For years, I’d wanted to see Mount Shasta in northern California, and a trip in June 2017 didn’t disappoint. I took in the Mount Lassen Volcanic Park as well. Yet in both cases I couldn’t get onto the actual mountains, even at a safe altitude: Shasta because permits are needed, and I found no ‘beginner’s slope,’ and Lassen because snow (experienced elsewhere in California as rain) had blocked the roads, or made them dangerous with melted snow that formed ice. I could only see them both at some distance.

The first glimpse of a major mountain is a heart-in-mouth moment, though. Shasta is over 14,000 ft, and became visible at a 100-mile distance. Lassen, at 10,457 ft, is still an impressive sight with its snow-covered summit shining in the morning sun. And close to it is a group of summits that were once the ramparts of Mount Tehama, which blew its top a half-million years or so, leaving Lassen and other peaks around a caldera that has much eroded since those dangerous days. Lassen itself had a major early 20th Century eruption.

Geological facts aside, I noted what I’ve found before: the closer you come to a big mountain, the less discernible it is. If a road brings you near the summit, then it’s … rock and stuff. From the right distance, though, it has presence, mystery and power.

Mountains are always ideas.

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