Ah, camping. There's nothing quite like it. Glorious sunshine, the wonderful scent of pine, and healthy, pollution-free air. Animals curiously staring at you as you unpack. Lovely stuff.
We arrived mid-afternoon at Lassen Volcanic National Park and got set up with our tent, not far from the watchful eye of a deer and some chipmunks. This of course gave us both ample opportunity to point at deer throughout the entire trip and say "Oh deer!" followed by gales of laughter. It never, ever gets old, even now.
After getting set up in the Manzanita Lake campground, we took a walk around the lake itself. The bird life is diverse, and we were struck by how quiet everything was. We took the Chaos Crags trail which wound through an evergreen forest and along the creek.
The sun soon dipped though, and Lev and Julie - who were arriving later in the evening - had packed us up with some meat to cook, as well as some snacks. Fortunately we'd had a big picnic not long after getting our tent set up, which was just as well since our attempts at making dinner were disastrous.
Ah, camping. There's nothing quite like it. Desperately trying to cook a chicken breast over a BBQ emanating less heat than a Mills & Boon novel. Frantically wondering if you've packed all your edibles in the bear-proof cupboards, or if Yogi is going to rip you to pieces in the middle of the night because you left a half-eaten piece of jerky in your coat pocket. Being so utterly, utterly freezing cold that you literally wear ALL OF YOUR CLOTHES in the tent, and then get into a sleeping bag, put a duvet on top, and still find yourself shivering.
Yes, it turns out that Lassen at night is chilly. It was possibly the coldest we'd been the entire trip - even worse than that fateful evening in Sydney's Blue Mountains. If we thought it was bad though, it must have been nothing in comparison to what Lev experienced - we found out next morning that they'd arrived late at night and Lev had forgotten to pack any sort of fleece. How he hadn't suffered hypothermia the next morning is a mystery unto itself. It must be the Russian blood.
We were greeted with this sight upon awakening, and the heat soon returned to our frozen veins.
We were in great spirits and keen to check out some of the Butte Lake Trails, one of which - the Cinder Cone - took us up an actual volcano.
The specks at the top of the cone on that last photo are actual people. This is where we were heading. Well, most of us. Julie had decided to stay at the bottom and "look after our things". I don't blame her, it was absolutely baking hot and there was zero shade on the trail up the volcano.
Now, here's the thing about Keen sports sandals. They're really, really great. Waterproof, toughened rubber, very comfortable. But they have vents in the sides. The problem with vents is that that stuff can get in, and then you're walking on it until you shake your foot and it comes out the back. Not a big deal for a couple of stones every so often, but when you're climbing up what is essentially powdered ash mixed with stones and grit, your entire foot becomes submerged in the ground. Every step sees you filling your sandals up with stones. You shake them out and take another step. The same thing happens. This was repeated for all 2105 metres of our ascent up the volcano. I was in agony. Taking them off didn't make any difference, I was just exposed to more stones. Lev giggled to himself as he marched up in his sensible walking shoes, whilst I silently gritted my teeth between sobs.
The view when we got there was absolutely worth it. Aside from the miles of evergreens blanketing the horizon, the cinder cone itself is mightily impressive. You can actually descend, should you wish, into the volcano, but my feet had decided that they were far happier not going up and down any more slopes. Well, until we needed to come back down.
As everyone knows, it's a lot easier to come down than it is to go up. This is scientific fact. Especially when you're hurling yourself down the volcano at full pelt because you think it will make your feet hurt less. Interestingly, it does.
Back at the campsite we treated ourselves to a well-deserved shower, before we started going nuts with the fire. A few bottles of Framboise Lambic (Belgian raspberry beer) and some actual properly cooked chicken, and we were well away into the night.
The next morning marked the end of our stay here, so we headed off on our final trail - Bumpass Hell. Whether the compound adjective is funny because of Bump Ass or Bum Pass, either one works. Alongside Butte Lake, it seems Lassen has something of an obsession with naming things after arse synonyms. In truth, Bumpass is named after Kendall VanHook Bumpass, a miner who after breaking through a geothermal mud bank, scalded himself so horrifically he needed his leg amputated. Cheery!
The main highlight of the trail through, are the thermal pools. They reminded me of the pools at Whakarewarewa village in New Zealand, the water and mud in colours of all hues changed by the mineral deposits underneath.
After a quick stop by Lake Helen it was time to pack up and head back. We got a bite at Dos Coyotes Burrito on the way through Sacramento, and once we hit Lev and Julie's place we set out again in the evening to celebrate the birthday of Fooks, one of their friends. A party was being held at the Duke of Edinburgh, a pub that was apparently trying to encapsulate everything English...if that establishment was from the 70s. Well, it got the sticky floors right.
Lev and Julie's friends are all pretty high-flying in Silicon Valley. Jan Koum, the owner of WhatsApp popped over for a drink at one stage. He'd just bought a new Mercedes SLS (you know, because he could). This was way before the 2014 Facebook buy-out made him a multi-billionaire. He took Julie out for a spin in it. Sadly, I was too busy staring agog at the car to actually get my camera out and take any pictures. Suffice to say, it was very, very pretty.
The next day was our last with Lev and Julie in Mountain View. We bummed around, making muffins and scones for them, sat around the pool, kicked back in the evening to watch Office Space, and caught up on blogging (probably the last main blog I had chance to do before we came home a month or so later). It had been an amazing stay with them, and we felt incredibly lucky to have met them all those months earlier in Laos in a treehouse in the jungle. Because, what better place is there to meet amazing friends?