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Greetings, Earthlings

41 degrees N 122 degrees W

October 15, 2006|Sarah Malarkey | Sarah Malarkey is an executive editor at Chronicle Books.

DESTINATION: Upstate California

TOWN: Mount Shasta

ELEVATION: 3,606 feet




NEAREST AIRPORTS: Redding, Sacramento

TEMPERATURE SWING: 26° (winter low) to 83° (summer high)


No girl should meet potential in-laws on rented Randonnee skis, under a 40-pound backpack she sheds only to tinkle girl-style as snow blows you-know-where at 50 mph. No girl should witness a lover's runny nose slowly form frozen booger stalactites. In short, no girl coming off a naughty streak--one spent, among other things, shooting pool in bars in the middle of the day--should try to climb Mt. Shasta for the first time in the dead of winter. That is, unless she is hellbent on proving herself to a new boyfriend, his father and his brother.

Mt. Shasta rises out of nowhere and dominates the landscape, as if California had to get in one last triumphant jab before giving over to Oregon. Most people drive the distance of Interstate 5 to engage in the regular good-life stuff, fishing and hiking in the forests or sipping soy lattes served by hot hippie waifs and shopping for crystals in Mount Shasta City. The more adventurous metaphysical travelers might rent an hour in the time machine that I once saw advertised on a community message board. Even by Southern California standards, Shasta is strange. It is even more so if you know what locals know: On an otherwise beautiful day, an unlikely cloud will often coalesce around the dormant volcano's summit. The cloud is impenetrable and shaped . . . well, it's shaped like a saucer.

I spent my first night on Mt. Shasta endlessly heating snow for water and, in fear of frozen snot, compulsively wiping my nose. When I was first out of the tent the next morning, my eyes popped. The sky held the clear deep blue of predawn. Our tents looked like magic mushrooms that had erupted overnight in the fresh snow. Far below, where the snowline ended, the dark earth rolled out like a secret until it hit pink on the horizon. At 10,000 feet, the sun felt close enough to touch.

My boyfriend, Jonathan, emerged from the tent and stretched lustily, his hair a riot of spikes. He surveyed the view, then looked at me with twinkling eyes and a raised brow that said, "See, honey?" I had to laugh.

By the time the sun fully rose, we had climbed partway up the thin Casaval Ridge, methodically putting one foot in front of the other. No packs or skis now, just water, snacks and ice axes. The new snow had hardened just enough to accept each footstep with a pleasant crunch, and we were making good time.

The aliens came around 10 a.m. Wisps of cloud collected around the peak, and soon the saucer appeared. We punched our heads through its bow and entered an otherworldly micro-climate. The temperature plummeted and the wind drilled ice into our ruddy cheeks. I was mentally flipping through the playlist for my funeral when a party of climbers materialized out of the gusting snow. They were on their way down.

"Did you summit?"

"There is no summit. Just a total whiteout with winds at 100 mph."

They scurried past. We stared fiercely toward the sky, squared our shoulders and, after about five minutes of noble posturing, turned tail.

On a June afternoon two years later, Jonathan would stand in roughly the same spot, blindfolded by another dense cloud, arguing with his eight groomsmen-to-be about the way down. One route led to base camp and the other to a precipice. Which was which? How badly did he want to get out of marrying me? He came home two days before our wedding, reeking of testosterone and mischief, trying to play down the whole incident.

"A whiteout? Honey, how terrible," I said. "At least there wasn't lightning."

"Um, actually, there was lightning. . . . It was a lightning storm."

"A lightning storm? At least you didn't have ice axes and crampons."

"Uh, no, but we had a lot of metal. We were just lucky."

Is it OK to kill someone for almost letting himself get killed? I considered this koan while physically restraining myself. But on our wedding day, as my new husband smiled at me with a profound yes, I understood. Most men get dragged to the altar, even if it's what they truly want. Mt. Shasta had given Jonathan the pure nitrous hit of freedom he needed before shouldering the yoke. So now, every time he gets that wicked gleam, I sigh and nod. Off he goes like a rabbit up the 5--to the land of alien encounters and scrapes with death. To a blood-warming adventure without the $50,000 price tag or the oxygen tanks. Now at least I know that the aliens are benign.

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