Note: This has been on the back burner for a while. Better late than never?
We’re at least three hours behind the big Shasta pack. It took a long time to bleed the brakes on Cory’s panel – when his brake pedal hit the floor it probably forced most of his brake fluid straight out the rip in the bad wheel cylinder. This would’ve left him with absolutely no brake response at all. Terrifying.
All three team Deaf Volks Busses have decided to stay behind to further asses their post break-down options. Two things brought down their grey camper, a dead throw-out bearing (which would’ve been OK by itself, I gave them my spare) and a disintegrated clutch fork. The clutch fork killed them. None of the four other Busses on the ridge had an extra and the big Shasta pack was out of CB range by the time the utensil came out in three mangled pieces.
This leaves Cory, in his panel, and me, in my beloved Isabella. Neither of us have any clue what the official SST route is this year nor do we have any way to ask for directions. But there’s no turning back. No way. Each and every Shasta participant signed on for one thing, adventure. Adventure fraternizes not with the prudish forms of strict schedule and meticulous plan but with the lustfy figures of chance and serious risk.
Cory and I encounter a three-way intersection about a mile down hill from Clutch Fork Ridge (officially named thus at this very moment) and we dismount to examine the tracks. Shit. Nearly every muddy road in the area is covered in tracks. There’s no way to be certain which path the big pack took, we’ve got no cell reception and it’s unlikely anyone in the pack does either. Our only option is to try the roads that feel right. My intuition isn’t 100% at this point because, as the day rises and the invigorating mountain air mixes with the distinct funk of old VWs, just about any road feels right. Trial and error has got to pan out every now and then, right? We select a rough, muddy route twisting down into a pastoral valley glowing supernaturally green in the new morning sun.
“This can’t be it,” I say over the CB. Cory and I are stopped at another three point intersection where the beat-to-hell dirt road we came from intersects with a beat-to-hell paved road.
“Are you sure,” Cory’s voice enquires from my CB speaker.
“I’m 99.99 percent sure this is the way that I drove in last night.”
We’re parked next to a sign that says the town of Williams is 12 miles to the east. It doesn’t seem likely to me that the pack took this route. I mean, it’s paved. But I’m a Shasta newbie, what do I know? Cory pulls a wrinkled triple-A map of Northern California out of his Bus. Even if we do follow the correct route we’re too far behind to catch up to the pack. He suggests we head back the way we came, follow Bartlett Springs Road west, catch the 101 and head north towards Willits where we’ll stop by the local VW guru’s place to check for broken down SST goers. If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll find a few nice dirt roads to follow back into the mountains where maybe we’ll run into a Bus or thirty, if we’re lucky.
I follow Cory closely as Bartlett Springs Road climbs up into the morning fog. It’s a dance of 2nd gear downshifts, hopping rear wheels and quick, smooth steering input. We zoom past downed trees, large rocks and sheer drops. We sail over chuckholes, splash through water crossings and kick up mud around the corners in vain attempts to get these ancient death traps sideways. There’re no guardrails, lane markers or, thank god, other drivers on this route. A few cabins peek out from behind the fir trees near the top. As the road turns downward, the tree line thins out. I see a very large, very blue lake out my driver’s side window. There’s a small town cuddled up to it and a shiny, grey two-lane carries comparatively heavy traffic through the middle. Only a few more switchbacks to the 101.
All I hear is the erratic beat of mud flinging into my wheel-wells now that we’re back on pavement. I tell Cory over the CB that I need to refuel. We pull into an unnamed, locally owned gas station – a rare piece of Americana all but extinct in a modern world in which the warm familiarity of corporate branding evokes feelings of home.
It’s the unfortunate truth, ye faithful. Giant, fluorescent “Shell” or “McDonald’s” signs are today’s lighthouses, holy beacons guiding interstate travelers away from the potential horrors of cultural diversity and new experience. “Sure, the tacos at Raphael’s Taquiria might be delicious, Rachel, but they could give me all manner of diarrhea,” Toyota Driver X says. “If we go to Taco Bell™ I know exactly what the tacos will taste like and exactly what kind of diarrhea to expect. Now, can we please turn the radio back up? I wanna hear some Nickleback!”
It’s an easy drive at 55 heading north on the 101 to Willits, where certified VW swami, Christopher Moore keeps an ever changing collection of VW’s on his property. I follow Cory through town and into the gravel driveway of a rustic two-story farmhouse behind which sits a barn or two full of Germanic automotive paraphernalia. No Shasta Busses. Christopher, a short, later middle-aged man in bluejeans and a grey sweatshirt greats Cory with a smile and a handshake, I introduce myself with the same while my eyes pour over the two dead split Busses sitting just off the side of his driveway. They’re begging me to buy them.
Cory pulls out his mangled AAA Northern California map and consults Christopher on possible back roads routes to Mt. Shasta city. We’re hoping to traverse the treacherous, beautiful Mendocino pass. But it’s not to be. Christopher says the pass is closed; snow accumulation is just too damn high. We decide, unhappily, that our best bet is to take the 101 back the way we came and follow it south until we run into Bear Valley Road. At least it’s dirt.
There’s a barricade in the middle of Bear Valley Road that reads “Road Closed.”
“What’dya think,” Cory asks.
“How bad could it be,” I reply. “I mean, I ignored a road closed sign to get to camp last night. I say let’s go for it.”
Cory skirts his Bus around the barricade and I follow. The deeper into the road we get the better it feels – the rushed pavement world of the 101 moves further and further away as we sail over chuck holes, scoot around low traction corners and splash across drainages.
“Oh man, this is more like,” I exclaim with a smile.
“Yeah, this is much better,” Cory says. He’s picking up speed for a ten foot section of thick, wet mud. I watch the red panel swing its ass left then right, mud shooting off its huge off-road tires — like the car is trying to decide just which tree it wants to slam into. It looks like fun. I downshift to third, feed the throttle and punch it in the muck.
“Whooooo-eee!” I let out a Dukes of Hazzard scream as the Bus slides back and forth at speed like a proud bull trying to ditch its rider. The tires catch the dry dirt on the other side, the suspension compresses hard to the left for one sickening moment and I’m back to relatively normal dirt road driving conditions.
“That was fun,” I say as Cory begins to slow down. Free-range cattle. Right in the middle of the road. Cory’s horn is working hard. We’re pushing the cattle straight down the road. The lazy bastards don’t like the very lightly sloped hills on either side of the road. They walk slowly and seem to forget we’re even there until Cory blasts his horn again. They look back over their cow shoulders, their eyes widen in cow horror and they pick their cow legs up to a trot.
“Shasta Cattle Drive 2010,” I say over the CB.
“This is bullshit,” Cory replies unaware of his ironic choice of words, “get out of the way!”
Finally the cattle retreat up the hill on the right side of the road – a hill that looks far steeper than the ones they just weren’t comfortable with back a few hundred feet. We accelerate back to a speed just on the verge of “too fast for conditions,” the landscape opens up, the sky grows and the desire to catch the big pack slowly recedes. Sure, it’d be awesome to follow that giant group of Busses down all those questionable roads but at this moment things are feeling great. The dirt, the scenery and the fact that these two old VWs are certainly the only vehicles on this closed, middle of nowhere road combines to create a damn good time.
“What the hell does this guy want,” I ask over the CB.
“I dunno,” Cory says as the driver of a big, red Ford F350 extended cab on the other side of the road pulls his arm out the window, presumably signaling he wants to talk to us. He slows the giant truck to a stop and we do the same.
The area that the Shasta Snow Trip runs through is sporadically dotted with ranches. It’s not hard to imagine that some of these folks aren’t too keen on hosting a kind of deranged hippie Le Mans on the roads they drive every day. I’ve got a feeling Cory and I are in for some kind of mild confrontation.
“Hey, you know, my wife has wanted one of these for a long time,” the intimidating looking rancher says with a half smile, ”I saw you guys coming down the road and I thought, ‘these look like just the guys to ask about it.’”
I give the rancher the Bus run-down and explain that if his wife wants a split-window Bus rather than a later bay-window model he should be ready for some laugh out loud ridiculous prices. We give him the scoop on finding the good deals and head further down the road – which just so happens to be the road I was so sure the pack didn’t take earlier that morning.
“Man, I thought he was going to tell us to slow down or something,” Cory says.
“Yeah, me too. He’ll never get a Bus.”
It’s around 9:30 at night when the red ’60 panel and the blue and white ’65 Riviera camper pull into the parking lot of Mt. Shasta city’s Cold Creek Inn. And there they are, the ghosts we’ve been chasing all day – through creek crossings, over rocky crests and around road barricades. Every space in the parking lot is held by a Bus, except for one in which a maroon Toyota Prius cowers in total disbelief and temporary suspension of overzealous self-righteousness.
It feels good to get out of the driver’s seat for a reason other than checking a map. Cory and I routed essentially a zig-zag of back roads on either side of I-5. Anything that the AAA map said was dirt we investigated. Unfortunately, the map proved itself untrustworthy or at the very least woefully outdated. More often than not the roads shown as dirt were anything but. Well, at least we stayed off the interstate longer than those in the big pack. Cory heard from Hippie Tim at around the halfway point of our odyssey that the pack got on I-5 near Redding and rode all the way up to Mt. Shasta city, a distance of some 60 miles. We were only on I-5 for about 20 miles. Small victories.
After dinner and some beers with more new VW friends I stumble to my Bus, convert it from car to cabin and crash happy with the realization that there’s no set waking time tomorrow morning.