Kian wanted to travel one more time before starting his second year of medical school - he just didn’t know where. We talked about Michigan, Colorado, Yellowstone National Park. Somewhere within driving distance to cut costs. And then Kian’s brother Cameron offered to let us borrow his car for two weeks, and our minds were instantly made up: we were going to California.
We stayed with Cameron before setting out on our road trip. His ethereal room jutted out from a shared house in Berkeley. A bird feeder hung off the roof and tapped the window whenever a hungry creature landed on it. White gauze curtains filtered warm California sun, and curious little arts and crafts lay about the room. Berkeley was friendly, artsy, and smelled like a luscious greenhouse.
Once we finally got everything sorted in Cameron’s Subaru Forester, we headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Hairpin turns and dreamy views slowed us down significantly, but we’d planned for that. That was partly the point of the whole trip - to let ourselves be surprised, to welcome the unexpected with open arms. To drink it all in slowly and delightfully.
We reached the tiny artist town of Mendocino and explored its shops and corners and ocean views. We slept in the car by the ocean alongside other campers with cozy RVs.
I woke up early and walked the beach alone, feeling the sting of cold saltwater on my bare toes and watching closely for patterns in the sand. I smiled at the pale skies and the parched driftwood that lined the beaches. The ocean kelp and weeds were the colors of seaglass.
We left Mendocino for Eureka, pulling into Humboldt Redwoods State Park along the way. After swimming in a river and eating lunch on its banks, we crossed the water to a trail through a redwood grove. The daylight was waning and we were the only people walking in the presence of those giants. It’s humbling to be near such ancient beings and know that they are not just above you and next to you, but also beneath you. All of their roots intertwine beneath the soil, helping each other stand tall and weather storms for hundreds and hundreds of years. They are powerful and proud. They command respect. Kian and I walked at our own paces, craning our necks in silence.
Our stay in Eureka was short, colorful, and tasty. We sampled delicious, authentic Caribbean food and bagels topped with fancy cream cheeses.
Next was Mount Shasta, our first two-night location of the trip. We’d heard so much about the town being a very spiritual place, and that was certainly true. Crystal shops lined the streets and flyers advertising healing retreats and singing bowl meditations decorated coffee shop bulletin boards. Shasta has a long history of spirituality, and it’s very rooted in the geology of the place. Mount Shasta itself sits at over 14,000 feet and stands totally alone. It formed out of its volcanic origins as a single looming presence over the town, and there is something awe-inspiring about its massive solitude. We could see its snowy peak from nearly everywhere, even after we left the town and headed north for Oregon. Kian and I joked when we got back to Roanoke that we could still see Mount Shasta’s peak in the distance, watching over us.
Leaving Mount Shasta was bittersweet, but I was excited to reach a state I’d never been to before: Oregon. We took highways that sliced through commercial farms and tiny dusty towns that housed the farm workers.
Crater Lake really is as blue as it looks in pictures. It’s name, however, is entirely misleading. It led me to believe that the lake was formed by an asteroid striking Earth, when in reality it was a volcano that exploded so violently 7,700 years ago it collapsed on itself. The top part of the volcano slid straight down over 10,000 feet and created the hole, which slowly began to fill with rainwater and snowmelt. After thousands of years, the crater became full with some of the purest water in the world.
Kian and I hiked to various peaks along the crater’s rim to get better views of the water and spent a night backpacking below the rim at the edge of some lush woods. From our tent, I walked out of the forest into an alpine meadow just as the sun was setting quietly behind the trees. I saw elk tracks in the sand, weaving in between patches of wildflowers.
Because the water in Crater Lake is so incredibly pure, it is heavily protected and access is limited. However, there is one trail that leads down to the water’s edge where you can swim. Our favorite part of visiting this park was jumping off the cliff into that frigid water. We hadn’t realized swimming was allowed and failed to pack bathing suits, so we stripped down to our bare minimum clothing before taking the leap. We’d been admiring the lake so much already, it was thrilling to actually be in it.
The sunsets glowed so warmly every night. It was a dry warmth dusting everything with gold. Something about how the evening light falls on the West Coast feels like another decade, something that’s passed and can’t be retrieved. That feeling makes it that much more beautiful.
McArthur-Burney Falls offered a blend of the spiritual presence from Mount Shasta and the humbling heights of the Redwoods. At 129 feet tall, it gushes forth water from a main stream source at its top and also an underground aquifer all throughout its rock face. We arrived just after sunrise due to an unrestful night, only to realize our timing was ideal. For a park that often fills to capacity and closes its gates, we only shared the place with a few locals out for their morning runs. The sun hadn’t quite touched the waterfall yet, and as we zigzagged down to its bottom we felt the air grow cooler and the mist begin coat our faces. For the Ilwani people who first inhabited the area, the waterfall was more than just a source of food and water - it was a sacred place. It felt that way for me, too. The sheer force of the water falling over the rock was impressive, but despite the noise and power it was incredibly peaceful. It washed away a night rife with hot sleeping bags and annoying mosquitoes. I felt like my inner world had been cleansed.
Our last destination was Lassen Volcanic National Park. Its characteristics were laughably different from the landscapes we’d already visited. It is a dry and rocky place, with much of the resident liquid comprising of bubbling hot springs or scalding hydrothermal pools.
Kian and I drove to a remote part of the park to ride horses through meadows and woods to a geyser. It was such a long drive that it was dark on our way back to our campsite, but we took advantage of the clear night by parking and getting lost in the star-filled sky. The milky way lit up the heavens, splashed across the sky like someone had tossed it up there out of a cup.
We also climbed Lassen Peak. It was the highest I’d ever been at 10,463 feet. The dry, scrubby landscape allowed for constant views on the way up and down. I felt like a mountaineer as we sat atop the summit, looking down on lakes and snowfields and other volcanoes that were long dead. We huddled against some rocks to get out of the wind and watched swarms of alpine butterflies dart around in jolting patterns. We were on top of the world.
After nine days on the road, we returned to Berkeley on the Fourth of July. Cameron took us to Indian Rock to watch the fireworks, and we had to weave through throngs of others to find an open seat. The fireworks were tiny little pops in the distance as we crowded together for a view like a horde of sea lions on a rock.
Later that night, Cameron took us to MeloMelo Kava Bar. The place felt like a nightclub, but the only drinks available were tea and kombucha. We tossed back coconut shells of relaxing kava tea and played card games under the purple lights. I admired the plants that dripped down the walls. Even when you’re indoors in California, there are still things growing everywhere.
I love road trips. Instead of flying to one destination, you get to drive between many. Traveling on the ground allows you to see at eye level what locals see everyday. It shows you how places are connected, how they are not actually separate but flow from one to the next. Towns flow into cities like tributaries into a river. Mountains impact valleys just as neighboring communities affect each other.
None of us lives in a vacuum - we are shaped by what surrounds us. By traveling and changing my surroundings, I discover new ways to shape myself.