The Mystery Of Mount Shasta
By Max Milano
“They forgot they told us what this old land was for.
Grow two tons the acre, boy, between the stones.
This was no Southfork, it was no Ponderosa.
But it was the place that I called home.”
Jethro Tull. Farm on the Freeway.
Day 1: On the Mountain
We’re standing in the middle of the road, beyond the point where cars are allowed, and only the crazy and the brave continue.
Incongruously, my phone beeps. I have an inbound message responding to a question I’d posted on Reddit the night before asking about Mount Shasta. The Reddit handle is treezOH123 and the post reads like a mini-novel:
"I just read how John Muir spent the night up there with a friend. They left the summit at 3 pm after taking barometric readings then as they descended they got caught in a snowstorm. They didn't have proper winter clothes and had to lay down next to a lava vent as to not freeze to death which resulted in blisters and burns on their backs and the instruments they brought with them froze to John Muir's beard. Then in the morning they made their way back to camp with frozen clothing and had horrible frostbite that left Muir with a limp. Dude was a badass and a little cocky."
"Thanks. I'll write a short story about it.” I reply. What else could I say? I'd gone up the sacred mountain, right up to the snowline. We stood in awe, watching the landscape spread below us like a 1950's western in Technicolor.
The road ahead of us cuts through a forest of tall green pines that sway in the steady breeze like the masts of a thousand ships. But the wilderness is not silent at 8000 feet. The wind delivers a constant roar, like a jumbo jet in the distance. I can't image how bad it whips things around up at the 14000 feet summit. We can see it from where we stand, right in the middle of this empty road. A volcanic rim where the snow and stone ends and the sky begins. A perfect stratovolcano rising at the edge of Northern California, or at the center of the state of Jefferson, if you go by the trucker hats sold at the local gas stations. The mountain is a layer cake of dirt, pines and a wall of glaciers and black rock rising right up to the volcanic summit. The pimple of god. Visible from 150 miles away on a clear day. An active volcano. Ready to blow and wash all the sins away as far as the eye can see. The local Indian tribes knew this. Way before John Muir froze his beard on its icy slopes. They considered this majestic mountain sacred. A place to commune with the gods who lived up there, at the summit, where the wind would take their chants up to the heavens, on the back of California condors.
"I’ve read that scientists say it's overdue for an eruption," I hear my traveling companion say. She's a brown eyed girl. Pale as the snow above us. Jet black hair like the black lava slopes of the mountain. Monica is her name.
"As long as it doesn't blow today..." I say, thinking of Mount St Helens, further north. Another spectacular stratovolcano that infamously blew its top in 1980, unleashing an ash column 15 miles tall. The explosion took half the mountain with it, and spread ash to 11 surrounding states while triggering the most massive mudslide ever recorded, wiping out everything in its path.
"Scientists think that when Shasta blows, lava will flow for years, like in Hawaii..." she continued. "Revenge of the gods, or something like it."
I look up at the summit. No rumbles or ash clouds yet. Just a perfect volcanic rim, like the open mouth of a great white shark gleaming in the sky above us.
Day 2: Spirits of The Underworld
We leave highway 5 in the town of Weed, California. Weed is barely a town. More like a gas station and a diner and a Motel 6 on a valley floor of ancient lava flows and dry chaparral bushes. Spectacular snow-peaked mountains flank the valley. On one side is Mount Eddy, part of the Trinity Mountain range, and on the other, the massive hulk of Mount Shasta and Shastina, its sister volcanic caldera. We drive North-East of Weed on Highway 97, around the back of Mount Shasta. There is no sign of civilization here. Just miles and miles of dried lava flows and chaparral. Mount Shasta dominates our view on the right-hand side going northbound. The twin volcano complex of Mount Shasta and Shastina is best visible from this angle, and it’s absolutely massive. Our SUV feels like a spaceship on Jupiter's orbit. I'm getting gas giant vibes driving along 97 with the enormous mountain rising above us.
"Turn left on the next dirt road," says Monica. "The GPS is telling me that the lava tube caves are down this way."
I pull off the paved highway and enter a gravel road that cuts through the chaparral desert. A road to nowhere. You can turn 360 degrees and see no signs of civilization. Just more and more lava flows and chaparral, dotted with yellow wildflowers, and that massive mountain looming above it all. It’s hot in the valley, but there’s a ton of cold snow way up there on top of Shasta and it dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see. Ahead of us, beyond a craggy mountain range, pokes the snowy tip of another stratovolcano.
"That one's in Oregon," Monica says, looking at her handheld GPS.
We follow the GPS directions deeper into the high chaparral until we start to see strange dwellings behind walls of piled lava stones. You can see the pores on the rocks, like pumice. The narrow dirt road skirts these peculiar walled tracks of land. Beyond the walls, we can see rusted abandoned cars, old 1950's Airstream trailers, and outdoor toilets, but alas no houses. But someone is living here alright. Just not in a way we can understand. Instead of homes, we see piles of wood and sheets of plastic. Someone's gone back to the land. Or perhaps they never left it.
The GPS beeps and announces that we have arrived. All we can see is a widening of the dirt road and a pile of volcanic rocks ten feet high. No signs, no national park ranger collecting entry fees. Just a big old pile of rocks in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful desert of weeds and wildflowers, flanked by stratovolcanoes.
"Are we here?" Monica asks as we start looking for a way to climb up the rocks. There's a path up ahead, flanked by tall porous stones. We climb into the rock complex and start looking for a way in. The path splits in multiple directions, all ending in a dead end. We head back and pick another path. This one drops below the stones and curves around a dead tree that stands there like a sentinel. Its dry branches supplicating up to the heavens like a dead Joshua Tree. Then we see it, obscured by tall grass, but there it is. The huge mouth of a cave. Tall like a cathedral, its floor covered in a slope of massive boulders from an ancient cave-in. From where we stand, the cave has no end, or so it seems. It's pitch black inside and smells like bat guano, but we can't see any bats.
"Well? What do we do now?" we asked each other. The slope of broken boulders extends downwards for at least 10 feet and looks like the perfect place to break your neck or at least a leg.
"Now we go in, right?" I ask, unconvincingly.
"What if we break a leg? We're in the middle of nowhere. Who will get us out? There's no cell reception out here."
I look around. We're in a hollow bowl. Surrounded by massive lava boulders.
"The guidebook says that there are three caves,” I say. “The first two are relatively short, and the last one is 3 miles long. I think that this one is the first of the two smaller ones. The long one is the furthest from the entrance".
"What if there's more than one entrance?"
"Well, there's only one way to find out."
The bat guano smell was present, but not overly intense. My biggest concern were the boulders. They piled in a downwards slope into pure blackness. I'd been inside lava tubes before, in Hawaii, and knew that the light will penetrate at least 100 feet or so. We'd give this cave a chance.
We tackle the first boulder like toddlers getting off a high chair. Ass first. We sit on a big rock and scramble down slowly to the next block below it. Each stone is massive and strangely boxy, with big wide flat angles where one can sit and slide down to the next one. About halfway down our eyes adjust to the darkness below. There’s a sandy floor ahead. Above us, a cathedral-like ceiling, massive and airy. Behind and above us, the brightly lit mouth of the cave is shrouded in green weeds.
We finally reach the sandy floor. Once inside, the cave wasn't that dark after all. There’s a dim light ahead. The guidebook was right. The first two caves were short. The last one 3 miles long.
We walk towards the light at the other end. The cathedralesque mouth of the cave narrows into a semi-perfect tunnel. We continue along a sandy floor, examining the smooth rock walls with the palms of our hands. No stalactites or stalagmites here. Melted rocks formed this tunnel from the center of the earth. The red-hot core slid through like a freight train from hell, leaving behind this hardened rind. Up ahead, a roof cave-in provided the source of light we could see in the distance.
"Look, there's graffiti here," said Monica.
She was using her cell phone light like a torch.
"Doesn't look like any graffiti I've ever seen," I mumble after examining the lettering in the dim light.
An angry bird. An angry god? Eyes that pierced at you in the dark. Feather-like strokes surrounding a dagger-like beak. Everything painted in two-d. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs.
And below the strange painted creature: Yreka Tribe - 1917. Written in neat white stenciled letters. Like a road sign from 100 years ago.
We stare at the letters and symbols in the dark-dawn of the cave. Behind us, on the sandy floor, we notice a perfect stone circle with cold ashes inside. The descendants of whoever had painted this were probably still using this cave semi-regularly. The stone circle was too perfect. It wasn't laid out 100 years before. We didn't touch the ashes, but there was an excellent chance that it was still warm because a faint wisp of white smoke snaked out of them like an enchanted serpent.
"What do we do now?" She asked. "You think there are people here?"
"Probably not right now...maybe they come at night, hence the fire."
We’d seen a video online the night before of a local native tribe confronting a group of new age hippies that came every year to the Mount Shasta area. The new agers looked like extras in a Stonehenge-era drama. Druids and Celtic tattoos. The local tribes were not happy with the hippies trampling on their sacred ground. Damaging the delicate desert flowers. Desecrating their land.
"The last thing we need right now is to run into a band of pissed off Indians who have it in their head that we're hippies messing around their land," I mumble incongruously.
"But we're not hippies. Right?" she asks in a slightly fearful voice, and we both start to laugh.
"We never saw the end of the video. What did the Indians do to the hippies?" she asks among fits of laughter.
"I dunno. Scalp them? They all needed a shave anyway!"
She looks at me with disapproval.
“This is their land after all,” Monica said after a pause. “We probably shouldn’t be bothering them if it’s like a special time of the year for them. We should show respect.”
I just pointed the way towards the light ahead of us.
"We might as well get to the end. See what's out there”.
The light turned into brightness. Tall weeds greet us. There’s blue sky above. We are in a large section of the lava tube that has caved in, who knows how long ago. It runs for over 2000 feet. What was once the roof of the cave, now lies on the cave's floor. There are hundreds of jagged boulders. They'd been there for so long that dirt and weeds cover most of them. To our right lays a path. We can see a stone bridge at the far end of the deep chasm we’re in. It’s a section of lava tube roof that hasn’t caved in, leaving behind a spectacular arch or rock.
We walk under the stone arch and into another roofless caved-in chasm about the same size as the previous one. At the far end there’s another gaping black mouth obscured by tall weeds.
"There's the second cave," I say.
We approach the second cave and discover the same conditions as in the previous one. A massive pile of boulders heads steeply down into blackness. Only this time it’s at least double the distance to the cave bottom.
We crawl on our asses, boulder by boulder until it gets too dark to continue. I put my feet in front of me and feel nothing. Only the void is in front of me. I turn back and see Monica frozen in place.
"Stop," I say. "Let me get the cellphone light."
"Why do you think I stopped? I can't feel anything below me," she says in the dark.
I fumble for my cell phone and turn on the torch.
The dim ray scans the boulders like a searchlight, stopping at her feet. Beyond the edge of the ledge where she’s standing is a 10-foot drop.
"Wow, do not move," I mumble, pointing the light down at my feet.
There’s also a drop at my feet. The next boulder below me is at least 12 feet away. We'd reached a chunk of rock bigger than the rest.
"Let's scramble along the side," I tell her, holding her hand and guiding her towards a smaller set of boulders on the right-hand side of the cave.
"Why do you think I stopped?" she says in a trembling voice. "I couldn’t feel anything below my feet. It was bloody terrifying".
"We got light now," I say unconvincingly.
A few ass scrambles later we reach the cave floor. Soft, black, volcanic sand greets us. It’s like walking on the surface of the moon. The light from the cave entrance looms high above us. Like a distant planet beyond our reach.
"Ok, let's go on," I say. Pointing towards a large black sand dune covering half the cave tunnel ahead. A dim light peeps from the other side of the dune making the cave ceiling glow in an eerie light.
Monica goes ahead of me as I fumble with the cellphone light. I can see her halfway up the dune. I turn off the torch and follow her but notice that she has stopped. There's a look of concern in her eyes.
"Keep going," I whisper from the bottom of the dune.
She stays frozen in place. A deer caught in the headlights.
I quicken my pace to reach her. It's hard to run uphill in the sand.
Her eyes are open wide. She'd definitely seen something. Something that perhaps we didn't want to see.
I'm a few feet from her now. I can almost touch her.
"What's up?" I whisper. Was my voice trembling too?
That's when I hear it. Very faint at first. It comes like a dream from another world. Slow and low. Rumbling through the cave like an ancient howl.
I stop in my tracks for a second. The howl has a cadence. Wild and exotic and otherworldly. I put a finger to my lips, indicating to Monica to stay quiet as I run past her towards the top of the dune. The light is a bit brighter up there. But also the sound. It's not an animal howl. It's too repetitive for that. But it's not a song that I've ever heard either. Definitely human. A chant.
Monica joins me at the top of the dune. Below us is a massive rock chamber. A perfect circle has caved-in on the roof of the cave, towards the far end of the chamber, creating a natural skylight. A spotlight of sunlight all the way from the sky flashes down to the cave floor.
At the center of the light, we can see a figure. A man with long hair. His arms outstretched in supplication. He’s chanting in an unknown language. Repeating the chant over and over again and looking up into the light. On the cave floor near him we can see a woman and a small child. She’s crouched on the sandy floor. She has straight jet-black hair, braided, and seems to be holding a small flute. She joins the man's chants every couple of bars with a staccato chorus in what sounds like a strange Asiatic language. Short, fast words or yelps against the man’s long, sorrowful laments. Their chants and counter chants complement each other. This is an ancient song. Passed from father to son, from mothers to daughters, since the beginning of time. There’s no doubt we’re witnessing something we were not really supposed to witness. A private ceremony on an ancient land. Deep inside of it. The deeper the better to reach the spirits of the dead.
"Aooooweeeeeoooaaaoooweeeooooaaooweeeeooo" sings the man in a sad wail. Arms up to the sky. Were the gods up there?
"kayakkatakkayakkatak" repeats the woman in a rapid staccato that punctuates the hymn-like wailings of the man.
"What do we do?" whispers Monica. “I really don’t want to disturb any sacred ceremony. I mean, this is like, their church, right?”
"I don't know. Maybe we can walk back before they notice we're here".
"O.K., let's do that."
As we retreat, the young child next to the woman stands up and walks towards the circle of light. The man lifts her up in his arms and up into the center of the light and continues chanting. His long black hair gleams in the concentrated sunshine pouring in from the skylight above.
We walk back down the dune the same way we came in and back up the tunnel until we reached the massive pile of boulders again, this time from the bottom end, like the stairway out of Hades.
"Now what?" Monica whispers to me in the dark.
"Now we climb out," I say, as the wails deep inside of the cave start to get louder and louder, a single man no more, but now a chorus. A chorus that escapes through the skylight, from the bowels of the earth and flies higher and higher on the back of a magical California condor high on peyote until it reaches the sacred mountain of the ancestors that rule above this old land.
All words & images by Max Milano.
Travel Tips (Experience It Yourself)
Getting There: From I-5 in Weed, CA travel northwest on US Hwy 97 approx. 7 miles to County Road A-12. Turn left and go approx. 3.3 miles to Forest Road 43N30. Turn left go approx. .2 mile to the parking area.