Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Blue Highway Travelogue–Mt. Lassen

Mt._Lassen“If you want to hike to the peak, you’d best do that this morning,” Ranger Ilene cautioned at the entrance gate. Dry lightning had recently set fires across four counties, and we could see two plumes graying the horizon of blue sky to the west. Her electro-shock warning encouraged us to choose Lassen National Park‘s pamphlet-assisted Bumpass Hell Trail to a 100-meter bowl of bubbling fumaroles—gray clay molten plopping sulfur steam—and circular ponds of green-gray water, bubblescum-coated and Venusian under the low cloud cover.

A few strides up the old volcano, I, ever the Good Samaritan, spotted a tourist and a half-his-girth spouse struggling to set up an unmanned photo of themselves.  “Lassen mir seinem Bildung machen,” I offered. They looked at me surprised (“Let me make his development” was, I later determined, a fair translation of  my mis-remembered high school German), then let me take their picture, the glacier-stippled cone filling the frame. Late August patches of very dirty snow, some of it striped pink with algae down the fall-line, bordered the surprisingly under-peopled path.  As we walked through the Park, the modal language was German. And there were more women than men.

On the walk back, thunder wrinkled two-thirds of heaven in rolling waves, followed by remarkably sparse raindrops the size of canned peas that popped and flattened the path dust, then turned into icy pellets that would have hurt had they continued for more than a half minute.

In the mid-90s, while prepping for our independent film HEARTWOOD, my brother, mother, and I scouted for a saw mill north of here, eating dinner in Weed, a logging town whose name must be a smirk to newcomers and a boring, old joke to everyone else. As we approached the Weed exit, a complete replay of that day came back to me. The beat-up clump of poor, little houses off to the west of the highway that we thought might serve as a mill town, the stunningly ordinary restaurant we ate dinner at, and the remodel-in-progress, quaint, old hotel on the south side of Weed’s main street that I evaluated at the elbow of one of its gay proprietors, then turned down as too in-progress to provide a quiet night’s rest, and the decision to drive somewhere else to sleep. Where was that?

Weed. Next three exits. I took the one marked South Weed and drove past the other two from root to branch, but nothing looked the same. The restaurant I wanted to sneer at was invisible to me. The main street was unrecognizable. And there was no old hotel. Chattering maniacally and hooting the theme from Twilight Zone, I turned into a side road about four miles outside of town and unzipped to water a huge oak. On Route 97 the cars had been spaced no more closely than one per minute. On Angel Valley Trail, I expected to stop reliving my now-unsettled memories of Weed as I relieved. No sooner had I begun arcing than a cigarette attached to a man in a blue pickup turned the same road as I.  Surprised and obviously offended by my callous disregard for community standards, the man slowed to shout something that sounded like, “Hay! Juck har me rub fenwardle!” He stood no chance versus my sangfroid. I wavered not a bit. My fly stayed dry. And we drove the border to the less insignificant logging town of Klamath Falls.

In the Klamath River, huge decks of logs clogged half the water.  But why had they been there so long undisturbed that a thickly tall mat of grass grew upon them?

It was getting dark, and both Ann and I were hungry. She, concerned that a nest be assured for the night, suggested we find a motel first, then solicit recommendations for food. I eschewed her clearly unimaginative plan and drove for 15 minutes through every neoned street at night looking for a hungry fix. Two bars (“Good Food”) and a pool hall (“Billiards & Burgers”) later, I grudgingly acceded to her pathetically sarcastic rendition of “Stand By Your Man” and checked into a Quality Inn where we acquired directions and a 20%-off coupon for “the best Eye-talian restaurant in town.” A pair of wrong turns later, we found it closed on this Monday night, but two matrons in the grocery next to it offered enthusiastic suggestions to my query for a “really good restaurant.”

“Sizzler,” nodded one vigorously–a short, square woman who impressed me as borderline in several mental categories.

“I don’t know if the coffee shop out at the golf course is open this late,” worried the other, her hair pulled back in a ponytail so severe her pencil-drawn eyebrows seemed to extend past her earholes.

“I’d like a really nice restaurant,” I repeated softly. “Maybe one with tablecloths.”

Both women paused, the tablecloth concept working through their encyclopedias of Southern Oregonian cuisine.

Ponytail brightened abruptly.  “Shilo Inn has a real nice restaurant…and I think they have tablecloths.”  Those words engendered a spirited dialog that was meaningless to me, but clearly important to the women. It included mention of someone named Greta and her sonuvabitch ex-husband Harv, one tablecloth, and nothing at all about Shilo Inn.

I had seen the fabled Shilo Inn sign near the entrance to town, so I reversed direction. Another pair of wrong turns later I pulled up in front of the poshest highwayside hotel in Klamath Falls. Ann stepped out to examine the menu and the ambiance, but chance offered another source of information. A couple, clearly turistas like ourselves, were exiting from the eatery, she waddling, he with what appeared to be a toothpick of satisfaction mining interdental spaces.  I could not hear what was spoken, but I saw Ann’s question and the couple’s undisguised run-for-your-life response.

We ended up at Applebee’s: pop culture walls and oldies music, and a damn fine plate of steamed veggies.  I consumed a beer as tall as my forearm. Ann had two wine glasses. And we both heard the heart-warming story of how the young manager was waiting for her Swedish psych-nurse husband to arrive in town and how she hoped to be managing the new Applebee’s in Ukiah someday soon.

After submersion in beery sleep, I awakened at 4:30 a.m. to write this and watch the sun come up over clear-cut hills.

On to Crater Lake!

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