Joey and I have been up to Mt Saint Helens three times in the past season.
The first trip we made was in late July on a rainy, dark day. The trail past tree line looks like a pilgrimage to the most sacred site in all of the moon. Volcanic rocks and sand alternately soften the landscape and bring the destruction of the eruption into sharp relief. Here on this mountain tree line occurs several hundred feet lower than anywhere else in the Cascades. This surprised me at first to hear but then I thought critically about why that was and concluded to never doubt the awesome power of a whole mountain exploding into the sky. The jagged tree line marks the edge of the lava flows from the eruption. This is the line of what came back and what was utterly destroyed. Sometimes you need that power bigger than you to remind you of your place. I am not talking about religion in the slightest, and I want to be very literal with my message. I think everyone should go to Mt St Helens or any other recently active volcano and think really long and hard about how much bigger and badder the Earth is than humans. For all we imagine that we are masters of our domain, we can bend nature to our will, or that we can find someone to take us through a storm in their fancy man-made craft, if the Earth wants to or if you simply get in the way of its processes, it will kill you in a goddamn second. And knowing that is all the god I need. But I digress…..
On our first journey to Our Lady of Perpetual Destruction I had my struggles. I was recovering from a month-old injury and may have over estimated my ability to climb the most vertical feet I have ever attempted in a day in sub-optimum conditions. Here are the things the mountain took from me that day:
- 6 hours
- Approx 1 bucket of frustrated tears (I fell a lot)
- The toenails off both my big toes
- My Pride
I had a relationship of respect bordering on fear with my girl Helen after this encounter. It did not help that the whole mountain was shrouded in fog all day, enabling me to get great views of grey, unmoving clouds from all elevations and angles of the Mountain.
We returned for round 2 in September. Having already been to the summit and lacking the proper permits to return, we decided to make this a more kinetic experience. At least Joey did. He loaded his mountain bike into the truck, I put on my hiking boots and we headed for the Plains of Abraham. This is a region on the North Side of the mountain where lava flowed en masse down the canyon. You start the 8-mile loop at a small, always crowded trail head. If you go, make sure to arrive before 11. Mountain bikers love this place and you should anticipate maneuvering through many bike racks in the parking lot and keeping alert for cyclists on the trail. The hike takes you up through a fin of Old growth trees. They were spared the inferno due to their solid bed rock and position on top of a shoulder, foothill, bulge, thing that kept them at a healthy distance above the lava. Then you open up on to the plains and you get beautiful views like this:
Yea it was pretty socked in that day too. I did not get to see much but I got back in my solo hiking groove. With Joey gone up the trail ripping some pumice like a champ, I had plenty of time for reflection. I thought about the trail in front of and behind me (all I could see), I thought about the Earth under my feet (again all I could see) and the austere beauty of the volcanic rocks above tree line (when I got within 10 feet of them because that was all I could see). I had a lot of fun on that day and camping at the base of the mountain afterwards but I didn’t feel like I had really learned it for the sheer fact that I hadn’t even seen it!
Two weeks ago we went back to this stretch of forest and volcanic plain and I finally got the gradeur I was looking for!
So on this trip I learned what majesty had been lurking behind the clouds. The sheer scale of the mountain surprised me on this trip. Although I have already been to the summit of this mountain, I hadn’t seen it in its entire prominence. With mountains, like life, if you look only at the ground beneath your feet you will ALWAYS be startled by the view. I had some time to play around on the mountain this time. I brought a notebook and a pen and tried to draw some rudimentary representations of what I saw, focussing on scale and planes to try to bring through the form and fill the page. They are not worth sharing given that everything I tried to do I only know from professors yammering around me during my time as a model for the Dartmouth art department. I never actually took a class or put charcoal to paper, but man did I learn a lot of “Art I” terminology.
This meandering pace I established on this expedition took me up on to the Plains of Abraham:
This is probably the craziest place I’ve ever been. I know its not clear from the photo but the trees on the top of that ridge on the right side are bleached bone white by ash and subsequent sun and they are blasted back to form a fan facing the mountain proper. This place is eery and not like any of the volcanoes I’ve ever been to. This place was totally ripped apart and destroyed 35 years ago and now it is a hauntingly-beautiful, nationally-protected “monument.”
This got me to thinking. When a country erects and “National Monument” on a site like St. Helens, are they memorializing the mountain or the eruption? The beauty or the destruction? the present or the past? The national monument was established by Reagan in 1982, after the eruption. So is this a preservation of the beauty of the mountain? Or a message about the danger and terror of volcanic eruption?
Beauty is an interesting concept. Working in the beauty industry has shown me many things, but above all that subjectivity is an immovable part of the definition and manifestation of beauty. Of course, in any culture there are “beauty standards” but these are not innately or inherently “beautiful.” Just like no word holds meaning without language, nothing is beautiful without the conditioned subjective assessment of many people. Without any input from the collective human mind, things in the world are large, small, purple, spiky, poisonous, and so on and so forth, but things are beautiful because people decide they are. When some view, object, or person grabs hold of us and hits those perfectly found receptors for the concept of beauty we feel it. But what really is that feeling?
For me it is a combination of respect, desire, and fear. I respect the way the mountains were formed, what their gullies and cliffs mean for the land and the geologic turmoil beneath the surface. The fact that I find Mt St Helens beautiful, in my mind, is a reflection of the past and the present and a reminder that the mountain, the range, the valleys, and everything I could see from that point and that day were both one of the youngest surfaces on the planet and proof of a process at work that are orders of magnitude older and more important than human life. Now I am not a scientist, but that is pretty cool. The desire is the simplest emotion present. I want the view, I Want the trees, I WANT the mountain! It is not so much a need to possess but a need to know it will not be destroyed. the existence value of this place to me outweighs any other “desired” use for the land (not that there are any, this is a well protected park). The fear dances the line between the two. The awe-inspiring power of the mountain makes me fear what it could do to my silly little human life, but I also fear this being taken away, or worse, that it would still be there and I would not be allowed to visit.
Maybe I should go into conservation? Ehh add it to the list. Here are some more pictures of my gurl Helen. Look at them, feel them, wax rhapsodical about them, and enjoy this wondrous place through them until you meet her in person.