Part one of this story is here: Drive to Crater Lake.
I thought I was seeing it all that day, as I drove through the afternoon. Mountains, rivers and hills. I left the Columbia River behind at The Dalles, and carried on south. I still had a ways to go before reaching Klamath Falls.
I drove the remainder of the afternoon, stopping twice to grab quick shots of green gorges opening up beneath the highway. The rate I was going, I’d be checked into the Best Western in Klamath Falls with time to spare before an early dinner.
Just before 4pm I was greeted with another unexpected sign. It pointed to a right turn off the highway. It was big. It was brown. It read “Crater Lake National Park.” I pulled off on the shoulder of 97, the road that had not steered me wrong since leaving home.
It had been 2 years since my trip to Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks in Utah, and I knew one thing. If it’s a National Park, it’s worth seeing. If I kept my current pace, I’d have a relaxing evening and be able to get some rest and work the kinks of two long days of driving out of my body. But a National Park had just appeared on my path. My head and my heart wrangled with each other.
The beat of my heart tugged towards the National Park. My head answered with objections. The two opposing forces inside me negotiated a long list: would I have enough gas, food, and daylight? I remembered a trip to New York so very long ago. I was reminded that I’d never know when I’d be back or if what I wanted to see would be there.
There was a Mini-Mart and liquor store in what looked to be an old gas station across from the turnoff. Old signs for beer, Mountain Dew and Jelly Babies covered the exterior wooden walls and columns of what used to be gas pumps. I needed a pit stop.
I got out of the car, stretched out my back, and walked across the red dusty parking lot towards the front door. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust from the blazing June sun to the darker interior. There was plenty of beer and liquor to choose from. Glancing around for food, my eyes spotted the snack aisle. There wasn’t a broad selection, but I found two of my favorites – Pringles and Nestle Crunch. Those – and a bottle of water – and I should be OK. I was just going to see the lake, and then on to Klamath Falls.
I asked the shopkeeper if they had a washroom I could use. He directed me back outside, where I would find a red outhouse. I had walked past it on my way in from the car, hoping it was for after hour use. No such luck, but it would do. Supplied and emptied, I took a few photos of the quaint building and got back in the car. I plugged in my Blackberry to charge and checked my maps. It looked to be about 30 miles to the lake.
“Let’s do this,” I said to no one in particular, and pulled out of the parking lot.
The road to Crater Lake led northwest into woods filled with many of the same Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines we had at home in Kelowna. At just past four, the sun was still high in the sky. The sunlight glistening on their branches gave me a sense of ease as I whizzed past.
In my mind’s eye, Crater Lake would be a water filled depression in the earth. When my ears eventually told me I was driving uphill, it came as a surprise. The sun had begun to lower in the sky behind me to the left. I hadn’t realized it, but the crater I was headed towards is 8000 feet above sea level. As the road continued skywards, I wondered if my estimated my fuel situation might be a little off. Still, I was on a timeline and floored it until I hit the switchbacks.
I’ve learned since that Crater Lake was formed approximately 7700 years ago when Mount Mazama, a 12,000 foot volcano erupted and collapsed. Nothing could have prepared me for what greeted my eyes were about to see. I marveled that despite being early June, snow still covered much of the ground on either side of the road. I had been gazing at snow topped mountains all the way down the interior, but had no idea that I was on one of them. Then, a blazing blue gap appeared in the hillside to my right. It was the lake.
I continued driving the road that lines the rim of Crater Lake, exclaiming “Oh, my God!” over and over again. My mind could hardly take in what was unfolding in front of me.
The crater is enormous, lined with what looks like mountains in their own right. Subtle red layers in the earth alternate with green trees and black volcanic silt, all dotted with snow. But it’s the blue of every shade and luminance that blew my mind. I began to understand I was gazing into a water filled volcano. A small conical island rose up near the west. I drove towards it, spellbound.
I pulled off whenever I could to try to record what I was seeing. The wind blew and I braced against the unexpected cold by dancing and jumping in place while I figured out how to photograph.
There was no lens wide enough to include it all in from this close distance. I clambered up the rocky slopes and shot into the basin. Gnarled remnants of old pines dotted the perimeter, and off in the distance, peaks made by the blast of the volcano as it erupted then collapsed caught the remnants of remaining direct sunlight. Eventually the entire lake was cast in shadow, and I reluctantly moved along.
Shortly after getting back in the car, I noticed signs for Crater Lake Lodge. By that point I had lost track of time and had no idea how long it would take me to get back to 97, let alone Klamath Falls. The signs had served me well to that point, so I decided to check it out. It was almost 7:30 pm. I had blown my driving schedule, but so far it had been worth it.
I drove up to the lodge. I hadn’t seen anyone out on the road, so I was surprised at the cars in the parking lot. I stood in line at the front desk, wondering how much a room would be. As I waited, I started to feel woozy. I wrote it off to hunger coming in to the warm lobby from the unexpected cold.
They had an available room. The concierge made it clear I was lucky to get it as the Park had just opened that week. It was triple the rate of the motel down in Klamath Falls, but by then I was dreaming about what sunrise in this spectacular place. Pink hues streaming in the windows from the now setting sun confirmed my belief. Knowing I’d be up in the dark to take photos before hitting the road, I paid for the room up front.
By the time I got to my room it was after 8pm. It was small and had no view to speak of, but it was clean and comfortable. The nausea hit me as I started to unpack to wash up before going to the dining room. I began to realize what was happening. After all my running around outdoors at 8000 ft, it was the altitude. And based on past experience, it was only going to get worse.
I jammed everything back into my bags and dizzy-ran for the lobby. My announcement I could not stay was initially met with disapproval. The manager was called and a refund eventually issued. By the time it was all done, their disdain had turned to concern. I must have turned shades of grey while fighting the urge to throw up.
Everything I didn’t want in a drive waited for me – the dark, risk of wildlife, and a gas tank that was nearing empty. But this time gravity was on my side. My body and brain settled as oxygen returned to my system. An experienced mountain driver, I laid off the accelerator and used the brakes sparingly all the way down to Klamath Falls, as the mileage count dwindled towards zero.
It was close to 11 pm when I glided into the Best Western parking lot on fumes. I was exactly where I had originally intended to be. I leaned back on the headrest to take stock. Looking across another unfamiliar road I was greeted by a sight for sore eyes – a working gas station where they sold sandwiches.