Captivated by the Magic Mountain

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

On our way to the Sacramento River headwaters, we stopped at the Mount Shasta museum, which had just reopened for the season. The big exhibit is about fire and its effect on this landscape; the town of Mount Shasta has burned down many times. What captured my attention was an exhibit of photos and videos of the lenticular clouds that often surround Mt. Shasta. They require high wind to form, but the wind moves while the cloud stays in place over the mountain, often in a dish-like shape. Apparently, some people believe these clouds are space ships, and on the wall is a poster with a drawing of a space ship and a cloud, labeled “This is a UFO,” and “This is NOT a UFO.”

Mount Shasta Museum

Mount Shasta Museum

By evening we were exhausted, maybe just from the five-hour drive. We knew we could get beer on tap at the lodge at our motel. The bartender, a friendly 20-something woman with generous black eye makeup, poured us the IPA from the local brewery, Fall River, and we watched the women’s college basketball Final Four.

Mt. Shasta from downtown Mount Shasta

Mt. Shasta from downtown Mount Shasta

From the bartender we found out what it’s like being young in a small town (“boring, but at least we have good water”), and about Mount Shasta in particular (“a very spiritual place”). She told us about the Lemurians; some folks believe a whole civilization lives inside the mountain. She said there are lots of weird people living here (she said something about seeing folks in tin hats) but all are peaceful. The town is a haven for old and new hippies.

The bartender also told us all about the locals’ reaction to the new Crystal Geyser water bottling plant being constructed near here on the McCloud River at the site of an old Coca Cola plant. The workers at the plant (many hung out at this bar) got a lot of shit from the natives who opposed it, but of course they were only building the plant for the big corporation. It’s supposed to open soon with the promise of providing jobs for local workers. Locals are not holding their collective breath.

Holly in the snow

Holly in the snow

Alice in Wanderland

Alice in Wanderland

The next day we drove right up to 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta, as close as we could get, before snow closed the road. People were sledding and skiing on a sunny warmish day in early April. I engaged a woman in conversation and then she told us stories of mountain spirits, which involved unicorns and magic stairways and disappearing guides. She was a fine storyteller, but at some point we had to excuse ourselves to enjoy the mountain. She apologized and said she lives alone in the woods with no one to talk to. Our new friend Alice (we immediately dubbed her Alice in Wanderland) offered to guide us to her magic place on the mountain if we come in July or August.

Then we drove up to Siskiyou Lake, a reservoir whose water flows directly into the Sacramento River through the narrow rocky Box Canyon. Beyond the dam is the road to Castle Lake, still frozen over and just beginning to melt at the edges. Castle Lake has a campground and picnic area but in early April they were under snow and only a few visitors had parked there. What a spectacular place—on the edge of the Castle Crags Wilderness. The Pacific Crest Trail follows the ridge far above the lake. Without snowshoes or skis we wouldn’t have gotten far. To hike that stretch of the PCT we would have to wait till July.

I’ve just read Joaquin Miller’s Life Amongst the Modocs, published in 1873. It is a fine accompaniment to our focus on Mount Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Miller tells a good story and, whether all his adventures are true or not, he was a voice crying in the wilderness at the time, telling the tale from the Indians’ point of view. He writes that he witnessed massacres, fought on both sides of the Indian Wars, escaped from jail with the help of an Indian woman who sawed the window bars at night, and outran death more than once. He recounts the sad story of the last of the several Indian tribes who lived around the mountain, how they were starved and murdered by miners and soldiers.

Reading the Miller book just increased my interest in Mt. Shasta and its surroundings. He does mention the headwaters of the Sacramento, as well as the McCloud, the Klamath and the Pit, another river that feeds the Sacramento and might be considered as the headwaters also. His book made me want to visit all the places he so ably describes, but many are now under the water of Shasta Lake reservoir. He also writes of the devastation caused to the natural landscape by placer mining in the mid-19th century, which ruined the rivers and creeks and killed the fish in this area. The book left me suffused with sadness over our treatment of the indigenous peoples and the land that supported them.

By Molly Martin

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