Fear--and the Deep Blue Sea

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"A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded, for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again." ~ J.M. Synge A voice said to me: If you go down, there you will die. Or get arrested. Those seemed to be my two choices. Arrested or die. I looked down into the bowl of that extinct volcano, staring at the wind swirling the water of Crater Lake far below. I wondered about the rationality of sailing in that deep blue mystery. Centuries ago, Indians tested their manhood by climbing down the steep, nearly sheer walls of the crater and immersing themselves in the water. I had intended to portage 50 lbs. of equipment down those same crater walls and sail the lake. But I get ahead of myself. After I left Bodie Ghost Town, I couldn't wait to get to Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada. Huge, blue and beautiful, Lake Tahoe may be the most glorious lake in America. Mark Twain said of the lake: 'The fairest picture the whole earth affords." You could probably still drink the water in Lake Tahoe. The clarity of the water--visibility nearly 100 ft--is like the clarity of your favorite philosopher: lucid yet deep, refreshing yet overwhelming. The lake beckoned me like an invitation to spend an afternoon with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. I threw my sailboard into the lake and sailed out as far as I dared. I raced the passenger ferry that plies the lake, sporting across her wake, showing off for the tourists. The water close to shore was surprisingly warm, surprisingly shallow. Yet I didn't dare to sail more than a couple of miles from shore, fearing a freshening wind blowing off the mountains. An Alpine lake, Tahoe is a deep blue gem, 12 miles wide and nearly twice as long. The sheer immensity and depth ensured its purity until recently. Mark Twain described his first glimpse: "At last the Lake burst upon us--a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still!" Twain drank from the lake. Drank deep from the shore no less and slept in the evergreens, under some of the same trees that probably shaded my van, Tinkerbelle. Now a half dozen casinos crowd the south shore. I spoke to four local kids from South Lake Tahoe, asked them how they felt about living on the most beautiful lake in America. 'Boring, nothing to do here, man,' they echoed, almost in unison. Bored in a natural paradise; perspective is everything. And fear, not conscience, makes cowards of us all. Fear, boredom and laziness that is. Adam and Eve got bored in the Garden of Eden, bored and lazy'what challenges did they have to face?'and predictably got evicted. I suppose tourists come to Tahoe and never look at the lake, pulling levers and placing bets instead in some neon-lit casino. I left Tahoe and headed north. Drove past mystical Mt. Shasta and into Oregon. The mountains of the Cascades'many of them the highest volcanoes in America--smolder as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. I was headed for one volcano that blew its top long ago. Mt. Mazama once scraped the tops of clouds. Estimated at 12,000 feet, Mazama blew up in a spectacular explosion 6,800 years ago, spewing ash and pumice miles around. Today the mountain is home to the deepest and most unusual lake in America, Crater Lake. Down in the throat of an extinct volcano in southeast Oregon--dormant volcano actually--lies a deep blue treasure, nearly 2,000 feet deep. Within this lake rises another volcanic cone, Wizard Island. Thus a tiny volcano forms an island, surrounded by an alpine lake, surrounded by the steep walls of a dormant volcano. The lake is a long way down. I stared at it for the longest time, hoping to see some road that led to a boat ramp. Six foot drifts still fringed the road (photo). Snowmelt feeds the lake and the water is deep, dark and cold. Very cold. The wind gusted and swirled, while I considered my options. Arrested or dead'or a thrilling windsurfer ride in the depths of an extinct volcano, these were my choices, if I could find a road down and didn't drown. I ambled down the steep trail'yes there is a path'wondering not if I could get down, but if I could get back up with all my equipment. Surely, I could. In about two or three days, maybe. American Indians proved their manhood by descending the throat of this extinct volcano, according to William Least Heat Moon. Scrambling down the scree, they plunged into the frigid water. I too could prove my manhood, but discretion is the better part of valor. Getting down was no problem. I could probably even survive a wild ride across Crater lake, but getting my gear back up might require a helicopter. A police helicopter. Fear and laziness keeps us from leaping out of planes, rafting down rivers, ballooning around the world'or windsurfing in the swirling waters of a dormant volcano. That and common sense. I decided not to attempt it. Not today. Powerful is the very human desire (need?) for adventure, a thirst for personal challenge. To face fears and overcome them. A thousand years ago, native Americans recognized this emotion and scampered down the cliffs above Crater Lake. Foolhardy? Perhaps. But we are like curious kittens that cannot heed common sense and must perch precariously at the edge. To look over, and sometimes leap, like furry little fools. I hope I never lose the bold kitten in me--or the discretion of a mature cat. Anne Frank wrote, "The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature." We dash and scamper from the force of a category 5 hurricane--with fearful excitement--but how many of us wonder how thrilling it might be to witness one close up? As long as we didn't drown, of course. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Fear and the deep blue sea. Millions of years ago we evolved ashore and since then we've looked at water with fear, awe, trepidation--and more than a little magnetism akin to love. 1-Sailing Around North America: Leaving 2-Sailing Around North America: Sandsailor 3-Haunted Waters 4-Sailing Around North America #4--Tinkerbelle 5-Bodie Ghost Town

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 136

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.