Monday, July 7, 2008

"I've never been to Mt. St. Helens"

Generally, when I tell people I have never been to Mt. St. Helens, their reactions range from disbelief to pure confusion. I mean, I've lived in Washington state for the entire 32 years of my life, and its not like I'm exactly a home body. Still, while one of my earliest memories is seeing it erupting in the distance -a mushroom cloud of ash rising high above the tree line, on the distant horizon- I've never actually been to the mountain itself.

And, since Sarah's in the process of celebrating her 10th year in Washington, and has also never been, we figured this 4th of July weekend would be the perfect opportunity to finally make the trek. Historically speaking, 4th of July weekend is mine and Sarah's opportunity to head for the hills. Forsaking fireworks and the usual party crowds, our typical evening of the 4th is spent fireside, quietly enjoying the wilderness around us.

So, with the plan of camping at Mt. St. Helens quickly laid out, we hit the road. The drive south on I-5 is about two hours, at which point we stopped to spend our unborn child's college tuition on a tank of gas, and buy ice and fire wood. Unfortunately, loading the wood into the car, I managed to catch my forehead on the trunk which lead to two lessons learned in quick succession:

1) Hitting your head on the trunk hurts like a mofo. And...
2) If kicked in frustration, the side of the car is stronger than my foot.

Not a zit. The bump on my head starts to swell as we head for the Ape Caves.

With a sore forehead and a tank of gas, we drove another 30 minute or so to our first stop: The Ape Caves. After throwing a fit because I momentarily thought I'd left our camera at home, and after renting a gas powered lantern from the rangers station, we descended into the Ape Caves.

The Ape Caves are a giant lave tube just below the surface of the earth. From the entrance "skylight", the cave extends roughly a mile in each direction. Picking the slightly less intensive route, Sarah set off into the cave. Truthfully, it is amazing. Picture a nearly two story tall tunnel extending through the earth, leading gradually down, with eerily shaped walls that almost look like they'd been hollowed out by some giant worm, or maybe the Midgard Serpent. How could I have never been here before? I mean, it's called the "Ape Caves!" That's like if I found out there was a place called the Ninja Ghost Park in downtown Seattle, and had never bothered to check it out.

Obviously, it's difficult to take good photos in a cave, and even harder still to catch the size of it. But, this photos comes about as close to it as we could get.

Sarah warms her hands by the lantern. It was actually quite cold and drafty in the long tunnel.

Even with a number of other explorers passing us each way, illuminated by their own rented lanterns, it was easy to get caught up in the deep, dark, nearly silent atmosphere of the tunnel. And, slowly, as we made our way towards its end, the tunnel closed around us. At the very end, it became so narrow and low that we had to stoop to continue on. Finally, it grew so tiny that Sarah stopped, but I carried on for a short distance, crawling like an Army man on my belly across the smooth, sand covered floor (no crawling on her belly for Sarah). And, finally, it was too small to carry on, so I returned to Sarah. And, together we made our way to the surface.

Back on the road, our plan was to continue the loop around the south and east side of Mt. St. Helens; until we reached our reserved campsite on the north-eat corner of the mountain. There were only a couple of roads listed on the map, and all of them said "Closed During the Winter," ...but it was the 4th of July -the middle of summer- so they had to be open, right?


Apparently, the especially cold Winter, and almost non-existent Spring, had left the roads still covered in snow. And they were still gated closed. The main problem for us was that this left us stuck on the far side of the mountain from our campsite. And, to get to our campsite, we'd have to drive back to I-5, back north, and then out to it from there... a detour of approximately 120 miles. Whee!

Actually, this cued me up for my third opportunity to throw a tantrum and issue such bold statements as: "If we have to drive all the way back to I-5, I'm going to have an emotional breakdown." Sarah, for her part, noted that I seemed to be a better international traveller than local one, and offered to drive.

Arriving at our campsite a little over an hour and a half later, we were cheerfully, greeted by the campsite hosts, Roger and Sharon, who confirmed the situation with the roads, and also noted that the hike we'd planned to make tomorrow was similarly closed. Still, I was in a better mood by then, so I set our making a fire while Sarah whiped up some huge tacos.

Finally! We arrive at our campsite...

...and finally, we get to relax by the fire!

The rest of the evening was a leisurely affair with the two of us relaxing, reading and talking about our hopes and dreams of parenthood.

The next morning, we awoke late, ate a large breakfast and then took a short hike which looped around the campgrounds. Then, we hopped back in the car and set off looking for an adventure.

Our first stop was the Iron Creek Falls, a short distance up the road. But, while they were stunning to look at, they were literally right off the road, and didn't offer us the opportunity to flex our legs were were hoping for.

Continuing up the road, we finally came to another gate with a sign reading "Road Closed." So, with no hike readily presenting itself, we parked our car, jumped the gate and decided to turn the closed road into the hike. This would have seemed fairly rebellious if we didn't soon encounter several families with small children (and smaller dogs) who had apparently all had a similar idea.

"Road Closed"... that was basically the theme of this camping trip.

Still, if was a pleasant enough walk, winding uphill through the trees. Eventually, as we continued upward, a light misty rain began to surround us. And then, finally, we came to the reason for the "road closed" signs: Snow. Large drifts of it still spanned sections of the road. So, there we were, on July 5th, trudging across snowfields through misty forests.

July 5th! The mist settles on the forest as road becomes more and more covered in snow.

One soggy hiker.

While the atmosphere was addictive, it was also getting cold, and since we'd already hiked a little over two miles out, we decided to turn around and head back down to the car. Snacking on buffalo jerky and cherry tomatoes, and covered in beads of cold mist, Sarah and I were both in good spirits and -content- we hopped in our car and made our way back to the campsite for the night.

Back at camp though, Sarah barely had time to make dinner before the skies grew dark and started dumping rain on us. So, since we are "car camping" we decided to just hop in the car and enjoy our meal of wild rice, peas and chicken in there. Finishing our meal and reading for an hour or so, the rain finally tapered off enough to allow us a little time huddled by the fire before climbing into our cozy tent.

The next morning, we awoke with one goal: Actually see Mt. St. Helens. Up until this point, while we'd driven nearly a full circle around the mountain, we'd never actually seen it. The skies had been to cloudy, and the surrounding hills and trees had blocked any view we might have had.

So, packing up camp, it was back into the car. Another hour and half drive brought us into the "blast zone" and to the Johnston Observatory which finally gave us a clear view of... a cloud bank.

"Oh well!" Our stunning view of Mt. St. Helens.

While it was a clear and amazing view of the surrounding devastated countryside -a desolate moonscape still only covered by a light trace of scrubs, grasses and moss- the actual mountain itself was wrapped firmly in a white cloak of clouds. Sarah and I would have felt defeated if it hadn't seemed so appropriate and humorous. So, shaking our heads back and forth, we wandered through the visitor center, watched a documentary about the eruption, and strolled down a path along the ridge before turning to head back to our car.

But, just as we were about to look, we heard shouting. Racing back to the railing, we saw what people were pointing at: The clouds around the mountain seemed to be breaking up and parting. A dim shape could be seen on the right side of the cloud bank and then a tiny sliver of mountainside. And then... and then...

Nothing. The clouds wrapped back around the mountain as quickly as they had begun to part. Let it be said: Mt. St. Helens is the biggest tease ever.

So, Sarah and I got back in our car, and prepared to make the long trip home. Unfortunately, we hadn't refilled our gas tank since I bonked my head two days previous... and had driven about 350 miles since then. So, the arrow on our gas tank was hovering right above the 'E' and we had 50 miles to get back to I-5 and our nearest source of gas.

Luckily, those 50 miles were mostly downhill. So, inventing our own set of rules for driving on a near empty tank ("Coast downhill only!" "Don't hit the breaks going uphill because that's momentum and fuel lost!"); we boldly set out and joyously made it back to I-5 and a gas station.

Slightly less joyous was our trip back north on I-5 which managed to be stop and go traffic for pretty much it's entire length. This scenario only seemed more bleak as we contemplated the fact that highways and freeways across the nation were probably all in a similar situation. Still, well over two hours later, we finally made it home again.

We were tired, happy, and while we could now claim that we'd been to Mt. St. Helens; we still couldn't claim that we'd actually seen Mt. St. Helens. Oh well, maybe in another 32 years.

Oh yeah, and one last thing...

Sarah at 20 weeks!

So cute! So exciting!

(All the photos we took.)


JvA said...

Congratulations on the house! What part of the hood are you in? We're a few blocks off Beacon down near Orcas.

Congratulations on your pregnancy! We're also having our first baby soon. Six more weeks! And still so much to do...

Looks like you had a fun trip to the mountain, despite the setbacks. When I lived in Portland, I was obsessed with Ape Caves. I took everyone I knew there -- I felt like I was going there every other weekend. I bought a headlamp and everything.

I also enjoyed getting pie at the Cougar Cafe.

The General said...

We actually live fairly close, I think. Our new house is on 17th, about a half dozen blocks south of McPherson's Produce Stand.

Congrats on your pregnancy too! Sarah still has a ways to go, so we aren't freaking out yet ourselves about making sure everything is done... but we probably should be. All our friends keep asking if the baby room is ready. And, right now, it's pretty much an empty room with a pile of stuffed animals and baby clothes in the center.

JvA said...

Cool! You're near my pals Katrina and Brady and Tasya, and only about six or seven blocks northwest of my little neighborhood. The elevation change makes it seem farther than it really is.

Yeah, don't freak out. All a newborn really needs is clothes, diapers, food, and love. All the other stuff can come later if it needs to. Our clothes are all in a pile too, though they're on a borrowed changing table at the moment...