I generally try to keep posts on this blog focused on Japanese culture or language, but once in a while I’ll post someting a bit off topic. This is one of those posts, but I hope you enjoy it. Actually, there is a small connection to Japan which I’ll talk about near the end.
As my family and I have just recently moved to Portland, Oregon, we are planning to take advantage of our home base and travel to places nearby which we haven’t had a chance to visit yet. We decided on making the trip to Mount Shasta, a small town in Northern California around altitude 3,600 that is approximately 5 hours from Portland by car. Mount Shasta is known as a “spiritual” or “sacred” place, so we arrived with some high expectations about having some sort of unique experience.
More than anything else, Mount Shasta is known for it’s beautiful nature, typified by the active volcano of the same name which towers above the city at over 14,000 feet, and the smaller Mount Shastina. These are truly amazing sites, especially for anyone who is not used to seeing mountains frequently (while there are some near Portland, there wasn’t any real mountains in South Florida where I lived most of my life). I found it interesting that there was still snow packed into many parts of these mountains, despite the fact that it was extremely hot down on the ground (80-90 degrees). While it makes sense considering the peaks are over a mile away and things are much colder up there, they just feel much closer than that. I guess it’s just a trick of the eye since I am not used to seeing something so large, so far away, and yet so clear.
Besides the mountains, there are various rivers, lakes, and meadows where you can really get up and close with nature. One area we really liked was called Panther Meadows, where there are little streams that flow with refreshingly cold, pure water that was once snow, coming down all the way from the mountains. The plant life is very verdant and diverse around these streams, with beautiful flowers, moss, and all sorts of plants I’ve never seen. Just beware you are *not* supposed to walk into the streams, or stray from the main trail at any time. There are signs in some places, and we even spotted a park ranger who (friendly, but firmly) reminded us of this. While it was a little frustrating to not be able to get in direct contact with these streams, with the increasing number of visitors, these types of rules are required to preserve nature for the next generation, and the one after that. There was a camping site in this area, but it said no overnight camping allowed. I guess this was for the same reason, however I’m not sure what the purpose of camping is if you can’t stay overnight.
My favorite place of all was called Pluto Caves, which is a series of underground caves a little bit off of a highway. It’s in the middle of nowhere with only a tiny sign nearby, though if you have a GPS you’ll probably be able to find it without much problem. After driving on a dirt road which ends in a tiny parking lot, you have to walk on a desert path roughly 1/4 of a mile to get to the cave entrance. Once you do, don’t go to the left cave since it is very short, and to be honest had a very bad smell. The right cave entrance however, leads to a long chain of tunnels that we didn’t reach the end of even after walking 20 minutes or so.
The caves are amazing wonders of nature, truly like something of a fantasy movie or game. They get quite dark at parts, so it’s best to bring a flashlight (or two), and some of the areas require climbing over rocks. You may even see bats or other mysterious creatures. This is real exploration, so come prepared. Bring little children is not recommended.
The only big disappointment was that the caves were filled with all sorts of grafitti with obscene and cryptic messages. We didn’t run into any people there who would have made these, but I wouldn’t be surprised to if you found people inside somewhere, so be on your guard.
The last memorable place was call McCLoud River Falls, which consists of Lower, Middle, and Upper areas. There is a fairly large sized river that passes through these areas, with the changes in altitude resulting in spectacular waterfalls in a few places. One of the areas (I think it was Middle) has an long trail that winds up the side of a mountain, and has an amazing view of the river below. However, the trail was very narrow in a few places (some without handrails of any time), and with a step drop below, this place carries with it a certain level of danger. Again, not recommend for kids.
In the smallish downtown area, there is a good number of stores and restaurants to explore. However, there were a few issues we had with this area.
First of all, we found the store hours to be quite irregular. Many stores were closed completely on certain days, or had irregular hours. Two of the stores were closed even though they were supposed to be open. The restaurant quality was also hit-or-miss, with a few mediocre dining experiences. For example, one of the Thai restaurants downtown was so-so, but their “medium spicy” was actually super-ultra spicy, and the service was a bit lacking. I don’t recommend coffee or sweets at the bookstore downtown, both were horrible. At one of the local grocery stores, due to some outage they could not accept credit cards, and so I had to jog about 1/4 mile to the nearest ATM to get cash. Another restaurant had skirt steak that was definitely not skirt steak.
To make matters worse, there are not any larger grocery/general stores we could find nearby except for Rite Aid. The final nail in the coffin was when we found out the number one rated restaurant in the area (an Indian restaurant called Maruti) was moving out of area, to all places – Portland.
Since this is city is known as being a “spiritual” place, the number of spiritual-related stores, especally those selling crystals, is unbelievable. I think we saw at least seven or eight within a mile radius. The products are pretty cool if you are into that type of thing, but the goods can get pretty pricey.
One other thing about the city is there was a inproporationally large number of homeless, backpackers, and “hippe” types. The latter group was quite authentic, with the clothes, the playing-drums-in-the-park, and (yes) the drugs.
All-in-all, the city had the feeling that time had stopped a few decades ago. That in itself had its own charm, but it may disappoint some travellers who come looking for more.
While I don’t think we had much of a “spiritual experience”, getting close to nature was fun and refreshing. It was hot too, I actually got a sunburn in a single day, despite the fact I was born and raised in South Florida! But the general populace there just left a bad taste in our mouth, whether it was from drugs, trash and grafitti at nature parks, half-ass businesses, or mediocre food and services at restaurants.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to discount the city as a spiritual place, nor the people that live there. Depending on who you are, you very well may have an amazing spiritual experience. As they say in Japanese: 十人十色 (there are as many opinions as there are people). And for all the people we met that gave the city a bad impression, there were some very kind people as well.
As for the connection to Japan, for whatever reason this area seems to be quite popular with certain groups of Japanese people, which you can see for yourself by searching around online for “シャスタ山”. We also experienced this in person, running across a few groups of Japanese people in just a handful of days. One of the days we were there, there even happened to be a festival with a Taiko group called Shastayama. Several of the new age stores even had catalogs or guidebooks in Japanese. We also heard there was a spa-type place managed by Japanese people, but unfortunately they were available by reservation only. If you are looking for Japanese people to practice speaking Japanese with, you just might find someone in this city. Ironically, we couldn’t find a single Japanese restaurant near downtown. It figures.
Picture: a small stream made of melted snow trickling down from the mountains in Panther Meadows.