In August of 1994, we went to see the spectacular Crater Lake in Oregon. The trip became memorable for another unexpected, spectacular reason…
I finished up my lab work on a Friday evening, drove to our small Pennsylvania town airport (4 doors for gates in a big room) and flew to O’Hare. Where S joined me from his work and we took a flight to Portland. All through employee standby travel. For 3, 4 years this was almost a routine on some weekends for us, with different destinations.
We reached Crater Lake late on the next day. First we set up camp - it was our first camping trip in the great American outdoors! The next day we went to the lake. The bluest of blue, clearest of clear, caldera lake nestled in the rugged volcanic mountains. From any angle it was a feast for the eyes. A wonder in its sheer existence. Sacred for the native Klamath Indians.
I don’t remember if we hiked down to the lake, maybe we did. We boated in the waters. Ash got into everything and came back with us.
But first, very excitedly, we found our spot in the tree rustic camp site and set up our cozy looking tent. It was easy. We spread out the camping cookery items we had bought for the trip on the table. Only, we didn’t have anything to cook with. We forgot about that. So it required a trip to the small camp store. We also bought 2 packs of firewood. What is a camp without a campfire?
Dusk approached. We didn’t realize how fast. Soon, I was cooking in the dark. S was with his favorite activity – the making and maintaining a camp fire. The cute camp lantern we bought the weekend before and with which I walked around in the apartment feeling like a pioneer was dwarfed by the blanket of darkness. I could not see anything that was a few inches away from the lantern!
The cooking failed. The rice wouldn’t cook. The water wouldn’t boil. The veggies wouldn’t saute. I remembered ruefully the tables full of food that neighboring camps had and cleaned up before sunset. One lesson learnt. At least, the fire roared. Until it got very big and one arm came out and burnt S’s eyelash tips. He was sitting too close, tending the fire. All this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Just like the long drive from Portland (which was rather scary close to Crater Lake).
Maybe some of it was the goodwill karma we felt we were owed (not that karma really works like that). On the long road in the wide open skies from the friendly Portland, we saw a boy, of about 9 years, standing on the shoulder with a handwritten sign Out of Gas. An adult was with a beat-up truck a little ahead. We passed them, and after talking about it we took an exit, a turn into the right direction and parked on the shoulder. They were out of gas. We found the nearest gas station, bought a portable container and brought them gas. They were so grateful, speaking more through their shy country demeanor. I believe we still have the red fuel-safe container somewhere in our garage.
Oh you have to be careful with the dinner remains and how you dispose of the water, one lady said to us at the common taps, with concerned gravity. We must have given her a blank look so she explained- if grizzly bears smell the food they will come to the camp at night.
Grizzly bears will come at night- these words began to sink into me in the darkness. So after we carefully disposed of everything in a bear-safe way, I went back to the tent a little subdued. S took care of the dish washing in the ice cold water.
So we really didn’t know anything about camping in the wilderness. Going to national parks or camping was not something we grew up with or what our friends did. But it was something that interested us. The internet was there but there was no information in it, like now. The lady was nice, she could have been rude. I’m not sure if the times were like that, people were nicer then, anyway she was nice to us because we didn’t know and also, we were young.
Night settled in. We watched the fire till it died down and settled for sleep. By then all the other camps became quiet. Very soon we realized something was wrong. It was very cold. Extremely cold. We had no idea it could get this cold on a summer night in the mountains here. We had only one sleeping bag, a sheet and two small camp pillows for both of us. No jackets or coats even. We did not doubt not having a warm night.
It was awful. Body shivering, bone chilling cold. Outside, it was so dark; we could not even see our hands. We stumbled to the car, turned it on and with it, the heat. Such sweet comfort it was. Sleep came. Then S said maybe it is not a good idea to stay in one place with the car running so he drove slowly (it hadn’t occurred to us that we might be disturbing the peace). No one complained though.
We left the camp site, drove around, parked here and there and caught bits of sleep. If we turned off the car, the miserable cold rapidly seeped in. Ours was the only car on the road, the car lights were the only lights. We were the only moving creatures on the face of the earth. When we stopped, we turned the lights off, with the engine running for the heat.
One such spot was on a hill top, it was a clearing of some sort, where there was no tree cover. By chance I looked up and… and… was astonished to my core. The Milky Way.
In the moonless, cloudless sky, the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon in full splendor. Dazzling, glittering, still and… just there.
I had only heard of the Milky Way. I had never imagined the magnificence. We both were shocked. We stood outside, heads turned up, forgetting the cold.
It was one of those things where you lose yourself in something. The whole middle of the black sky was lit up. Parts of the arm were dense star-clouds. Each of the countless stars was twinkling. I could have reached out and touched a star.
It was so spectacular, we felt insignificant as ourselves. It was so spectacular, we felt significant because we were a part of it. And to imagine that this sight, this perspective was a given thing in lives of our ancestors, until electricity. Surely without daily darkness we are missing something.
I could have stayed there all night. But I began to imagine grizzly bears behind the starlit distant trees. They will come at night. I got back to the safety of the car despite all entreaties of S.