Rediscovering the wilderness atop a deserted mountain
I’ve never had a national park to myself before. But here I am, carrying my backpack on a road in a closed-to-the-public Lassen Volcanic National Park, illegally, with absolutely no other human souls present, on my way to spend the night on top of a mountain usually off limits to backpackers without a special permit, even when the park is open.
Earlier, my wife dropped me off at a gated, little-used entrance to the park. She then drove away, so no car would be left at the gate to arouse suspicion of illegal backpacking. We are being stealthy. She will pick me up at the same gate tomorrow, giving me 24 hours to complete my task.
I walk a couple of miles on the road to Juniper Lake campground. Like some Discovery Channel episode of Life After People, I stroll through a campground without tents, cars, campers, dogs, campfires—no scent of camp coffee or wood smoke, no sounds of wood-chopping or slamming outhouse doors. No ranger at the ranger station. It’s exciting, yet eerie.
Why am I engaged in this illegal activity? Because of a passage I read out of the journals of the late environmental author Edward Abbey:
Sept. 5, 1966: Lassen Volcanic National Park. Mount Harkness Fire Lookout. “Finished Desert Solitaire two weeks ago; sent it to [agent].”
Before the government shutdown, I was trying to do all of this legally, as “experiential research” for a story about this fire lookout in Lassen Park and its connection to a hell of an environmental writer and the best essayist, I’d argue, this country has thus far produced: Edward Abbey. I’d completed a three-page special-use permit application stating my purpose for wanting to sleep atop a mountain with a fire-lookout tower. It’s the same form as the one required for a mass demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, but instead of hundreds of thousands of protesters assembling at Lassen Park’s Mount Harkness, it would be just me. And my sleeping bag.
As in all government requests, mine needed approval by a committee, including the park superintendent, maybe the lookout ranger, and lord knows who else. They promised to have the meeting as soon as possible and, if approved, to rush to get the permit done. Many of the rangers in the park were reading Abbey over the summer and wanted the Lassen-Abbey connection to be better known. Should the committee approve, a kindly ranger promised to spend half a day processing my permit, so I could have it before snow made it moot.
Then, Congressman Doug LaMalfa and his tea party cohorts shut down the government, including one of the most popular tourist attractions in this district: Lassen Park. Permit process derailed.
The weekend of my visit arrives; the weather is perfect. Yet the park is still closed, the federal government still shut down. But I feel like I’ve been gifted with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to hike and camp in a national park devoid of humanoids. Is it worth the risk? What is the risk?
Before leaving home, I Google that question. The answer: The penalty for trespassing in a national park is a $500 fine and six months in jail.
I leave a voice mail with the ranger: “I hope I have permission to visit the park and the lookout.” However, knowing this is likely not going to be the case, I decide a little civil disobedience on my part is warranted. I will visit the lookout—spend the night without the blessing of the U.S. government. Edward Abbey would approve.
Well-known environmental writer and 350.org creator Bill McKibben visited Abbey at his home in Moab, Utah, back in the early 1980s. The two decided to visit Arches National Park, where Abbey had spent a few seasons as a ranger. But Abbey wasn’t keen on paying admission to a park. He made McKibben trample through the backcountry several miles to avoid paying the admission fees.
Many years before, in the summer season of 1966, Abbey was the fire lookout at Mount Harkness. At 39 years of age, he had worked seasonally in several parks in Arizona and Utah, as a ranger and a fire lookout. With a master’s degree in philosophy and anarchist tendencies, Abbey fancied himself a writer. Despite some minor successes writing fiction, by the mid-’60s, Abbey had hit a wall. During lunch with a publisher, he was encouraged to write about what he loved: “Go write about your camping trips.”
Abbey had worked as a National Park Service ranger in 1957 and 1958 in Arches National Park, in the red rock country of Utah. So, in doing what his agent advised, he dusted off his journals of that experience and wrote what became one of the finest examples of environmental literature, Desert Solitaire. Published in 1968, Desert Solitaire eventually established Abbey as a western writer of importance. He was dubbed the “Thoreau of the West.” He wrote the book while stationed at Mount Harkness.
Being a fire lookout is a good occupation for a writer: plenty of solitude; work not arduous; many miles on foot from distractions like beer, gambling or women (some of Abbey’s vices). A good place to get some writing done. Gary Snyder, Norman McLean, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg each served brief stints as fire lookouts. Abbey was part of this tradition.
In a sense, my solo trip to Lassen Park is a visit to an important writer’s home—an activity not all that unusual in America. Jack London’s home and farm is a state park in Sonoma County. You can visit several of Mark Twain’s residences throughout the nation. John Steinbeck’s and poet Robinson Jeffers’ abodes can be visited near Monterey. Why not visit Abbey’s Mount Harkness? Open summers, it’s only a couple of miles from Juniper Lake. Often, the lookout staffer can provide a tour, and the views—wow!
At the trailhead to the mountain, with my pack containing a couple of Snickers bars, warm layers of clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, a journal, 3 liters of water, of course a copy of Desert Solitaire, plus a tiny bottle of whiskey, I start hoofing it up the mountain—a steep 2 miles. Nobody is around. The spookiest part is the lack of footprints of prior hikers. Recent rains have wiped away all evidence. If I hear a loud crash, the crasher will not be human, I think to myself.
Near the top of Mount Harkness, my cell phone announces a voice mail from the ranger I contacted earlier. The ranger’s reply message clearly states, “You by no means have permission of the U.S. government to visit or stay at Mount Harkness.”
But there’s no turning back now. I’m almost at the top.
Desert Solitaire is an environmental classic. It sits prominently beside A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. A list of environmental works more influential would be short, limited to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.
Abbey said, “To be a good writer, you have to have something to say and say it well.” Simple enough. And that’s what he did. The strength of Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s voice. He writes with guts, a real “cowboy anarchist.” Far beyond praising nature, Abbey introduces a critique of industrialism as an unsustainable economic system, and he abandons an anthropocentric world view:
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
“Capitalism: Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.”
Even Abbey’s “praise” of nature was filled with wry grit:
“Why wilderness? Because we like the taste of freedom; because we like the smell of danger.”
“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”
I summit. The lookout is a piece of art. Built of rock and logs hauled up in 1930, it stands as a testament to sturdy natural construction. Outside, the lookout needs a paint job. Years of financial neglect of our national parks is evident. Overhead flies a large jet, four engines spewing out smoke—looks military. Our national priorities favor empire. Not parks.
I climb the steps to the catwalk and find the lookout is locked. The top of the structure is like a ship-captain’s bridge, with windows facing so that one has a clear view 100 miles in all directions. I peer in the windows. It looks like the staffer left in a hurry—the log book is visible. The last entries are from Sept. 29.
The lookout attendant kept a clean ship. Tidy. There is an old gas stove, which could be 50 years old (maybe Abbey used it), with clean enamel as though the thing is scrubbed clean daily. On a bookshelf, I can see a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey. I can also see a desk and a chair, old in appearance. Is this where Abbey typed out his masterpiece? I think so.
I brought a bit of whiskey with me: Maker’s Mark. Abbey hiked with Jim Beam or Wild Turkey. Snob that I am, I prefer something a bit smoother. Something that won’t tear out my innards. I wait until the sun starts to set behind Mount Lassen and tip the bottle in salute to my writer hero. I take a swallow and immediately feel dizzy with an urge to wretch. Damn altitude. No more for me.
It is dark now.
I look out over the town of Chester and see a few small lights. Looking into the belly of the park, there are no lights at all. The darkness is enthralling. It’s comforting to know there are places where you can look out to the horizon and see no evidence of human electronic conquest. Places like that are fewer and fewer.
At an altitude of 8,000 feet in October, the temperature immediately takes a dive when the sun goes down. The forecast calls for it to dip to 25 degrees. As darkness deepens, cold creeps into my bones. It’s time for bed. At 7:30 p.m., I throw down a pad and my sleeping bag, and crawl in to watch the show. A new moon tonight means no moonlight to compete with the stars. The Milky Way spills across the sky. Venus, bright as a headlamp, is off to the west. I watch Venus turn orange and set, just like the sun. Falling stars every few minutes add excitement. The stars are so bright, I can actually see by starlight when I need to go answer nature’s call.
I am lying in this bag, on top of a mountain, during a time when bears eat as much as possible to fatten up for winter, and the mountain lion—a beautiful, elusive creature—rarely attacks humans, except maybe tonight, I think. I feel awfully alone in this bag with nary a human within miles. Lions. Bears. Oh, shit.
It’s cold. Warm in the bag, I sleep fitfully, awakening to notice that the Milky Way is now off to my right and the Pleiades—the Seven Sisters—are above my head. I fall back asleep and awaken again to find the Milky Way has set. The Pleiades are to my right and now Orion is overhead. Drifting off again, I awaken to the early brightening of the eastern sky, quite a while before the sun rises. I watch the day break from the warmth of my sleeping bag, thankful neither ursine nor large feline critters made a starlit snack of me. Doug Peacock, a friend of Edward Abbey, once said: “It’s not wilderness if there isn’t something in it that can eat you.”
I admire the light on Mount Lassen as the sun rises and I watch Mount Shasta come into view—powerful snowy mountain to the north. I crawl out of my bag and put on all the clothes I brought with me for warmth. Sitting on the steps of the lookout in the sun, I pull out Desert Solitaire and begin to read. The words sing on the page; it’s as though Abbey is right there, talking to me. Listen. I can almost hear his typewriter clacking away above me, in the lookout, as I sit and read the words he wrote.
I see how a person could be inspired to write a classic nature book here. The altitude, the 100-mile views, the beauty, the solitude, the perspective only a mountaintop can give—all contribute to the clarity and the whimsy of a best seller.
Abbey inspired a no-compromise, Earth First! anarchist movement that used civil disobedience and creative acts in defense of nature. One of them, Redwood Summer in 1990, protected some of the last ancient redwood groves in Humboldt County.
The Burger King boycott in the 1980s, protesting beef from clear-cut forests in Central America, prompted Costa Rica to protect much of its remaining forests (25 percent of Costa Rica’s land mass is protected by either parks or preserves), leading to a thriving eco-tourist economy. The influence and the legacy of Abbey partly inspired the global protest efforts to creatively pull this off.
There were excesses, too: Trees spiked with nails to prevent loggers from cutting them down—a very controversial, dangerous practice. Actions that threatened harm to people mostly harmed the environmental movement. Many activists—even peaceful demonstrators—were labeled eco-terrorists.
Abbey saw it differently:
“The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chain saws.”
Terrorism, by Abbey’s definition, consists of threats to life as we know it. Destruction of living, thriving ecosystems in the name of “progress” was especially egregious to him:
“At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, ‘thus far and no further.’”
My time on Mount Harkness is nearly complete. It’s an experience I will never forget—an unexpected gift from a government in crisis. I know what it must feel like to be a fire lookout, to live with a close-up view of Mount Lassen and off in the distance, Shasta. Sitting up here alone, one starts feeling ownership of this beauty, along with a crying ache to preserve it—to preserve unspoiled as much as possible of this finite planet that we share with so many other threatened beings.
Descending the mountain, distant clear-cuts outside the park’s boundaries appear as lesions on the lungs of the earth, the forests. Ugly, cancerous pockmarks. What would Abbey say? End industrial logging, and utilize sustainable methods that enhance forests and all the life within.
I recall the axiom: When environmentalists win a battle—save some habitat from logging, mining or being “developed”—it is always temporary. Every generation needs new defenders to take up the cause. Butte County is blessed with two colleges—Chico State and Butte College—where new cadres of activists are learning the ways of sustainability. But is it enough?
As Abbey put it:“Wilderness needs no defense, just more defenders.”
Author and journalist Richard Louv calls it nature-deficit disorder. We have become indoor people—urbanized and suburbanized to a fault. But how to entice new generations to get outside, when their whole world is palm-sized, with earplugs?
As Abbey said: “Our suicidal poets … spent too much of their lives inside rooms and classrooms when they should have been trudging up mountains, slogging through swamps, rowing down rivers. The indoor life is the next best thing to premature burial.”
A new breed of activist is emerging. In 2008, Tim DeChristopher—“Bidder 70”—with nothing but sheer outrage and guts, managed to stop a whole sale of oil and gas-drilling leases in some of the most pristine parts of Utah—some next to Abbey’s beloved Arches National Park—by bidding $1.8 million to purchase them. Only he had no money. DeChristopher paid a price: 21 months in prison. He became an environmental folk hero. Who does DeChristopher credit as inspiration for his brave act? Edward Abbey.
Born in 1927, Abbey died in March of 1989, just after CO2 stepped across the 350 parts-per-million threshold, the saturation point beyond which life as we know it becomes threatened, the biosphere profoundly affected. Abbey passed away as the planet lurched out of the Holocene epoch. Which of Abbey’s words might speak to us now, as we move beyond 400 ppm CO2 and climbing?
“Though men now possess the power to dominate and exploit every corner of the natural world, nothing in that fact implies that they have the right or the need to do so.”
The year Abbey died, Bill McKibben published the first popular book on climate change, The End of Nature. If the climate scientists are right, nothing we do to protect habitat, ecosystems or oceans will be of lasting significance if we cannot reduce the burning of carbon.
Down the mountain I trudge, still alone. The only footprints are mine. Through the deserted campground, I continue three more miles. Beyond the gate, a friendly looking, light-green Toyota rattles on the washboard road toward me. My spouse arrives, happy I’m safe. Above, just beyond the treetops, a turkey vulture soars. A Steller’s jay cackles at me from the branches of a pine. Abbey lives!