Mount St. Helens

If forced to choose a favorite day of our Roamin’ Holiday, I’d have to say our day trip to Mount St. Helens has that distinction. I love any opportunity to look nature in the eye and say, “Yeah, you win. It wouldn’t even be a fair fight.”

When this volcano famously erupted on May 18, 1980, I was 15 years old and 3000 miles away, on the other side of the continent. I was fascinated by the event, and read everything I could about it, but somehow it didn’t seem real to me. It was something that was happening “over there”, in a place that was practically a foreign country, and one I was certain I’d never visit. I knew no one who had witnessed the event, and it didn’t impact me directly in any way.

Little did I know I’d be gazing upon this very volcano two days prior to the 40th anniversary of its eruption. And what a stunning sight it was. I don’t know what it is about Western vistas, but the horizon seems 10 times farther away out here, and this mountain is so… mountainous… that it makes me feel even smaller. I love that feeling. It makes me realize how insignificant my problems actually are, in the overall scheme of things. A short respite from my cares and worries is always welcome.

Thanks to the pandemic, I didn’t get to see the state park visitor center at Silver Lake. There was, however, a little shack that had been converted from a snack bar to a gift shop, so I was able to remotely point at and purchase a magnet for my fridge and a postcard or two. The Forest Learning Center, operated by Weyerhaeuser, was also closed, as was the Science and Learning Center operated by the Mount St. Helens Institute, and the Johnson Ridge Observatory operated by the U.S. Forest service. I also couldn’t get my coveted National Parks Passport Stamp at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

All of this was a disappointment, as I do love visitor centers. They teach me a great deal, and therefore enrich the travel experience, but hey, there’s still the internet, and the interpretive signs at the various overlooks along the route were still there. I just had to wait, patiently, and properly bemasked, at a distance, if anyone had arrived there before me. And for the most part, we had the park to ourselves. The Pandemic certainly has changed the travel experience.

But the star of the show, the volcano, was certainly there, and we were lucky enough to be there on a day when it wasn’t obscured by clouds. Some of the photographs that we took at the time appear below. As good as I think they are, they don’t really do it justice.

What really impressed me was how much the area has recovered in the last 4 decades, given the scope of the destruction. I’ll let Wikipedia describe what happened.

Mount St. Helens is most notorious for its major eruption on May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in US history. Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed. A massive debris avalanche, triggered by an earthquake of magnitude 5.1, caused a lateral eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,363 ft (2,549 m), leaving a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide horseshoe-shaped crater. The debris avalanche was up to 0.7 cubic miles (2.9 km3) in volume.

An eruption column rose 80,000 feet (24 km; 15 mi) into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 U.S. states and significant ash in two Canadian provinces. At the same time, snow, ice and several entire glaciers on the volcano melted, forming a series of large lahars (volcanic mudslides) that reached as far as the Columbia River, nearly 50 miles (80 km) to the southwest. Less severe outbursts continued into the next day, only to be followed by other large, but not as destructive, eruptions later that year. Thermal energy released during the eruption was equal to 26 megatons of TNT.

Hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland, causing over $1 billion in damage (equivalent to $3.4 billion in 2019), thousands of animals were killed, and Mount St. Helens was left with a crater on its north side.

So, yeah, I’d say that this destruction was rather a big deal. And you can still see evidence of it everywhere. The mountain used to be a relatively uniform cone shape. Very picturesque. But the eruption reduced it’s height by 1314 feet. To put that into perspective, the shorter of the two twin towers, prior to 911, was 1362 feet. So that was a heck of a lot of mountain to be there one minute and gone the next. And now there’s this giant lopsided crater marring the previous symmetry. And you can see where the slide went in many of the photographs below.

It’s also quite obvious when you enter the blast zone. That area has been reforested, for the most part, but there’s a very abrupt change between old growth forest, and, for example, the acres of trees planted by Weyerhaeuser, which are so identical in height and shape that it makes your eyes do a blurry double take. You can also see a lot of dead and flattened trees still floating in the area waterways.

But life will out. The trees are, indeed, growing. Wildlife abounds. The waterways flow again. It would be easy to forget if we had no video of the disaster, and no written history. To the untrained eye, there would only be hints here and there. For example, the A Frame house pictured below still stands, and the upper floor can still be seen. The mud flood that came through there, just two days after that house was built, was 5 feet deep and 100 degrees. It was the consistency of wet cement and was traveling at about 35 miles per hour. Now that whole area is at a higher elevation, and people, ignoring history and wanting to profit from tourism, have rebuilt all around it.

If I could sum up what I learned from this trip in one sentence, it would be, “Time marches on.” And when it’s nature that’s doing the marching, you’d best get the hell out of the way.

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