Once upon a time in another life, I married a geologist. On our honeymoon, we traveled north from San Jose, California to Calgary, Alberta in a white VW bus, camping and exploring along the way. Being a geologist, my first husband liked rocks. I like rocks, too, but not to the point of obsession. Somewhere near the California-Oregon border, I proclaimed that I did not want to hear another word about one more damned rock. I think it may have have happened at the Lava Beds National Monument, my last stop on my vacation last month. I know there was a cave; it was cold inside. I know there was black lava rock. I know we probably didn’t have a flashlight. But that was another life. Husband number two preferred to tour wineries.
If I had had any idea how long it would take to get from Klamath Falls to the Lava Beds National Monument, perhaps I would have skipped this stop, but once I had made the turn off I-97 onto Route 161, immediately south of the Oregon-California border, I was sure I’d be seeing lava any minute. The road ran along the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Miles and miles of open grassland gave way to more miles of farmland and Tule Lake. Lovely, but I was starting to get hungry. No worries. I’d take care of that when I got to the Lava Beds visitor center any minute. Maybe a hot dog and onion rings, something totally off the diet . . . A beer maybe?
Two hours later, I found the park and the lava. I paid my admission fee to a ranger in a booth. She handed me a map and told me the visitor’s center was quite a few miles up the road. Seriously?
The road curved upward. Every half mile or so, parking areas and paths led to trails through the lava, up mounds of the black stuff and down into caves. I parked, I hiked, I climbed, I took pictures, I sweat. It was cooler in the caves, but my flashlight fizzled out.
For the most part, I was alone. Tourist season past, I ran into one young Asian woman also traveling by herself and an older couple from California, who took turns on the trails while one of them stayed in the car with their dog. I could imagine this place crawling with kids in the summer.
Starving, I ate my last apple from home and my last granola bar, washing them down with water. Where the heck was the visitor’s center? Finally, finally, I came to it. No restaurant, no snack bar, just bags of trail mix in the gift shop area, where you could rent or buy flashlights and helmets for the caves, along with books, hats and T-shirts. Another room offered a video telling the story of the caves. I collapsed on the couch there to watch stories of flowing lava, the Modoc Indian war, and the adventures to be had in the park.
As soon as I could pick myself up again, I asked the ranger at the desk if there was a quicker way to get back on the road to I-5 south. “What kind of car do you have?” she asked. She explained that part of the alternate route is not paved and gets pretty gnarly. It would take two hours either way. Sigh. I took the road more traveled.
One of the main attractions of the Lava Beds National Monument is the caves that lie along a loop road beyond the visitors’ center. Hard hats, flashlights and jackets are recommended. I would add that good knees are a plus. Also a love of small dark places, which I lack. I skipped most of the caves, needing to move on. But one could spend several days there, hiking and spelunking in this fascinating area. The trails and steps down into the caves are well-signed and well-maintained. Bring food, and expect to spend all day. It’s not a quick jaunt off the freeway.
There’s a great deal of human and geological history here. Indians hid in these caves during their battles with the settlers who insisted on taking their land. Not too far away, 18,000 Japanese Americans were housed at the Tule Lake Internment Camp during World War II. Some of the buildings are still there. What a stark, remote place it is. How horrible to take people’s lives away like that. I said a prayer that we Americans never be that stupid again.
Hours later, I took I-97 into Weed, looking forward to food and relaxation and ran right into cars stopped for miles due to road work. Welcome to civilization. Following orange detour signs, I wound up on I-5 going the wrong way. No sense of direction. Eventually, I took a room at the spendy Best Western Plus Treehouse Motel in Mt. Shasta and treated myself to dinner at the Black Bear Diner next door. From here it was a straight shot to Dad’s house.
To my ex, were he ever to read this, I’d say: I’m sorry. Rocks are pretty fun. But it was our honeymoon!
Story and photos copyright 2016 Sue Fagalde Lick