Made a trip to the hippie wonderland of Mount Shasta.
I’ve always wanted to go. This is more than 10 years in the making. I’ve heard that the number of crystal healers per square mile up there rivals the density anywhere else on earth. I think it might be true.
A few miles before you start to pick up the looming white mass of a mountain on the horizon, the landscape seriously starts to buckle, hills open up and the valley, carved by the blessed Sacramento River — which Highway 5 so studiously follows — begins to show its piercing drop-offs.
There’s no doubt about the gravity of the mountain, whose mass and height helps water 75 percent of California’s needs. Yes, you heard that right.
The Sacramento River begins to appear wild up here, particularly above Mt. Shasta Dam. Shasta Lake is down by what looks to be over 100 feet. The bloated false lake’s former height marked by a dense green tree line over bright, dead orange sand. Cars are parked all along exposed rises in the former lake bottom. The bleached-out color draining the soul and eyes. The boats look a little more toy-ish as they skip along the starving lake, near each other — playthings in a 5-year-old’s bath tub.
On Solstice Eve, I arrive in Mt. Shasta City, a little hamlet settled on the long, sloping foot of Mt. Shasta just before it kisses the Sacramento River. The white peak looms close in the distance; you definitely feel part of the mountain here. It’s 6 p.m. The crystal shops are closed. A burned-out barefoot hippie kid dances in the health-food store parking lot, singing to one of his nearby friends, “They asked about my shoes and I said ‘What kind of store IS this?'” The store sells “prana produce.”
As chance would have it, there’s a Solstice music festival across the street above the outdoor adventure rental shop. A 4-piece band plays some type of rock. The band — not too bad — rocks out to an outdoor crowd of about 25. Some dudes are selling wine in plastic cups. A middle-aged guy sits in lotus jamming to the music, an older white-haired dude with a Native American-style hand circular hand drum and mallet beats along to the tunes.
The center of the universe are two hippie girls, mid-20s with two nondescript fellas. They’re both dancing, one wears those Mad Max-style front leather chap-pockets and has dreads that almost hang to her waist. One of their kids runs over to the big boulder that’s just sitting in the area and starts climbing it, obviously looking for attention. There’s another hippie dad-looking guy behind me with a turquoise silver bracelet on — but other than that he looks normal. I’m leaning against the 5-foot-tall huge rock sipping a Trilogy Kombucha (another hippie?) and scanning the “Mt. Shasta Sacred Sites Guide Book” I bought at the health food store. Lots of sites have faeries and are good for meditating.
The 4-year-old kid begins slipping off the sheer face of the rock right near me; he’s dangling. I ask him if he needs help, he kind of whimpers and I grab him by his ribs and drop him down. The hippie girls smile.
In the next field over from the little concert, there’s a craft show winding down in the yard of a healing center. There’s some hand-painted baseball caps, a table with cucumber and lime water advertising the healing center’s offerings, and a woman wrapping up her tent of bees-based products: deoderant, honeycomb, lip balm, soap.
I go to the healing center table; there’s a thin, cute Indian woman about my age (36) at the table with what looks like permanent henna-style tattoo all over. I ask her if the center has a rate sheet, and they do, right in front of me. It’s expensive, more expensive than some places in the Bay Area. We start talking. My M.O. to visiting a spot is usually to wait to ask the locals what’s cool and then do that. I ask her where I should camp, and she doesn’t hesitate: “Panther Meadow,” up on the mountain, about a 30-minute winding drive from town.
I start the slow drive up the mountain. The long day slowly, very slowly, exhaling its light. The white mass of the mountain visible and then not through the thick strands of trees the road carves through.
I’m envisioning an open meadow, sparsely populated with some campers.
All of a sudden there’s a wide shoulder, some cars parked gazing at the amazing view of the folded mountains and the indigo, baby blue, sky blue, cobalt rippling horizon. One more curve and then bam — cars everywhere. Shock and a little disappointment. This place is hot. There’s a thick metal bar across the road 50 feet farther ahead, announcing that it’s closed from there on up.
A group of about 15 tourists are on the path leading up to the mountain being loud and taking selfies.
The peak is close, you can make out the snowed channels and the scree above the treeline. It looks like a short jaunt to the top.
I set up my tent. Several solos nearby, some couples and a few groups.
As I drift off to sleep under the slowly darkening sky, all of a sudden sounds of off-beat drums, chanting and some bells begin drifting from a little ways up the mountain — the hippies celebrating Solstice night in some form. That lasts until I drift off. When I awake again at around 3 a.m., feeling the lump of the ground, not smoothed all the way by the too-thin foam mat serving as mattress, it’s all quiet, the white mountain breathing.
I get up early the next morning, planning to hike as far toward the peak as my legs care to take me. I boil some water as I take down my two-person, one-person REI backpacker’s tent, which has a mesh top that lets you stare out at the stars — and also freeze your bones when the cold early morning swoops in as it does on the mountain. Tent and sleeping bag packed, I prep the rolled outs and hot cocoa and ground coffee. The coffee filter looks like it will work perfectly, nestled just perfectly in the lip of the cup. The water takes forever to boil — why? When it’s boiling, I pour it into the filter, which immediately collapses into the cup. Duh. I end up with a super concentrated hot chocolate-coffee. Not bad actually. The oats with almonds, raisins and shredded coconut on top was aces.
I prepare to head off up. A guy with dreads goes to his car, parked a few spots from mine, and just beats me up the mountain on the trail. He says good morning. And an older couple goes up before me, too.
I hit the trail. Signs immediately give mileage to “Horse Camp,” which spurs unanswerable questions.
I pass the middle-aged couple fairly soon. As I pass, the guy mutters “Happy Father’s Day” to me, which strikes off a ripple of emotions. I’m 36, should I be a father, walking with my little ones up a mountain? Should I be with my father? What’s a father? My dad.
I continue walking, jostled for a 100 yards or so by that moat. Lots of signs show up saying no dogs are allowed past horse camp, a couple miles up.
Every now and then a guy or two passes by, exhausted-looking, with crampons, a helmet and a foam mattress dangling from their packs, gingerly, tiredly stabbing their hiking sticks in time with their steps. They all look exhausted. Maybe the mountain isn’t as easy to climb as it looks.
Horse camp arrives — it’s a stone building. One you dream of in those naturalist moments. There’s also a spring fed from the mountain peak, now shining clearly above, a white taste waters the mouth at the pulsing proximity. A young family, whose tent is in sight of the cabin, is just waking up, shaking the camping-sleep from their bodies and walking into the sun, which is beginning to bathe the area near the spring. The spring is a set of flagstone rocks stacked up and up and leveraged, balancing their weight. Water drips off the end of one. I drink and drink. It tastes exactly like melted snow. And it’s cold. Horse camp’s elevation is 8,000 feet.
I sit on the spring rocks. The dreadlocked dude is doing a very slow-motion sun salutation in the dust, boots on, on the backside of the cabin facing the glorious peak.
Inside the cabin, you learn about the different glaciers on the mountain.
Above the cabin the trail asked you to stay on the “causeway,” a line of small boulders heading off over the bare ground toward the tumbling scree lines gently sloping above and on all sides.
Parts of the peak are shrouded in fog. The mountain-hugging clouds especially dig into a south-facing valley, promising disorientation. A brief dizzy spell passes over me as I imagine trudging through the ocean of snow up there with no up or down.
Soon the trees disappear. I stop a guy on his way down. I ask if he made it to the top. He says no, just the next camp up, about a mile away. “12,000 feet was enough,” he muttered, a little worn.
I keep going, the air’s getting thin. There’s a mossy area, with water dripping past. A chipmunk takes me in, skittering from rock to rock up, and then ignores me, giving me a tangible wave of loneliness.
And then the view and the cotton-candy clouds and blue drops off away from the mountain as only life above the treeline affords.
Headwaters of the Sacramento pour out of rocks just north of Mt. Shasta City. Dating shows that the water emerging immediately into a tumbling waterfowl and dense green brush was last on the surface 50 years ago.
15,000 people attempt to scale the peak each year; 1 in 8 make it.
John Muir had a hellish night on the mountain, kept himself warm in the white-out blizzard by burying his body in the thin crust above blazing magma just below the surface.