Northeast California

Northeast California
It's 6:00 a.m. when I awaken in my room at the River Inn in Redding, California, the sun streaking through a gap in the drapes. It's early summer and the city is sleeping off the pyrotechnic display and festivities of last night's Fourth of July celebration. But I am clear-headed and ready to address the morning. Redding, situated at the top of the Sacramento Valley, is the perfect gateway to the high country of Northern California, and to a ride that promises to be all the more diverse and mesmerizing due to the dramatic changes in altitude and the vistas offered by the regal Cascade Range.

Day 1: Got trees?

I'm pleased to find that the Sundial Grill opens at the stroke of seven as advertised. Breakfasting with fellow travelers, Doug and Jim, we discuss our route for the day, which will take us east on US 299 to Adin, south on 139 to Susanville, and then northwest on 44 and 89 to Mt. Shasta.

Though stifling in the city as early as 8:00 a.m., the air is crisp and cool when we climb into the forests. US 299 as far as Burney is a forgettable slog spent dodging semi-trailers and logging trucks, but soon the trees open out on to the high plateau  -  or rather, the trees have been clear-cut, and the spare, weedy-looking saplings bear a faint semblance of the forest that would have been. As we're climbing toward a further ridge, the perfect white cone of Mount Lassen appears on the horizon.

On the southern route for Susanville, the high plateau displays its varied nature. At first, flat, fertile farmland spreads out on both sides, all honey-gold and toasty brown under the intense sunlight of a cloudless sky. Then the terrain starts to undulate, twisting the road as we roll into the Modoc National Forest (less a forest than rolling prairie with clumps of scrub bushes and a few stands of stunted trees interspersed). Eagle Lake looks like a ragged-edged blue mirror left on the plateau, and 139 clings to the shoreline in a series of fast turns. We ride down into Susanville, the road swinging down the canyon's side in a series of glorious sweepers.

Highway 139 clings to Eagle Lake's shoreline.

Unexpectedly urbane, Susanville appears to be a haven for leftover hippies, fostering a lazy pace, artsy stores and murals. We stop for a cappuccino at Java Jitters, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop where a toddler sprawls sound asleep across the only armchair. I had planned for us to ride through Lassen National Park in two days' time, but the café owner informs us that 89 is still closed due to snow pack.

We make a route change and decide to get as close as we can to the road closure from the east side on 44. Climbing out of Susanville, 44 weaves through dense forest, and we whiz past the log-laden trucks lumbering back to the plateau in Lassen National Forest before turning onto 89. The 25 miles of shady tarmac wind under tall trees to the park gates, with tantalizing glimpses of Lassen's snowy summit peeking between the boughs. Inside the park, we ride higher toward the tree line. It's eerie being so close to Lassen's piebald slopes, so still and serene, and yet so commanding. At 6,500 ft, the road is emphatically closed, though a motorcycle could maybe just squeeze by the barrier…

Back to Burney on 44, the roads slice straight through dense forest. Under the dappled light shifting through the dense evergreens, 44 aims straight for Shasta, its creamy cone floating on the horizon until, eventually, it becomes the horizon. At over 14,000 ft, it's the dominant feature on the skyline for a hundred miles in any direction unless obscured by trees. In the city of Shasta, it lords it over every street, looming above every building, as though poised to crush the whole town.

Once you're out of the trees, Shasta's peak is omnipresent.

We arrive at the cute and charming Dream Inn B&B which our hostess, Lonna Smith, has turned into a time capsule filled with ephemera of all kinds: vintage furniture, colored-glass bottles, trinkets, wall art, drapes, quilts and almost every conceivable collectible. Lonna is a packrat of the first order, but everything is neatly and tidily arranged. The overall effect is busy but endlessly fascinating.

Day 2: Weed, indeed!

Our first ride takes us the ten miles up Shasta's main access road to the ski-lift parking lot. This close, Shasta's bulk overpowers and seems to radiate a spiritual presence. The ride back down is a delight, although numerous large patches of fine, dark gravel could precipitate unscheduled off-road excursions for unwary travelers who stray upon them.