One of my favourite passages from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, talks about Crater Lake (once known as Mazama). It goes like this:
“This was once Mazama…This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But, hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.”
And, so, about a year after reading this passage (and aggressively underlining it in pencil), I asked my dad if we could stop at Crater Lake on our way down to Burning Man. I wanted to see that still blue water for myself. I wanted to plunge my fingers into the soil and hold a piece of Mazama in my hands. (I was also hoping for a transformative experience on par with Cheryl Strayed’s in Wild without having to hike across a rattlesnake-infested trail for several weeks).
On the way up the long road to Mazama Village, where we planned to check-in about camping overnight, I clasped and un-clasped my hands in my lap, watching the trees open to wide canyons and close into a blur of green. I was excited. I could feel the pulsing possibility of transformation hovering somewhere nearby. What a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.
“Holy shit,” I thought, shifting in my seat. “This is it.”
The window was down. Cold air rushing in. Blowing my hair across my face in what I could only imagine was a thoroughly romantic road trip way. (But, let’s be real, I probably looked like this:)
My copy of Wild was perched on my thighs. Wrinkled white spine. Tabbed pages. My thumb holding the place of my favourite passage, just in case I needed to read it again.
The engine in my Dad’s 1984 Volkswagon Vanagon growled as we traced the bends up Mazama’s broken back, climbing ever higher. The floor vibrating beneath my feet.
“Wow,” My dad kept saying. “You can really feel the weight.”
And you could. The weight of three people and three bikes and three containers full of Burning Man supplies (including my previously mentioned wig) pulling us backwards. Like it was wondering why we were still going up. Hadn’t we hit the sky yet? Weren’t we in the clouds?
When we eventually pulled into Mazama Village — a parking lot stuffed with cars, a tall brown and white building, a limp American flag dangling from a flag pole — I froze, suddenly afraid that I had built everything up too much in my head. That the mountain, the wasteland, the empty bowl would be, well, empty. And all I would be able to see would be the things I couldn’t see — a lake made more blue by my imagination, trees drawn taller in my mind.
Wild suddenly felt heavier on my thighs, my thumb pinched between the pages. I glared at the dirty boot on the cover, at Cheryl Strayed’s name stamped neatly beneath it.
“Okay,” A stern internal voice took over. Like a poke in the chest with a long pointer finger. “Get your shit together, RG. This is your experience. Not Cheryl Strayed’s. If you hate it, you can hate it. If you love it, you can love it. Let yourself feel whatever there is to be felt.”
Of course, when I finally got out of the car (after shoving my copy of Wild into my backpack and abandoning it in the Vanagon), I discovered that we were no where near the rim yet. There was still more road to climb. More time to clasp and unclasp my hands and stew in anticipation.
And I did. As we drove up that winding road, I still wondered what I would see. If the water could really be so blue and the air so still and the broken heart of a volcano so silent. But, I didn’t look at the book again. I wouldn’t allow it.
I had decided to seize my experience with two hands. Even if that meant standing at the rim and only being able to think about what I wanted for lunch later or how I’d rather be in bed listening to Serial.
That’s not what happened, though. Of course not.
My first sight of the lake was a flicker through the trees. A blue that was really that blue. My imagination blushing at the colour that it had come up with that first time I’d read Wild.
We parked, and I burst out of the car, scrambling up a sloping hill until…there it was. All of it. A great gaping wonder that has swallowed my ability to explain, to describe, to write. All I can say is this: I was made small. An infant. Only blinking and breathing and barely holding my head up. And, yes, crying. Quiet tears. Just for me and for Mazama.
Later, I found a quiet place among the trees. I plunged my fingers into the red-brown soil, holding it in my hand. The hot sun warming my palm. I rubbed the dirt into a white blank page of my journal. Staining it brown.
And then I wrote.
Mazama, long dead.
You once ruled the sky.
Your crown, the stars.
Now, the sky fills you up.
A vessel, reflecting back
Cracked bowl, broken heart
Ash crossing borders.
Now, full. Steadfast.
The trees, your great creaking guardians,
Growing out of your dusty bones.
Oh, to swallow the world,
That I may taste the years of your solitude,
The still blue surface of your silent heart.
And what a silence it is.
Rushing through my veins,
Pulsing in my fingertips.
That, though you may be broken,
You can still stand.
Though you may be broken,
You can still be made full.