A Lit Fuse

Mount St. Helens is a dynamite keg, and the fuse it lit, but we don’t know how long the fuse is.”

-David A. Johnston

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted, sending a plume of ash sixteen miles into the sky, and forever changing the mountain and its surroundings. Once tall forests were leveled by the blast, and the landscape was coated in volcanic ash. The mountain’s peak was blown away, leaving a gaping crater in its place.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens was the most destructive volcanic eruption in US history, and everyone I’ve asked who was alive in 1980 remembers it well. Even though it was a decade before I was born, I remember learning about the event in grade school. I remember sitting at my desk in fifth grade history class, in awe of the forces of nature that caused the Mount St. Helens disaster, but I never imagined that in twenty years time, I would be staring across an expansive valley at the topless mountain that once leveled everything in its path.

In fact, when we first arrived at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, it seemed very much like there was no hope of catching a glimpse of the famous volcano. We’d already delayed our morning, biding our time in hopes that the weather would clear up, but we began to lose hope when we pulled into the park’s visitor center to see a thick wall of fog where a beautiful mountain view should have been.

Even after eating an early picnic lunch to try to waste more time, the rain and fog was not letting up. If anything, the rain was getting stronger as we walked out to take a look at Coldwater Lake. We gazed at a gray wall of nothing while Amy and Andrew described how beautiful the area was the last time they visited.

As the rain came down harder, I admitted to myself something that I’d been trying to deny all day. We would not be seeing Mount St. Helens. I tried to stay cheerful, although I was honestly quite bummed out. This was the last day Bonnie would be with us, and I felt like I had wasted her time by suggesting we come out to stand in the rain and look at fog. I couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected as we trudged back to our car, and started to drive in the direction of the Johnston Ridge Observatory. We wanted to give the weather one last chance to clear up before we returned to Portland, although I was no longer holding out hope.

Much to my shock, as we neared the Loowit Viewpoint, the mountain began to take shape behind a thinning layer of fog. We parked the car and jumped out to look at it just in case this was out only chance. I felt unbridled relief and excitement as the gray shroud lifted to reveal just a hint of the volcano’s blast zone.

Now that things were taking a turn for the better, the group’s spirits had lifted significantly. We made our way up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory to find that the clouds had receded even further during our short drive. Now the entire volcano was visible and we decided to hike along the Ridge Trail a ways to take in the spectacular view. The trail was wide and flat, which was perfect because I could barely tear my eyes off of the mountain for enough time to watch where I was stepping. The vantage point up on the ridge gave us an awesome view of Mount St. Helens’ crater, and made me ruefully think back to February of 2020 when I randomly became obsessed with the idea of summiting the mountain just a couple of weeks before my climbing accident put a pause on plans like that. After a year of focusing on recovery, it would definitely take more training to prepare for a climb like that now, but I was happy to be able to stand above the blast zone looking out at my first proper volcano. I’ve been to quite a few volcanic areas and seen some small volcanoes, but Mount St. Helens is more what you imagine a volcano to look like.

On our walk along the ridge, we saw a lot of exciting things including a far off family of mountain goats, some trees that had been leveled by the volcanic blast, and vibrant paintbrush flowers along the path.

Eventually we turned around and headed back up the path so that we could go to another trailhead for something different. We set out on the short Hummocks Trail as the weather continued to improve. We snacked on wild strawberries that were growing along the trail and stopped to look at some more trees that had been upended by the blast.

The view of the mountain was totally different from our vantage down below it. A green meadow sprang up from the volcanic ash under our feet, stretching out towards the imposing mountain.

Halfway through the loop, we came to the hummocks, which are rounded hills that formed after the eruption. Over time, they’ve begun to erode and take on shapes similar to badlands formations.

Now that the sun was shining, our hike back to the car was much more pleasant. We took our time, enjoying our surroundings, and then stopped at some more overlooks on our way out of the park. We also stopped back at Coldwater Lake to see what it looked like in sunlight, and of course, get the obligatory group photo with the park sign.

As we rode back toward Portland, Andrew read us the Klickitat Peoples’ legend of how Loowit (Mount St. Helens) came to be. Back in Portland, we met up with Brian (who’d had to go into work for the day) for one last dinner with all six of us. Bonnie was set to fly home the next morning and Vince and I would be splitting off on our own to venture south into California.

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