From my living room here in Big Valley I can see splayed across the northwestern horizon the seemingly recumbent silhouette of a broad mountain range the National Park Service refers to as a “sleeping giant.”
It’s the Medicine Lake shield volcano, the largest volcano in the Cascade Range, 150 miles around the base and 8,000-feet high. Also quite visible from my living room here in Big Valley, on the treeless, steep-sided eastern flank of the Medicine Lake shield volcano, is Glass Mountain, a huge eruption of obsidian, a mother lode of perfect material forged in the earth that Modoc Indians put to good use fashioning near diamond-hard, razor-sharp arrowheads and spear points that brought down deer and geese and antelope and various wild things they needed in order to survive.
My riding buddy Bill called. He lives in Adin, California, 12 miles northeast of Bieber, my hometown here in Big Valley. Adin (population 500) and Bieber (about the same) comprise 50 percent of the total townships in our valley. The other two much smaller communities are Nubieber and Lookout, which both sport tiny post offices but that’s about it. Bill says let’s ride to Medicine Lake. We’ll have breakfast in Bartle. It turns out just that way at this old bar/café from the ’30s when it was a gas station, too, on this lonely stretch of Highway 89, where just south of Bartle you ride over the top of Dead Horse Summit and suddenly there’s this blow-you-away view of Mount Shasta filling the sky that requires braking to a stop and reaching for your camera thinking you can record what you are viewing and how you are feeling in a photograph. Trust me, you can’t. Joaquin Miller wrote of it as “lonely as God, white as a winter moon.” That was close.
This is my first foray to Medicine Lake. A few years ago on a December morning, some local Big Valley friends suggested we drive up Highway 139 to Tionesta, and head up toward the lake to cut a Christmas tree. To say that Medicine Lake is a snow zone is an absurd understatement. My friend’s 4 by 4 barely snowplowed to the tree line, mashed to a stop perhaps 20 miles below Medicine Lake, and there they took the life of a little pine.
It is now deep summer, and while the upper creases of the volcano are still caulked with a vein or two of white, we can ride up into this vast wilderness from Bartle on roads enumerated 15 and 49, also known together as Old Camp Two Road, which tells you these are in fact old logging roads, now well paved but often narrow and with no centerline, and thus offer an intimate gray ribbon that affords close-ups of old growth fir and pine that take your breath away, and lava flows that remind you are riding upon the fire giant’s flank, and a definite feeling you are experiencing one of the last great untrammeled tracts of nature in poor besieged California, the Golden State. When we reach Medicine Lake, the small lake (408 acres, 150-feet deep) that lies within the central caldera, I’m somewhat disappointed because this definitely isn’t the high drama of 2,000-feet-deep impossibly blue Crater Lake. But I remember that it is believed the Medicine Lake volcano is unique, having many small magma chambers rather than one large one.
Glass Mountain is another matter. The Park Service does it some justice with their bureaucratese: “Glass Mountain consists of a spectacular, nearly treeless, steep-sided rhyolite and dacite obsidian flow that erupted just outside the eastern caldera rim and flowed down the steep eastern flank of Medicine Lake volcano.” But words don’t do it. You need to park your motorcycle and walk on a trail through perhaps 50 yards of this enormous moonscape of black glass glinting in the sun that was a running molten inferno a thousand years ago, literally, a geologic moment ago, to get the feeling that what lies beneath is only temporarily quiescent.
The final leg of our ride home involves an old road that many Big Valley locals remember as being unpaved 40 years ago. The Lookout Hackamore Road that connects the valley to Highway 139 isn’t gravel anymore, but little else about it has changed. It’s just you and the trees and the sky for 30 miles; no services, no billboards, no signs except for one hand-lettered in red by a rancher nailed to a tree that reads “Watch For Stock.” If it’s early or late in the day, you best watch for deer, too. I’ve ridden this road dozens of times in the years since I’ve lived here. What’s the word that sums up how I feel every time I ride it? Is it elation? Yep, I’m afraid that’s it, it’s a sense of relief connected to an old axiom that sounds better and better to me as the years race by: Less is more.