Mt. Shasta and EHE and Lightning

We are constantly faced with decisions. From small decisions such as whether or not to buy garlic and herb spaghetti sauce versus roasted tomato, to larger decisions such as what colleges to apply to and whether or not we believe in a God.

For me, the decision that I won’t regret is to spend the weekend before Finals of my senior year in college in Mt. Shasta, exploring, swimming, hiking, and attending a fundraiser for my new-found friend JoAnna.

JoAnna (if you’re reading this, I hope you don’t mind me sharing) has EHE, or as it is more commonly known: Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma (just kidding. No one knows it as that. I can’t even pronounce the second word).  According to the website Fight EHE, it’s a rare vascular tumor that arises from the lining of the blood vessels. There’s no proven treatments. JoAnna is on the waitlist for a new liver, a treatment that is risky and expensive.

I didn’t know what to expect before meeting her, but the word ‘brave’ doesn’t do her justice. She is brash without being rude, sharp without being cruel, and energetic despite the tumors in her lungs. I’m not trying to describe her to elicit pity; she neither needs nor wants pity. She just wants what we all want: a life well-lived.

I met her through my good friend/adventuring buddy/jeep owning/person-who-trained-me buddy Kiva. Kiva is from Mt. Shasta (ergo the name that refers to a Native American dwelling) and is quick to smile, slow to anger, and secretly hard of hearing, much like myself. Her mom, Kit, was organizing the event Jammin’ for JoAnna while also being a charter school teacher, planning a graduation, and subtly avoiding having lunch with me.   Kiva had been entrancing me with stories of all the beautiful places around Mt. Shasta, and I have to admit I was smitten.

We drove down Saturday afternoon, after I had made sufficient progress on a video essay my friend and I were working on (oh is this a link to it? How weird. It looks like he put a lot of effort into it). Kiva and I stuffed ourselves into her Jeep that was loaded full of camping gear and gift baskets for the fundraiser, and headed east on 66 than down on 97 to Mt. Shasta. Not only was this the more scenic of the routes, but we were able to do some off-roading and visit a railroad trestle and find some Bansky-esque graffiti that a local had left long ago.

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After nearly getting lost on the wrong side of the tracks, Kiva letting me drive her Jeep sufficiently off-road, we continued our trek into Mt. Shasta. The fundraiser was not until the next day, so we had the night off to explore everything around the area. We drove to Castle Lake, a pristine and clear little lake where the road goes right to it and the trails to Heart Lake depart from. Somewhere on the road near the lake, we passed none other than JoAnna! After some awkward back and forths, we met up with her and her husband Christian. We decided the best course of action would be to return to their home for the time being, since they had an ample supply of firewood. First, we stopped by a shop to buy some camping essentials – beer and sandwiches. After picking up the firewood, we returned to the lake as the sun was setting. Underneath the signs declaring “No Camping” we hiked in a little ways around the lake, and decided on the perfect place to camp. We set up my little Target tent, gathered some firewood, and as the dusk was gathering so were the bugs. We hastened to make a little fire to keep away the gnats and mosquitoes, and soon it was quite dark, beers were opened, and the four of us roasted marshmallows and talked and laughed.

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And then someone had the idea for a moonlight swim. Two of us (who shall remain nameless)(Christian and JoAnna) thought that it was a bad idea, and opted out. The other two of us thought that it would be exhilarating, and that we would regret it if we didn’t. We walked to the lake, dark now, and mysterious yet strangely inviting. We stripped down to our underwear (not that we could see anything it was so dark), and slowly waded into the water. I, being weirdly afraid of dark water (I’ve gone bungee jumping, eaten silkworm, and free climbed. But for some reason, if I can’t see what’s underneath water, that’s when my survival instincts/fear kicks in. But hey, if I haven’t listened to it before, why start now?) would much prefer to jump in and let the water be a shock to my body and mind. Still, our only option was to take one cautious step after another, slowly and coldly submerging myself. First my ankles, then calves, then knees, then thighs, then nether regions (and I probably let out a small yelp here as I tend to do – something sounding like a muffled “Meep!”), then my stomach, then chest, and then Kiva and I were up to our heads in the cold lake water. This is where we had to be quick. We counted backwards from 3, and then suddenly dunked under the water and into the enveloping darkness. It lasted only a second, yet this was one of those moments where the second lasts a lifetime and you forget about the petty problems that plague us or the joy of winning a  game and for that second you purely and simply exist, a feeling truly like no other. Then it passes. And you look at each other and laugh because who goes swimming in the middle of the night in their skivvies? And then you race back to the shore to be wrapped up not in water but in the warm cotton of a dry towel.

We made our way back to the campsite, probably changed into dry clothes, and huddled once again around the fire. Somehow, I’m not quite sure when, we heard the song Circle of Life being sung from the campsite over. This invariably led to a kind of call and response, where we joined in from our campsite then we would start a new song and the strangers would join in and then visa versa. We laughed and cheered each other on, forgetting lines and making up a few along the way. After the singing died down, and Christian and JoAnna headed out for the night, our camp neighbors came over, and we could see clearly who these Disney-singing people were. In the firelight, I could make out a “Bernie” hat on the male, who also sported an impressive beard and Sierra Nevada sweatshirt. His companion was a female, who we learned was the mother of his children, with dark hair and dark eyes. They were quick to laugh and we shared our beers with them (they revealed the largest impetus for them to join us was, in fact, their depletion of their beer supplies) and we shared our stories with each other. They told us about their kids, we discussed the two Democratic candidates, climbing, and camping. After our vision got a little blurry, maybe the beer, maybe the dwindling firelight, who knows? we decided to call it a night.

At some point during the night, we heard a terrible crash that we would come to find out was the crash of thunder as lightning pierced the night sky like the dagger of Brutus.

The next morning, Kiva and I went on a mini adventure to a small canyon, and after  met JoAnna and Christian for breakfast burritos at 7 Sons in Mt. Shasta, and may or may not have done the hike to Mossbrae Falls. The way to get there may or may not be legal, and it may have to do with walking along a working railroad track for a few miles along the winds  of the Sacramento River whilst listening actively for trains, and a hiker may have to cut off just before a bridge down to the river. I wouldn’t know.

From what I’ve heard, the you come to a long, horizontal waterfall where the waterfall slides down a mossy ledge before making its descent into the teal and meandering and bitter cold water. Of course, two of us might have swam in, after a girl in a green dress did it first and her boyfriend opted out of it. We swam the 12 or so feet across, touched the fern-laden rock on the other side, and quickly departed the water. There was a large and obtrusive and slick rock that was the perfect place for us to perfect our lizard impressions – sprawled out soaking up as much sun as we could.

The Night of the Event 

JoAnna, who was not meant to be present for her own fundraiser, felt a natural amount of apprehension. She is courageous yet humble by nature, and the idea of accepting money is foreign to her mother, but she isn’t completely comfortable with it either – would you? Still, Kiva’s mother did an incredible job organizing not one but two live bands, a buffet taco bar, assembling nearly 30 gift baskets comprised entirely of donated goods, as well as a desert raffle. Kiva and I were the volunteer labor, making bidding paddles, organizing table layouts, and generally doing anything we could to keep everyone sane.

For some reason I anticipated a small smattering of family and friends, but the unruly and supportive crowd that gathered in the meeting room of the Mt. Shasta Resort was nothing short of extraordinary. It was, of course, friends and family members, but also community members, cancer survivors, a few groupees, and resort patrons. Everyone ate their fill, got to bid on the many baskets that ranged from Ski Passes to pre-chopped firewood to a dinner date package. Our friend Chenelle bid on a fruit pie and it got up to something around $150, when she deferred to the other bidder, who graciously gifted it to her after winning it.

As the night came to a close, the area was struck with the most powerful thunderstorm. Rain poured from the sky, brilliantly bright zigzagged streaks blinded us momentarily, and the earth shook from thunder. Hail pelted the ground as Kiva and I made our escape (we had to be back to our responsibilities, don’t you know? I had an 8 am final the next morning). We drove off, our visibility at times limited to two or three meters through the sheets of precipitation, and the car shaking with the sounds of the storm over our 80’s music jams. We drove northward, with the storms slowing and finally nothing more than bright slashes in the rear view mirror. The sky grew still, and soon opened up to the blanket of stars we had grown so familiar with. Behind us, the fundraiser, winding down, with the community members dancing and singing the New Orleans zydeco that JoAnna’s mother grew up around, and ahead of us was the regularity of our work schedules and school. Behind us, the loving financial support of the community for one of their own, ahead of us the sleepy and artistic community we now called home. Behind us, the powerful and beautiful storm, ahead of us the calm and serene peace of the known. Behind us – JoAnna, her husband, her mother, her father, her cancer, and the rest of her life. We weren’t leaving her, we were just leaving the space she was in now. She knows that we hold onto her in our hearts, and that we’re not writing her off as some pity case, she lives recklessly and lost, just like any other human being. Why live unless you can jump in mountain lakes in the middle of the night, meet strangers over Disney songs and debate the merits of different candidates, and go to fundraisers and laugh and dance and cry.We’re all just figuring out how to live, I suppose. I can’t wait for all of our future adventures together.

Until next time, never stop exploring.

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