– and I all thought four hours into our journey north to Mt. Lassen. Dreaming of simmering in sweltering heat, dipping in lakes, and gazing at mountain stars, we all were swept away with our nearing– and much needed– 4th-of-July weekend adventure.
Earlier in the week I had been placed in a walking boot for a month due to a sprained foot and ankle– an intramural soccer injury– and one week in I was already wallowing in my own misery. Sarah had been studying for her nurse practitioner boards, which were less than a week away, and Paul, an exchange graduate student from France, was just keen on an adventure. This trip was supposed to be our saving grace, lifting us out of feeling blue, and giving us a dose of warmth– while the Bay Area is generally lovely, the fog-filled summers are far from balmy.
Almost there. Any time now, right? Hmm… lots of strip malls. Where are the mountains? The trees?
Well over an hour since we passed the “52 miles to Mt. Lassen” signpost, these thoughts began to burst our dreamy bubble of weekend adventures.
And then we hit Chico– shit balls. Chico is 72 miles south of the park.
Perhaps it was the daydreaming or the ridiculous endless-question game of “guess-what-famous-person-I’m-thinking-of” that we were playing for hours in the car, but somehow, in the middle of the night, we failed to drive straight. Rather, we managed to veer off onto a road that took us south again.
Recalibrating, we did not lose hope. We were camping dammit, and we better nab a spot tonight before the rush of 4th-of-July warriors beats us to it. We turned around and pushed on, heading back north.
2:00am, Friday, July 4th:
At last, we enter the park. Only 15 more miles until our desired destination: a first come-first served campsite along the muddy edges of Summit Lake.
But as we passed the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center disaster struck.
The first sign of impending doom was the puttering of the engine. Barely able to make it up the slight incline passing the Visitor Center, there was no way this car was going to make it up past Lassen Peak en route to Lake Summit.
Luckily there was a campsite next to the Visitor Center, so we pulled in and decided to deal with the car in the morning and get some sleep.
But the campsite was full– double shit balls.
So we decided to crash on someone else’s camping spot, get up early, and explain to them our plight in the morning.
7:30am, Friday, July 4th:
After our campsite neighbors graciously accepted our apologies for hijacking their spot, we started “fixing” the car; however, it didn’t go so well.
First we couldn’t get the hood of the car open. While Sarah’s 1983 Mercedes is a beast, 31 years of driving has taken its toll. The plastic lever to pop the hood broke off, so we resorted to using pliers to pull a metal tab lodged in the inner workings of the car.
It took about an hour, maybe two, to pop the hood.
From there Sarah changed the fuel filter, thinking that was the culprit. Then the car wouldn’t even start.
Next we thought that perhaps we had run out of gas, since after all we had driven an additional 144 miles and hadn’t filled up in ages. But since none of us had cell phone service, we waited until the Visitor Center opened to call AAA and request someone to bring us gas.
In the hours that it took for AAA to arrive, what seemed like hundreds of people poured in the park– triple shit balls. Hopes of a Lake Summit camping spot were fading.
To ameliorate our concerns, a friendly cyclist named Doug brought us cherries and grapes. Doug, a Chico resident who was touring Mt. Lassen for the day, had a 1985 Mercedes and was giving us advice as to what the culprit could be. He also told us that he has a great mechanic in Chico who goes by the name Guido– we took note.
Finally AAA appeared, filled us up, and went on its merry way. However, the early morning hundred-degree heat had already fried our brains– it had not dawned on any of us, including AAA, to start the car and drive around before our car-service friend departed.
The car was still broken.
1:30pm, Friday, July 4th:
“Well, shit, we might as well make the best of it,” we all seemed to mutter at the same time.
So we snagged one of the few spots available at the Visitor Center campsite, and decided to just get the car towed on Sunday.
And that’s when magical events began to counter our bad luck.
While Paul and Sarah were off on an afternoon hike (my sprained foot precluded such adventures), I was shifting from tree to tree around the campsite in search of shelter from the fierce sun, when something told me that I should hobble back over to our campsite even though the sun was still unbearable.
Waiting for me back at the site was Doug, the cyclist from Chico, standing next to our tent with a furrowed brow and holding a foot-and-a-half long, silver-colored water bladder with a spout dangling down to the earth. Doug wanted to make sure we were okay, and offering us his solar shower was his effort to soothe our situation.
He told me to put it on the hood of the car to let it heat up, which somehow spiraled into an hour-long conversation about cycling.
While Doug was sweet, he was also a bit odd– the kind of odd where he could either be a lonely old guy looking for someone to talk to or just a creeper. I started to get a bit antsy for Sarah and Paul to return when he told me I had nice legs.
Luckily I was soon relieved. Shortly after the leg comment a dark haired, 30-something-year-old touring cyclist named Bagdan rolled up to our campsite and asked if any spots were available. Whew. Off the hook.
Wanting to pay it forward, I told Bagdan that he could crash at our campsite if nothing was available, which is exactly what happened after he made a loop through the campsite with no luck. (But to be honest, Bagdan was also kind of cute, which facilitated my decision in offering to share our spot without consulting with my roommates).
Doug scurried off once Bagdan looped back, and we chatted for the next hour or more until Sarah and Paul arrived.
Starting from Los Gatos, Bagdan– a Romanian-born, East Coast-raised chap– was headed all the way up to Crater Lake and back, camping at national parks and wherever he could pitch a tent along the way, which was about a 3-week journey round trip. Bagdan was a cool dude, so I invited him to join us for the duration of our weekend adventure. He gladly accepted.
After a cruisy 4th-of-July evening filled with campfire bean burritos, lots of beer and wine, and ukulele tunes, Saturday morning rolled around and the cool waters of Summit Lake were still percolating our minds. We HAD to get out and explore the park. While the Visitor Center campsite was comfy, we needed a break from the stream of cars– the campsite was about 5 feet from the tourist-laden parking lot adjacent to the park’s main entrance.
What to do, what to do. . . walking anywhere was out due to my boot, so hitchhiking was obviously the answer, though possibly a challenge considering there were now four of us. Bagdan, our touring cyclist friend, had come along for the adventure.
Using hot pink duct tape to spell out “Summit Lake” on one side of a brown paper bag and “Visitor Center” on the other, we crafted a lovely sign and headed to the road. Approximately 30 seconds later we were in business.
“I can take you as far as the Peak,” said the sole occupant of a northbound SUV. That was good enough for us– Lassen Peak was only 7 miles from our destination.
Though it took a bit more effort to catch another ride once we hit the peak, luck was soon on our side again.
An SUV headed north passed us, got up around the bend beyond eyesight, where it had a quick change of heart. The SUV turned around and picked us up.
Our chauffeurs– a white, middle aged, sun-kissed and balding K-12 teacher and basketball coach and his shy, yet charming, Latina girlfriend– were a cute, happy-go lucky couple from San Francisco. Staying in Red Bluff, they were taking daily excursions into the park with no firm plan, except to have fun.
With four of us wedged in the back seat, we told them that it was imperative that we swim in a lake, as this desire had fueled our 7 hour trip north and was the impetus behind our hitchhiking adventures. While telling our tale of how we ended up hitchhiking in the middle of a national park, one of us mentioned the word “raft”, causing our new teacher/basketball coach friend to immediately perk up.
“You guys need raft?” he said as he leaned into his right arm and glanced back at us over his shoulder. A smirk crawled up his face. “Because I’ve got one I can give you.”
Apparently our new friend takes his students on epic rafting adventures and had a stockpile in the back of his car.
We accepted the offer, and spent the afternoon swimming– and floating– on Summit Lake.
At about 4pm we decided we should try to make the 15-mile trek back south to the Visitors Center. This round was much harder than our previous attempts. We moved several times along the road and finally struck gold by standing in the middle of the road in front of the Summit Lake’s exit.
A white pick-up truck packed with 3 cute kids in the backseat rolled up to the stop sign exiting the campsite and asked us where we were going.
“Ah, sorry, we’re heading up to Redding,” said a burly middle-aged– and also sun-kissed and balding–man wearing a SF Giants hat. Redding was 50 miles in the other direction.
But seconds after the car rolled away from the stop sign it stopped. Through the tinted back window we could see that the burly man’s wife was making a case for picking us up.
The truck slowly reversed, the burly man leaned out the window and said, “We can give you a lift if you don’t mind sitting in the back.”
We graciously thanked them, hopped in the back and were laughing at our luck… that is until a park ranger started tailing us. We knew this was no good after he started making curious gestures at us– like pointing to the side of the road– and talking on his radio. Thirteen miles later– only 2 miles from the Visitor Center– they pulled us over.
“Is that a broken foot?” the ranger called out to me as I awkwardly climbed out of the truck bed.
“Let me see it,” he said gruffly, as if I were faking having an injury, pulling off the old “boot trick” to get out of trouble. His rigid demeanor suggested that he took his park ranger job very, very seriously.
After he inspected my boot we told him about our situation and why we were hitchhiking. He was torn– to fine us or not to fine us, that was the question. It would have been $150 each, including the driver of the car, totaling $750. Sitting in the back of a truck is illegal in California since there are no seat belts.
Scratching his head as he wavered between siding with stranded– and injured– tourists and the goodwill of the driver and upholding the law, we really weren’t too sure what was going to happen. One thing was for sure, however, we told the pick-up driver that we would definitely pay any fines and offered his family the inflatable raft– yeah, we were hitchhiking with that too.
“Alright, you were just trying to be a Good Samaritan, so I’ll just issue you a warning, which is nothing really,” the ranger sighed to the pick-up driver.
The ranger then turned to us. “And I’m just not sure how I can get you all back to the Visitor Center. We can only take 3,” he said pointing to his car. Sitting in the passenger seat was a young ranger-in-training.
“Oh I can take one,” urged our pick-up driver friend. Somehow, in the midst of this fiasco, he wasn’t sick of us, not to mention that the full ride to the Visitor Center was 30 miles, round trip, out of the way for his family.
So off we went back to the Visitor Center. The next day we called AAA, but we needed a towing destination before they would pick us up. Berkeley was out of the question– too far, too expensive. And that’s when we remembered Guido, Doug’s Mercedes mechanic in Chico. Luckily there aren’t too many mechanics named Guido floating around northern California, and a quick Google search by Sarah’s dad in Mill Valley yielded results (we still didn’t have reception and were operating off of the kindness of rangers letting us use their landline).
Five hours later– after rounds and rounds and rounds of MASH, bananagrams, and my favorite card game, “Ben’s Game”, named after my cousin Ben who taught me the game when I was 8 years old (and because I can’t remember its true name)– AAA arrived.
Sarah’s Mercedes loaded on the flat bed, sitting snug in the back seat of the tow truck en route to Chico, and miles and miles from home with no concrete plan of how we might make it back to Berkeley, we slipped back into our groove that got us into this situation in the first place.
“Is the person a male? Alive? Musician?”
Back to “guess-what-famous-person-I’m-thinking-of” we went, but his time the tow truck driver played too.
This city makes me smile every day.