We weaved through darkness. A tree lay across the road, suddenly illuminated by our headlights, remnant of a recent storm. We swerved around it and carried on deeper into the forest.
I didn’t like it. It made me nervous being so far into the forest at night. We had not passed a house or inhabitation for miles. We had already lost cellphone reception. I hadn’t told anyone where we were going.
The road curved and swung back and was climbing steadily. From what I could gather in the limited visibility from the headlights, there was a steep bank to our right, which the tree must have fallen down from, and then a river winding along our left. I assumed this based on the shape of the land, but I could never catch a glimpse of the water.
I held my phone in my hand because we were following our GPS to a free campground in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. I wondered if all this was worth it now, just for a free campsite. We carried on deeper into the trees, eventually forking left up a hill, and then finally reaching our GPS destination. There were no campground signs in the pool from the headlights. There was no obvious place to pull over. We climbed out of the car, apprehensive with head torches in hand, and looked around. There was supposed to be a lake here and vault toilets, but we found neither. Just grass and trees and fallen logs. The only comfort was the fire rings. At least there had been camping.
We set up camp in the dark, unsure, alone in the forest. My anxieties only eased slightly once we were done and could climb inside our little home. Eventually we fell into a light sleep, and then I fell deeper into the recesses of my subconsciousness, my mind and body exhausted.
Simon didn’t sleep as heavily I suppose, because at some point in the early morning, that moment when we are just able to perceive that light is fading back into the sky, he lay there awake, noticing familiar sounds and shapes. With the increasing grey light of morning, he became sure of his suspicions, and woke me.
“Are you awake?” he asked.
“I am now” I replied.
“I think there’s snow on the tent…”
My eyes shot open then and I looked at the shapes he was making out in the soft light. I was shocked and exhilarated simultaneously, wondering if it was good news or terrible. Would the road by impassable now? Were we stuck out here where no-one knew to look for us? But these thoughts barely lingered… it had snowed!
We pulled our warm layers on and climbed out into the world that had been only darkness to us the night before, and sure enough, where there had been none the previous night, snow now carpeted our forest home. It hung on boughs of the pines, weighting their branches. It settled over the fire rings, and along the tops of fallen logs. It covered our little green car, and I am sure that I saw our car shiver in the early light.
Eventually the sun broke through the pine branches and the snow sparkled, little crystals catching and reflecting sunrise light, shattering them into refracted points of energy that danced into my eyes and lit me up with excitement.
We spent the morning enraptured with our new paradise, photographing pines, the tent, the car, and the lake, which we realised was only 40 paces or so from our camp. The vault toilets weren’t far either, and even they were beautiful under the shimmering coat of soft frozen rain. I had to admit that my apprehension the night before had severely limited my ability to explore in the dark, and that it seemed an unnecessary feeling now.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the day warmed and the snow started to melt. It fell from boughs of the pines, releasing them from their weight and allowing them to spring back into their daytime position. We climbed up to a viewpoint from which we could walk along a ridge and look at Mount Shasta, an immense and blinding white peak in the distance. We were on another section of the Pacific Crest Trail, the same that led through Tuolumne Meadows where we had hiked just some months previously in Yosemite Valley.
As the snow melted the road became clear, and eventually we took the drive back down the forest road. It was a different experience during the day. I was right about the river, but not about the threatening composure of the forest. On the contrary, it was beautiful.
We spent two more nights in Shasta Trinity National Forest. In Castle Crags State Park, we hiked into a pine clad granite wilderness that sent our hearts soaring back to playing on the slopes of El Capitan. We spotted a northern pygmy owl in the trees. We watched from our perch on top of the dome at the peak of our hike as a small plane followed by a helicopter came swooping in sideways through the miniature Yosemite Valley, leaning between steep granite slopes and then up and away into the sky, eventually shrinking into the distance.
We were back in California. Despite the snowy morning and sub-freezing night temperatures, the scent of the granite and pine under strong sun smelled familiar and welcomed us home in a way. It was bittersweet acknowledging the close of our northern adventure. We toasted the end with a pumpkin ale, and let the experiences and adventures of those expansive months sink deep into our memory and imprint themselves on our minds, before sighing deeply and packing up to move on. It was time for the next chapter.