The Lost Coast and the Ghost Choir of Mount Shasta

My one unexplained “paranormal” encounter happened on a trip to the so-called Lost Coast of Northern California. I camped there the summer of 1994 with my girlfriend Mary, in one of our relationship’s great death spasms. Near the end of this expedition, I heard the singing of a ghostly choir in the woods around Mount Shasta. It was singing Mary said she couldn’t hear.

This vacation was important to us. Austin transplants, we’d been cooped up at retail jobs in the Berkeley-Oakland sprawl for a year. We hadn’t explored the wilds of California like it really deserved. So when she caught wind of the Lost Coast, we arranged a matching week off to go find it.

We drove north from the Bay Area in her white Chrysler minivan. We were listening to a mixtape of J.J. Cale, perfect road music with his driving early drum machine sound: “They call me the breeze, I keep blowing down the road.” We also had some Jerry Garcia Band, which we’d been seeing at the Warfield during its unofficial residency. And, we were still coming to terms with Kurt Cobain’s suicide a couple months prior, three days before my 25th birthday. His widow’s album Live Through This was released within days and we were listening to that too. We couldn’t believe she recorded the line “Someday you will ache like I ache” months before he died. Now that line screamed across the radio like live anguish. So those were the vibes.

The Lost Coast should be a straightforward drive north on Route 101, the coastal highway. But 101 heads inland for a while, going around the area like it’s trying to avoid it. They basically forgot to log it all, forgot to build cities and highways there. And once they thought of it, it was too rugged to bother. We cut over to Briceland Road, which turned to dirt when it reached this “lost” stretch of extravagantly raw Pacific coast. Our road map led us as far as Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, then we hand-copied a map from signage to find our campsite at the end of the road: Bear Harbor, a black sand beach in the middle of nowhere.

Jagged rocks jutted offshore. The ocean was too cold to swim but we waded and smelled the salt spray and poked dead things. We shook off the stress of the road, and the blues of the big city. Antlers lay around in the brush. Up in the tree line where we slept, a herd of elk grazed to the edge of our tent. We found the Lost Coast.

And we had more exploring to do. So after a couple days we re-lost it, somehow found Route 101 again. We drove north to Arcata, a bayside town with a lively square of college students and acoustic guitars. We went to a sauna and I put Arcata on a short list of places I imagined moving to. It was small and cute on the edge of the forest of giants. We hiked the redwoods among profusions of Jurassic ferns like a Stegosaurus could pop out any minute. Slept in a hostel.

Next day we drove Route 299 through national forest after national forest, where you could spit and hit the Oregon border. Turned south on Highway 5 and passed through Weed, snickering at the name. Shopped at a natural food store there, then grabbed lunch at a greasy spoon, indicative of Northern California’s central contradiction: hippies vs. rednecks. Decades later, those rednecks’ feral children are Q-Anon glibertarians and they’ve overrun the place.

Mount Shasta

We got to Mount Shasta, renowned for its lore of UFOs, ghosts, and New Age spirituality. We were so hyped to see a UFO, steeped as we were in Terence McKenna’s psychedelic Millenarianism. We just knew we were going to see one. I’d hoped to have a night view of Mount Shasta so I could watch for rumored weird glows. But we were camping at a hot springs resort off in the woods, and the tree cover obscured the mountain. We could feel it out there though, one of the planet’s acupuncture points or so it was said, a locus of invisible meridians.

Our private campsite sat next to a rocky stream. On the opposite bank stood a steep wooded hill, a natural border holding the stream in a straight line for a mile or so. We walked up and down the banks, but we’d have to be mountain goats to climb that hill, practically a wall.

The hot springs area was down a dirt road from our campsite. A long main building had curtained-off stalls with individual tubs for soaking in. Mary and I got adjacent tubs and kept the curtain open between us. Someone a few tubs away started loudly meditating, chanting a deep resonant mantra like he was trying to crumble the walls of Jericho: “AAAUUUUMMMMM … AAAUUUUMMMMM … AAAUUUUMMMMM …” Mary and I exchanged smiles. The too-loud meditator selfishly split the quiet, giving voice to California’s New Age excesses — which we marinated in, as surely as we marinated in geothermal Mount Shasta mineral hot springs.

We were loving but also cried at our campsite. I didn’t understand why we weren’t working out, so I said the words “It’s over.” I took it back immediately, even though you can’t take back words like that.

Our veganity was at its apex. For camp food we ate burritos of bean flakes topped with a fake cheese sauce of nutritional yeast, wrapped in whole wheat tortillas. Our shits were so clean I didn’t need to wipe my ass the whole trip, the fabled vegan no-wiper. We shat in the woods with the bears, reverently burying our perfect turds.

Our patch of night sky was cloudless, full of stars and meteors. We stared intently into the void for aliens. Seeing a weird light, we hopped up and down — then realized it was just a satellite. We salved our disappointment by reframing it as a small psychic victory: we’d known we were going to see something, and we did. Something that was nothing. But we saw it.

The Ghostly Choir

Then a genuinely weird thing happened. While taking a solo walk up the stream the next day, I realized I could hear something like a distant choir. It was very faint, but audible. I was focused on rock-hopping. But the sound kept going, and maybe it had been there the whole time: choral voices competing with the babbling of the brook. It seemed to come from way downstream. I couldn’t make out a tune; it almost sounded like the creepy singing from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ligeti’s micropolyphonic Requiem. What I heard sounded more like it was all women, but with the same “plane of sound” effect. The only explanation was that something like a Gregorian women’s choir was practicing in the area, barely in range, barely there at all.

When I got back to camp I tried to draw Mary’s attention to it. We stood there listening, but she couldn’t hear it. “You can’t hear that?” I asked. I thought she wasn’t listening hard enough. She thought I was pulling her leg and gave me looks. But I heard it until we left the next day. I’ve never heard it since.

Look, I’ll be honest, we were high as kites the whole vacation. After all, this was taking place in California’s Emerald Triangle. We had plenty of chuckles, especially driving through Weed. But I’ve never heard anything like a phantom choir, and I’ve been high my whole adult life. Auditory hallucinations are not part of it.

If anything, I prosaically attribute the experience to something like a local acoustic anomaly. Perhaps the sound of the running water reflected off the steep grade of the opposite hill, producing a standing wave just within my range and just outside of Mary’s? Was the precise volume of my skull in sympathetic vibration with an otherwise silent harmonic? Could a barely audible overtone accidentally sound like ethereal song from Faeryland? Maybe the geology of flexing faults around the mountain plays piezoelectric tricks on perception? Or was it spirit entities, or ascended crystal masters? As we drove away from Shasta, I pondered the ghost madrigals, the chorus of permanently unanswerable questions at the center of our trip.

One Giant Lost Coast

Our moods crashed driving back into gray rainy Bay Area sprawl. The Berkeley hills shrouded themselves in gloom as the highway poured cars in torrents. It was difficult not to feel dread premonitions.

But we kept finding new California hopes. One day we found Martin’s Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay — a step toward Big Sur’s scents of Henry Miller and Kerouac, which we somehow never reached. And of course beyond Big Sur lay L.A., full of functional college friends in the entertainment industry. But Southern California receded further from me each day like a tectonic plate.

Martin’s Beach is crescent-shaped, and it was studded with bathers. Mary and I traversed the length of it on a hunch, walking north past Shark’s Fin rock, to round the tip of the crescent. Our striving paid off: a large cove all to ourselves. It was a steeply banked sand beach pointing us right at the glittering ocean. We squealed as a seal poked its head up in the surf. Mary wore her American flag bikini topless. The sun beat on my closed eyelids as I worked on my tan, and I finally understood sun worship. We could have lived there foraging. We’d found our spot, said we’d go back to it but we never did. Some time ago I looked it up; it was languishing in a years-long public-private dispute. Our beach closed to the public.

When she said it was over, she didn’t take it back. We were in the middle of an extant plan to move to Santa Cruz, which we stuck to. We got separate places up Branciforte Drive, on either side of the Mystery Spot.

Getting over Mary was difficult. White Chrysler minivans were everywhere I looked. It was like the national goddamn van of Santa Cruz or something.

But eventually I met and married a half-Californian, half-Duluthian, a woman like a mermaid unicorn. And in our Santa Cruz heyday, one July 5th, my wife and I went to Davenport Beach from our shack in Bonny Doon. We felt like we’d discovered this pristine expanse of sand some weeks before. Of course it had been a local hangout for 50 years, more like 5000 years. But that July 5th, after pancakes at the Davenport Cafe, we found a giant Independence Day party had smashed bottles up and down the beach. Millions of shards of broken glass mixed into the sand among scorched soggy spent fireworks.

Here we’d had a beach on the coast of Cali that I literally spent my whole life trying to get to with a mermaid unicorn. And these local rednecks ruined it on the birthday of the country. I thought maybe I could come back with sifters and colanders and buckets, help clean it up over time. But it was just so trashed. It would take years to remediate one bad night. Abandoning that beach was either the first time or the last time California broke my heart, I can’t quantify it.

The state is one giant lost coast from top to bottom. If I were to return and attempt to find a trace of it, I would fail as surely as if California had sunk beneath the waves.

An index of Jim Richardson’s essays may be found here.


Helmut Flaag

about 3 months ago

Shasta has plasma pools I've been meaning to make it back to. There's this spot on the top parking lot where stinky hippies trip balls every night. We were going back to our rental car from a short hike there and I accidentally hit the alarm button. I was pretty fast with turning it off, but I could hear thirty trips come momentarily crashing down. Aww man!!! They didn't know what hit them for a half second. Truth is stranger though. You could've tapped into another dimension there for a minute.

Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman)

about 3 months ago

@helmut flaag: One always wants to tap into other dimensions, but is rarely prepared for it when it happens

Helmut Flaag

about 3 months ago

Right now I'd settle out for Cancun. Shit I'd probably take Dallas at this point. I've seen the lights on a spaceship and I can tell you it's a game changer.

Chester Knob

about 3 months ago

Shasta. The stories are real. Here's mine:

1997, a friend and I parked at the top parking lot and started hiking up the wide rock-strewn escarpment. Eventually we reached a narrow spine and continued up and up past alpine ponds, far beyond any trees or really any plant life at all.

We stopped along this spine, maybe 13,500 up, to eat our smoked salmon and crackers. As we sat there, the mountains descending steeply on both sides of us, I was suddenly aware, from my periphery, of a small, ball-shaped, baseball-sized shiny metallic orb with two "antennae" protruding from its "front" flying toward us from below. It made no sound, and showed no apparent propulsion system. 

My friend sat just below me on the spine. The little object came up to us, hovered for a moment in front of us, then quickly accelerated and dropped over the other side of the spine and out of sight.

It was a bright smooth metal ball with two little antenna. That's what it was. 

We both sort of blinked and asked each other if the other had just seen it. We agreed on what we saw.

That evening, as we tried to sleep in our separate tents even higher on the mountain, the ground hummed and vibrated. I could not sleep. In the morning I asked my friend if he heard the deep humming and felt the earth vibrating. He said he had.

Something is happening at Shasta.

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