Saturday morning, September 12, 2009, the official beginning of the Yuba College geology field trip to Mt. Lassen volcanic area and I’m scrambling to get everything ready, which includes preparing coleslaw for 30 people and finding something warm to wear. Some students had already gone up last night to experience the mood of the unruly northern wilderness without academic obligation. And in order to make it in time, which was 9:00 am, the rest of us had to set out before the sun was rising.
Our destination was Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the southern entrance to the Lassen Forest National Park. To me, it’s just a strange name for anything. Why not Lassen Forest National Park Visitor Center? – Or something logical like that? Other than its eccentric name, you wouldn’t notice anything odd about the place. A lofty, new, efficiently designed building set in the midst of tall pine trees and towering mountains; Shasta, Lassen, Brokeoff and Diamond Peak.
But with a closer look around, you’d notice that the bathrooms smelled like mausoleums, that a bottle of water and a small breakfast salad would total nearly $15.00, and that no one is hospitable at 9:30 in the morning. We all met here for a quick lecture about the geology of what was in store for us. The attending crowd, about 30 people, was mostly made up of students, their relatives and their friends; all recognized and pre-approved to attend the trip through the college – for liability reasons of course. Some came excited, some came groggy with sleep still in their eyes and some came flat out hung-over. But, with the exception of one student, we all seemed to have made it.
Dr. Betsy Julian, Yuba College professor of geological sciences and equally a highly animated woman with a strong Texan accent, would be our guide. She explained how the Lassen volcano formed centuries ago, how it came to be one of the U.S.A.’s most major volcanic eruptions in the 20th century, and how the surrounding rough country took shape in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster. We would explore this assemblage of unique ecosystems in the fashion of curious half-scientists visiting a foreign landscape or at least that’s what it felt like. Some of us were fascinated, some of us were testing our cell phones for reception and some of us were still trying to wake up.
From here we set out for Bumpass Hell. Another awkward name! We’d be hiking 3 miles downward to the depths of a bubbling sulfur pit. Before we got started, Prof. Julian issued a warning, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” We were informed that if we neglected this word of caution, we could easily end up missing a leg, just like the explorer who this place was named after. Of course, the first thing I did when I reached the bottom was dip my finger in the water to taste it. It tasted dirty, but I turned out just fine. Here, we straddled a shabby wooden walkway hovering just by inches above various pools of liquid: some of them sparkling, crystalline blue, some a soapy yellow and some boiling emissions that were somewhere between muddy brown and tar black. While doing my best to avoid jetting fumes that smelled like hot rectum, I had the impression that I was in a Jurassic Park film and half-expected to see a Pterodactyl soaring by, but instead we admired evidence of glacial striation (scratches in big rocks).
The other stops of our grand adventure through no-man’s land that day were comprised of a rugged path where deadly lava once flowed called The Devastated Area (quite appropriate), and we viewed the many different structures that result from fluid magma as it plops to the ground and cools instantly into fossils. But all this was only the beginning.
Sunday morning we were faced with the bitter prospect of climbing to the top of the Lassen Cinder Cone; a giant pile of soot, ash and sand. Most of us were sweating and desperately trying to catch our breaths by the time we reached the foot of the monstrous hill after a 2 mile hike. Still, we had the unthinkable to endure: climbing to its summit. Once we started up, climbing soon became crawling.
The incline was easily 45 degrees and in some places, practically vertical. I began with a couple of guys who soon fell behind only 5 minutes into the hike and from that point on, it was a lonely suffering. I left my coat behind thinking it would be less of a burden only to kick myself in the rear when the air became thinner and colder towards the top.
At one point I was sure of three things: either I was going to dehydrate, suffocate or be blown clear off the side. But I was the third one to make it; a sheer 700 ft straight up into the vivid sky. Not everyone reached the peak, but the amount of us that actually finished the ascent was more than anyone had expected. We all had a great time sliding back down to solid ground. I remember being so high in the air, I could actually make out the “No Trespassing” sign on Heaven’s gates.
Close to the end of the trek, we surveyed the consequences of a fire that burned through a scenic viewpoint only just a few weeks ago. For many of us it was a reminder of how precious the nature was that we were fortunate enough to experience and how easily it could go up in smoke, lost forever. This sense of temporary splendor reinforced feelings of appreciation for unbridled natural landscapes in all their glory. Through all the challenges that a trip like this would suggest: trudging mountain paths for hours on end, nearly freezing to death when the sun goes down and all the fires are extinguished, confronting the dreadful reality that your iPod has finally run out of power, wishing that there was something more to eat other than trail mix and Twinkies, etc… we can look back on this occasion as a rare opportunity to discover who we truly are as individual human beings relating to our natural environment. We can really see where the convenience of modern society has obscured our ability to exist in the fundamental world of our early beginnings. We can be grateful for how geology helps to explain the formation and development of that world.