America’s Switzerland

by Bruce Patterson, September 1, 2010

I can’t say how many places lay claim to being “America’s Switzerland.” Like, while driving through Missouri, how many of Jesse James’ “famous hideouts” do you pass? Mosey up Chesapeake Bay and you’ll see plenty of signs proclaiming, “George Washington slept here.” Head toward the Trinity Alps and you’ll see lots of tributes to Big Foot, the “world famous” ape-man who prowls around up in there. You’ll even pass a giant statue of him hawking cheeseburgers.

Having once bagged a peak in Switzerland, I’ve always considered Lake County’s claim to being “America’s Switzerland” to be sort of endearing. I mean, if our local boosters can claim that Anderson Valley is blessed with a Mediterranean Climate, Lake County can call itself whatever it wants. Yet there’s no denying that Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California, is very beautiful. With the rising sun hidden behind two-headed Mt. Konocti shooting sunbeams into the turquoise strato­sphere, the glassy lake stained blue-black with silent lines of birds skimming its surface, a person can be for­given for imagining he’s in Switzerland. The same as, if you live out in Yorkville and there’s a summer heat wave, you can be forgiven for thinking you’re squatting in Blythe.

Heading east from Clear Lake on Highway 20 toward Williams, you wind up and down through uninhabited mountains spotted with blue oaks and pale green digger pines, grass and scrublands, volcanic outcrops, naked ravines and meandering creek bottoms set in a quilt so rugged and varied that there’s no mistaking that you are “out West.” By and by you ease down into a five-mile-long deep valley that is a single cattle ranch. Except for the highway plowed through it, the valley hasn’t changed much over the last 150 years. Erase the ranch headquar­ters with its tall barns, windmill, latticework of corrals and sheds, bunk houses and dream houses and the land hasn’t changed much since the last ice age.

Soon the long valley’s waters gather into a no-name creek that carves a lightning bolt canyon through the hills that leads to one of the West’s most awe-inspiring openings: spread before you is a wide green valley with the forested Sacramento River fronting Sutter Buttes and, above and beyond, the Sierra crest etching a 100-mile-long skyline. Before the coming of Industrial Man, you’d be overlooking what was once properly called the American Serengeti, given the richness and diversity of its plant and wildlife. No doubt for thousands of years people have paused here to admire the sight, and I’ve never tired of it, bittersweet as it is.

One thing I inherited from my dad was itchy feet. I’ve passed it on to my two grown sons, too. Not through my genes, of course, but through experience. When I was growing up my dad made it a point to give me a taste of the wide open American West in all of its flavors, from high to low, north to south, and I did the same with my boys. Today my wife is sitting shotgun, my youngest is sprawled in the backseat and we’re on our way to Portland to see his brother. We all hadn’t been on the road together in a couple of years, and we weren’t used to that. We plan on circling Mt. Hood, re-exploring a bit of the Colombia River Gorge and then spending a couple of days eyeballing the southeast quadrant of Mt. Rainer National Park.

Driving I-5 north is so easy that I get plenty of time for gazing at the scenery. Not far past Williams a pimple appears atop the Sierra crest. It’s the Mt. Lassen volcano, which last put on a series of lightshows between 1914 and ‘17. Lassen marks the southern anchor of the Cascade Range and, although named for the myriad, ice-cold, foaming creeks that lace them every-which-way, the mountains are best known for their fine collection of volcanoes. Nowhere in the lower 48 does the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire show itself off better than in the Cascades, and from here all the way to the Canadian border, we’ll rarely be out of sight of a volcano. They won’t be Presbyterian volcanoes, either. They’ll be fire-and-brimstone-breathing Confederate Baptist volcanoes. Why, not long ago one of them, Mt. Saint Helens, up and blew its top.

Viewed from the west, Mt. Lassen looks like a cartoon or coloring book volcano. Flip a snow cone upside down, snip off its tip dead-level and there’s Mt. Lassen. Except it’s perched atop a mountain range and hence the controversy: is it (a) In the Cascades. (b) In the Sierra. (c) Both. Even though it’s like booking a flight down to Tierra Del Fuego so you can survey the line between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, folks really do argue over such things. Not just for fun, either.

Anyhow, up ahead we see what looks like puffs of clouds rising above the rim of the valley. Soon we know its the snowfields streaking down the south face of Mt. Shasta, the dominant geologic feature in Northern California. That’s so because, among other things, from its summit you’re overlooking just about the whole thing and then some. Of the world’s famous volcanoes, I think Shasta most resembles Mt. Kilimanjaro. Massive, ancient, wrinkled, worn-down and rising from a plain dotted with its smaller cousins, Shasta is such a dominant physical presence that I don’t believe anyone living near its foot ever goes a day without marking its location at least once, even when it is invisible above the clouds.

All of the dozens of mountain peaks rising above 14,000 feet in elevation in the lower 48 are located in just three places: Colorado’s Rockies, along the East Crest of the southern Sierra and in the Cascades. Except, since it stands alone, Shasta could count as the fourth place. When you are atop a mountain range, each peak looks different depending upon from where you are looking and how close up you are, and often times it’s impossible to positively identify more than a couple of the peaks surrounding you. But there’s no mistaking Mt. Shasta.

At 14,475 feet, Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra is the highest point in the lower 48. Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado, is 14,433. Mt. Rainer in Washington is 14,414 and Shasta, the squirt, is 14,162. Pinpoint those four locations on a map and then tell me if that ain’t some kind of weird geological coincidence. Or maybe it’s just another “proof” that God works in mysterious ways.

Speaking of enigmas, how did Mt. Elbert wind up less than 50 miles from the exact center of the giant rectangle known as Colorado? Is that a coincidence or did the founders of the state, while staking claim to a chunky-chocolate chunk of the Great Western Desert, wish to grab all of the water they could get their hands on?

After crossing the bridge over the Lake Shasta reservoir–“the world’s longest clay bathtub ring”–we pass beneath the trailhead that leads up to one of the most spectacular panoramas available anywhere that few people have ever heard of: Castle Crags. With the gathering headwaters of the Sacramento River splashing in the forested canyon to our right, we reach the northwest side of Shasta, the creeks reverse direction and we enter the Siskiyou Plateau, an expanse of high country Wyoming set down in California. On the far north skyline we spot a rock pillar shaped like a human thumb. It’s what’s called a “volcanic throat.” When a volcano stops erupting, the magma stuck in its “throat” solidifies into rock. With the passage of deep geologic time, all of the rest of the volcano washes away, exposing the pillar. Built in 1847 and still in use well into the 20th Century, the Applegate Fork of the Immigrant Trail ran east to west past there and “Pilot Butte” was one the route’s major waypoints. Like Shasta, but to a lesser degree, Pilot Butte dominates the surrounding landscape.

We wind through more rough country, ascend more mountains, top Siskiyou Pass and drop into Oregon. Down below is the north-running south fork of the Rogue River, traces of the Applegate Trail and the town of Ashland. Soon, off to our east, we come into sight of another cartoon volcano: Mt. McLoughlin. Almost perfectly symmetrical, it looks like a steep and skinny version of Fuji. Just ahead is Medford and, 20 miles northeast of there out in rimrock country, lives an old army buddy that, before a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t seen or heard from since 1969. He happened upon an issue of the AVA, read an article he thought I might have written, contacted the editors, they gave him my e-mail address and, by golly, I was me and he was he. We spoke on the phone and, since we’re passing by, there’s no way we’re not stopping to say hi. ¥¥

(Coming up: The Big Snowy.)

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