As I approach Mount Shasta on Highway 89, the thick clouds slide away for a second to show its peak. In the same way that my first response to seeing a black bear is, “What a big Labrador!” my brain initially reaches for the everyday explanation: The “mountaintop” must actually be a cloud. It’s too many degrees above the horizon; it rises too steeply; it doesn’t look the way mountains look.
I crane my neck back like I’m beholding a skyscraper.
“Holy shit,” I say, to the interior of my Kia.
Poet and explorer Joaquin Miller more eloquently said, “Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.”
Shasta measures 14,162-feet tall, which is impressive but not anomalously so. The valley around it, however, lies just 3,600 feet above sea level, meaning the mountain rises more than 10,000 feet in front of your face. It stands alone.
Perhaps because of its strangeness, this dormant volcano has been a sacred site for thousands of years and continues to be so. Today, the town at its base has a population of just 3,300 but has been home to more than 100 different spiritual sects and 29 New Age businesses. But why? What about Shasta strums people’s supernatural strings?
The first recorded beliefs about the mountain come from five Native American tribes—the Shasta, Modoc, Wintu, Atsuwegi, and Klamath—who once inhabited the area. Some people believed all life began on Shasta. Others claimed reptilian creatures built cities in its interior. Others said that the god Skell had lowered himself from heaven to Shasta’s summit to throw molten rocks at the Spirit of the Below-World.
In modern times, people believe that Bigfoot roams Shasta’s slopes. Others say that the 8-foot-tall descendants of the lost city of Atlantis live inside the mountain in a crystal city named Telos. Others claim that UFOs refuel at the peak, or that mountain inhabitants called Yaktavians use sound to manipulate reality. People claim that Shasta is flush with energy vortices; that it sits on a ley line, like Stonehenge; and that it wields a magnetic power, drawing people in and holding them emotionally captive. In Shasta’s woods, the founder of a movement called “I AM,” Guy Ballard, met an “Ascended Master,” a spiritual entity who considered Ballard a trained messenger and spoke through him. According to teachings, the Ascended Masters—who include Jesus himself—used to be regular people but underwent a series of progressively more awesome reincarnations.
But how strange could it be? I wondered, which is how I find myself on a sunrise drive muttering expletives toward its summit.
The parking area at the Panther Meadow trailhead, 7,400 feet up Shasta, has a fair number of Priuses with COEXIST bumper stickers. The side of a bus is painted with, “Tune in and turn on to the LovEvolutionSolution.org.”
A gray-haired man in at least $500 of outdoor clothing leans against his subcompact and watches me adjust my backpack. “She’s hiding today,” he says, throwing his chin toward the fog-wrapped summit.
I say, “She is, isn’t she?” despite my discomfort with gendering inanimate objects.
The tendency to anthropomorphize may, in fact, be at the heart of superstitions about Shasta. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie of Fordham University proposed that human beings tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli—a stick cracking in the woods, for instance—as coming from beings. We are primed by evolution to look out for “agents,” because some lion’s agency might lead it to attack us.
Psychologist Justin Barrett of the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology gave a name to the root of this tendency: Humans, he said, have a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device. At no time is this detection system more engaged than when we encounter uncertain, unfamiliar conditions. When we’re in a place where volcanoes might erupt, where fumaroles blow smoke, and where disc-like lenticular clouds hover over mountaintops—as they do on Shasta—we believe that the mountain (or something on or in it) has intentions, and that they might not be benign. So in strange and potentially dangerous situations, we start seeing things—aliens, Yetis, Yaktavians.
As psychologists Scott Atran of the University of Michigan and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia wrote about the development of religion, agency detection initially developed to help us identify actual predators. But it “inadvertently extends to moving dots on computer screens, voices in the wind, faces in the clouds, and virtually any complex design or uncertain circumstance of unknown origin.” That overreach, they say, is the natural result of a cost-benefit analysis of responding to real or perceived risks in our evolutionary history. Nowadays, if we misidentify a fluttering leaf as a tiny flying saucer, nothing bad happens to us. But if we misidentify a flying saucer as a mere leaf, we could end up fried by a laser blaster.
No flying saucers in sight, I wave goodbye to the old man and head out on the trail. I’m familiar with the feeling of venturing into the wilderness alone. You become hyperaware—of sounds, of where you’re going and where you’ve been, of where you place your limbs. Solo outdoors-ing quickens the senses, reinforces your fragility. Alone in a strange place, even a bird’s unexpected takeoff can jolt like an EpiPen.
The dark green fir trees loom above DayGlo lichen on the stones, all of it soft-focused from the mist. It looks like the mystical fairyland you imagined playing in as a child, if only you had lived on a volcano instead of in the suburbs.
The wet, dark forest soon breaks into a barren moonscape: ground covered with small rocks like broken plates, only the odd clump of grass poking through. To the right, a fortress of red cliffs rises out of the rubble, a single patch of snow still stuck to its walls like someone placed it there. The terrain again changes unnervingly fast: The next corner reveals a field of huge boulders, followed soon by another fir forest. It is all very big, and very quiet, and like an astronaut floating in the cosmos, I have the thought that I can’t possibly be alone in this vast space.
Let’s be clear: I don’t believe in anything weirder than quantum mechanics. I don’t think the Telosians are stalking me. I don’t believe in Telos at all, or that UFOs would deign to refuel in Northern California. But I’m grateful—after I hike back across the forests and the meadows and the moon—for the distinctly human smell of campfire.
When I reach my car, the same old man still stands against his own.
“You done with her already?” he asks.
Not everyone buys the “agency detector” origin of superstition. For one, scientists have only demonstrated that we detect agency in moving objects. And the neural basis of that tendency remains uncertain. Plus, once you realize the flash of action was just a squirrel, you have no reason to believe in Bigfoot. But, most importantly, there’s no evidence to justify the leap from “something just passed through my peripheral vision” to a self-consistent and perpetuated belief in a being, myth, or religion.
Ancient people wanted to explain Shasta’s volcanic outbursts—it has erupted at least eight times in the past 8,000 years and did so most recently in 1786—so they invented flame-throwing gods. It was a reasonable enough explanation before we knew about fault zones, magma, and plate tectonics.
Modern evolutionary psychologists, on the other hand, want to explain superstitions, and they came up with “agency detection.” Maybe they are also myth-makers of a sort. Agency detection could explain why people believe in Bigfoot, but so could another theory. Theories like this have a reputation as “just so” stories: unprovable and unfalsifiable explanations.
A simpler idea, for example, also helps explain Shasta’s enduring mythos. As Shasta’s spiritual reputation spread, people traveled to the mountain specifically seeking that kind of experience. Today, spiritual tourists account for 25 percent of visitors. To satisfy their thirst, companies provide guided vision quests, shamanic awakenings, vortex visits, and crystal collections. Perhaps after the first of these existed, they drew in more spiritual seekers, creating more market for other organizations to pop up and cater to the same crowd, building Shasta’s celestial reputation even higher.
In the town of Mount Shasta, tourists in top-shelf Patagonia outfits (here to summit) mix with long-haired new-age hippies (here to seek). It feels like an authentic mountain town, not overly resorty, with a gas station that sells night crawlers for fishing bait. But across from Andy’s Transmission sits the I AM Reading Room. Walk out the door of Ace Hardware, and you’ll walk through the door of Shasta Rainbow Angels.
Shasta Vortex Adventures, a company that provides spiritual tours, sits in a row of houses on a quiet street. Inside is the founder, Ashalyn, who goes by one name. On her desk rests a stack of copies of her recent book, Adama Discourses—which she wrote in the voice of Adama the Telosian while channeling him. A map on the wall shows the pinned hometowns of her customers, who have come from six of the seven continents. Ashalyn moved to Shasta 27 years ago after she and her psychic friend came on a camping trip and discovered that channeling worked better here than in Oakland. She now uses dowsing rods to find new energy vortices; takes people into the spiritual realm of Telos, where they often find love; and helps customers get in touch with their higher selves, which are connected to them (to all of us, really) by silver cords of light, located just below the belly button. “In my opinion, life is a big huge energy exchange,” she says. “When you go to sacred sites, it’s energy that’s uplifting, supportive.”
Jerry Alden Deal, a filmmaker who lives part-time in Mount Shasta, agrees that Shasta is a sacred site. He disagrees, though, with Ashalyn’s—and most people’s—specifics. Aliens? Atlanteans? Energies? “I don’t know whether people are conning on purpose or whether they really believe it and are trying to help people,” he says. But he does believe the mountain is special, somehow. “I just know that I feel better when I’m here,” he says.
And maybe that’s the truest part of Mount Shasta. It’s so big and so beautiful that it warrants the word “sublime.” There’s something more here than exists other places. If you’re inclined to believe in spirits, you see them as that something more. If you prefer cosmic company, aliens account for the extra emotions. And if you lean science-ward, you simply marvel at what plate tectonics hath wrought, and how good it is.