Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hiking In and Out of Hell

Infernal Wonderland

“Don’t let this infernal wonderland become your hell,” warned signs along the Bumpass Hell Trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The trail is named after one Kendall Bumpass, a 19th-century adventurer who discovered Lassen’s hot springs, fumaroles, mudpots, and steam vents and was eager to exploit its mineral resources and develop it as a tourist attraction.

One day he was showing some visitors around. He cautioned them not to get too close to the volcanic features. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the brittle crust around a mudpot collapsed and one of his legs slid in. The leg was so hideously burned it had to be amputated. It wasn’t even the first time he’d ventured too close and plopped into a mud pot. I hope he finally learned his lesson.

Today, there are warnings all over the place reminding visitors of Bumpass’s dumbassedness and mentioning important facts such as the 322° F temperature of the hydrothermal features and the extreme acidity of the noxious bubbling, blue-green pools, but, incredibly, I still saw people reaching their hands toward boiling streams and sticking their heads within inches of steaming sulfur vents. I didn’t see anyone’s face peel off or arm get hard-boiled, but I’m sure it happens—frequently.

For those of you who have broadband, here’s a movie of some exciting hydrothermal action. For verisimilitude, imagine you’re breathing in lungfuls of pure sulfur. Very, um, bracing.

Seriously, it was way cool to see all this stuff. Scientists say that of all the mountains in the Cascades, Lassen Peak is the most likely to blow next. I believe it.

I really enjoyed watching these mudpots gurgle, too.

Mudpot at Lassen Peak Volcanic Park

Not sure if this is the one that exacted such a high price from Bumpass. It might have been. I do think the mud bubbles are the most splendid shade of gray.

We also saw these things, which were belching a ton of fetid steam at us and making a racket like an off-kilter washing machine. Freaky! They were too high up to peer into, but if I could have looked into them, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to see half a dozen devil suits churning around inside. It wasn't called the Devil's Laundromat, but it should have been.

I would have loved to have been able to find a place to stay near Lassen so that we could have done more than one hike (wah!), but it was not to be.

We drove back into Oregon and booked into a Comfort Inn in Grants Pass. The room was scrupulously clean, large, bright, and cheery. The furniture was all new and the décor tasteful. (No 10-cent garage-sale masterpieces here!) It had a coffee maker (thank god!), a spacious, sparklingly clean bathroom with a shower that produced hot water instantly—in a variety of spray patterns. The list of amenities goes on. It was downright swanky! It was actually a little nicer than the Hilton I stayed in on my last business trip. A Comfort Inn. Go figure. And the room rate? Only two dollars more than the shit-ass Ashland Motel. Harrumph!

Now Grants Pass is not exactly a tourist mecca, but it is a nice little unpretentious town—in short, the opposite of Ashland. It’s surrounded by the Siskiyous, and it's right on the Rogue River. I liked Grants Pass so much, I even bought a somewhat dorky Grants Pass mug. (Tangent: I’m too lazy at the moment to go take a picture of the actual mug [which is probably in the dishwasher] so I tried to Google one. I typed “Grants Pass mug” into the Google image search engine and got this, a whole page of Grants Pass yearbook photos from, for some reason, 1982. Hilarious! They do look like mug shots, especially the one of Paul Carlson. Where are you now Paul?)

We spent most of the rest of our vacation in Grants Pass. While the hiking may not be knock-your-boots-off spectacular, I thought the area was lovely. I especially liked the diversity of trees in southern Oregon. And I developed a bit of an obsession over peely-bark trees, e.g., the stunning Port Orford cedar and the delectable madrones. Neither grows in northwestern Oregon, so it was a treat for me to see them.

Super Peely Madrone

Bare-Armed Madrone

Are madrones gorgeous or what? I love how the outer bark peels away in slender, parchmenty curlycues—rather like cinnamon sticks—to reveal a silky smooth “underbark” the color of Mexican hot chocolate. At one point I was in a grove of madrones and I could actually hear them shedding their bark. I felt like I had discovered some secret forest rite. I made B stop and listen.

Madrones may supplant the western hemlock as my favorite tree. I probably took 50 photos of madrones, and, of course, was unable to do them justice. As I said, obsession. I found out later that John Daniel, author of The Rogue River Journal, shares my madrone obsession. He says that the madrone is the only tree he desires to eat. I totally get that.

To think, too, that had we remained in Ashland, we might not have taken the two hikes we took along the Rogue River. The Wild and Scenic Rogue River, I should say, as that is its official federal designation.

Rogue River from on High

The hikes we took were along the tops of the cliffs that edge the Rogue. Unbelievably, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves. It was thrilling to look down at the moss-green Rogue from such heights and watch it change from lazy placidity to raucous turmoil. We stopped and ate lunch at the rapids known as Rainie Falls and kept our eyes riveted to it. We saw a couple of steelhead flip themselves out of the water and launch headlong into the falls. Whoa! I have so much respect for those fish. How optimistic—and a little bit insane. I have no idea if they were successful. And even if they were, they still had to run the gauntlet of fishing boats and rafts. Good luck to them.

Speaking of fishing and speaking also of insane behavior, we saw this guy, a young father, wheeling a freakin’ wheelbarrow loaded with heavy fishing tackle down the narrow (e.g., 2 feet wide), rocky, steep, treacherous-in-every-way, trail, with—get this—his two small children in front of him. That’s right. Say he lost control of the wheelbarrow—a very real possibility—it would have plowed right into the kids and knocked them over the cliff. That guy was really using his noggin. And why weren’t his kids in school? It was a Tuesday.

One last thing, and then I have to get to my yoga class. We saw carnivorous plants! A whole hillside full of cobra lilies.

Cobra Lilies

I’ve always wanted to see carnivorous plants in situ and these were some primo specimens. Here’s what they get up to, if you’re interested. They are cunning and devious and bloodthirsty, are they not?


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