Personal History: Near Death by Crater Lake
Writer Carina Chocano recalls a harrowing attempt to visit Oregon’s national park with her then-boyfriend during one of the season’s worst blizzards.
I have always strongly identified with the wanderer in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. That’s the painting of the man with a walking stick standing on a craggy mountain overlooking a gloomy, menacing cloud bank. The position of the figure vis-à-vis the landscape suggests, as historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote, “at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of an individual within it.” You can’t see his face, so you don’t know whether he’s exhilarated or terrified. I think I have a clue, though. I’m as susceptible to the sublime, awe-inspiring terrors of nature as any 19th-century Romantic, even when I’m experiencing them in suboptimal conditions, like from the passenger seat of a rented Ford Taurus with no chains, which is how I experienced Crater Lake National Park, as the La Niña weather pattern festively dumped record snow on the Pacific Northwest during the government shutdown of 1995.
My boyfriend’s parents had just moved to Oregon from the East Coast, and we were driving up from San Francisco to spend Christmas with them. President Clinton had recently vetoed a Republican spending bill, and Congress had responded by shutting down all nonessential government services. My boyfriend wanted to swing by Crater Lake on the way up Portland. I didn’t love the idea, but we were also in a kind of gridlock, so I tried to reach across the aisle.
A light snow started to fall as we pulled out of Ashland, and by the time we reached the park it was coming down in marshmallow-sized chunks. At the entrance was a sign with some radio station call letters. I tuned the radio to it and got a recording saying that the park was closed. The rangers were furloughed. The roads were not being cleared. “It’s because of the shutdown,” I told my boyfriend.
“What shutdown?” he said.
A friend of ours was close with Trey Parker and Matt Stone at the time. This was before South Park, and they’d just made a movie called Cannibal! The Musical. The movie concerned the infamous Donner Party, pioneers who’d gotten snowbound while trying to cross the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Most of them died, and the ones who didn’t resorted to cannibalism to survive. I mentioned this to my boyfriend, which annoyed him, and upward and onward we climbed, up the 7,000-foot grade in deeper, more slippery snow. I was then reminded of the young couple from California on their way to a funeral in Idaho who were also unable to cross what is now called the Donner Pass due to snow, so they took an unmaintained secondary road instead and got bogged down in snow 140 miles north of Reno. After spending four days in their pickup with nothing but a fruitcake, some cookies, and a bag of corn chips to live on, they set out on foot, with their tiny baby, and eventually reached an abandoned cabin. The wife and the baby waited there as the husband walked more than 40 miles in search of help. They all survived, though several of their toes didn’t. A TV movie was made out of their harrowing ordeal. The parallels between our situations did not escape me.
“Oh my God,” I said, on the verge of panic. “We’re going to end up like the Stolpas.”
“Who are the Stolpas?” my boyfriend said.
Turning downhill on a curving two-lane mountain road that’s completely covered in fresh, wet snow in a rented Ford Taurus with no chains on it is not, as it turns out, the best idea anyone has ever had, and we came incredibly close to sliding completely off the road and going over the edge. Somehow, we didn’t. Somehow, we got stuck instead. And then, at that moment, another car was making its way down the mountain—the only other car we’d seen since entering the park, I’m pretty sure.
The man got out and helped us. I went back to get something out of our car at one point, and when I looked up I could see by the look on his face that he’d been apprised that turning back had been my idea. I saw a moment pass between them, as sometimes does between men. He gave my boyfriend a tool of some kind. I can’t remember what.
Recently, I messaged my ex-boyfriend to ask whether he remembered Crater Lake. He did. He remembered details I’d forgotten, like the part where we almost went off the edge and died. He wrote: “Oh, and the main thing was we never did see Crater Lake, did we?” We never did.
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