Not too many in the desert when it’s 90º.
This was the point in our test-the-waters trip where things came to a head. We had very specific goals in mind for coming back to Lava Beds: 1) less crowded, more distanced campground, 2) dark sky location to be able to see the Neowise comet, 3) escape afternoon heat by exploring caves, 4) try out our new super bright headlamps in the caves. As you can see, two of the four reasons for going involved going into caves. At the time of planning, this seemed like a rational and safe set of activities. Richard even called the visitor center to see what the crowds were like and was told there was hardly anyone there. All systems go.
Somehow, I’d forgotten caves are enclosed.
We had no trouble getting a nice site, arriving at the campground around noon. There are no hookups and it was going to get into the low 90s, so we made some decisions about which caves we’d like to try with our fancy high lumens headlamps. The first was Skull cave. Upon entry, all looked good. It was pretty wide open with good airflow (there was even a sign showing good air flow) and almost no other people. And it was downright cold inside. At the end was a stairway leading down to a landing and that was when it started getting a little uncomfortable. Another couple, unmasked, approached, and though we tried to physically distance as much as possible, it gets quickly dangerous to go off the established trail. I started feeling angry about unmasked people. There are signs everywhere “highly recommending” wearing masks, but it is not an enforceable rule. It wasn’t going to do any good to confront them, but it did feel cathartic to at least call ahead and ask, “Are you masked?” as people approached. If they weren’t, that gave us the opportunity to figure out how to get far away, but also to mutter disapprovingly so they would recognize the impact of their choices. It likely does not have any positive effect, but I strongly felt the need to mutter.
Kinda hard to social distance.
The second cave we visited was Merrill and that ended up being rather traumatic and by far the riskiest thing we did the entire trip. As I write this, we are following through on getting Covid tested and it’s because of what happened in this cave. Right off, the entrance was tighter and I started to feel uncomfortable. In retrospect, that should have been the signal to turn back. But we didn’t. We went on until we got to a set of stairs leading down to the first landing. It was at that point we got trapped by a family passing us with an unmasked child. She was having a hard time in the cave and alternated between yelling “I hhhhhhaaate yooooou!” to her parents, and laughing loudly in self amusement. The parents were masked at least, and I turned my back and tried to get as much off the trail as seemed safe to let them pass. She had a hard time with the stairs, so it took an eternity. I was in full panic mode at this point. As I looked around the tight space, I could see suspended droplets in the air. I don’t know if they were from the child, or others. The space was too small, there was not enough air flow. Everything in my brain was screaming that this was not safe. All I wanted to do was get out. I was wearing a mask, sure, but one of those disposable ones, and I was breathing heavily. Finally, they passed and I turned to leave. Right away another couple approached and they were not wearing masks. So all those suspended droplets in the air… who knows who was in there before we arrived. F*ck. So stupid.
After we got out, I wiped all of me down with hooch soaked paper towel wipes and threw away the mask I was wearing. I wiped my face, up my nose, and around my eyes until they stung. I stopped short of injecting myself with bleach though. I was mostly really mad at both of us for not bailing at the first signs. Still, we didn’t want to abandon the whole day and there was a cave we knew that was huge and open at both ends. We both decided that would be ok.
Sentinel Cave was a relief. The entire length of it is open and breezy. As it was around 4pm, there was no one else in there at all. We had the place to ourselves and could relax and enjoy the space. I was still worried about having been potentially exposed in Merrill, but there was nothing to be done except not be stupid again. After the positive experience in Sentinel, we decided to call it a day with caving and head back to Dory for dinner.
Big Nasty Trail at Mammoth Crater
Our next goal was to do the Big Nasty Trail and catch the sunset. That was perfect, and isolated, and very beautiful. We timed it well and ended back on the high side of the loop for sundown. From there, we drove the dirt road back to the Bunchgrass scenic overlook, where we had been told there was a great view of the comet.
Neowise Comet visible with the naked eye
It wasn’t until around 9:30 that the Big Dipper came out in full force. We kept scanning the sky with binoculars, becoming more skeptical that this was a real thing. Then just before 10 or so, I caught it out of the corner of my eye. Binoculars showed an unmistakable fuzzy ball with a long tail. With every minute of increasing darkness, it became more pronounced. By 10:30, it was easily visible with the naked eye and so, so cool. Eventually, we returned to the campground and discovered it was even visible from our site. I tried getting pictures with a low light iPhone photography app. You can at least see the smudge.
The next day we got ready to head down to Likely, CA, where two Altoiste friends were camped out with a bunch of high end astronomy nerds. As we started talking about how to make sure we kept them safe from us and our possible exposure, the floodgates kind of opened on four months worth of stored up stress. As scared as we are to risk going out, we are equally scared of staying home. When we’re home, we both shut down to some extent. When I’m stressed, I organize things, and if you look around at my spaces, you’ll see a lot of color coded things put in their proper place. This is what I do to feel in control, even though my brain knows better. We function, and go about our daily responsibilities. We make attempts to connect, like going on walks, and those things are all important. Even sleeping in Dory gave us the ability to be a little more connected, and watch shows at night. But it’s not the same. Being in Dory now is different because there is an overlay of trying to control things we can’t, but it still feels more real to us. We talk about everything, big and small, because we have the time. We talk about work, and racism, and how to rank the size of natural lakes fully enclosed in California. All of it. When we’re out in Dory, that’s when we feel alive. How ironic that that could be the thing that kills us.
Sunsets are essential.
These are tough times. The stresses are everywhere and much too overwhelming to really process. Being out in nature though, somehow makes it all palatable. Where there are forest fires, there is rebirth. Where there are volcanic eruptions, there are ice caves. Even knowing that dazzling comet out there is getting all of its bits blown off by solar winds until it eventually disappears strikes me as so poignantly beautiful. It is then that I cry, with an overwhelming sense of deep gratitude and joy. That feeling is just so much harder for me to find when we’re not on the road. So, for now, unless the campgrounds shut down again, we think we are going to try to keep going out. We will take all the precautions we can, knowing it won’t be perfect and there will always be risk. And maybe we’re wrong. And who knows what is coming next. But for now, this is the one thing that feels right.
You never know when the train is coming.
As we pulled out of Lava Beds, Richard rode the other side of the national park road and I drove in silence, trying to just be with everything. All of it. Life is one glorious, beautiful, confusing comet.
Total miles from Collier: 80.3, 17.5 mpg, 1 hour 53 min. Site B23, very nice, no hookups, great solar. 2 bars of LTE for both. No dump.