Twelve nights, five campgrounds, two states, 40-degree temperature variances—oh and plenty of s’mores and adult beverages. That’s one way to sum up our summer vacation. Another would be relaxing. A tad bit frustrating. Sketchy at times. Awe-inspiring. The BEST.
Eagle Lake in north-eastern California was our first destination. There we met up with family, giving my daughters other kids with which to ride bikes and dig holes to China. And giving myself some much-needed adult interaction around a campfire.
Fresh air, pine trees, a picturesque lake, dirt so fine that clouds of dust puffed up every time you stepped, and flying bugs bigger than a half-dollar. After three months cooped up in the house, it was all perfection. Okay, not the bugs, but they were well worth the trade-off.
We rented patio boats one day, and what I expected to be a tranquil activity, started out as chaos. Kids jumping off of different sides, our dog swimming circles around the boat, her first time in deep water. But then things calmed down. We turned on some music and drank in the sun. I threw on a life jacket and jumped in the lake a few times—just long enough to cool off and pee out the wine spritzers.
I watched the dog watch, concerned, as my oldest daughter floated in the water. And then I watched as the dog jumped in to check on said daughter. Good pup.
Our second stop was a one-night stay at an RV park near Lava Beds National Monument. Our original plan was to stay at the Lava Beds campground, but thanks to COVID, we had to find a plan B. As we pulled up though, I had serious second thoughts. The place looked deserted. A sign with guns carved into it hung on the front of the office that said We don’t call 911, and a dilapidated shed was spray-painted with the words stay away from my home. My husband and I gave each other a nervous glance. Are we going to be chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac or dragged from our beds in the middle of the night?
We unhooked the trailer, ate a quick lunch, and headed into the relative comfort of Lava Beds.
Heavy-bottomed clouds peppered the sky. The land was covered with brush in hues of green and tan, the occasional trees and lava rocks littered throughout. It was breathtaking.
But standing at the mouth of the first cave, I couldn’t help but think about the things that could happen inside. Informational signs about cave spiders, bats, and the effect of earthquakes fed my imagination, along with a highlight reel of clips from movies like The Descent flashing through my mind.
Mushpot Cave was long and narrow, with portions where my husband and I had to squat down and waddle through. Lights lined the way though, helping keep claustrophobia at bay.
Skull Cave felt enormous in contrast, almost tame, until we reached a set of steep stairs that dropped you into the earth. Balancing a flashlight, watching my footing, and most importantly, making sure my children didn’t slip through the railings and plummet to the rocky ground below, ramped up my anxiety until my heart was beating as fast as a hummingbird’s wings.
We reached the bottom where animal skulls and patches of ice were on display behind metal gates. My pulse slowed for just a moment until my husband suggested we turn off our flashlights. The darkness was intense, encompassing, thrilling. And then we flicked them back on and started our ascent, which somehow seemed even more treacherous than the way down. I don’t think I took a full breath until we stepped out under the cloudy sky.
To get to the Big Painted Cave required a ¾ mile hike. It would have been a peaceful walk, if we didn’t have a weird feeling that someone would steal our dog out of the back of the truck. (Note to self: not all people who hang out in parking lots, ask to pet your dog, and then force said dog to sit, claiming they were a dog trainer, have ulterior motives. They could just be being friendly.) The cave wasn’t too exciting, more of just a giant space full of rocks. But the kids were excited to find a hole that looked like it could very well go straight to China—of course, after staring into the blackness, they were no longer interested in traveling through the earth.
From there, we headed into Oregon. It was my first time in the state, and I was not disappointed. We stayed at Diamond Lake for three nights, a place where the sky was a brilliant blue, snowy mountains could be seen in the distance, and birds woke us up in the mornings by walking on the roof of our trailer.
After a walk around the campground one day, my oldest daughter and I returned to our campsite to find our pop-up garbage can shaking. Something was inside. We did the most logical thing—jumped up on top of the picnic table, wrenching our necks to see what was inside. But it was too far away. So, being the adult, I knew it was up to me to get closer. I tip-toed to our trailer steps and climbed to the top one, leaning over the garbage. Inside was a chipmunk, cleaning out the peanut butter remaining in little plastic cups from my daughters’ lunches. I grabbed a stick and knocked over the can, setting the chipmunk back to freedom.
At night, we would put the kids in the trailer, letting them watch some cheap DVDs I picked up at a Walmart mid-trip (Beethoven, The Jetsons Movie). My husband and I huddled close to the campfire, trying not to freeze. Drinks in hand, Coors Light (him) and Gallo sauvignon blanc (me), we listed off bucket list places for our next road trips. Zion. Calaveras Big Trees. Back to Oregon for the coast. Colorado. Joshua Tree. Our combined foreign travel experience is paltry—Canada, Mexico (just over the border), Finland, and Estonia (for a few hours). But there is so much beauty in our own country still to explore.
Like Crater Lake, somewhere I had wanted to visit for a long time. It was just a quick drive from our campground. We parked at the first lookout point, and raced up the hill to the rim, excited to soak up the amazing view. Unfortunately, no one had warned us that the temperature would be in the 40s, or that there were patches of snow on the ground, or that there was a bitter chill to the wind. The first photo I took of my children up there showed them with scrunched faces and arms wrapped around their torsos, trying to keep warm.
Thankfully, other spots around the lake were more sheltered from the wind and we could really take it all in. Standing at the top of the crater, staring down into the vivid blue, glass-smooth water, I was struck silent. Well, maybe not completely silent. I may have uttered variations of “This is so beautiful” a few dozen times.
But that wasn’t the only beautiful sight in Oregon. Our campground was also near a multitude of waterfalls in the Umpqua National Forest. We chose three to visit. The first one, Clearwater Falls, was short and decorated with moss and lush greenery. Whitehorse Falls was powerful, dropping into a deep pool. We had to hike uphill to get the best view of the last one, Watson Falls, but it was well worth it. At 293-feet high, the spray from the falls travelled far, misting our faces and turning the viewing spot into a mud pit. I just wish my bad knees didn’t have me hobbling in pain back down the trail afterwards.
Our last day at Diamond Lake, my husband laid down with the kids to watch a movie (take a nap). Sitting outside in my reclining chair, my camo-print hat was low over my brow, the sun warming my body. A travel wine cup was on the ground next to me, a book in my hands. It was a little soul food for my introverted self.
Wide and swift-moving, the Rogue River was not exactly kid-friendly. Our first day at the Valley of the Rogue campground, we wanted to find a spot for the kids to swim and somewhere to get dinner. But a miscommunication, a bit of traffic (in Oregon?!), and a kid who had to pee so bad we had her go in the dog bowl in the back of the truck, brought us back to camp less than an hour later, dry, grumpy, and hungry. Later, I pretended not to notice when my husband smacked his head while exiting the trailer, and he pretended our dinner just magically appeared in front of him and that the dishes magically cleaned themselves. In a mature, married-almost-seven-years way, we called it even the next morning and let our argument be swept away down the Rogue. And then we found a nice sandy, calm beach to play on that day and ordered Mexican takeout that night.
Day 12 and a three-hour trek to the last stop of our trip. Mount Shasta loomed ahead like a giant snow-capped mirage, and the cars flying by us on Highway 5 were all I needed to confirm we were back in California. I wondered if it was too early to miss the slower pace and the friendliness that being in another state brought.
One thing that remained consistent no matter where we were, though—the frequent snack requests and pleas for electronic help coming from the backseat. And of course the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of “I’m bored.” My husband and I tried to drown it all out by listening to a book on tape. But the epilogue ended as we passed Weed (the town—not the green stuff I sort of wished I had to calm my nerves while standing at the bottom of that pitch-black cave). On the plus side, we didn’t have to stop once on that stretch for a potty break.
In Redding, we visited my grandma, where we gained a pound or two from her delicious, large home-cooked meals and heard stories about her childhood growing up in Finland. And we also got to see my great-aunt, talking to her through the window at her care facility. I could see the joy on her face as my children sang a few songs. And it was a gut-wrenching reminder at who this pandemic is affecting the most.
We returned home the next day after one last three-hour drive. I couldn’t help but notice the pale, smog-filled sky, the brown hills, the garbage on the side of the freeway, the graffiti-covered overpasses. I was tempted to wrench the steering wheel out of my husband’s hands and turn us back around. But this was home. This was where our family was, our friends, my husband’s job.
As much as I wanted to, we couldn’t run away on a whim. We couldn’t run away from the pandemic, from the political tension plaguing this country.
But I won’t lie, it was heavenly taking a two-week break from it all. And we now have the memories, the photos, and for a short time, the oh-so-slight hint of color on my legs, to remember it all by.