6. I stepped in Bumpass Hell and almost lost my leg

I didn’t think we were going hiking.

I didn’t read the sign because I was already off the trail.

And yeah not sure if I would have obeyed anyway because following rules is sort of not my deal. Especially when it comes to signs.

In my defense though I really didn’t think we were going hiking.

Mt. Lassen, California circa 1864

Bumpass Hell is on Mt. Lassen. It’s about four hours from San Francisco and is one of California’s old volcanoes. The dude who discovered was named Vanderhook Bumpass. Kendall actually. His mom must’ve wanted a girl or been otherwise dissatisfied with the process.

The Hell part was first “discovered” by two mining dudes, I say discovered because I’m sure the local native Am’s discovered it far earlier but knew better than to mess with it. Dude number two was the one who established it as a mining claim. Kendall Bumpass was hired as a tour guide a year later for the publisher of the local Red Bluff Independent, Watson Chalmers, and it was on a visit for Chalmers that the following took place:

“Alas, that was exactly what happened to Bumpass on this visit, as one leg broke through the crust into the boiling mud. For relief, there was a nearby snowbank wherein Bumpass, using a handkerchief, wrapped his leg with the snow.” — Tim Purdy (.org)

I know how he feels. In fact I too sought solace for my burns in the snow. Especially since I was light one flip-flop. Barefoot in the snow. It should be a play.

If you’re wondering why I was hiking at all when there was snow and me in flip-flops you’re not alone. I was wondering too.

Did not someone say those not willing to learn history are doomed to repeat it? And so it was:

“Over the years, others would fail to heed the warnings at Bumpass Hell, as well as Devils Kitchen, and receive severe burns from falling through the soft ground adjacent to the mud pots.” — Tim Purdy (.org)

Count me in. But remember I didn’t think we were going hiking!

Which is insane since I was driving. I could have taken us to the river. I could have gone home. Anywhere but hiking in the snow with flip-flops. We should have been in the river. Which is where I thought we were going. Which is why I’d come up to this place called Redding in the first place. Go to the river. Jump in the water. Maybe meet some girls. Have a few laughs.


Just dudes. No girls. Burned leg. No river. Stinking sulfur smell. One flip-flop gone. One flip-flop left.

I rarely get overruled when it comes to adventuring, and especially since I was driving, but for some reason I was in a non-confrontational kind of mood. I went along. And so it was that instead of towards the river we were driving towards the mountain and instead of smells of suntan lotion and gatorade I smelled pine and sulfur.

Sounds like a fancy satchel of potpourri. It didn’t smell so great when it was like acid-paste on my leg.

Our chosen hike was to the eastern side of Mt. Lassen — separate from the infamous Sierra Nevada range that California is so well known for. Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, you’ve heard the names and seen the sheer granite faces right?

This is not one of those.

From Mount St. Helens in WA down to Mt. Lassen there’s a circle of fire as such, volcanic moutains the most spectacular of which, Mt. Shasta and Mt. Reiner in my humble, are very Lord of the Rings — ish in their Mount Doom-like stature.

This is not one of those.

Mt. Lassen is pretty but it’s like the Mercury Comet to the Ford Falcon, same underneath but harder to find and not as many made. Mt. Lassen is off the beaten path. Locals love it, tourists visit somewhat, but compared to the other offerings of California it’s the plainer, less conversational sister.

But here we were.

It was a late spring day, maybe early summer. No reason to dwell on specifics when a perfectly good leg is in question.

I was hiking behind my three other friends. Yes the same friends who’d peer-pressured me to eschew the river for a hike in the snow. We came around the bend where the aforementioned Bumpass Hell comes into view but it’s a doppler thing. You smell it and then you see it.

The place stinks.

As I said I had on river gear: A t-shirt, cut-off shorts, and flip-flops. I may have grabbed a beanie at the last minute when I saw the snow out of the corner of my eye.

So we round the corner, before the boardwalk, before the sulfur sinkhole, and one of my friends veers off the trail.

Yep. You read that right. I wasn’t the instigator this time!

But I picked a bad time to reverse roles.

I followed him. I ate the apple.

We went off the path to the left of the trail, of course it didn’t seem significant at the time. The pine trees really do smell great up there. Maybe I thought if I got clear of that sulfur stank I’d get some familiar pine smells to enjoy. Maybe I wasn’t really thinking either way.

What I remember next is being far away from all my friends, looking across a little valley at my friends on the safe boardwalk. A little stream dribbled nonchalantly down towards the boiling sulfur.

But here it didn’t stink.

I glanced down towards the stinky lake, back towards my friends, then stepped across that little creek.


Boiling sulfur!!


My leg was on fire.

I had sunk in up to what would be a tall sockline, just below the kneecap, of my right leg. The flip-flop was gone.

So now I’m barefoot, in the snow of Mt. Lassen in May, with one foot on a rock, the other scalded worse than I’d ever felt.

My friends instantly pointed and looked at me but didn’t move. They thought I was playing.

I wasn’t.

In fact not only was I not playing but while I was wondering what to do my skin was literally sizzling from the sulfur. I could hear it.

Like Pop-Rocks.

I looked around and to this day I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.

I was surrounded.

By what? By the things they call fumaroles.

They’re like molten pustules of boiling sulfuric water. And they were around me on almost all sides.

I was legitimately scared.

More importanly I was trapped.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?

Or more appropriately where the hell had I gotten..?

In Kendall Vanderhook’s Bumpass Hell, that’s where.

And I would never forget it.

My friends jumped on rocks over to me and then traded off carrying me piggy-back, up the hill, through the snow, back safely to my 68' Plymouth Fury III, which someone else drove home.

Our day was forever cemented in history.

We laughed and immortalized the entire affair over beers and burgers that night at a diner in a red vinyl booth in Redding, California.

It was, I have to admit, pretty awesome. It was like a fish story that might grow except this was true.

All true.

The next day we said goodbye to our friend and drove away like the day after the traumatic finish in Stand By Me.

We headed home.

My leg was elevated, out the passenger window for the entire four hour drive back to Sonoma County.

My job at the time was standing up at a drill press. Yep just like H.I. McDunnough (Nic Cage) in Raising Arizona.

For the first time I had to call in sick. When I would stand up for more than a minute all the blood would rush to the burn and the pain was more than a couple Coronas could heal.

So while home sick I called a friend who’s a nurse and yeah, I had a second degree burn.

I was foolish.

But I was alive. In fact I was healed.

Hell I was not just healed I was lucky.

And although I’d been stupid,

I was no Kendall Bumpass.

I was born in a small town to John and Priscilla. Not a pilgrim exactly just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films.

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