I mean, I kept saying “Oh, my God” (and stronger phrases) as I drove towards the mountain Sunday, and I’ve been there three times before. Can you say “magnificent desolation”? I knew you could!
It’s a two-hour commitment, just the round-trip between I-5 and the nearest viewpoint to this active volcano, and I got a late start getting out of Olympia Sunday. I had had dreams like something out of an Austin Powers film, and when I woke up about 6:30 to use the bathroom, I was tired enough to fall asleep again, and that’s rare for me. Sun on my face awoke me at 10:30. Six Walshes (my parents, two aunts and two uncles) were all eating breakfast when I emerged. They teased me for how ragged I looked. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m a sore sight for eyes.” (I’ve wanted to say that for years.) They found me a place at the table and dumped bacon and homemade pancakes in front of me, and for that I thank them. Having the strength to go on, we all visited for a while, then I got presentable, and then I headed south.
The drive takes you through zones: standard gorgeous Northwest scenery, then a transitional land where the ruin that is Mt. St. Helens looms above undamaged trees that were beyond the 1980 blast zone and floods. Perspective is skewed; the mountain seems to be right. Over. You. And then you reach the gray areas, including some land near the Toutle River that looks freshly dried from the river’s raging mudslides 25 years ago.
Then you reach a landscape carved by one of the largest explosions of the Twentieth century. In places directly north of the mountain, the trees, grass, soil, even rocks were pulverized, leaving only bedrock. Look there: blasted and denuded trees. Look there: six-foot-wide trunks on the ground like left-behind Lincoln Logs. Look there: tongue-like extensions of still-standing forest, spared from the full force by rises diverting the ash and rocks and smoke, devastating that patch and not that patch.
I learned that there is still some old-growth forest on the slopes of the mountain. Of course, it’s on the southern slope, with a dark patch of that forest just barely visible from Coldwater Lake Lookout or the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the closest you can go by car to the crater. I stopped at both places, the site of the two newest visitor centers presenting the hundreds of square miles that are recovering from 1980’s violence. Coldwater Lake, for instance, didn’t exist before the eruption; part of a valley dammed up, forming a lake several miles in length and 180 feet deep at its deepest point. An island is visible from the visitor center: it’s a hummock, a piece of Mt. St. Helens itself that got blasted away. It’s over a hundred feet high and one hundred fifty feet long – and that’s just the part above the water. From the visitor center, it looks like the size of a soccer ball…until you see the boats (oar-powered or with electric motors) floating near it. Again, the view plays tricks on you.
While I was there, ash and steam vented from the crater. I’d never seen that activity up close. The steam condensed into a small cloud a few thousand feet above the crater. Park rangers pointed out the dust rising from a rock fall on the western slope, as well as the rock-covered glacier arcing around the dome within the crater. That dome has been growing fast since last fall, and it’s squeezing the glacier both up and out, towards the valley floor. That dome, in centuries or perhaps merely decades, will become the mountain’s new summit. “The mountain you see today is not the mountain you’ll see next week, or next month,” one ranger said.
And more of the drama of Mt. St. Helens is conveyed inside the Johnston Ridge Observatory, built bunker-like into the side of a rise. A film shows a computer recreation of what the eruption would have looked like from directly in its path. When the film ends, the screen and a curtain rise. And there is the mountain, only a few miles away, filling the view and inspiring gasps and applause.
It is an unreal land, what you might call a Dead Zone until you look closer…and you don’t even really have to look close, nowadays, to see how life has returned to the blast zone. At this place, a piece of the earth is reshaping itself. And we have a front-row seat.
I was last at the mountain in 1997. I believe I will return sooner than eight years from now.