Crater Lake

I’ve seen rainbows in the sky, in the mists of city fountains, and among the spray of waterfalls, but only once have I seen a rainbow in the middle of a lake. Everybody was in awe at the Crater Lake Lodge. Drink and meal service stopped as guests and employees came out to the back porch with their smartphones and cameras. The rainbow was a short, pale arc emerging from cobalt-blue water and dissolving into the wintry air. There had been snow, rain, and hail that day, marking the end of autumn in the mountains of southern Oregon, and we felt this was a reward bestowed by a temporarily clear sky. It was too cold to stay and gaze at it for long. We, mostly strangers, smiled at each other and filed back inside to enjoy our hot drinks.

I had been on the other side of that rainbow a couple hours earlier, on the rim of Crater Lake, riding my bike on an empty road with my friend Fiona. Park administrators had closed the road to motor vehicles for the weekend to give cyclists a rare opportunity to enjoy it without the fear and stress of car traffic. They, and we, had expected nicer weather and a much larger crowd of visitors. I had helped to lead a caravan from Portland the night before, transporting about 13 people. Most of us had ratcheted down our cycling ambitions after we’d arrived and found ourselves pitching tents under freezing rain. Many people wanted to ride the entire car-free portion of Rim Drive, which was about 26 miles. A handful of them followed through, starting early in anticipation of a snowstorm. Some went a few miles before heading to the lodge or back to the campsite. One didn’t even leave the campground. Fiona and I biked about seven miles before encountering a few friends who were going the opposite direction, and reversed course. They told us it had begun to snow at some of the higher points of the rim. So far, we had gotten no worse than an interruption of sleet against the persistent chill of the air.

I was pretty well bundled up, with mittens and thick wool socks, and a scarf around my nose. The prospect of snow was kind of exciting. Unexpectedly, however, the ride was difficult due to elevation—the lowest point on the rim is at least 6,000 feet above sea level. It was an abrupt change from my regular habitat in the Willamette River Valley, and my lungs were not readily adapting. This obstacle hadn’t occurred to me before, although I knew the ride would be challenging because of its hills. Crater Lake is a deep basin of water formed by the collapse of a volcanic mountain many centuries ago. Its banks are incredibly steep, covered with talus and trees and reaching up into ragged peaks, some of which displayed a dusting of snow on this September day. Fiona and I decided not to push forward into the snowy, steep areas; we had enough trouble pedaling even up gentle hills in the thin air. We felt much less physically fit than we knew ourselves to be. But we thrilled at the experience of being upon the lip of a vast, quiet lake, watching the wintry storm clouds drifting above, not sure what sort of weather they were going to bring next. There had been predictions of snow starting by noon, but well beyond that time, we remained dry except for the quick sleeting.

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It was about 2:00 when we returned to the beginning of the car-free route, where orange cones blocked the road, stopping vehicular visitors from going past the North Rim overlook. The rim had become infiltrated with fog. People were getting out of their cars, walking to the viewpoint, seeing nothing, and going back to their cars. It started to rain. Fiona and I didn’t want to ride the six miles it would take to reach the lodge. We’d be facing a particularly narrow stretch of road that was getting thicker with fog by the minute, and shared with car traffic. There was a shuttle bus provided by the park, which we had used to get up here in the first place, but its schedule was erratic and might keep us waiting for an hour in the deepening cold. Fiona engineered a bold solution: she would approach motorists and plead with them to give me a ride back to the south side of the lake, where my car was parked and ready to carry bicycles. She would wait for me at the overlook, with our bikes, and I would return to bring us down to the lodge. (The rest of our posse had decided to ride the distance.) I agreed, and stood by, rubbing my hands together to keep them warm, while Fiona worked her charm. She was refused by a few people but got the consent of a young Chicagoan couple in a small SUV.

I chatted with my chauffeurs as we drove to my car. They were disappointed with their visit, not so much because of the weather but because they hadn’t know the rim would be closed to cars. Their complaints were delivered politely, and I empathized, but I kept my mouth shut about the fact that motor vehicles get primary consideration almost every day of the year, in most places. I asked about their other travel plans on the West Coast. They told me how much they love Oregon and hope to move here. At the end of our little trip I offered them a few dollars for their trouble, which they refused. While digging for my wallet, I didn’t notice that my camera and phone had gone missing.

After going back to rescue Fiona from the North Rim—which she wouldn’t call a rescue, because she’s an English emigrant and used to dreary, cold weather—we felt celebratory. Our original hope of circumnavigating the lake had been dashed, but we had huffed and puffed through cold and rain at high elevation, which seemed like an accomplishment. It was snowing lightly when we go to the lodge. Most of our friends were there already, drying out their cycling gear in front of the fireplace, drinking, knitting, talking, or tapping at their cell phones. I had a book with me, but knowing there was wi-fi available here, I was itching to get online and check for frivolous news. Reaching into my pannier, I groped for the plastic baggie into which I’d stashed my electronics. Nothing came up. I went back to my car to search the other pannier, with the same result. Fiona suggested that I literally dump everything out of each bag, which I did, and my devices still didn’t show up. I envisioned the last time I had taken them out, somewhere in a turnout along Rim Drive. I had taken some photos and placed the camera back in its baggie, which I set on the low stone wall to free my hands for snacking. It hit me that the baggie was probably still there.

Knowing that conditions were getting worse, and the population of cyclists was probably dwindling (and had been low to begin with), I wasn’t hopeful that the baggie would be found. I settled into a chair with my attention divided between the book in front of me, and plans for dealing with a lost cell phone. I was stewing over the prospect of paying off the credit card bill for something I no longer possessed, when my friend Paul walked over and handed me his own cell phone, on which his Facebook page was open. He’d posted a photo that I was tagged in, and there was a comment from my mom: “Someone turned in Kristen’s phone and camera at the Crater Lake Visitors’ Center. Call them.” A kind cyclist or hiker had found my stuff and delivered it to park rangers, who phoned several of my contacts to see if they could reach me. For once I was thankful that my parents knew how to use social media. My mom hadn’t known that I was at Crater Lake that weekend, but she had turned to Facebook and found me among friends. I called the rangers, and ten minutes later, one came to the lodge to deliver my things. I toasted their safe return with a second cocktail and a little splurge on a wi-fi connection, which turned out not to be complimentary.

There was more good news on Facebook: Two beloved members of our Portland caravan, who had set off on their own short ride that morning, had gotten engaged on the rim. They weren’t at the lodge, so I couldn’t offer congratulations except through my phone, but I beamed.

And then the rainbow emerged from the lake.

Back at camp, we ended up with a clear night. We toasted the affianced couple, talked about the day’s riding, enjoyed a raging fire, and laughed so loudly that a park ranger admonished us with a smile.

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