by Bruce Patterson, August 14, 2013
The spirit of our society is to contrive but not enjoy… Toiling to produce more toil—accumulating in order to aggrandize. The pleasures of the imagination, among which the love of scenery holds a conspicuous place, will alone temper the harshness of such a state; and, like the atmosphere that softens the most rugged forms of the landscape, cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life.
— Thomas Cole, American painter, 1836
You get as old, beat up and worn down as I am and you appreciate it when some highway department kindly builds a road that allows you to drive to a mountaintop. In the USA, the road up Colorado’s Pikes Peak (14,115ft.) is the most famous of these. After absorbing the grandeur of Pikes Peak’s summit views, in 1893 Katherine Lee Bates was inspired to write the song America the Beautiful. So evocative are her lyrics that her song nearly became our national anthem before getting beaten out by the current one, a paean so jingoistic, militaristic, sappy-romantic and embarrassingly Anglo Saxon it has to qualify as one of the worst national anthems ever. As if to hint at how such a mass outbreak of bad taste is so sustainable, for 97 years gleeful crowds have gathered to watch an auto race to the top called the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Today motorcycle races, bicycle races, foot races, bag races and what all are annual events much anticipated and celebrated.
Then nobody has done more to make mountains into playthings than the Swiss. Seeing themselves as a guppy among sharks, the Swiss began by making their mountains into their fortress. In the process they became masters of blasting and tunneling, anchoring and suspending, cutting and filling. So naturally they also applied these talents to non-military purposes. As a result of their labors, to bag a peak in Switzerland you can take a train, cable car, gondola or elevator. Making the top of one of the world’s most fearsome mountains, the Eiger (13,040ft.) wheelchair accessible is quite some feat and a justly-earned source of Swiss national pride.
The East Bay’s two-headed Mt. Diablo (3,849ft.) also sports a freeway to the stars. Before the coming of industrial man, dust and smog, from atop Diablo you could overlook the length and breadth of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River valleys. You could see Yosemite, the High Sierra and the Tehachapis. Up north you could see Mt. Lassen (the southern anchor of the Cascade Range) and, even today, after a sunrise rain and the clouds have lifted, you can see Mt. Shasta (14,162ft.) some 300 miles away.
Under crystal skies, looking north from atop Shasta, 185 miles away you see Mt. Bachelor (9,065ft.) in Central Oregon. From atop Bachelor, in the southeastern foreground, you look across a bowed carpet of coniferous forest to the fingernail summit of Paulina Peak (7,984ft.), the apex of Newberry Crater. There are ski lifts to take you to the top of Bachelor and a possible glimpse of Shasta, and there’s a graded dirt road leading to the top of Paulina. Recently Trish, Jeff, Abel and I chose to take the road.
Why bother, you might ask. If all you’re after is a panorama, just spin around. Whether you’re inside a shopping mall, in the office, at the ball park, hoofing a sidewalk—just spin around. As for losing your eyes inside a giant panorama, what can that do but make you feel like a nit and—not so logically—certifiably insignificant? Like, what’s your age next to that basalt rock’s? What are your works next to the works surrounding you? What passes for industrial civilization teaches timidity, physical, moral and intellectual, and seeing yourself in physical perspective can sure enough be intimidating. Brings to mind ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust and all that. Yet, after a little getting used to, the effect is also liberating. It’s a psychic escape from the lock-stepping regiment and a leap into circular space; the vast space of human memory and imagination. A world to be looked at implies a looker, after all, and you’re happy to oblige.
I think of mountaintops as penthouses for the common folk. Say you’re rich and you’re living in a luxury condo 20 stories up in a towering high-rise overlooking New York’s Central Park. Between birds breaking their necks against your picture windows, you gaze down on the box of municipal green parkland with its blue pools and winding paths and it’s like you’re watching the goings-on inside an ant farm. You take the elevator to the roof and you’ll get a panorama, too. Though tiny next to a mountain top’s, inside it will be millions of people, blocks atop blocks for block after block into the vanishing point. There’ll be millions of human stories, millions of human cares. At night, beyond the fuzzy dome of all-night security lights, the stars still visible will be rubbed dull and the ceaseless otherworldly noises will be rising like the snarls and whimpers of exhausted and irritable wind-up animals. Beyond its dazzling lights, a midnight cityscape is a dusty and warbled bathroom mirror.
Newberry Crater is the largest caldera in Oregon. Although it’s nowhere near as famous (or quite as spectacular) as nearby Crater Lake (the remains of Mt. Mazama), Newberry has two lakes filling its deep bottoms and not just one. Looking up from the lakes, the rim of the crater looks like the gums of a wide-open mouth with all its teeth blasted out save for Paulina Peak, it looking like a dead and decaying molar broken into a point. An outlier like Pike’s Peak or Mt. Diablo, Newberry is a massif. Still the tip of its tooth stands loftier than the Cascade Crest minus its handful of glacier-clad volcanoes.
We arrive at Paulina’s summit parking lot and see a half dozen parked cars next a pair of unchained bicycles. There’s an extended family, the uniformed cyclists, two young couples with little kids, two old couples and a solitary Asian old man. They are speaking quietly if at all. The morning is windless, the sky massive, and deep silence tends to get you to listening to it or, at least, wishing not to disturb it. Being in awe, I suppose you could call it: hushed.
There’s something special about having a summit panorama that allows you to gaze down into the tangled innards of a volcano. The rest of the rim is a few hundred feet lower down, mostly forested and 21 miles in circumference. 1,300 feet below, the two lakes shine like big baby blue eyes, the milk chocolate cinder cone separating them a snowman’s nose. To the east at our feet lies what looks like a giant petrified mud slide that poured out from the rim, buried the forest and stopped just shy of the lakes. Big Obsidian Flow, the formation is called. Only 1,300 years old, it’s the youngest lava flow in Oregon. The obsidian is of the finest quality and tools made from it have been unearthed in archeological digs as far away as Illinois.
The Cascade volcanoes are laid out like a string of pearls, and far to the north, resting on Mt. Hood’s shoulder, we see Mt. Adams up in Washington. Up close we see Jefferson, 3-Fingered Jack, Washington, Three Sisters, Broken Top, Bachelor and, southward past Thielsen and Mazama, the vertical spear point of Mt. McLaughlin just above the California border. Eastward we overlook all of Central Oregon and beyond, mountain ranges backing mountain ranges all the way the Steens Mt. 150 miles away.
The view southeast most impressed me. From the lip of the parking lot, the steep mountainside looks like a straight leg with its foot buried in the sluff of a deep sagebrush bowl. Stuck out in the middle of the bowl is a long and low-slung black rock formation looking like an old WW2 B-17 bomber belly-landed, abandoned and left to the desert’s scavengers. “Fort Rock,” the sand-lapping homesteaders of early 20th Century christened it. Nobody knows how many names the natives had for it.
Fort Rock is a “tuff ring.” It’s what happens when a volcano spews lava through the fractured bedrock and accumulated mud at the bottom of an ancient inland sea. The volcano’s material piles up in a concentric ring and grows into an island and then, as the climate heats, dries and the lake shrinks at the end of the last Ice Age, a part of its vanished shoreline.
Up close, with its 300-foot vertical walls, Fort Rock sure looks like a fort. A fort with about a third of its wall blasted out. It was the wind-whipped waves of the lake lapping over the course of 100,000 years that had collapsed its palisades into rubble and spilled its innards outward into the water. Aloft on the surviving walls you see the terraced remains of ancient shorelines. You see shorelines plus the ancestral homes of cliff swallows and golden eagles.
There are caves, many caves, and back in the 1930’s inside one of them under a layer of pumice and rounded lakeshore stones an anthropologist found a cache of woven sage-bark sandals between 9,000 and 10,000 years old. At the time the sandals were the oldest human artifacts ever discovered in the US, but since then the timeline has more than doubled and, according to some, doubled again. Based on the latest linguistic evidence, while it is definitely true that large numbers of Siberians entered North America via the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last Ice Age, when they did they encountered people. There’s a very good chance that both continents of the New World had already been peopled for many thousands of years before they arrived.
Looking down at Fort Rock from Paulina, I tried to imagine how many hundreds of human generations had lived there splashing in the lake water and basking in the sunshine. When Mt. Mazama exploded 7,600 years ago, it spewed flaming talcum power into the cave of the sandals, and I wondered if there’d been people inside. Certainly anybody out in the open during the eruption would have taken shelter inside the cave if they could. When the air filled with sulfur, methane, toxic chemicals and fiery grit, they’d’ve sheltered in each other’s arms, closed their eyes, held their breaths and gone to sleep while getting buried under what may as well have been snow.
At least they knew their doom wasn’t of their own making, I thought. At least they knew their people had a future; at least they knew nature endures forever, as the stars, as the sun, giving and taking but mostly giving. If only we in our climate-controlled techno caves could be certain of these same elementary things.