Seeing my daughter grasp the scale and beauty of nature made the pre-dawn chill, sore back and broken sleep all worthwhile.
By Sasha Abramsky
"It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man," wrote Teddy Roosevelt, of camping in Yosemite Park.
At about 4 am, after hours of being unable to sleep; of shivering in the cold mountain air – despite going to bed fully dressed and with a wool hat pulled down over my ears – and trying to silence my crying kids who kept waking up and whimpering in the chill; of futilely attempting to find a position on the air mattress that didn't send my lower back into spasms; of listening to sounds that might or might not have been a bear sniffing around outside our tent, I finally couldn't stand it any more.
I simply had to pee. Gritting my teeth, I turned on a flashlight, put on my shoes, unzipped the door of my tent, stumbled out into the night, and made a dash for the pit-toilet at the edge of the camp site.
There was no bear. But there were an impossibly large number of stars twinkling above.
I peed, ran back to my tent, and half-slept till dawn.
Hours later, as the sun crept up over the edge of the awesome Lassen peak – the jagged relic of a powerful volcanic explosion that strewed boulders over hundreds of square miles – in the remote northeast of California, I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and whined exhaustedly that "everything has gone wrong."
Like so many other grouchy early morning, pre-coffee utterances I make, this one was ludicrously off-key. Things weren't wrong; they were right.
My wife and I were in one tent with our two young kids; our friends Jessica and Michael, and their two children, were in another. A hundred yards away was Summit Lake, the glorious early morning mists shimmering off the water. A couple miles to the south-west was the base of the Lassen Peak Trail. The base was 8,000ft above sea level, huge snowbanks dotting the landscape even in mid August. The peak of the volcano soared 2,500ft above, its ragged tree line halfway up, marking the outer limits of ecological regeneration following a series of hundreds of "minor" eruptions in the early 20th century that were immortalised in the photographs of BF Loomis.
Above, lay a rocky, craggy moonscape. Further west still was Bumpass Hell, an inferno of bubbling, sulphurous mud and water, with plumes of steam rising up through the delicate crust surrounding the cauldrons.
We fired up the camp stove, got out our cold boxes from the heavy metal bear-locker, fried up some bacon, cut open some bagels, and boiled up a thermos-full of coffee.
Half an hour later, my six-year-old daughter and I were in the parking lot of the Lassen peak trail, getting ready to hike as far as we could up the mountainside. We wouldn't make it all the way – young legs get pretty tired on a steep mountain trail in the thin air two miles above sea level – but it didn't matter. We would see nature at its extremes: grand vistas spread out below us, the volcanic ash that layered on the earth turning the melting snows an eerie pink as the sun struck it; the blues of the sky shading into the blues of distant lakes, which in turn shaded into the whites and pinks and grays of the snowpack.
My daughter grabbed my camera. She wanted to take a photo of "the composite" of colours. Looking out over that landscape, and seeing my daughter grappling with the immensity of nature, I felt stupid about my morning tirade.
Yes, camping is uncomfortable. And yes, there's a lot to be said for getting out a credit card, reserving a room in a nice hotel with a large TV in front of which to park the kids, and going out for a fancy meal and a good glass of wine. But there's also something infinitely wonderful about being so close to raw nature. And, as important, there's something vital about getting young children out of their increasingly technology-padded comfort zones and forcing them to encounter the non-cyber world around them.
We lose something when we spend all our time cocooned inside a carefully constructed modernity, when we read about daily affronts to the environment – yet, removed from the majesty of nature, don't fully realise what is at stake. It's a good thing to reconnect every so often with the Great Outdoors.
Lassen has no hotels. If you want to see the splendours of this landscape, you have no choice but to stay in one of the campsites nestling on the edge of the lakes and against the sides of the mountains.
After camping in Yosemite, Teddy Roosevelt once declared that "It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man." That sentiment holds as true today as it did in Roosevelt's time. What a wondrous thing is nature. And what a joy to see a child grasp that simple truth.
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