Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Convergence of Wonders: Journeys in the Pacific Northwest, Day One

A Convergence of Wonders is a chronicle of our recent journey through the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains. This the first day's story...
I'm shaken to wakefulness by the insistent alarm going off. Oh jeesh, what time is it? 5 AM? What time did I go to bed? 2? There was so much to be done, getting ready to get two dozen people on the road for two weeks. We never really finished packing our own stuff until the wee hours. I shake off the cobwebs, and we head across the farmlands to pick up the van on west campus, and meet up with the others. Of course, I was the last to arrive, four or five minutes late.

There is a lot of adrenaline in the first moment of a trip; it's all that we could think about over the last few months, and the moment of departure has arrived. Everyone looks wide awake and ready to go. Fortunately, there is a cure for this: California's Central Valley. For the first 200 miles we drive across the monotonous fields and plains, and I have a hard time finding much to say by way of commentary. Two hours brings us to a rest area for a short break, and another two hours gets us to the first gasoline stop in Anderson. The landscape has been shifting, and snowcapped peaks appear on the skyline.
One peak in particular stands out, directly ahead of us. Mt. Shasta (14,179 feet; 4,322 m) is the highest volcano in California, and is only 300 feet short of being the highest mountain in the state. It is our first destination for the day. We see it more than three hours before we arrive at the end of the road on the flanks of the mountain at around 7,000 feet.

Something had been worrying me in the last few weeks. One has to plan a trip like this a year in advance, and sometimes we make choices that looked good on paper at the time, but which are more questionable at the moment of truth. Late June is often a good time to explore the northwest, but a heavy snow year and a cool spring were unpredictable back in January. There was a lot of snow on the peak, and presumably on mountains all across the route ahead.
And indeed, although the road was open, there was still a lot of snow in evidence. Eight feet of it! Not for the first time, I was forced to say "imagine that the rocks" while describing an outcrop covered by the white stuff.
Still, it was beautiful, the day was clear, and we could see forever...

One very sad view was to the south. The alpine crags in the distance were the Castle Crags, one of the state parks slated to close soon because of the California budget crisis. It irritates me that Republicans consider it more important to protect their rich benefactors than to find the $22 million to keep 70 state parks open. The granite peaks are a dramatic sight for travelers on Interstate 5, and closing park will prevent access to a marvelous outdoor classroom.
I was growing concerned that we would be seeing a few too many signs like this...
Mt. Shasta is a magnificent mountain. It was our first introduction to the volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range, which formed as a result of convergence in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which lies off the coast of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. It is a few hundred feet shorter than Mt. Rainier but is the most voluminous of all the Cascades volcanoes. Seen from the north, it is clear that Shasta can be considered a composite cone, with at least four previous incarnations over the last half million years. The highest peak is the Hotlum Cone, which formed within the last 9,000 years. Shastina, on the right, developed in a series of eruptions around 9,800 years ago. The short peak in the middle is an eroded crater rim of Misery Hill, which is a much older cone. California's longest glacier, Whitney, flows between Hotlum and Shastina. It is about two miles long.
Shasta was a looming presence for most of our day. Late in the afternoon, it still was visible off to the southwest as we approached our camp at Lava Beds National Monument.
We arrived about 6 PM in our camp at the Lava Beds Research Center. The camp looks sort of barren and austere, but the view was spectacular. We could see across the Tulelake Valley to peaks on the horizon many tens of miles away. We ate a quick picnic dinner, and the students outfitted themselves for an early evening exploration of some of the local lava tubes (more on these in the next post). Having already proved over the years that I could crawl on my belly through lava tubes, I chose to sit back and enjoy the coming sunset.
If roads closed by snow were a bad omen, then the sunset was a good one...the sky turned golden as the sun broke through the stratus clouds overhead.
The stratus clouds started to dissipate, and began glowing...
And then for a few moments, the whole horizon seem to catch fire.
It was a beautiful ending of the day, but the show wasn't over. It was the night of the full moon, and the glowing orb soon rose over the flank of a nearby cinder cone
Our first day on the road was ended! Tomorrow we would be exploring Lava Beds National Monument. More in the next post...
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