Jun 14, 2009

Shasta Drive-by

Merlin in RiverFive days of Trinity River tranquility and the food is beginning to run out. Time to return to civilization and re-enter our lives. Merlin suggests driving by Mount Shasta on the way home. It is close on the map, only 150 miles out of the way on a national forest Scenic Route. After a last dip in the river, we load up and head towards Whiskeytown.

North on State Road 3, we drive deep into the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a 2.2 million acre wilderness threaded by logging roads and small frontier towns. The roads are clear and bright. We arrive in Weaverville mid-afternoon looking for a late lunch. The Main Street exudes California gold rush charm with saloons, salons, and video rental shops. Weaverville Main StreetThere’s a 135 year old Taoist Joss House built by Chinese miners, the Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds. A saloon promises Buffalo Burgers so we walk through the mirrored bar to a table, stepping around a few locals who look like they’ve been there since breakfast. Fueled by a buffalo bite and ‘extra’ french fries, Merlin explores Main Street. Curious iron spiral staircases rise out of the sidewalk to balconies. A handy sign explains that in the 1850s, second buildings were built on top of existing ones and were owned independently, requiring autonomous entrances.

We leave the 1850s and return to the forest road, flowing alongside effervescent rivers, rounding hills, and rolling into ravines. We are the only car for hours, gliding through timberland, midway between the Pacific Ocean and Nevada, 50 miles south of Oregon. The Cascade Range mountains are in the Pacific Northwest Ring of Fire and so classed as sporadically active volcanoes (remember Mount St Helens?). Mount Shasta is 14,000 feet high, second only to Mount Rainier, and is one of the world's largest and most impressive stratovolcanoes, hosting five glaciers on four overlapping cones. Mount Shasta is a National Natural Landmark and as one of the most visible mountains in the world, we wonder why we can’t see it. The maps say we're almost on top of it. We feel its presence as we descend from the forest ridge and pour into open ranch land. Merlin perks up at the sight of cows. Shasta Merlin There! Mount Shasta soars 10,000 feet from level ground, dominating the landscape.

Merlin cowsWe stop at the Weed Rest Area, weaving through college students from Chico taking each other’s pictures on their phones by a big sign that says WEED. They’re laughing hysterically, pretending to smoke. Merlin doesn’t get the joke. He’s too young.

We circumnavigate the base of Shasta, mesmerized by the shining cone. Early Spanish explorers to San Francisco could see Shasta from Mount Diablo, 250 miles to the south. Local Karuk Indians call Shasta the White Mountain. Like the rest of Earth’s ice pack, the glaciers on Shasta are shrinking and it is startling to see bare ground exposed between fingers of deep ancient snow. There happens to be a labyrinth nearby and the ulterior destination for our 5 hour detour. We’ve been told this is a magnificent labyrinth, probably more for the proximity to Shasta Merlin Shasta Labyrinththan the actual painted brick pattern plopped in sagebrush. The labyrinth is in the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden, a collection of large human figures of war and remembrance, loss and hope. The most haunting sculpture is a broken soldier in a POW/MIA cage. Decorated with tributes left by visitors, dreamcatchers and American flags flutter pleas towards Shasta. I suddenly remember the copper POW bracelet I wore all through high school, my protest of the Vietnam War. Support the troops, while seeking peace. I never knew if the soldier named on my bracelet came home. I took it off when the war ended, for us. While writing this, I located Project Homecoming online and searched for the name I still remember etched on my bracelet 35 years ago. His entry reports after ten years in captivity, his remains were returned to the U.S. He was a fellow Michigander and his birthday is in a few days. Shasta SpiritJeffrey Seglin over at True/Slant wrote about returning his POW bracelet to its namesake, an intensely meaningful meeting for all sides of war. Merlin avoids the cage. We walk the labyrinth quietly, rolling wild sage between our fingers, gazing at Shasta blazing pink in the sunset.

Back on the freeway, Mount Shasta gleams in the gloaming before full dark. It’s gone to Truck Time. Driving across country, Merlin noticed a sudden shift around 9pm every night when all the freeway traffic becomes semi-trucks. The brave Merlin Mobile was often the only car driving the covert interstate with the long haul transports. Normal travelers have found their rest for the night. But Merlin is no normal traveler. Head thrust out the window into darkness, he breathes in deep mystery, enigmata, and passing whiffs of life stories. Trucks rumble around us, rafting the smooth ribbon rivers of paved pathways between pick ups and deliveries.

Deep in the night we exit into the last rest stop before descent into the San Francisco Bay Area. The parking lot is crowded with napping trucks and dark cars. We creep into the last open space, walking by snoring cars to sniff the sprinkler wet grass. We are grateful to be awake and almost home.

Shasta detour: 350 miles, 13 hours.

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