A Snowball's Chance

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It was a 90-degree August day in the mountains, our first summertime visit to Lassen: the national park where, a century ago, the namesake volcano spit rock and smoke and ash into the sky. For our first visit a few years back, we planned something quieter. We camped with our nine-year old son on the shores of a jewel lake. We made an expedition to Bumpass Hell.

The short hike to hell took us over snowbanks where the Boy and I scooped up snowballs and lobbed and dodged and pelted. We descended to walkways through hydrothermal Hades; bubbling, gurgling mudpots and thumping and steaming fumaroles, where scalding acidic water beneath the ochre and gray-green crust reaches more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The stench is hideous.
That night, by the campfire, as we toasted marshmallows, the Boy declared: "You're a great dad!"

Credit the wonders of nature in a bewitching place - that, and the fleeting joy of a summertime snowball fight.

You're obliged to stick to the boardwalks in Bumpass Hell, named for Kendall V. Bumpass -- hunter, guide, and prospector -- who didn't have sidewalks to follow. In 1865, while showing his demonic discovery to a newspaper editor from Red Bluff, Bumpass broke through the mud crust and burned his leg. They had to amputate.

I never made it to Lassen with my own father. Our vacations ranged across the country, from Jamestown to Yellowstone, but not here. And by the time my father was the age I am now, could he have made the short hike to Bumpass Hell? Maybe not. He had a bad leg from a childhood fall in a construction pit (the small-town doctor had wanted to amputate), two car accidents, and a tumble down a flight of stairs while carrying a storm window when it was either drop the window on top of himself or take the fall on his hip. Son to my father, I try to make treks he could never complete and realize how quickly snowballs melt in summer heat.


We were just back in Lassen and hiked to Devil's Kitchen, another wonderfully noxious hydrothermal den. Smelling the approach, I asked the Boy what he thought might be cooking.

"Brussels Sprouts," he said.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.