Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

DAYS 21 – 23 Lava Beds National Monument, CA


October 19-21, 2012

One of the best things about staying here was our campsite. It was on a small bluff that opened to a sweeping view across desert and sky. Sagebrush, junipers, and dried bunchgrass speckled the landscape. Piles of dark volcanic rubble are everywhere, showing where ancient lava has seeped through the desert floor, flowed from a vent or landed from an explosion. Numerous large volcanic cinder cones interrupt the flat plain of the lava flows. The light, colors and clouds were endlessly, harmoniously, shifting. Late afternoons before sunset provided the best shows. I also knew that this increasing cloud cover was heralding a change in the weather pattern.

There wasn’t as much obvious wildlife here unlike other places we’ve been. But there were a variety of songbirds in the trees scattered throughout the campground. Our neighbors in the next campsite – a couple – were clearly enthusiastic birders. I asked the man, as he wandered the campground with binoculars, whether he saw anything “special”. He paused a moment and then said he saw Townsend’s Solitaires there. It was a name I had heard but I knew nothing of the bird it belonged to. Later that day, a rather nondescript gray bird was calling from the top of the large juniper in our campsite with a clockwork regular “beep . . .beep . . .beep.” I had heard that same call at dawn while still in bed and I truly wasn’t sure, at that time, whether it was a bird or the electronic beeping of an unplanned alarm or a battery gone bad. I wondered if this bird could be the mysterious Townsend’s Solitaire. Playing the recording of its call on my iBird app, I found that Indeed, it was.

Two days later I was casually chatting with the woman next door and discovered that the couple lived in Ben Lomond, the same small community in the Santa Cruz Mountains that Chris and I are from! We probably had passed each other before and likely had shared acquaintances.

The beauty of the spot and the promise of falling stars, made me want to stay several days. The first evening was mild and we sat outside watching the stars and Milky Way emerge from the blackening sky. It was the weekend of the October Orionid Meteors. They appear to emanate from the Orion constellation but Orion would not rise for many hours. Still it was possible that we might see a stray meteorite. We both played with our Pocket Universe apps trying to improve our identification of stars beyond The Big Dipper, Polaris and Casseopeia. (I have learned to name a lot of constellations over the years and I have forgotten just as many.) Much of the time was actually spent trying to master the app and not the stars. I went to bed without seeing one falling star.

The next night we made a campfire, the first of this trip. I soon saw a blaze across the sky . . . the first Orionid! Later, when returning on the short walk from the restroom, I saw two more. I considered getting up at 4:00 AM to improve the chances of still more sightings. But when a brief rain fell in the middle of the night, any determination to rise disappeared. Our last night was very cold with more rain, ending in a light dusting of snow.

So my search for falling stars ended similarly to my search for tarantulas, seeing three of each, even though I was hoping for more of both.

I love the soothing warmth of body and heart as well as the quieting of the mind that come from a campfire. I love the fragrance of wood smoke even when it persists on clothing and hair. Everybody has their own approach to the rituals of making a fire. The collecting of the wood, how it is built, getting it started and its periodic feeding, poking and rearranging.

Chris complains about campfires, too much work, a waste of money (often firewood must be purchased.) He calls me The Pyromaniac because of my enthusiasm for campfires. But I observe that he will readily build and start a fire when asked and that he seems happy in front of the flames.

I think the attraction to the musical crackling and pops of the burning wood, the rich smells, the flickering tongues of red and yellow fire is now part of our DNA. This draw to fire began infiltrating our genes when that first human, long ago, discovered the magic of sparking fire.

For our first lava tube foray we visited ones with ancient pictographs, Big Painted and Symbol Bridge Caves. As it turns out, they are not so much tubes but yawning openings in the earth, strewn with small to large pebbles and boulders of frozen lava. We had brought flashlights but didn’t need them there. The pictographs were faint and we had to wait patiently to see them, gazing at the rocks until they quietly emerged into perception. Most were geometric patterns and painted with black pigment. The explanatory signs said these two caves were sacred sites where ceremony and vision quests were likely held. Since Chris and I had done extended wilderness solos, we played with the idea of  spending sacred time there alone.

There are many caves at Lava Beds to explore, ranging from easy to difficult. We chose the easier variety, since we were not excited about crawling on knees through small spaces. Sentinel Cave was spacious and long and an enjoyable adventure through the earth. Lava tubes are what is leftover after underground streams of lava empty out. They leave behind the pipes and drains of their own plumbing systems. These tubes reminded me of the tunnels in ant farms where we got to be the ants.

Alone in the caves we took the opportunity to turn out our flashlights and sit in silence in total darkness. I felt a little apprehensive, not knowing what the loss of any orienting light might be like. But I found it to be a pleasant experience. Still, silent, empty, peaceful. The smallest sounds – of breath or shifting position – become clear, amplified.

This short experience encouraged me that doing a dark retreat might be possible. A dark retreat – available through some Tibetan Buddhists centers – is a solo retreat in complete darkness. They can last from a few days to a month or longer. Food is delivered through a light lock – acting similarly as an air lock. It is a lightless chamber that can be accessed from the lighted outside world and also from the dark sanctum of the retreat space. I assume this practice began in caves like the ones we were in.

My fear of the dark retreat is not knowing the psychological effects of being alone in a world void of light. But that is partly why they exist, to bring you to your edge of fear, helping you see that the imaginings and visions of the mind are only that. This reduction of stimulation and the renunciation of light and sight, helps direct ones attention to the deepest source of seeing, the source of consciousness itself.

This gallery contains 18 photos

DAY 20 – Medicine Lake to Lava Beds

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October 18, 2012

Medicine Lake, CA
We woke up from our coldest night yet. I slept in two layers of clothing and under two sleeping bags. I was warm enough but felt uncomfortably confined by all the bundling. We had already discovered that when the night temperature is low enough, condensation from our breathing collects heavily on the aluminum beams of the ceiling and on the thick plastic sides of the pop-up section. This morning we look up to see that the condensation had frozen into a white coating of frost. When it warmed, as Chris said, “it rained in our house”. We’re not yet sure how to prevent this so for now we wipe down the ceiling on cold mornings.

You never know what magic you will find. I walked to the lake just as the sun rose and discovered that ice has formed along the beach in an enchanting and unusual way. Moisture below the surface had frozen and grown upward through the pebbles and sand creating 3-4” long ribbons, strings and blades of ice looking like a garden of crystalline white grass. They were reverse icicles, the frozen water reaching for the clouds rather than dripping downward to the earth. They would soon collapse and dissolve in the warming sun even though, while they lasted, they had the strength to lift stones (albeit lava rock), 1-3 inches in diameter.

While absorbed with photographing these ice formations, my attention was suddenly diverted by what I thought was music. Were other campers playing loud music this early in the morning? Then, with great pleasure, I realized I was hearing a chorus of coyotes, their howling so melodic, I thought it was song. It was one of the largest and longest coyote performances I have heard and was full of yodels, yips, yelps, trills and soulful cries. The sound filled the lake basin and it was difficult to tell what direction it came from. The choir reached a crescendo and then abruptly stopped, returning the forest to silence. For about an hour, there were periodic outbursts of this wild and exuberant music. I would have loved to see this pack while they sang, so uninhibited, expressing a vitality uncommon in humans. It was as if they were singing the new day into existence.

Later, back at camp, I heard another familiar call and I sighted an osprey landing in a nearby tree with a fish in its talons. As I walked toward it, the big raptor burst into flight with another bird in hot pursuit. For a few moments, I thought the second bird was also an osprey but then saw that it was bigger and darker. A bald eagle! They began a display of aerial acrobatics with the eagle determined to get a free lunch from the osprey. Instantaneous twists and turns, twirls and tumbles. Wow. Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. I’m not sure who got the fish in the end. For the rest of our stay, the osprey and eagle remained hidden.

A few days later I discovered that Medicine Lake is at nearly 8,000 feet which explains why it was so cold. Our climb to get there was so gradual that we never guessed that we had reached that altitude. I also learned that it is the caldera of a great shield volcano, the volcano that created the lava flows and tubes of Lava Beds National Monument. Medicine Lake Volcano has been erupting for 500,000 years and will likely come alive again.

After a short kayak exploration of the lake, we leave and drive the 16 slow miles to a remote entrance of the park. We’ve been traveling the Modoc Volcanic Scenic Byway, a barely used road this time of year, soon to be closed for winter.  It turns from good asphalt to good dirt to bad dirt (washboard) to bad asphalt (potholes). We stop just over the boundary in the park to see Mammoth Crater, the largest vent of the volcano from which most of the lava oozed. The path around the crater has an amusing name, “Big Nasty Trail.”

I love all things volcanic. Don’t you?

At Lava Beds National Monument we find a beautiful campsite with a vast view across the plain of the park. We also discover that that weekend was the annual Orionid Meteor shower. I love meteors as much as volcanoes! The weather was mild, in 70’s, sky clear. Not having properly bathed in a number of days, we tried for the first time the outdoor on-demand hot shower that Chris had brought. It was wonderfully refreshing.

By coincidence, the young ranger at the visitor center desk was from Pittsburgh, as I am, and had just graduated from Slippery Rock University, my father’s alma-mater. To be honest, he seemed disoriented and perplexed by this high volcanic desert, so different from western PA where he had spent all his young life.

This gallery contains 11 photos


DAY 18 – Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area, CA

October 16, 2012
I am excited to report that I saw an animal that I have never seen, a mammal I only had vague notions of, barely knew existed and did not think it lived in northern California.

I was sitting quietly in the dark at about 8 PM, waiting for Chris to return from Redding with dinner. I had two flashlights but both were losing power so I turned them off, only lighting them when I heard a noise I thought I should investigate. At one point, I heard some rustling and footsteps and illuminated two deer nearby. They ran off when discovered.  This is black bear territory so I was a little concerned about a visit from one.

Then I heard something quickly climb the tree nearest me. Shining the light upward I first saw a long, beautiful, thick, black and white striped tail, a couple feet long. I immediately think of raccoon but the tail was too long and the wrong colors. Then the animal curls around the trunk and looks at me. I see a sweet face that looks like a cross between a cat and a fox, with big dark eyes and large ears rounded at the top. It is a warm tan on its upper side and white underneath and about the size of a house cat except for the incredible tail. I am flummoxed; what is this animal? I take pride in knowing my fauna. In the back of my mind I recalled something similar, a relative of the raccoon that I thought lived in the southern desert. Yes, this is a ringtail! (Also known as ringtail cat.) I am thrilled to witness this magnificent creature. The ringtail quickly jumps to another tree and disappears.

The next day I mention my siting at the visitor’s center and the rangers are excited and say its rare to see a ringtail since they are nocturnal and secretive. Have you seen one?

DAY 17 – Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area, CA

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October 15, 2012
Just as Chris and I prepared for an outing of biking and kayaking, I heard voices. Several people were coming up the steep path from the creek to our campsite. Since the adjacent shoreline is an impenetrable thicket of brambles and shrubs, the only access is by swimming or boat. I stand transfixed waiting to see who appears. The first person, a man, is in full wetsuit and snorkel, the next two, women, are in drysuits carrying dry bags. They nonchalantly walk past us. I can’t imagine what they’ve been doing. Chris asks if they’ve been gold-panning, a popular activity here, and they explain they are looking for salmon and that they came out of the water for lunch. I wish I had found out more about their project and what they are finding; I assume they were state or federal biologists.

Chris drops me off at Whiskeytown Lake and I paddle leisurely near the shoreline past Canada geese and coots. The water level is about 6-10’ below normal (although this level may be normal for this time of year, the season just before the winter rains.) The shoreline reveals beached tree stumps that would be completely submerged if the water was high. I have a strange visceral feeling that these tree remains are alive, that they embody some spirit. Perhaps it is the spirit of the drowned forest from the making of this lake. Many look like flattop octopus, more precisely “polypus”, on tippy-toes, crawling in or out of the water. Some are amusing, others threatening. Each frozen in action. I photograph some; I don’t know if their animated spirit comes through. One set of stumps I name the God-Goddess of the Stump People with its retinue, standing as guardians of the Lake.

This gallery contains 17 photos

DAY 16 – Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area, CA

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October 14, 2012

I don’t guarantee that I will always enjoy this, but for now, I find pleasure and satisfaction in the simple act of washing in the stream. Of course, if it were inclement weather or I was in a cloud of biting insects, it would not be so pleasant.

There is a short, steep path from our campsite to the edge of Clear Creek. I bring some dirty clothes and rinse them in the rushing water; they undulate and billow gracefully in the current. Everything seems at peace here, whole and complete. Satisfaction comes from full sensual involvement and from having nowhere else to be. The feel and sound of the cold rippling water, the morning sunshine playing on the surface, the rustling of birds nearby and their cheerful songs.

A little later I wash dishes in another spot downstream. I think of Buddhadasa’s advice to live simply, close to nature. Beauty and surprises reveal themselves as I take the short walk. A large “rotten” banana slug crossed my path. At home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, these slugs are a solid soft yellow; this one has the coloration of the northern variety, beige and olive with brown spots, like a banana gone bad. It is fully extended at about 9”.

This all feels quite different from the humble household tasks at home. Although being present and contented can be part of washing dishes anywhere (just ask Thich Nhat Hanh!) the act seems richer and more integrated here, part of a living environment. I also think of the millennia during which people, probably mostly women, have squatted by water cleaning their few possessions.

I am having a difficult time remembering what day and date it is. I keep just forgetting or get mixed up; I notice this as I try to keep track for this blog. Of course, in many ways, dates aren’t relevant to us but it is still important when dealing with the civilized world and in keeping in touch with family. My sense of conventional time has diminished after years of meditation and now, in nature, with minimal schedules or appointments, it has relaxed even more. Some evenings, when I reflect on what occurred just that morning, it seems impossible that it could have been on the same day. Other days, time moves so quietly, so stealthily, it’s hard to believe the day is already coming to a close.

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DAY 15 – Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area

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October, 13, 2012
We have perfect weather and a lovely campsite for our stay here. This area has a large campground on the lake that is not suited to our needs. It is set up for tent camping only; vehicle camping is in a large unattractive parking lot. We might as well stay at Walmart; at least it is free there! But WLNRA also have a number of what they call “primitive campgrounds”. We chose Peltier Bridge which has 9 sites along Clear Creek, the outflow of the large Whiskeytown Lake Dam. This becomes a good location because it is near enough to town (Redding) to do errands and resupply, near some of the best mountain biking in the state for Chris, and near a lake to kayak for me. I spend a lot of the time at the campsite, doing camp tasks, relaxing, meditating, photographing, writing.

We have a view of a small section the creek. The creek is sizable, too deep to wade across, some holes look over six feet in depth. It beckons for a swim but is very cold and I don’t go in over my knees. Occasionally birds appear. I saw a large bird flapping near the far shore and was surprised to see a hawk bathing. A group of four mergansers periodically show up with their wild red heads, either resting, preening, or fishing. A smaller, shy duck hides along the shore, a male wood duck in his more subdued winter plumage. When I lay in my hammock, small nondescript birds feed on the lower branches overhead. They inspect cracks in the bark and peck at the small bunches of wild grapes, where the weft of the many grape vines are woven through the warp of the tree branches. I can tell that some are wrens, others possibly sparrows or warblers, but I can’t identify any specific species.

This gallery contains 6 photos