Each time, Crater Lake feels like a discovery. Oregon’s mountains aren’t bashful: Mt. Hood looms over Portland like a watchful, wary parent; farther south, the angry needlepoint summit of Mt. Washington jabs upward spitefully. But Crater Lake, cupped within its encircling wall of cliffs like wine in a goblet, sneaks up on you. There’s nothing on the drive in that readies you for it: no crescendo, no dramatic peeks through the evergreens. The earth — steady, ascending — simply gives way, and there it is before you, swift and huge and unexpected: twenty square miles, a vast caldera of dark, resonant blue. The ninth deepest lake in the world, dark and flat and still as ice.
The first thing you notice is the silence. There are no towns nearby, no resorts, no major highways: it’s a 30-mile drive just to find anything that resembles one. In the summer, that doesn’t deter the more intrepid campers, and the steep slopes of the lake swarm with backpackers and stargazers. But come October, when the slopes are white with the season’s first foot of snow, you can stand on the rim and look out onto a landscape emptied of movement. Nothing stirs: you can hear the wind brushing through trees five miles behind you. Your breath, visible in the sharp air, feels like a violation.
This was once a mountain, an enormous volcano that collapsed almost 8,000 years ago and has been filled ever since with rainfall and snowmelt. Try to imagine 8,000 years: whole civilizations come and gone, time for written language to develop twice over. Enough snow, enough rain to fill a twenty-mile basin with 2,000 feet of water. There’s something mesmerizing about standing on the edge of something so ancient. You lose track of time in the stillness — minutes, hours. You could stand for whole generations and not know the difference. Here is a place as it was before you, and after you, and there is something mysterious and unsettling in the calm. You get a glimpse of your smallness, of the earth as it carries on without us: patiently, easily, immobile, indifferent. And with it, the impression of some great, unknowable thought, of which, no matter how hard you try, you can only make out the margins; and which lingers long after you’ve rejoined the highway and resumed your drive north, towards Portland, towards cell service and wedding bells and the hurtling forward of all that we know.