Lessons continue in our RV adventure. Every time we take out our tiny house on wheels, something new is learned. ‘Always check the weather and plan accordingly’ was the next slap upside the head.
Eight years ago, when our daughter was in college at Humboldt State, Mike, our son, and I picked her up during the summer and took her on a family vacation to stay in a cabin at Burney McArthur Park near Redding, California. I remember shimmering dry heat as we hiked with the kids, lots of bugs, and insanely good fishing.
Trout season was opening in northern California this weekend in May, so Mike and I decided to recreate that fun holiday, camping in our travel trailer. The Burney area, and Hat Creek, a well-known trout fishing stream, is at six thousand or so feet of elevation near Lassen National Park.
And August in California is not the same as May in California.
You’d think this would be obvious, but we’re from Hawaii and still under the illusion that if it’s sunny out, it’s warm out. I would have really been in trouble if Mike hadn’t insisted that I bring my Viking parka along with some pants when he saw that I’d only packed shorts, tees, and a bathing suit.
Our adventure began with Lady Google, our faithful guide, failing us with a guesstimate of five hours of driving. Hauling the Casita, taking small, winding roads through the hills like Highway 20, we finally pulled into our campsite at an RV park near Burney fully eight hours later near sunset at 8:00 p.m.
In the past, we either stayed in cabins or tent camped. RV camping is completely different, even if it’s in the same park. First of all, parking spots are not necessarily shaded or under trees (though this one was.) Secondly, people in RVs tend to be more chatty and friendly than I ever experienced “real” camping, and they come from all walks of life.
Thirdly, nearly everyone has a dog, a pleasant surprise since we’re hauling Liko along with us.
Our Casita is not the most usual of equipages: a small, rounded, modest little trailer, it contrasts with more common large, boxy metal RVs with aggressive names like Wolverine, Big Bear and Attitude. Aesthetes that we are, we both love how cute it is, and sleeping in it still feels like spending the night in the kiddie fort of our dreams.
Three men, also fishermen to judge from the piles of poles, occupied a giant fifth wheel RV next to us. (I just learned that not all trailers are “fifth wheels.” This name is reserved for mammoth rigs that fasten to the bed of a truck with a big metal contraption.) They had a veritable mountain of firewood and an older man, clearly the father, had COPD and coughed with a horrific wet rattling that put me in mind of the Scorch Flu pandemic from my recent romance thrillers. He watched, coughing up wet gobs of phlegm and spitting them into the fire, as we set up in the dark with much fumbling and cussing as we hooked up to sewage, water and power and prepared to flush the toilet for the first time.
(I try not to think about the toilet: what it’s doing, where it’s going, what could go wrong if we mess something up with it. Our bathroom’s a lot like the head on a boat, a cabinet-sized plastic closet that doubles as a shower, sporting a flexible hose with a head on it and a sink in the corner the size of a teapot. Mike keeps a toolbox in there which serves as a handy footrest during use.)
Anyway, cold assaulted us when we were finally hooked up and “leveled,” a process involving plastic footpads, mini-bottle jacks, and getting a bubble on a level between two lines. (grunts and grumbles are also often featured during this phase, along with lying on belly under the Casita to deal with the jacks.) We’d come in so late we didn’t have time to figure out what heater to use: the built-in propane one; the overhead one which doubles as an AC unit but has no thermostat; or the small plug-in room heater from home. We opted for the third due to unfamiliarity with the first two, and it turned out to be severely inadequate as temperatures plummeted into the twenties as night deepened.
I was okay because I’d put on every stitch of clothing I’d brought and took to the bed in two pairs of yoga pants, three shirts, a sweatshirt and a couple pair of socks. But early in the wee hours Mike woke me up, shuddering with whole body convulsions from hypothermia. By morning, Mike had figured out how to get the propane heater turned on, and though it sounded like a dragon snoring and blasted air over us in loud, hot belches, the thing did have a working thermostat and we were finally warm enough.
The bright spot in that whole night from hell was that we finally used the toilet inside the Casita and don’t have to trek through the park to apply our butts to the seat of a frozen Port-A-Potty.
Cramped, tired, and grumpy, the next morning I nursed a fitful fire of wet wood and tried to warm my hands around a mug of tea, wondering what the heck we were thinking with this expensive, pain-in-the-behind attempt at “fun.”
This longing to return to the wilderness, to hunch over a fire and cook something you’ve killed… It seems hard wired, an instinctive urge to return to a way of life that nothing but our DNA remembers. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why to so many people were with us in the icy camp, the hollow shells of their caves on wheels and the fragile veils of their tents barely keeping out the elements.
Lassen National Park was frozen over and closed. The road going through the park looked like it had been engulfed in a glacier. I hadn’t been so cold since our road trip three years ago when we camped at Big Basin National Park in Nevada and were caught in snow, a long, dark, endless night that I still remember as a unique agony that clenched my flesh to my bones.
Hat Creek was a swollen torrent thick with snowmelt, switch backing through high elevation meadows and tearing chunks of pastureland and forest out alike as it churned, pell-mell, toward the distant sea. Still, we find a sheltered crook in the surging stream that looked likely for fishing. Mike let me have the best spot, too, without being obvious about it, and stood upstream to cast into a ruffle of current, leaving a sheltered undercut of riverbank, full of secret calm eddies, for me.
The hit of a fish on the line seems to send a jolt of adrenaline straight to the heart. As the line goes taut, there’s a flutter, a tug, a delicacy imbued with power, a sense of excitement and possibility.
The first fish I brought in was a good-sized brown trout. That humble name hardly describes its tapestry of colors: green as pine shadows along the top, the bubbly amber of good ale on the sides, and a row of red dots set in silver in the middle, as if the fish were embedded with rubies.
Mike, standing on a gray sand spit with a pole in his hand, was as I remembered him from when we fell in love more than thirty years ago: tall, capable, focused, his big hands light on the rod, his accuracy perfect—an inner restlessness stilled at last.
During the long drive back I asked him why he, too, liked fishing. “I’m a hunter gatherer by nature, and when I’m fishing, I can just…stop thinking. It takes my full attention and all my skill.” A big grin told me that made him happy.
I suspect that’s why he loves photography too. Shooting photos is another form of hunting, eliciting that elusive state of “flow” as defined by social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
I like fishing for the challenge, for the surprise of what I might catch, for the unique beauty of each waterborne creature, and finally for how good a fresh-caught fish tastes, seasoned by effort and being uncomfortable.
We long for “flow” just like we long for campfires, and cooking what we caught over them.