Mt. Shasta is a wonderland of sounds: the wind refreshing the pine and cedar trees and a particularly sweet, palpable silence.
A group of Native American women are cloistered in the shifting quiet, pondering a move to higher ground. But a Shasta nation medicine woman asks them to stay put at a low-elevation campground. She treks higher only on spirit quests, she says, and has stood at tree line only seven times. "To look upon our creator," Mary Carpelan says, "one stands at a distance."
Gloria Gomes, a Wintu Shasta member, raises her arms as if to encompass the trees, the wildflowers, the distant ranges. "This is our church, all of it," she says.
The women have gathered on a midsummer's day to discuss the campaign to list Mt. Shasta on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its religious and cultural value to Native Americans. The Keeper of the Register granted eligibility status to the mountain in March, and opponents of the designation have geared up for a fight before the decision becomes final.
An avalanche that wrecked a ski park in 1978 was Shasta's answer to insult, the women say. The federal designation would ensure that a worse desecration never comes to pass: a proposed 1,690-acre ski resort at Shasta's upper reaches, bringing parking lots and sewage systems as well as a payroll.
The women believe the quiescent volcano is already aggrieved and angered. "I don't think anybody would appreciate putting an outhouse on an altar," Carpelan says. "If they continue, she's gonna blow."
Shasta, a 14,162-foot, double-cone volcano near the Oregon border, is the dominant landmark of Northern California. It rises like a lonely sentinel at the southern brink of the Cascades, the youngest link in the Ring of Fire that includes Mt. St. Helens. Religious traditions spanning ageless Native American to upstart New Age consider Shasta holy. Environmentalists honor it as a wilderness shrine.
"Mt. Shasta is one of the sacred mountains of the world, similar to Mt. Fuji, the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro," says Mt. Shasta City resident Michelle Berditchevsky. "People come here and they feel something special. Sometimes they can't put their finger on what it is or what to call it because our society doesn't have names for those things, it doesn't recognize that some things are sacred."
Shasta is also arguably the most awesome peak within strolling distance of a major interstate. Highway 5 makes it an easy excursion for pilgrims, and they have come. Tourists, developers, lawsuits and the Department of Corrections--civilization itself--have come as well.
A state proposal to build a prison near Weed, nine miles up the road in Siskiyou County, has combined with the historic district debate to hone a vague sense of discord among townspeople already divided by culture, generation and class. The old-timers have shrunk to a minority, supplanted by urban refugees and New Agers. Galleries and upscale restaurants are the beachheads of a slow gentrification. As the logging economy withers, visions for the future diverge. Suspended in this gulf is the question of what the mountain is for.
Even preservationists recognize that Shasta is what draws visitors to this tourism-dependent town. But they believe that vigorous, ecologically sound businesses can be built around an intact mountain. The more traditional bloc worries that if the environmentalists and Native Americans gain more ground, their stranglehold will ensure economic despair.
"We believe that this place is about creating a certain quality of life that has been paved over elsewhere," says Berditchevsky, a former L.A. college teacher who coordinates the Save Mt. Shasta citizen's group. "Rivers, meadows, mountains are useful, but they are also an expression of the Earth as a living being."
She and others envision a community of small businesses that enhance rather than corrupt the area's beauty. The town should put its energy into the arts, healing and retreat facilities. Already, there are plans for a Mt. Shasta Health Consortium and a botanical "theme park" that would refine visitors' understanding of nature.
"If we go toward quality of life and healing and local ownership, we will really have something unique," Berditchevsky says. "If we gear our efforts toward skiing and prisons, we'll be just like anywhere else."
City Councilman Jerry White leads the charge to overturn the mountain's listing. Sifting through a stack of documents and building his argument as a lawyer might, he says the Keeper's decision was illegal.
He launches a litany of criticism: It violates the separation of church and state. It relies upon suspect assertions of the Native Americans' historical use. It abuses the rights of private property owners in the designated area. And above all, the mountain "belongs to all of us."
White, who has been known to wear cowboy hats and Texas-size belt buckles, shoots from the hip. He calls the campaign behind the historic district an "environmentalist land grab" achieved by "consensual manipulation" of the Native Americans. With the two groups allied, where will it end?
"This is a power device to control all of the federal lands in the U.S.," he says. "What isn't sacred to Native Americans? How about Yellowstone, how about the Grand Canyon? Let's say I would like to have Mt. Eddy or the Marble Mountains as my church. Would you give it to me?"
White worked as an engineer and planning commissioner in Santa Cruz County before moving to Mt. Shasta in 1990 and knows the territory where politics and the environment meet. He sees his calling as defending the rights of the loggers and "sons of the pioneers," the townsfolk innocent to the ways of lawsuit-crazed urban America.
A lot of what they had is gone, he says, done in largely by environmental laws. Young residents have no prospects to keep them here. If the historic district is established, he says, dwindling tourism would deal another blow to the local economy.
"They're closing the gate," he says of the newcomers and environmentalists. "Basically, they will shut the mountain down. There is a significant effort to make Siskiyou County a wilderness museum."
He's had enough of it. So too have fellow members of the newly formed Enraged Natives Opposed to Underhanded Government Hanky-panky (ENOUGH). They want property rights respected, they want their entitlement to public lands. And they want their mountain back.
Charlie Thom, a Kuruk elder, tells a story about the contested mountain, about sitting in the sacred Panther Meadows and being "volunteered" to do battle in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.
The mountain started shaking, he recalls. "Then Coyote comes, he runs on past me up the hill, as if saying, 'Come on, let's go up the hill.' I followed Coyote up that hill, and I've been with Coyote ever since. Coyote turned me loose 19 years ago to protect this mountain."
Panther Meadows, its golden-green slope giving way to a view of Mt. Lassen, is adjacent to the proposed ski resort site.
Thom's husky voice adds raucous verse to the soft percussion of a subterranean spring. "You can't put a multimillion-dollar project up here and shave all these trees like my whiskers, and bring alcohol up this mountain and prostitution. It ain't right. Look at Aspen, Colo. They chased all the poor people out of there and the wealth came in.
"I am sure the designation of Mt. Shasta is gonna stick because you can't overrule the spirit law of the mountain. You can't overrule nature's law."
Long ago, the Great Spirit created the mountain we know as Shasta by bringing down snow and ice from the skies and turning a vast stone round and round. He made it a wigwam for his home and built a fire at its center for his comfort, and from there he made the animals, the land and the seas. During a fierce storm he sent his most beautiful daughter to the summit to appeal to the winds for gentleness, but she was blown tumbling down the slope. A wizened mother grizzly took the child in and reared her, and she married the old mother's eldest son. They were very happy and had many children. These were the first Indians.
As the most prominent features of the natural landscape, their broad mass jutting skyward, mountains have long been seen as a channel to heaven, the divine, another world. The gods lived on Olympus, Moses received knowledge on Sinai. Many legends surround Shasta--a conglomerate of empires is hidden within. Many people come to simply be near it. The mountain is a teacher, they say. Its energy helps people understand their role in the universe.
Rowena Pattee Kryder's 42 acres are reached by a gravel road rising into the Eddy range, about 15 miles west of Mt. Shasta City. Her dwelling is a California version of the outback monastery: ornate and spiritually eclectic. Its 12 intricately patterned sides were inspired chiefly by the zodiac. There's no bedroom; Kryder sleeps by the Temple of the Mother of the World, an altar constructed largely of rose quartz to manifest the essence of the heart.
A sturdy, plum-cheeked woman of 58, she is a New Age priestess of sorts, as well as a doctor of religious studies. Her role in this life, she says, is teacher and visionary. What she teaches is the path to what she envisions: the Celestial Earth.
Her talents are broad but of a piece. She performs rituals in the shamanic guise of the Egret Woman. She leads retreats to accelerate spiritual growth, under the aegis of her Creative Harmonics Institute. She writes books such as "Sacred Ground to Sacred Space."
Kryder moved to Shasta seven years ago, after creating a temple in Point Reyes and teaching sacred art and world mythology in San Francisco. "This is more of a visionary place, a spacious place. People come to Shasta either for a retreat, for healing or, in my case, for innovation.
"They come here," she says, pointing to the floor, "to learn, in a kind of self-made training. My job is to assist and support that, because I really feel that if people are living who they are, the world's problems would take care of themselves. But that is not a small matter--to live who you are."
Raised on an Indiana potato farm, Kryder's family values are strong, if you consider that the family is all of creation and the head of household is the intelligent cosmos.
"I have been a nature mystic all my life, even as a child," she says. "It's been a slow process of learning who I am and what I'm supposed to do in the midst of a world that is very confused. Many people think I'm eccentric but in reality, I'm centric, I'm very centered. Sometimes you can be centered but seen as eccentric because they don't know how to recognize it."
Donald Keys pursues his own vision of the universal family from his home down a quiet street in town. Much of his adult life had been spent leading organizations dedicated to peace and globalism. At the U.N., he wrote speeches for Secretary General U Thant and other diplomats. A prolific writer, Keys' books include "Earth at Omega" and "Disarmament: The Human Factor."
Now, the erudite gentleman's perspective is, to say the least, cosmic.
"The new frontier is inner and outer space, and they're both populated. Inner space are the dimensions we don't see with our eyes. Outer space is the populated universe at the physical level, including Earth.
"So here," he pauses, starting to smile, "we're in outer space."
His corner of the universe is comfortable, orderly, even generic except for such details as a tabletop crystal garden and a mounted photograph--not a drawing, apparently--of a flying saucer in the Swiss Alps. The caption: "Pleiadian Variation 4."
The Pleiadians are more than visitors, he explains. They are friends, if not saviors.
"They have colonized Earth a number of times and they're trying to assist us in our civilization. A lot of them are very concerned about the current state of human evolution because we are right on the edge between Earth disaster or nuclear catastrophe and some form of transcendence. The ones who care about us are trying to give us a push in the right direction."
Should they reveal themselves, Mt. Shasta, the cosmic portal, may play a role.
"In terms of what we might call subtle energies, Mt. Shasta is a very powerful place, it's like a beacon in space. In the words of an old text, a place where cosmic deep sounds unto cosmic deep, and that sound travels a long, long way. Consequently, it's a very good place to come in."
Meanwhile, down the interstate from Mt. Shasta City and up a chain of pitted logging roads, the Rainbow Family has gathered for its annual reunion.
Aside from the moxie to make the trip, there are no requirements to join this congregation. As one member famously put it: "Anybody with a belly button can be part of this."
Campsites ring a broad meadow ruled by dragonflies. The midday sun casts a glow onto the pristine sky. It's just another day to play in the meadow, the forest and the lakes.
But the play is hushed and languorous. The sound of anything as mechanical as a zipper would foil the "transcendental dreaming" that John Muir thought to be the most sensible activity in the wild.
One bare-chested young man sits under a tree, darning his socks. He's slight though tautly muscled, his long dreadlocks shot through with colorful stick-like hairpins. Rings and pins pierce his ears, nose and lower lip. An upper arm is burned into a field of dotted welts, in the manner of decorative self-mutilation.
He thumbed down to the gathering from some be-in near Eugene, Ore. He's not altogether blissed out because rootlessness and poverty have taken their toll, although the alternative seems unnatural and in fact a form of bondage.
"I'm not very motivated by material things," he says, gathering his dirty blankets into a ball. "What I'm looking for is something dealing with my mind and with my spirit.
"No matter how close you want to be to God or Jah or whatever the name is, you can't get close to him. His expressions are all a part of nature, so to get closer to him you have to get closer to things that aren't man-made. A rock isn't man-made, a tree isn't man-made."
Everything about Rena and Frank is spic and span and in its place. The two retirees, who declined to give their last names, pass a lot of time on her front porch, watching the town change as slowly and steadily as the traffic goes by on Mt. Shasta Boulevard. The happily-ever-after little house was built in 1934 and Rena was raised in it.
"This place has grown within the last 10 years due to the fact that we have real estate agents here now that fed the people Down South a big line, and they came up here and found out it was the truth!" says Frank, who made his living in a lumber-treatment plant.
"Us old-timers, we're a minority now," he says. "Everybody else is from down below, been up here for five or 10 years. In the olden days you never locked your doors. It's not that way anymore."
"It's changed a lot the last few years, changed a lot," adds Rena, a former waitress. "New people. You've been here for years and years, and you don't know anybody anymore."
Exiles from urban California cities have become well-known although not necessarily well-loved in the vast, scenic territory sometimes called Superior California. In Shasta, the influx is accompanied by the departure and passing on of veteran families.
"The town of Mt. Shasta is divided. Cultures are cohabiting, but not too well," says Councilman White. "There are many people here whose history goes back to 1850 and there's the get-out-of-the-Bay Area group, like myself. They measure you by the redness of your neck, how far left or right you are."
The new arrivals are drawn by a combination of blessings. The mountain is the central fact of life here, and it is seemingly regarded by all as an object of beauty, if not a wonder. The other and more tangible factor is quality of life in Mt. Shasta City, population 3,600, located in one of the state's largest but least populated counties.
There are two stoplights and no movie theaters. There are no parking meters and no heavy industry, essentially no litter and no noise. Since the region offers few opportunities to strike it rich, the town tends to draw people of independent means, and nurtures artists and innovators.
The newcomers have widened the cultural gap between Mt. Shasta City and the rest of Siskiyou County. Walking down Mt. Shasta Boulevard, you'll pass Indian mannequins in the windows of the Black Bear Gallery and the New Life Health Institute, which offers chiropractic, oxegenetics and Reichian therapy.
You'll pass Lily's, a restaurant that could hold its own with upscale eateries on L.A.'s Westside, and a charming bed-and-breakfast called the Strawberry Valley Inn.
If the urban expatriates have made an impact, so has the burgeoning spiritual community. Even the Chamber of Commerce makes room for them in its profile of the town: "Alternative religions and New Age thought draws visitors from around the world seeking spiritual insight." A panel judging slogans for a tourism campaign gave the nod to "Mt. Shasta City: Where Heaven and Earth Meet" but awarded a commendation for creativity to "Mt. Shasta City: Choo Choo to Woo Woo."
"The outside world is waking up to Shasta as a center, recognizing it as an important and powerful place," says Darlene Moss, editor of the Mt. Shasta Herald. The watershed event, she says, was 1987's Harmonic Convergence, which brought thousands here to share in a worldwide meditation.
Some residents believe the spiritual community has founded an oasis of generosity and respect, a model of humanity's better future. Some are appalled that their town is a magnet for "cults." Like any other, this subculture has its commercial dimension. Flyers for channelers, purifiers and retreats crowd bulletin boards.
Mt. Shasta's newer residents, religious or otherwise, tend to share a preservationist agenda. They say there are other ways to stay afloat besides bringing in a ski resort, a prison or even a Burger King.
"A lot of people who moved here recently have come for the pristine environment," Moss says. "They are well-versed in environmental law and politics, EIRs (environmental impact reports) and the rest. They fought five years to keep Burger King out, but it finally came. So developers know that building in Mt. Shasta could mean five years of lawsuits."
The city has carried its share of the litigation burden. Recently, it raised sewer rates to defend against a suit over the system's expansion. With a touch of exaggeration, White says the tiny town's general plan has gotten so complex that "it would suit Sacramento. Anyone can sue a small town. All you have to do is keep litigation going and you can bankrupt 'em like that," he says, snapping his fingers.
The backlash is gaining steam, stoked by the battle over the historic district on the mountain. Virtually the entire cast of elected officials in Mt. Shasta City and Siskiyou County, including the area's Republican congressman, are opposed.
Last week, the Keeper of the Register, Jerry Rogers, came to the hamlet for a town meeting and was assailed as a tyrant by hundreds of angry residents. Going by the book after the ordeal, he promised to take public comment for another 60 days.
Before the lawsuits and the earth-goddess worshipers, life here had a tranquil consistency. The mountain was wild and towered above controversy. But Berditchevsky sees a grim chain reaction looming, an ironic one for the area's tiny Establishment.
"It would be good for the health of the community if they opened their minds up to new ways of doing things economically," she says. "I think that a big resort and the prison would be such large powers in such a small community that they would dominate the area. We would lose our autonomy, even the present power structure would be subjugated to these large interests."
Polarization is a new fact of life that White laments but accepts. He has a similar down-to-earth attitude about the scourge of civilization around the lofty peak.
"It would be preferable to go back to the turn of the century, when everybody had a lot of space. It's still such a great place to be and that's why folks want to close the gate and enjoy it. Unfortunately, it's just not something that's realistic."