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
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
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.