Friday, April 4, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Nineteen: Altars

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Look carefully. The molten rock could not be held, and it erupted from the earth, building up layer upon layer until it formed a great volcano. The volcano cooled and then burst forth in a catastrophic explosion, sending debris flying many miles away. The sides of the volcano cracked open, and lava raced over the valley floors. Soon the volcano’s insides were emptied, and it fell in on itself, forming a great crater. The crater filled with water and became a deep lake.

I dragged myself to the camp restroom to clean up, and returned to my car to listen to the signals. I returned to Interstate 5 and got off in the town of Mount Shasta. I found a corner market, picked out a postcard of the mountain, then hiked across the street to the post office and got a stamp. I strolled to the counter where they had a ball point pen and wrote:

Jesse Hampton
243 Fisch Camp
Pocatello ID 74538

I stared at the white space and thought for a while.

A stone is frozen music.

This was something Mr. Stutz used to tell us. As for Jesse, she was purely made up.

I shot up to Weed and turned onto 97, north toward Klamath Falls, across flat farm country and up to the dry mountains of the Siskiyous. The sun was out and beaming. I followed 97 all the way around Upper Klamath Lake, a remarkably long drive around a brown, boring body of water. Once I reached the north end, I began to see signs for Crater Lake. Funny thing was, here was one of the most fascinating, alien-seeming spots on Earth, and the signals were not all that strong. Fuck it, I thought, I’m going there anyway. I turned onto Highway 62 and headed northwest.

And I was wrong. Crater Lake was gorgeous, the surface a perfect mirror sliding out of the crater walls, the banks still coated with snow, and that water, a shade of blue that shouldn’t be possible outside of a Disney cartoon. I stopped at a little picnic area at the east end, broke out a store-bought sandwich, and I heard something. A scuffling sound behind a bristlecone pine, then a little black nose, and I was back with my chipmunk friend from Mount Lassen. I mean, identical. Same attitude, too. picked up the scent on my ham and Swiss, darted to my feet and struck a pose of determined expectation. Come on, buddy – out with it. I extended a length of breadcrust in his direction, and he nabbed it from my hand with stapler-gun teeth. Crater Lake was just a painting, though. Even Renoirs you can’t stare at for too long. I took one final snap with my eyes, closed/open, and scooted off down the other side of the hill.

To the north of Crater Lake lies a desolate, volcanic landscape, spread out between the mountains; you almost expect to see dinosaurs stampeding from the far forest. I hit 138 across and headed due east back to 97 for the drag north.

Eastern Oregon is a lot drier than you might expect. Much of it looks like Arizona – flatlands of steel-wool volcanic rock and scrub brush stretching out to the horizon. I drove up through Bend and Redmond in the hot midafternoon sun, jotting off the snowcapped volcanoes to my left – The  Three Sisters, the lone figure of Mount Jefferson, then northwest on 26 into the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where I found lava buttes and river canyons the color of sandpaper. I stopped off at the Deschutes River to soak my feet in surprisingly frigid water.

Soon afterward, my eyes were called to the side of the road by a line of strange formations. At first glance they look like like amorphous piles of rock and wood, but then you begin to notice that each pile stands equidistant from the pile before, the hand of man. Fence posts.

I turn into the side of the road and get out, stretching my legs as I brace my hands on top of the car. The land looks like something out of those pictures sent back from Mars: red landscape, tiny craters, large rocks dotting the field in endless scatters. For a moment, I feel an air of forbidding, like this is some kind of sacred ground.

But I have to follow the impulse; this is, after all, my only job. I walk to the nearest fence post and begin to understand its form. A center pole of rough, wind-hewn wood driven into the ground, with two other poles extended diagonally from each side, forming a tall triangle. The poles support a shelf two feet from the top, upon which are stacked a dozen lava rocks. Below the shelf, at ground level, another twenty rocks rest at its base.

The function behind the form begins to come clear. This flat, open land is given to high winds, and regular fence posts can’t be trusted to withstand their force. The ranchers have therefore taken the most plentiful available material and used it as an anchor, creating these tripled fenceposts to serve the task. They look a little like altars. The radar blips grow stronger. Tick tick…

I return to the car and pull out two items: my water bottle and the baseball-size rock from Yosemite. I balance the baseball rock on top of the lava rocks and empty my water bottle over the pile, the last real gush of water my granite friend will see for a long time.

It’s probably a foolhardy thing to do, using my last bit of water there in the middle of the Eastern Oregon wastelands, but christenings are more important than precautions. When I look up and spot the vanilla tip of Mount Hood to the north, I know that I have made the right move. Something is really clicking.

White giant to white giant seems a logical progression for the day, so I jump in my car and climb into the evergreens, taking 35 around and up to Hood River. The lights of Washington State wink at me across the Columbia River as I drive into town looking for a hotel.

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