My friend Terre is a crazy-ass, smart-as-hell, up-for-anything buccaneer.
It’s funny how wise and organized she turns out to be.
I visited my former home in northern California recently and could not miss a visit with this old beer-drinking buddy of mine. It was her birthday so I said I’d take her out to dinner. We tried a new place and it was terrible so we made another plan.
“Let’s go to Crabtree Hot Springs tomorrow,” I said.
The natural springs, a mini-version of heaven hides among conifers north of “civilization” about two difficult hours. Few of us know precisely where.
Terre confessed she had not been back there since moving up from the city eight years ago. Crabtree was the reason she moved to Lake County but she blushed to admit, now that she lived here, she hadn’t had a soak.
“I hope we can find it,” I said, counting back the years since I last stopped by.
On that visit, I remember taking turns in a beautifully formed bathtub built into the side of a narrow canyon. Someone had created a drain that could be plugged with a tennis ball. It filled from a gurgling, steamy source wedged in what appeared to my amateur geologist’s eye, to be serpentine rock.
Downstream a natural ledge formed a wide clear pool where we splashed in cold water from the creek into which the hotsprings poured.
Terre and I recounted our memories of it while we waited for our terrible dinner.
At some point in this story I must confess to knowing full well that this hotsprings is located on private property. I must also opine that unique natural wonders such as Crabtree Hotsprings belong on the list with Yellowstone, Going-to-the-Sun Pass, Half-dome and the Bright Angel Trail. Places that should be everyone’s.
Because I had almost always accessed the hotsprings from the north following a hike up Snow Mountain, I was unsure how to get there from the south. Knowing that we always descended to Highway 20 from Bartlett Springs Road, I figured that is where we should start.
But Terre is pretty smart and, pointing at a topo-map, reasoned that the seasonal road behind her house in Upper Lake would be shorter.
I was unsure. “Let’s go back that way,” I suggested.
So we headed up Bartlett Springs Road.
Terre, I knew, had a Subaru, the perfect vehicle, I felt, for the trip.
“The all-wheel drive doesn’t work,” she informed me.
“But I have a new Jeep,” she then confessed.
But it was January.
We wouldn’t want to destroy a new jeep.
Besides, I was already looking through the dirty restaurant window at my rental wheels.
I, by shopping for the cheapest deal-of-the-week at the SFO rental garage and by skirting the question “Where are you heading to this week?” at the rental counter, had landed shiny white never-been-broke Jeep. She commented that my rental Jeep needed to get out a little.
We agreed the clean indentured vehicle needed to be emancipated from its daily routine of visiting the tourist sites and convention centers of metropolitan San Francisco.
Emancipate it we did.
Our first obstacle was a pickup truck full of rednecks barreling down the first leg of our trip—the switchbacks up Bartlett Springs Grade. Self-preservation trumps the right of way rule. We tucked ourselves into the gulley of roadcut so they could hurtle by without taking us with them.
The road was muddy on this sunny slope, we noticed.
What would it be like on the north side?
“One way to find out,” we said in unison.
Soon we were on the short stretch of highroad along a ridge, then we were descending a deeply crevassed road facing east.
“We are not getting back up this,” I said.
“Good we’re going back a different way,” she said at the same time.
We slid to the right — but did not roll over.
Then we slid to the left.
Finally, I decided to let the ravine have the wheel so it would at least hold us from sliding sideways. The mountain was now in charge. We rolled down, down to a shady lane that followed a stream north.
Soon after we had achieved the bottom of the valley and had regained a normal pulse, a dark-colored Suburban full of out-of-season hunters hurtled toward us. We did not want to be witnesses to their crimes so we looked straight.
“Those guys are no way gonna make it up that hill,” Terre said.
I stepped a little harder on the gas.
Soon we came to a branch in the road. Follow the road up along the creek? Or take the sunny slope zigzagging up the mountain?
I remembered the angle of the hill where we pulled over by the hotsprings. Without pausing, I chose the high road.
The first time we got stuck was when we bottomed out. I had driven too slowly over what can only be described as a mountain in the road. If I had gone faster, we probably would have bounced right through.
Good news: the gas tank was not leaking.
We discussed backing out and taking the other road.
I think this is where Terre produced a small silver flask and handing it to me, said “Maker’s Mark.”
It only took me one sip to figure it out.
I had Terre stand on the front right bumper so that wheel would touch the ground. If we could get a little traction there, we could maybe pull through.
We continued up the mountain until a wheel got stuck in a small gully that had eroded the road.
This time, Terre figured it out; she had had more than my one sip.
We jammed branches in front of a rear tire until we climbed out.
Soon we were on our way downhill again, this time on a kinder road.
We had been right. Soon, I recognized the creek crossing that marked the hotsprings.
The creek was pretty high so we parked without crossing and agreed I’d take off my shoes, cross over and walk the one-half mile to the hotsprings to check if they were as we remembered.
The water was colder than ice, I reasoned, because it was moving. And snow lurked in patches where the low angle of the winter sun couldn’t reach.
I had to cross twice more before I arrived at the place the tub had been.
Trees had fallen and worse, a landslide appeared to have completely buried the hotsprings.
I touched the sides of the canyon walls where water trickled, hoping for warmth that might reveal the spring.
Then sadly returned to where Terre waited.
We drove back her way, disappointed at not getting to soak in hot water in the middle of a National Forest over two hours from any pavement.
The road all the way back was smooth and almost dry. But we felt the journey was worth it; I know the Jeep did.
Asking her help today to remember the details, her words confirm: “Maybe I should drive up there today …”