I'm staring at a wall of beers, completely dumbfounded. After living on a ship for two months, I have forgotten what it's like to have so many beverage choices—or what it's like to even sit in a bar.
The woman behind the bar looks to be roughly our age. She gives us a warm smile and asks, "what can I get for you guys?"
Overwhelmed by the number of options, I ask my go-to question. "What's your most popular IPA?"
"The Scenic Route IPA is good one," she says. "And then there's—"
"Perfect, I'll take that one," I say quickly.
"Make it two," Jon says.
I turn to Jon and smile. "Scenic Route IPA seems fitting."
As the bartender places the beers on the counter, I tell her today is the first day of an epic road trip.
"No way!" she says. "That is so cool! Where are you guys headed?"
"Everywhere," Jon says.
We give her a quick overview of our itinerary—drive from here (San Diego) straight to northern California, then into southern Oregon, across Idaho to Montana and Canada, then down into Wyoming, Utah, and eventually end up in New Mexico.
She stares at us, with her mouth open. "I'm so jealous! That sounds amazing!"
After making the requisite stops at REI and Trader Joe's, we finally hit the road, watching the scenery change from rolling desert hills to steep mountains. As we enter the eastern Sierras, I can't stop staring at the rugged peaks, overcome with the all-too familiar sensation: I want to climb that.
We finally pull into a remote BLM campground just before 10pm. Jon sets up the tent while I begin chopping onions and peppers and opening cans of beans and salsa. It's nothing fancy—just the first of many Mexican-inspired camp dinners—but it's also the first meal I've cooked in over two months. The simple act of chopping onions feels oddly satisfying.
The sun rises at 5:45am the following morning, filling the tent with soft, orange light. My back and neck feel tight, and I wonder how long it will take to adjust to sleeping on the ground again.
After a quick breakfast and a brief stop in the nearby town of Mammoth Lakes, we head to a small hot spring. Similar to Yellowstone, this region of California was once a massive volcano. The eruption (roughly 760,000 years ago) released huge volumes of hot ash, and formed a long caldera above a subterranean reservoir of molten rock. As we walk down the short trail to the hot spring, I picture the rock pulsing with geothermal activity below our feet. Walking on land is fun.
Jon eases into the water and reclines against a smooth rock. He stares up at the bright blue sky, joy radiating across his face and his entire being.
"Vacation!" he yells. "It feels so good!"
One of the most diligent people I know, Jon has spent the past three years working insanely long hours to complete his M.F.A. in Design and Technology at the University of Texas at Austin. Just a few weeks after graduation, he landed a job at Meow Wolf, and started working immediately.
While he's obsessively driven, Jon recognizes the need for balance. So he negotiated a deal with the hiring managers to allow him to start working in June, and then take a couple weeks off in July and August to climb mountains with a dear friend.
After working 10-12 hours days for the past two months, I feel some degree of relief. But sitting in a pool of warm water isn't my go-to idea of fun and relaxation. I stare at the nearby Sierras and long to climb up to high elevations, to breathe thin air into my sea-level lungs, to push myself.
That mentality is part of what makes Jon and me a good pair. We don't go on vacation to relax. We go on vacation to scare ourselves. Over the next month, we will hike through bear country, scramble through rock fall, and walk across glaciers. We will jump in freezing alpine lakes and attempt to reach a dozen summits. We'll go seven straight days without showering, we'll spend most nights in a tent (occasionally we'll crash on a friend's couch) but we won't stay at a single hotel or AirBnB. We'll wake up very early, and climb in the dark, and watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain, and I can't wait.
"You know what we should do today?" I say to Jon in a mock lackadaisical tone.
"What's that?" he asks, grinning. He knows what I'm about to say.
"We should climb a volcano."
"Yeah," Jon says, nodding in agreement. "We should do that."
We hop back in the car and drive 325 miles north to Lassen Peak. Along the way, we debate our plan. Should we camp at Lassen tonight and climb to the summit first thing in the morning? Should we try to summit tonight? Will we have enough daylight?
We arrive at Lassen just after 5pm—the sun has started its descent, but we still have roughly four hours of daylight left. As soon as we see the peak, with slices of snow and ice reflecting the afternoon sun, our decision is made. We're climbing this thing right now.
We reach the summit in exactly two hours. I breathe in the alpine air and take in the panoramic view. For the first time in recent memory, my mind feels perfectly clear. All I can think is I'm so happy.
As we descend, we watch the light change and debate our plans for the evening. We can camp here at Lassen or drive to Shasta, another two hours north. If we head to Shasta, we won't arrive until after midnight. It's been a long day already, but we opt to keep going.
The next morning, I wake up in the tent alone. Outside, Jon bustles around with what sounds like the JetBoil and materials for brewing coffee. Bless him.
My phone screen tells me it's 9:05am—this is officially the latest I've slept since the beginning of May. I stare at the spiders and flies crawling underneath the rain fly. Just two days ago I woke up in a bunk on a ship. Now I'm in a tent, at the base of the second largest volcano in the continental United States. In less than 48 hours, Jon and I have swam in a hot spring, hiked to the summit of a volcano, and driven almost 800 miles.
We're off to a good start.