Mt. St. Helens, Washington, June 2007
Wikipedia’s Mt. St. Helens Website
US Geological Survey’s Mt. St. Helens Website
US Forest Service’s Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website
Mt. St. Helens VolcanoCam
I was in high school in my sophomore year in San Francisco in May 1980 when I heard on the news about the possible eruption of a volcano in Washington State. Frankly, having never been outside of California at that time, Washington State could have been another country. When the eruption was happening and covered all over the news, I became more aware of the event. After a couple of days, I started to see our sky in Northern California turn to dark from ash from the volcano, and I remember being a lot more aware of the destruction happening north of me.
My first trip to see Mt. St. Helens occurred in June 2000. My oldest brother and his family had moved to Washington near Seattle several years prior, and this was my first drive up there by myself to visit them. On my drive up on Highway 5, I passed by the signs pointing the way toward the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and I promised to myself that I would pay a visit on my drive back.
A few days later, on my way back, I pulled off Highway 5 in Castle Rock, Washington, and went to the visitor center less than a ¼ of a mile down Highway 405. There was a detailed center and knowledgeable staff with a printed timeline following up to, during and after the eruption. There was also an IMAX movie theater where I watched the movie “Eruption….” I became so emotionally involved in this event that I decided to go ahead and make the 52 mile drive further east toward the monument, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
Even after seeing the movie, I still had no idea what to expect. That movie depicted a catastrophic event that had occurred twenty years prior to my visit. Surely, the area was beautiful and replenished, I thought to myself. Boy was I wrong.
Driving along Highway 405, I saw on both sides of me, beautiful valleys, green hills and buildings of all kinds. Where was this place, I kept thinking to myself? How bad could things really have been? As I got closer I did start to see strange signs posted along the side of the road that caught my eye. They had the name of Weyerhaeuser on the top in a green bar, and underneath in black type on a white background there were dates after 1980 that stated when these trees were planted. How strange, I thought to myself. Why had these trees been replanted? Then at about at the 49th mile I drove past a sign that said “Entering Blast Zone” in the same style and color as the signs I had seen previously. Everything started to change quickly.
At first, I started to see tiny, little trees that were newly planted. As I got closer, there were no trees at all. Just shrubs and they got smaller and smaller as I got closer to the mountain. I also saw more and more and more of dead, burned out logs all facing in the same direction, and eventually, the entire scenery was of no more shrubs and just burned out logs, all facing in the same direction, as if blasted. I remember feeling a quiet and a reverence surrounding me. Having grown up Catholic in San Francisco, it reminded me of the feeling as a small child and entering the church in my parish where I attended school. It was so vast, so quiet, so unlike anything I had ever seen and it demanded devotion whenever you walked in.
I reached a parking lot, and winded my way around to where all the cars were, and there she was. Mt. St. Helens! The sky was crystal blue, and not a cloud could be seen for miles. I got out of my car, and I noticed there were signs that said no pets were allowed outside the vehicles. I was concerned since I had my dogs with me, it was a hot day, and we had just driven an hour in one direction. Even still, I got out of my car and walked to the edge of the parking lot where there was a rock wall about three feet high.
I was staring at something that I had absolutely no comprehension of. I had seen the movie at the visitor center, but what was in front of me did not look like the angry mountain that erupted and destroyed a valley and killing 57 people and destroyed 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highway. What was in front of me and all around me was perfectly still and quiet. Even the other people at the same place as me had the reverence to remain silent and just look. There were no complaining children or chattering tourists. Something also caught my eye. I looked down at my feet, and all around me in 360 degrees for miles and miles, there was not a living plant more than six inches tall. Not a weed, not a plant, not a shrub or a tree. Nothing. I began to really get a feel for what had happened twenty years prior. I remembered all the trees that I had seen lying down alongside the roads, all pointed in one direction. I finally understood that I had seen them in their final resting places after being ripped from the earth where they had stood for perhaps decades or longer, scorched from the blast of the volcano and thrown far away from where they used to stand.
One piece of information that I had remembered from the movie at the visitor center was that Mt. St. Helens was still considered an active stratovolcano and that another cone has started to form in the middle. From my distance, and due to the snow inside the mouth, I could just barely see the shape of the new cone. It was frightening to see and imagine this event occurring once again in the future, as it has done several times in the past. I really started to feel very lucky to have been able to witness such an incredible site. I drove back down Highway 405 and back to Northern California, vowing to visit Mt. St. Helens again.
Fast forward to June 2007. My nephew was now 18 years, the oldest grandchild out of eight and graduating from high school in Bellevue, Washington. I decided to make the drive with my two dogs to see the graduation, and once again visit Mt. St. Helens on my way back.
Truthfully, I did start to question why I should see the mountain again. Why make the hour long trip down Highway 405? How much could a mountain have changed in seven years? I had to be back at work in two days, and I still had a long drive down to Oregon to stay for the night. I had made the trip in a Toyota truck with over 190,000 miles, and I each time I get into it I think: “How much longer will this truck last, and will I get stranded somewhere deserted where my cell phone doesn’t work?” All this was running through my head as I filled up my truck with gas in Castle Rock, just off Highway 5. My truck does not have any kind of CD or tape player, just an AM/FM radio. I wasn’t getting any kind of radio reception where I was, so I just turned off the radio, and opened the window a bit because it was starting to rain. The sky was overcast with a lot of thick, grey clouds. I was hoping that by the time I got out to the mountain, the sky would be clear, so I could see her again in all of her glory and splendor, just like before. And just like the photo I had taken that I had posted on my refrigerator and looked at every day since 2000. I wanted to have the same mind boggling experience. Boy was I in for an experience.
Unlike before, I was now driving with a purpose to get to the mountain. I was unable to see much around me due to the heavy fog and light rain. I did see one sign that did catch my eye surprisingly as I drove 40 mph along this empty, single lane, twisty, turny road. It was a white wooden sign about two feet square with a house address on it. And the street name was “Spirit Lake Highway.” That was the name of the highway that Highway 405 used to be called prior to the eruption. It has since been changed to “Spirit Lake Memorial Highway” in honor of the lake at the base of Mt. St. Helens. I started to feel like I was being taken into another realm of existence.
Due to the weather, there were few people on the road. I still kept hoping that the sky would clear and the sun would come out, but that hope was fading by the mile as it continued to rain.
Unlike the first trip, where I did not feel I sort of unearth like experience until I entered the blast zone, I started to feel this almost thirty miles from the mountain. As I drove through the valley I started to feel a cold quiet, and a sort of sorrow and grieving all around me. It was very strange, and I questioned myself, but the feeling was unmistakable. It was not happy, but sad and grieving. I still did see the signs stating the date when trees had been replanted, and there were new ones since 2000. As I got closer, I saw the “Entering the Blast Zone” sign. However, what followed the sign was different that the first time. There was more growth, and the trees were higher and more plentiful, and I did not see all the dead, burned out logs, but I still felt a sense of sadness. It did not make sense. How could there be sadness among all this new growth?
My sites were fixed on getting to the lookout point, but my hopes were dim about seeing her again because the rain and fog were getting heavier. When I finally got the same point I had been before I noticed something I had not seen prior. There was a visitor’s center now at this point. I could not take my camera out due to the rain. I decided to continue to drive further up the road toward Johnston Ridge Observatory. I questioned myself why I was doing this because the rain was very heavy, it was getting late in the afternoon, I had no hopes of seeing Mt. St. Helens, and if my car broke down, there was nobody around who might be able to help. But something was pushing me to keep going and to go past the point I had been at before. So I kept driving.
I drove several more miles and came upon a vista point called Loowit Point. For some reason I decided to stop. It was pouring rain. I left my camera in the car and walked out toward the vista point. I got as close to the edge of the short brick wall and stopped. There was a steep drop down to the valley floor. The sign in front of me said Mt. St. Helens was directly in front of me with a line drawing showing what it would look like without all the fog and rain. I stood there and listened. The direction of the rain was coming from behind me and blowing toward my back so I could see the rain go past me and down into the valley.
Unlike my drive up to Mt. St. Helens, I was not feeling sadness and grief around me. Instead, as I looked out onto the valley, I felt immense power, rebuilding and something asking for respect and recognition. (I don’t like the word “monument” to describe an active volcano. To me, monument means something that is an object that does not move. Mt. St. Helens is neither. I believe it should be respected as something quite alive and potentially dangerous. Maybe those 57 people who died in the eruption would still be alive if they realized this.)
I wished so much to see Mt. St. Helens. I said I had driven all this way and that I wanted to see her again. I could hear only the wind blowing around me. I had on a hooded rain parka and a hooded sweatshirt under the parka. I did something I had never done before. In the hard driving rain, I took off my parka hood and I took off my sweatshirt hood and just listened. I turned my head back and forth until I could hear the wind blowing in my right ear like there was a person standing next to me gently blowing in my ear. I stood as still as possible. I did not feel like I was getting wet and I did not feel cold. I kept looking in the direction of where I knew Mt. St. Helens was and said that I wanted to see her. After several minutes I saw the clouds start to briefly clear from the top of the mountain as they were blowing by. I thought I saw the side of the mountain because I could see snow, and I thought I could see the edge of the mouth and a bit inside. I was astounded. I could not believe what was happening. I kept hoping for more, but eventually the full cloud coverage came back, and the view was gone. I became aware of myself again, and I began to hear the sounds of a car engine behind me. What must these people be thinking? Another nut from California! I said “Thank You” to the mountain, and I walked back to my car, putting both my hoods back on. Though I was soaked though the jacket and into the sweatshirt and down my back, I did not feel wet or cold. I felt refreshed and exhilarated.
I drove back the hour long drove back to Highway 5, noticing a couple more highway signs that said “Spirit Lake Highway.”