Broken Top is an extinct volcano that towers above the Cascades Lakes Highway just west of Bend, Ore., its exposed caldera and glacier visible for miles.
If only all of life's destinations were so obvious.
Last month while on vacation in Oregon, my friend Steve and I watched from our campsite at Little Lava Lake as the sun's final rays illuminated Broken Top's multihued cliffs. We decided right then we would hike up there the following day.
We didn't have a topo map, and only a vague idea how to reach the trailhead. But so what? Just keep heading toward the massive volcano.
Next morning, we drove past the parking area at Todd Lake (which we had explored the day before), put the truck in four-wheel drive and headed up the dirt road that the campground host told us about. After 4 miles, we spotted an old, rotten sign with the words "Broken Top Trailhead" barely visible. Another mile or so, and we arrived at the trailhead.
There's always something special about hiking a new trail in a new place, and I was engulfed by the scenery and geology. So much different than the Sierra.
It wasn't long before we arrived at an unsigned junction. The main trail went left and more toward the volcano; a smaller fork went right. We went left. The trail entered a forest and began to meander, sort of in the direction we wanted to go but not by a direct route.
Then it started going downhill, which was definitely not what we wanted. Just when there were thoughts of turning around, we came to a large open area where several trails criss-crossed. A sign showed the direction and distance to several places, but Broken Top itself went unmentioned — even though the exploded volcano, with a glacier-fed stream pouring out of it, towered above us.
It was then I understood this was one of those hikes that required leaving the trail and choosing your own way. Pick the best route headed for the caldera, and follow it.
Choose your path
I prefer hiking cross-country because it more closely mirrors life: There's always more than one way to go.
Eight years ago, I took my own path as a journalist. I stopped writing about mainstream sports, stopped spending so many hours in press boxes pounding the keyboards on deadline. I wanted to veer off the beaten path and write stories that highlighted Fresno's proximity to an incredible wealth of outdoor recreation.
Well, I wrote them. Everything from hiking, fishing, running and cycling to cowboy mounted shooting and the guy who skied down Cloud's Rest in Yosemite. (Still can't get over that one.) Many of you took that journey with me. I know that because you called and emailed or said as much when you saw me on the trail or at an event.
That afternoon on Broken Top in late August, as Steve and I hiked across wildflower-speckled meadows, past the last stand of whitebark pines and then through a talus field, I hadn't the faintest idea that in less than two weeks I'd be back writing about Fresno State football.
The closer we got to the lip of the caldera, the steeper the terrain became. We clambered up the final stretch of crumbling rocks and emerged into a vast amphitheater surrounded on three sides by cliffs and lined by the Crook Glacier.
Inside a volcano that last erupted 100,000 years ago, what an incredible place to be.
The peace and tranquility I felt at that moment couldn't be further away from the stress of having to write a deadline column on back-and-forth football games that go on forever because of a thousand commercial breaks.
So even though this sports columnist gig has put me on a new professional path, I'll never completely abandon the one I was on before. That means fewer outdoors stories, but they won't disappear. I have way too much invested.
On the way back to the trailhead, we met a local who told us of a gorgeous turquoise lake and even larger glacier on Broken Top's opposite side.
To get there, we needed to go right at the first trail junction, the place where we went left.
That's the thing about trails, and about life. You choose one path, and follow wherever it leads.
Marek Warszawski became The Bee's general Sports columnist this month. He can be reached at (559) 441-6218, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.