Filling a Heart and an Empty Nest with Nature

By: Melissa Marsted + Save to a List

Lassen Volcanic National Park, Brokeoff Mountain

I’m a huge believer in “taking advantage of opportunities.” Earlier this fall, I had the chance to completely change my plans and visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, mostly on a whim. Lassen has been on my bucket list since I wrote a children’s book about California’s nine national parks, Casey Cruises California. My younger son had just started his junior year in college on the East Coast, and my older son was moving to San Francisco and into his first apartment to start his first “real”
post-college job. We filled my sedan with his clothes and various things from our linen and kitchen closets and drove 12 hours straight on Highway 80 from Park City to San Francisco. My plan was to help him settle into his apartment and then turn around a day or two later to make the long, solitary drive back to my now empty nest.

I had not thought much about adding my own adventure to the trip and had, therefore, left behind my usual Camelbak and anything else I might normally take with me on a long hike or run -- except for my Hokas that are always with me as a test runner for Hoka One One! Thoughts had been crossing my mind about seeking adventure after launching my son, but at the time, Lassen Volcanic National Park seemed so far from San Francisco. In reality, though, it was only 240 miles or roughly four hours to drive there and then another push to Reno that night. Adding Lassen offered me an exciting new experience that would take my mind off the empty house that was waiting for me in Park City . It was another opportunity for me to experience an uncomfortable situation and overcome those fears entirely on my own.

My Bay Area friends highly recommended a hike/run for me called Brokeoff Mountain. I had intended to summit the highest peak in the park, Lassen Peak but Brokeoff intrigued me with the trail description of forests, meadows, volcanic rock and a possible sighting of snow-covered Mount Shasta in the distance. Also, it was apparently more strenuous than Lassen Peak. My friend generously offered me her Camelbak to take with me and a banana from the kitchen counter. I added some first aid supplies and a whistle that I had in my car, an energy bar and my favorite strawberry Clif Bloks.

My “early” morning start got me on the road an hour later than I’d expected, but I was not ready to say good-bye to my friends and truly be on my own. I love being on the road and seeking a new challenge, and I am lucky that about 50% of the time I have my sons or a friend with me. I have not entirely adjusted to solo adventures. Nonetheless, it is my nature to challenge myself to push my limits when I can -- and because I can.

For this new experience, the Strava app would be my companion. I rarely listen to music in the wilderness. I like to hear the streams or waterfalls, or a chickadee fluttering from tree to tree, or the screech of a hawk high above. I also like to be aware in case of large rustling in the woods or a possible hiker coming up behind me. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see a bear or a mountain lion, but I considered the possibility. I even asked the park ranger about the risk of thunderstorms and lightening before I set off. 7.4 miles round trip was really nothing for me as an ultra-runner so I was  possibly too determined to see how fast I could actually make it to the top. My iPhone battery seemed to lose its charge quickly so I wanted to make sure I could make it to the top and back before it ran out. It was also comforting to track my progress to the summit - a half mile or mile at a time.

The trail head was just about a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the park, so I gathered my gear, locked the car, and headed up the trail. It was true, the trail was relatively user friendly. There were some tree roots and loose rocks, but otherwise I Lassen after Brokeoff Mountain knowing that after my adventure, I would have the 30-mile drive through the park to the exit on the opposite side, and then a two-hour drive to Reno that night. With plans in place, it was 3.7 miles to the top, and I was off!

I set the Strava app and then counted 17 people coming down, a small group here and there, a few couples, a few single men, but no other single women at all, let alone with two sons who were no longer teenagers. And with my field testing evaluation deadline approaching, I was also paying  attention to the feel of my shoes for Hoka. This particular trail was much easier than ones I had been on in recent weeks, with few loose rocks, exposed tree roots and water crossings, except for one  particularly muddy bog where people had trampled down grasses.

The scenery was spectacular with blue skies rising above dramatic gray rocks mixed with massive redwoods sheathed in golden lichen that looked electrified with the sun’s rays. Although late in the season, asters and goldenrods continued to bloom in many areas, with bursts of yellows, whites and purples that were much different than our alpine meadows in Utah. When I’m alone I tend to take more photos to track my experience and to document my field testing as well, so I snapped away as each curve presented new terrain.

Strava displayed 3.6 miles, and I was almost at the top when the very last person in front of me was  turning around. I asked him where he was from and if he would take a photo of me with the mountains in the background. He graciously agreed, and then he was off, and I was alone again. I stayed a few minutes to take in the vortex moment, something I had grown to love, when the energy of the earth wrapped itself around my entire body, just me and nature and no one else. I missed my sons and a friend to enjoy the challenge with me, but I had met my challenge and checked off a new national park and a new hike and mountain summit on my list of accomplishments. I had conquered the fear of the unknown.

When I reached the parking lot, my car sat by itself waiting for me and our drive through the rest of Lassen. We drove the next 30 miles visiting some of the sights along the way, Emerald Lake, a view of Lassen Peak, he sulfur springs and then Manzanita Lake. The view of Manzanita Lake will forever be etched in my memory as will all of Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is a hidden gem with few crowds and so much to offer. I truly can’t wait to go back, but hopefully next time - not alone.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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