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Ride to the Blue

It's Saturday morning Labor Day Weekend and I wake up early thinking about where to ride. Hmmmm. Crater Lake? That blue caldera, impossibly blue, and that beautiful 35-mile ride high around its rim? Last night it was a vague notion, nothing more, because it was tempered by what I know about Labor Day Weekend. The curse of crowds, of traffic. But this morning, this sparkling late summer morning with the cool foretaste of fall already in the air, I'm optimistic. I'm in a rare mood. I feel very Chinese. How did Taoist master Chuang Tzu put it? No matter what, supreme acceptance.

So after a few morning chores, we're off; just like that, on an overnighter to one of North America's most famous tourist destinations, on Labor Day Weekend, with no reservations, no plan. My ex-girlfriend, a neurotic Jewish woman (pardon the redundancy), would not have gone along with it. My current girlfriend, a reasonable New Testament woman whose abiding faith is tempered by common sense, is different. She doesn't seem worried, but even if she is, she is deferential. She defers to me. I like a woman who defers to me. It would be preposterous were such without exception, but concerning matters where I know I'm right, like living extemporaneously, joyously now and then, yes, definitely, I expect deference. Ladies, no hate mail please. It's struggle enough to be honest.

Perhaps I've ridden the old county road called Hackamore, the shortcut from Big Valley to northbound Highway 139 a hundred times, and more often than not I won't see another vehicle for 30 miles. This is still very much empty country here in northeast California. It's a big holiday weekend, 8:30 Saturday morning, and my only concern is deer that might scamper suddenly out of the vast pine forest thick on either side of the road. Was I riding solo I might consider high speed flight through this fresh, fragrant arboreal corridor. Bambi be damned. But with consideration of the woman behind me, who is glued to my destiny at the moment on this mortal coil, I defer such risky impulse. Consideration. See how it all works out in the wash?

Rolling north on Highway 139 through the Klamath Basin, a beautiful but troubled venue since the Feds and an extended draught have squeezed water rights granted to farmers for generations, there are signs posted everywhere that express the local ire, some crudely scribbled and nailed to fence lines like “Farmers: The New Endangered Species” and others more professionally executed that read “Thank you to the Bureau of Reclamation for Destroying the Economy and Ecosystem of the Klamath Basin.” And downriver, down the Klamath River, not many miles to the west, where the Yurok and Hoopa tribes have depended on salmon and steelhead runs for centuries, they're looking at unprecedented low flows, high water temperatures and fish corpses rotting along the banks. There was another sign I saw posted along the road slashed with red ink, one that seemed to signal the definitive paradox, the nuclear oxymoron of our time on this beleaguered planet, “Food, Not Fish.”

Just south of Tule Lake in a community now known as Newell, we view the remains of an internment camp where 20,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated during WW II because, well, because they looked Japanese. All men are created equal, unless, it might as well be interpreted, you happen to be of the off-white tint. I don't mean to sound cynical. Because down at the core of my belief optimism shines. Justice prevails. Eventually, it does. The trouble is many of us don't live long enough to see through the cycle. When Tash Matsuoka was the editor of Rider I remember he once objected to a scene at Manzanar appearing somewhat benignly in a layout without comment on its historical context. He likened it to illustrating a picnic at Dachau. A lively argument ensued. He won.

In Oregon, north of Klamath Falls, we veer northwest on Highway 62 toward Crater Lake. A few miles later, approaching the site of old Fort Klamath (1863-1889), I pull the Wing into a memorial park. Unfortunately, plans to rebuild the museum recently destroyed by an electrical fire are still in the funding stage at this writing in September 2002, but there are some tents set up to shelter artifacts that survived the burn, and a knowledgeable docent is on hand to discuss the past if one is so inclined. The fort was established during the Civil War to deal with a surprisingly large contingent of Oregonians who sympathized with the Confederacy, and to address the bigger problem at the time:

Executive Office

Washington DC.

September 10, 1873

The executive order dated August 22 approving the sentence of death of certain Modoc Indian prisoners is hereby modified in the case of Barncho and Slolux, and the sentence in said cases is commuted to imprisonment for life. Alcatraz Island, harbor of San Francisco, California, is designated as the place of confinement.

U.S. Grant, President

Not so fortunate were Captain Jack, Black Jim, Boston Charley and Schonchin John. They were ceremoniously hung that morning at Fort Klamath. The Modoc War was over, and as it says in the park service brochure, “the culture of an entire people was destroyed so settlers could graze a few cows.” Whatever your view of history here on this grassy mountain meadow in southwest Oregon, events are still as palpable as the pages of an open book flapping in the wind.

Cataclysmic forces that formed Crater Lake are starkly evident from the highway several miles before we reach the entrance of the park. Ascending the shattered remnants of Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcanic mountain that erupted and collapsed into itself 8,000 years ago, we view to our immediate right a deep gorge carved by a river from hell, a Stygian torrent of molten rock and fiery ash flowing at a hundred miles an hour, a force that melted rock like wax, hewing dramatic sculpture that would have inspired the master of Barcelona, Antonio Gaudi, whose quest was to approximate nature in his architecture. Mazama was the mother of volcanic eruptions in North America, its ash lays six inches deep over eight states and three Canadian provinces, 150 times as much spewed by Mt. St. Helens in May, 1980.

The lake. What can be said about the lake? Nothing, it seems, because it must be seen to believe there isn't any other blue. It is like the green that is Ireland's. It is definitive of a color, of a shade, of a quality of light, it is haunting, it is mesmerizing, it is 2,000 feet deep, six lakes in the world are deeper (Lake Baikal in Russia is 5,000 feet deep) but they cannot be bluer, of that I am certain. I park the Wing at the entrance to Crater Lake Lodge, situated since 1915 on the rim of the caldera a thousand feet above the lake, expecting to just go through the motions of inquiring about a vacancy in this historic retreat, fully anticipating a look from the desk clerk like, “Dude, what are you smoking?” But it's just another Taoist miracle, a room is still available. So gifted, we are afforded a leisurely afternoon riding the spectacular 35-mile firescape that surrounds The Blue, and the opportunity to watch it go silver and then darken that evening, right from our dinner table in the woody warmth of The Great Hall of the lodge.

In the morning, homeward bound the long way, we maintain course on Highway 62 as it plunges its way southwesterly, tracing the sinuous flow of the Rogue River toward Medford, a bracing 60-mile scoot that emulates the same joyous dance on other roads along other rivers we know and love. There is, however, no joy in Medford. Traffic is horrendous and everyone seems to be in a big hurry to get to The Mall or to wherever else people are hurrying these days in Midtown, America. We do some hurrying ourselves, to the Harry and David store in, where else?, The Mall, but redemption — here are renowned Royal Riviera pears from Bear Creek Orchard, which, since 1914, are “so big and juicy, you eat them with a spoon” and they're still the world's best. Like it says in the whiskey ad, the good things stay that way.

Twelve miles or so down the 1-5 corridor, 12 miles from Medford but it might as well be 1200 given the civilized composure in Ashland — the annual Shakespeare Festival is in full swing. Reservations are a definite requirement to see one of the Bard's plays here, so we make a note to do just that before the season ends in November. Then it's up and over Mt. Ashland and down 1-5 to pickup Highway 89 at the town of Mount Shasta, and then southeast to join Highway 299 at McArthur, and then it's up and over Big Valley Mountain, back home to the booming metropolis of Bieber. 

Ah, Bieber, not a leafy civilized village in a green hill dimple of the Siskiyou's like Ashland, no haute cuisine, no lake of unearthly blue, no commercial tourism draw, only an honest place, a true place on the sprawling high plains where, as T.S. Eliot put it to verse, “the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.” Shakespeare wrote it this way:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; 

Coral is far more red than her lips' red; 

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; 

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. 

I have seen roses damasked, red and white, 

But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 

And in some perfumes is there more delight 

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. 

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know 

That music hath a far more pleasing sound; 

I grant I never saw a goddess go; 

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. 

   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare 

   As any she belied with false compare.

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