The Time I almost Hiked Cindercone

Today, I had big plans. Cindercone is located in the northeast corner of Lassen National Park, and is essentially a conical shaped pile of former lava. The ashen, sandy trail leads you out of the forest up it’s deceptive slope, without any tree cover. The last time  I did it, several summers ago, I remember the hike being agonizing; with each step the foot sank into the black sand, and we were battered with sun.

And then the view at the top. One, you can crawl down into the crater that has been described as the ‘Crater of Sauron’ to stand where at one time lava spewed forth. Two, the painted dunes. I remember being entranced by the lazy sand dunes with rich red, brown, and black hues that seemed to idly stretch across the landscape. Three, views of Lassen Peak along with the rest of the park. Plus, after coming down and getting back to the car, Butte Lake campsite provides a swimming hole that soothes hot skin and replenishes lost energy.

Needless to say, I was excited to go back.  As the heat of the summer had not yet set in, I figured the beginning of May was the perfect time to go.

What I didn’t take into account, however, was that there would be snow on the road. Most of the road was fine, even dusty, and I could see small patches of snow beside the road but the road itself was nothing more than gravel. And then, abruptly as a  bug smacking on a windshield, the road was covered in a good 2 feet of snow. I could see tracks, where someone with fierce off-road tires had gone straight through. And I could see another set of tracks of someone who had driven on top of it, beside the first set. I thought I would try to follow the latter tracks, after getting out and walking along and deciding the snow was suitably strong. So, I punched it and headed in. I basically got an entire car length before I was stopped, dead in my path, spinning wheels. One had even gone through the snow and spewed some mud and gravel.

It’s not the first time I’ve been stuck, probably won’t be the last. I told myself as I got out the shovels and floor mats from my car.

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Try as she might, Sheila is not well-equipped for snow

It honestly didn’t look that bad. I tried to shovel out my tires, placing my floormats under the tires so they would have something to grip and get traction. After a few unsuccessful attempts, including me tromping off into the woods to find all the flat pieces of wood and bark I could find to add under the tires and continuing to dig it out, I was frustrated. I was out of cell-service, my hands were cold from the snow but my hair was sweaty from exertion. I didn’t give up, I figured I would just have to keep digging, but I was annoyed at myself for my hubris in thinking I could do this.

That’s when an older couple drove up in a white Nissan Altima. They parked and walked up to me, and I advised them that they shouldn’t try to go farther. We all kind of laughed, as they could see my current predicament. They were very friendly, travelling from San Francisco and trying to see the campground at Butte Lake. In the end, I pulled the yellow tow-rope out of my car and we hitched mine to theirs. The man got his car, and essentially gunned it, jerking my car out of it’s staunch position and into freedom. We both let out an almost involuntary yelp, and I laughed seeing how us, two men, turned into children full of glee. I was very grateful, and shook their hands (Rich and Susan, I believe their name was). We saw that the problem was less of me digging myself in, and more of my car being high-centered.

It is funny, I saw myself as so independent, and I’m sure that with time I could have dug myself out. However, I had probably spent a good half hour acting as Sisyphus, working on something that would never bring it closer to getting me out. And eventually I would have completely dug that damn car out, but I was humbled by the kindness of strangers. I didn’t want their help, and didn’t think I needed it, but was grateful for it. I vow to show a stranger in need the same kindness one day.

So I went back on the other main road through Lassen National Park (Hwy 89), looking for somewhere else suitable to hike. Naturally, a lot of the road is still closed to snow, so I parked at the visitor center and decided to do a short hike I’d never done. Lily Pond Trail led outward, and I followed the trail until it disappeared. I followed a small network of small ponds in the depressions in the ground. Here, there was no snow. Although I couldn’t have been more than a half-mile from the visitor center, I felt I was lost in the primeval forest with no human sounds. The floor was littered with fallen and charred trees, their decomposed state evidence of a fire a few years back. The ponds were thick with algae and crisscrossed with more fallen logs. I did eventually find a small flat path with a signpost, that I took to be Lily Pond Trail. I followed it, and indeed came to a small, overgrown pond covered with lillies and with two Canadian Geese floating idly by.

The trail comes out at Reflection Lake, and indeed I did feel very reflective. The day had not been what I had wanted, but it had been challenging and beautiful in it’s own way. I was fatigued from using my small shovel to pull out cold snow on a warm day. Two kind people in a small car pulled my out from my snow bank. One day before, I had been feeling listless, bored not only with my day but with my life. Maybe those kind strangers had been there to help pull me out of that mood as well.

I headed back down, thinking of this and listening to music, with the windows rolled down, one hand on the steering wheel one hand in the wind.

I will be back for Cindercone. That jagged beauty is not something I intend on missing again. But next time, I might stop by the visitor center and ask about road conditions. Being impulsive isn’t bad, but neither is planning.

Overall, a very humbling day.

Until next time, never stop exploring.

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