Home | Biography | Forty-Eight X | Future Books | Stories | Credits | Media | Contact

Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

David Johnson, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) volcanologist, stood on a ridge five miles from Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington. He had been studying the mountain since March of 1980 when the dormant volcano began to come alive with tiny earthquakes and steam explosions from a small crater near its summit.
"Vancouver! Vancouver! It's happening," the geologist yelled over the radio at 8:32 a.m. on May 18th, 1980. Those were the last words heard from him. At that moment a 5.1 magnitude earthquake caused the entire north slope of Mount St. Helens to collapse, caused the largest landslide in recorded history, and unleashed a volcanic eruption heard as far away as Montana with a blast that equaled a 24-megaton nuclear bomb. In moments it snuffed out the lives of Johnson and 56 other people. Superheated gas, rock, and magma raced at 200 miles per hour down the mountain's slope and in less than three minutes 230 square miles of forest were flattened.
It is all just statistics until you actually go there. Almost exactly twenty years later, I stood at the same spot where the young geologist died. Today, a great concrete and glass building, named in honor of David Johnson, stands on the site. It has a 280-seat theater, 10,000 square feet of exhibit space, a forest service educational program with a variety of lectures, and the best viewpoints of the mountain. At the Johnson Center there's a great mural of the mountain as it was before May 1980. With a quick glance to the nearby picture window, the reality of recent history comes alive as you view the snow capped remnants of a great mountain that seems to have had its center scooped out. And, laid out before it, in a region where lush evergreen forests exist everywhere else, the land is still mostly bare, a moonscape with mounds of volcanic debris and a few remnants of great trees lying about like broken twigs.
The once symmetrical cone shaped mountain has been replaced with one with a huge cavity in its side measuring nearly two miles long, a mile wide, and 4000 feet deep. A new lava dome grows in its midst.
From Portland, Oregon, it's about a 2 ˝ hour drive to Mt. Saint Helens. As a stepping off point, you can stay at a myriad of hotels in Portland. Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, is a small city with plenty of hotels and good restaurants. But, a more interesting waypoint just fifteen minutes east of the Portland International Airport in the town of Troutdale, Oregon, is a curious and relatively inexpensive hotel called McMenamins Edgefield (800-669-8610). McMenamins, a great brick building with an expansive front porch was built in 1911 as the County Poor Farm. It has been wonderfully converted in a quaint hotel with 100 European-style guest rooms. Most are modest with turn-of-the-century décor and private bathrooms down the hall. The hotel is on a 38-acre estate and besides lodging has restaurants, gardens, a movie theatre, a winery, brewery, distillery, an 18-hole par-3 golf course, on-site massage, and loads of fascinating artwork and historical photographs scattered about the grounds. To exemplify the wonderful eccentricity of McMenamins, there's Jerry's Ice House, a small bar that plays concert footage of the Grateful Dead all day with walls decorated with the band's vintage concert posters and memorabilia. For $150/night there are family rooms that accommodate up to six people. For $119/couple, an overnight stay includes room, two 30-minute massage sessions, and breakfast. Where else can you spend a night and honestly say you're going to the "poor house."
From Portland, you take Interstate Highway 5 north and turn east on state highway 504 to Mount St. Helens. You can't miss it. It's the tourist mecca of the area with everything from volcano burgers to earthquake milkshakes to volcanic ash in souvenir bottles for sale. It's about 60 miles from the Castle Rock turn-off to the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center. The Johnston Ridge Visitor Center is just one of three government visitor centers that review the history of the region and educate the public about its most famous cataclysmic event. Each has some unique view and educational insight to offer about the mountain. The first is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center about 50 miles from the peak. It presents an overview of the history of the entire region. And there's a boardwalk and trail that meanders over and through an adjacent beautiful wetlands area. About ten miles from the mountain is the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center that also has great views of the mountain. Its theme focuses on how the region is rejuvenating. The Johnston Ridge Visitor Center, not only has the grandest views of the mountain but great videos, displays, and lectures on the nature of volcanoes, earthquakes, and geology. A tour to Mount St. Helens is not only a sight seeing adventure but an educational one.
There is a perverse thrill at being at the site of a natural disaster - after it's all over of course. I don't think I'm the only one of the morbidly curious that enjoys gawking at the ravages of forest fires, floods, tornadoes, and landslides. And so, tourism to Mount St. Helens has been picking up in recent months ever since the volcano, which had been relatively quiet for the last 18 years, began to erupt again in September 2004 - albeit in a more sedate way.
From the vantage of the Johnston Ridge Center, tourists can view the mountain's new lava dome with smoke rising from its center. Forest service guides explained that the volcano is now spewing a truckload of rock and lava every 5 seconds. If the mountain continues to erupt at its current rate, the new dome will become visible in Portland in about a year and the mountain could rebuild itself to its former splendor in about 40 years. Where else in the world can you travel and literally watch a mountain being born.