Living in Mt. Shasta is to be seduced into a vortex of sheer, surprising and sometimes intense magic. Ask anyone who is intimate with this holy mountain if they have not experienced first hand the fire of this seemingly inanimate land mass. Alluringly beautiful – shawled in radiant snow all winter, rimmed in red rock and luminous conifers all summer – Shasta is the blazing inferno that renders ash of egoic attachments. It’s just a matter of time and perhaps individual destiny as to when and how ferociously the flames ignite and take hold.
An exquisite metaphor – nature mirroring life – has swept through these past weeks: several immense forest fires south of here, and as close as McCloud, have disseminated a shawl of smoke across the entire landscape. One wakes each morning to the scent of burning, the usually crisp and clear air dulled and sullied, the outline of Castle Crags and the mountain herself mere figments of mist in the distance. The sheer blue sky one has become accustomed to has turned a sullen shade of gray. The perfect reflection for one’s internal burning. It’s like roiling in the belly of Shiva, that fearsome Destroyer of Illusion.
This town has long attracted those with spiritual proclivities, and there is a quiet acceptance among most residents of the interior fire that seems fueled by the deceptively calm mountain. I have heard many tales of people driving through, whose car breaks down and they are forced to remain here, and often do, for good.
Just yesterday, I hiked through the smoke with friends to the gorgeous Squaw Meadows at 8,000 feet, where wildflowers lit up the land in a rainbow of hues, oblivious to the thick air. On the way, we met a man with a small box suspended by twine around his neck. It rested against his chest, and the fabric ‘lid’ flew up on a wave of wind to reveal a tiny bird nestled inside. Leaning close, we saw a minuscule raven, sheeny black with tiny yellow fluff billowing on her chest and head.
“This is Holy,” the man, who seemed to have materialized out of another world, informed us. “She showed up at a table where I was having breakfast one morning. Injured. She was a gift.”
He hefted Holy out of the tiny box so we could peer at her tiny, char-colored feathers, her piercing beak. “Soon she’ll be ready to fly off,” he said, before leaving us.
Only on Mt. Shasta, my friends and I agreed, could such a fertile metaphor present itself.
On the return journey, after dipping our hot bodies in the crystal waters of Squaw Spring, we stopped to rest and saw a woman frantically waving and screaming at us in the distance. I recognized her orange teeshirt. We had crossed paths with her and her husband and two young girls earlier. But now there was only the woman with the elder girl in tow. She had a towel draped over her head in an apparent attempt to stave off the unrelenting burn of the sun.
“We’re lost!” She yelled as she approached. “My husband and daughter are gone. We’ve been walking back and forth for hours.”
I offered her some water, which she drank as if she’d been in the desert for months, which she had. I pulled a jar of tuna from my pack and some grapes, and the daughter tucked into them with a raw passion.
We were close to Hummingbird Spring, an oasis of green amidst the heaps of dusty volcanic rock. An aquifer gushed fresh mountain water straight out of the earth. It had fertilized the surrounding area in a verdant panorama of lush emerald grasses, jeweled with a glitter of Shasta lilies and starflowers. We refilled our water jugs and mother and child swallowed long and hard, liquid streaming down their chins and fingers.
My friend loaned the woman her phone and she called her husband for a pick-up at the upper parking lot, to which we led the way.
“Now we can see how beautiful it is here,” the woman, still shouting with excitement or anxiety, kept saying, as she scurried behind us. “Before, it was just scary.”
I wondered how she and her daughter would remember their visit to this powerful mountain – if they would find the gift in their adventure or if they would only recall the fear. It just confirmed what I know deep down to be true: that we are always, completely taken care of. Lost from our true, divine selves, we can wander in a humbling haze of doubt, but we are always being held, and eventually are found. Or, more accurately, in surrendering our grip on control, ultimately, we find ourselves.
I was just glad that, as fate would have it, I was in the right place at the right time to offer some assistance. Driving slowly back to town, I tucked in a pocket of my heart the warm assurance that even in my apparent moments of floundering, Holy Mountain is working her secret magic. And that fire – inferno or dim candle – also sheds light, especially where it seems absent.
I could have sworn the sky seemed clearer this morning, the air more fresh, the spirit lighter. But the raven, just like Holy Mountain, is renowned as a trickster, so I simply inhaled deeply, gratefully and leaned into the day.