Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Passing through Northern California

Driving through vast mountain forests in the deepening haze of a wildfire's smoke plume for two hours, then out under clear skies. Not long after that transition, another hour spent driving through a second vast bank of mixed white and brown.

It's a sweeping landscape, and when it burns, it burns big.

Mild haze and Mt. Lassen, the southern anchor of the Cascade volcanoes, which sits amidst a sprawling complex of smaller volcanoes and vents.  

The fires did make for a spectacular sunset 

The drive from Portland to Reno is an epic one. First there's the rich agricultural splendor of the Willamette valley, with various towering forested buttes erupting from the valley floor alongside the freeway as the high ridges of the Cascades and Coastal Mountain Ranges narrow in and then converge at Eugene. After that it's low rolling mountains and narrow canyons populated by predominantly by Douglas firs and hemlock.

The farther south the road travels, the fewer firs there are, and gradually the undergrowth of ferns hands off to dry grasses. Across the border into California the first tumbleweeds drift across the freeway as 14,000 ft, twin-peaked juggernaut of Mt. Shasta looms over the world.

 Image courtesy of the USGS, public domain 

In the upland forests south of the mountain between the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas, Ponderosas, lodgepoles, and other scaly armored pines make up the forest, while red and gnarled Manzanita bushes with waxy green leaves dominate its floor. These in turn grow scarcer as another hour passes, and give way to sagebrush and cresote. The road wanders east away from wetter windward side of the mountains into their lee, and even the trees thin out into islands amid large highland meadows, until finally the highway lowers you down into the purple desert twilight of evening above Susanville, California.

Not far away, barren mauve mountains of stone and cheatgrass stretch away into the spartan desolation of the Great Basin, growing ever drier and more elegant since the end of the last ice age.

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