Salamandre Wine

Primitivo Cool: Snow Mountain

Hear no, See no,
Fear no Evil
We have a rod,
A staff,
And a flask
Of Primitivo

Magma billowed into the boiling blackness of the primordial sea. Adjacent sediments baked and arched,
quenched and cracked, and then were buried by congealing basalt. Minerals seeped into briny crevices
and the crystals grew. That was a long time ago.

Over the next 150 million years, the stuttering subduction of plates jacked the monolith closer to the sun, eventually leaving it high and dry, straddling the southern toe of the Pacific Coast Range, a mere 3 hours north of San Francisco. Glacial ice mercilessly grated the softer strata but merely polished the igneous stone of the dead volcano. Gravel slurries abraded the slopes every spring, eventually leaving Snow Mountain alone in the sky…a salient target for the storms that roar down from the Aleutians, vault over the coastal hills and smash into the picket of jagged masonry.

Robin, Joel, and I went up to the Snow Mountain wilderness last weekend, hoping for a final glimpse of the convergence of the five visible planets from a suitably magnificent vantage point. Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, now beginning to part company in the light of the waxing moon, would not reconvene this way until 2040. Robin and I have come to expect memorable, if not mystical, phenomena in the mountains, and we have also learned that, should they appear, they will not be what we anticipated. Joel has traveled far beyond most young men his age in pursuit of enlightenment and inspiration, but we figured the old codgers could show him something, nevertheless.

We hiked through a recovering burned area with white skeletons of trees overgrown with ceanothus, the exposed soil dappled with lupine and mule ears. Hidden in a dark hollow, a gushing spring fed a shallow pond surrounded by the nubs of skunk cabbage and angelica. Shasta, naturally, went swimming.  Further in, I hoped to show my friends a mountain treasure--an improbably massive, incense cedar which I remembered as a sculptured icon of hardiness. We found instead a toppled relic in a blackened swale.



We found our camp in warm sunshine, smack on top of the westerly of the twin Snow Mountain summits.

The bald knob of the summit was a battlefield of the elements. Fissured rocks revealed the scars of their tortured origins and the relentless efforts of wind and water and lichen to grind them into sand. Fleshy annual plants barely dared to peek above the protection of the rust colored cobbles. Thorns drew blood without hesitation or apology. Windblown tufts of fur clung to the wiry chaparral. A single grove of red firs defied the manifold forces of entropy. Each tree had been struck by lightning, broken by the wind, or scorched by fires. Sap dripped from wounds both fresh and ancient, thwarting parasites and opportunists.  Scattered craters marked the failure of two hundred year old roots to grip the earth in the face of these assaults, yet new green needles thrust toward the open light. Few juvenile trees dared to take root on Snow Mountain, and each bore the stigmata of child abuse.

While evidence of past adversity was obvious, we were brushed by a gentle spring breeze. We enjoyed a panoramic view featuring California volcanoes--Shasta to the north and Lassen to the northeast, and of course, the East Snow Mountain summit, separated from us by a discreet cleavage.To the southeast, the Sutter Buttes floated like a derelict ship in the misty haze of the San Joaquin Valley. A hundred miles east, the Sierra snow fields sparkled in the alpine sun. To the west, as the sun drifted lower, we watched the coastal valleys fill with Mendocino fog, successive ridgelines protruding like the backs of anxious salmon in shallow water.



We expected our sky show after sunset. However, the five sister planets were trumped by five golden eagles in broad daylight. (Now I know the magic of the Italian surname Pentagili.) Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. The sheer western face of Snow Mountain catches the prevailing wind and shoots it abruptly skyward—it’s a natural playground if you have wings.

The eagles swirled in formation of twos and threes, dodged and darted as if playing tag. They plummeted in tandem, their talons outstretched, feathery leggins ruffling, deftly pulling away from heartless boulders at the last minute…then they calmly surfed the updraft to rejoin their company. Two glided in perfect formation in front of the quarter moon, no doubt fully aware of their elegance and indifferent to the peals of applause from below.  As we perched on the cliff, eagles passed within a pebble toss. Perhaps they figured we weren't very accurate pebble tossers. They did, however, leave one of their feathers behind.


We made a fire with appropriate pagan ceremony while the steak and potatoes sizzled above the coals. We toasted the desultory sunset and the tasteful fading of reds and oranges to greens and blues with hearty quaffings of Primitivo, liberally spiced with ribald contemplations. The five planets huddled spectacularly above the the valiant trees, as we had hoped.

A classic Red Sky at Morning greeted the one early riser among us on Saturday, while a freshening breeze quartered from the South. After a hedonists' breakfast of Sumatra coffee, bacon, potatoes, onions, and peppers, we sauntered off on a leisurely day hike to the opposite summit and the natural museum of fire and ice. The recent forest fire had charred many of the valleys below us, but left others pristine. Patterns of red, green, black, and white were co mbed by the path of melting snow.

We wandered through beds of tiny windblown wildflowers pushing through the rubble of ancient red and green basalt, marveled at sheets of crystals and natural glass, and eventually found a clutch of mature white firs which beckoned us to relax. We stretched out below a patch of snow for a telling of frivolous tales, a sharing of munchies, and, inevitably, a group nap. We awoke to an ominous feathering of cirrus, ice crystals silently blown like tassels in the frigid stratosphere. A marbling of altocumulus soon smudged the brave daytime moon. As we clambered up the clinking talus to regain the ridgeline, we found the northwestern horizon blotted with a layer of resolute stratus. Soon afterwards, puffy cumulus loomed over the leaden plates in a 2 hour display of meteorological foreboding.

The falling temperature drove us from T shirts to down jackets, and the wind began, literally, to howl. We discussed our choices and decided to turn the other cheek and stay on top of the mountain, rather than wimp out in the woods below .   We did this in consideration of Joel, who has spent altogether too much time carousing in cities, sheltered from the tender mercies of Mother Nature. Considering the darkening sky and the fact that we were by then all wearing gloves and hats, it seemed prudent to start supper early. I made a zesty dish which I'll call Pasta Pozzolano (pasta of the Wells), but it turned to cold pasta salad before we could finish half the plate. Generous exhortations from the flask of Primitivo preserved some semblance of warmth as the wind revealed its true Alaskan provenance.

Fletches of orange briefly hit a few high clouds above the turbulent sea of gray, as we wrapped in our bags in the dimming light. The band of clouds above the western horizon parted momentarily and a flourish of slanted rays poured into the shivering forest. I am not certain whether Apollo offered this display to reward us for courage, or whether Loki did it to seduce us into staying for the real show. Demonstrating some element of wisdom and compromise, Joel and I followed Robin into some trees just below the direct bite of the wind, and we spread out our bags. I prepared the tan tarp for contingency duty.

That call to duty came at 2 AM with a few warning drops. Within 10 minutes it was pelting rain as we erected the shelter amidst the flapping of fabric, the cracking of branches, and the occasional expletive of numbed wonderment. While I cinched the tethers into musical tightness, Shasta found the driest section and courteously pinned down the sleeping bags and the pads. The wind jerked the tarp and dumps of water pounded it like a drum whenever a gust shook the trees. The temperature plunged further, and the raindrops stopped falling from the trees. Splinters of sleet, however, found the cracks in the shelter, and everything we owned crusted with crackling ice. Shasta, wisely and blissfully, buried herself between Joel and me.



In the morning, we awoke to a crystalline fairyland of gnarled ice sculptures and glazed wildflowers puzzled by May's betrayal. Unfortunately we could not capture this beauty because the wind-whipped moisture froze the camera lens and damn near did the same to all our moving parts.


It was great.

Wells Shoemaker, May, 2002