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A world engulfed in green. Stringy moss adorns even the
smallest of trees. It clings upon rocks and the very ground. Moss that basks in
the cool 52 degree morning as I munch on an apple packing up. The cycle is all
gassed up from a late stop yesterday. I am ready to hit the road. The air smells
so good here, I wish I could bottle and sell it to the rest of the world. I'd
make a fortune.
A short time later, the bike is hauling up this
mountainside, the motor a steady soothing drum beneath me. My first glimpse of
the mountain through the trees is one of awe. I crest a small rise, the trees
break and there it is. I have to pull over just to stare at it. The motor idles
softly in neutral. I just sit there, looking at it, drinking the view. It's
huge, intense, beyond my ability to absorb. It's like trying to comprehend The
Grand Canyon (which I tried a year ago).
It's a mountain with the top missing. Not like slowly
missing but just plain missing. And no trees, you know they're supposed to be
there, but they aren't. This is the Pacific Northwest; there are trees
everywhere except here. And everything is a ruddy gray color. Even the snow is
dirty gray. Directly below me is a massive valley smooth with fresh trees all
the same age. The whole scene blows my mind. I struggle so deftly to comprehend
the scene and realize I can't.
This is a strange, strange land. Dreamy sweepers, up down
hills, carved mountain edges and trees missing their tops. It's like some
godlike creature with a giant scythe cut a path slicing thousands of trees in
half. It looks as if he were mowing grass. The trees oblivious to the change
continue to grow.
My first view of Mount Saint Helens
I round a corner in the road and there are no living trees.
No life, nothing. Instead, trees lie upon the ground, an ever present gray color
and barkless. Thousands of them, everywhere, they lie strewn about lying upon
the ground pointing in the same direction. An entire mountainside devoid of
life, frozen time that lies staid upon the ground silenced forever.
The mountain comes into view and steam rises from its
northwest side. Within its crater, a cone has begun to form. What is beyond
belief is it's obvious to me where an entire mountainside collapsed and slid
into the former Spirit Lake. The lake seems little more than a giant mud hole
now surrounded in dead trees.
This place is a moon-like desert in the middle of the Pacific
Northwest. From the lookout point closest to the mountain, the road dead-ends
there. I climb a nearby hill of volcanic ash. The ash looks like sand with a
sprinkle of pea gravel, but it's very fine and very gray. It coats my boats
and dust clouds shoot up each time I take a step. At the crest of the hill, I
rest on a gray barkless log. I just sit there staring into the mountain.
What's left of Mount Saint Helens
The mountain was a very picturesque snow topped cone before it erupted in May
of 1980. It had lain dormant for 123 years since 1857. Starting in March of
1980, the University of Washington seismology lab started noticing earthquakes
taking place leading up to the eruption. As many as 20 occurred just in March.
An eruption was a bit unpredictable yet inevitable.
A bulge began to grow on the North Slope and a crater at the top of the
mountain quickly formed. Soon the crater was 1600 feet across and 500 feet deep.
Many people were warned to leave the area. One, Harry Truman, a guy who lived in a lodge
on the edge of Spirit Lake refused to leave. I remember reading about him in
that National Geographic article. He and some 56 others perished on May 18 when
the mountain erupted shooting ash 80,000 feet into the atmosphere.
The eruption was so violent, the entire side of the mountain slid down into
Spirit Lake at 150 miles per hour. So much material slid down the mountain in
mudflows of melting snow and debris, the level of the lake filled entirely up,
doubling in elevation. Day became night as far as 125 miles away as the ash
pouring out of the mountain entered the atmosphere and then fell back down. Most
of it initially headed to the northeast. The ash reached so far into the
atmosphere, it actually traveled around the world.
In nearby cities like Yakima and Pasco, it was if it were
snowing. The ash clogged air filters, froze business, schools and killed
thousands of nearby animals. In these nearby towns, it even collected in piles
in the streets. Huge quantities of ash rushed down the west side of the mountain
wiping out everything in its path. The ash even washed into the nearby Columbia
River Basin clogging the river system.
When I was a kid, we even had a vial of this ash. Some
relative came out after the eruption and brought back the package. Leave it to
us Americans to package dirt and sell it as something wonderful.
I wonder though as I sit on this hilltop, am I this small? I
imagine as if I was looking down upon myself surrounded by this ever-present
gray ash. A speck, just another form of life careening wildly through time
unknowing what tomorrow holds. Could I even begin to imagine a mountain
exploding? The shockwave itself from the mountain is thought to have been
traveling at faster than the speed of sound. The explosion of hot gases is what
mowed down the trees creating this moonscape of lifelessness.
The pictures etched in my mind as a child I try to recreate
but I cannot. The scale is too massive. Before me is an entire mountain etched
in gray. I sketch it into my journal and then walk back down the hillside to the
The road north is new pavement, an inviting fresh path cut
into the mountainside heading away from Mount St. Helen's. It's twisty and
surrounded in dead trees strewn about the mountainside. On a distant
mountainside, there is even a sort of line in the sand, where the trees start
and the destruction ends. Entire valleys miles wide were wiped out as the blast
traveled through the mountainous valleys to the north decimating an area of 280
Note the direction of how the trees lie
Note how the tops of trees were mowed off
Utter devastation from the eruption
Some hillsides escaped unscathed
I am still absolutely amazed at the scene. As quickly as this
land of gray began, it ends and the forest reclaims the land. Once back into the
forest, you would never know any volcanic eruption had taken place.
I near Mount Rainier and it's a mountain to which any
picture I could take wouldn't capture the beauty. Something like this can only
be experienced in the first person. It reminds me of the Grand Canyon again, the
scale and size is so massive, no picture can compare with standing on its sides.
Actually being there- tasting, feeling, and seeing is unlike any photo or TV
show I could see or watch.
The road skirts the side of the mountain. I kind of wish
there were a road like at Crater Lake that leads to the very pinnacle of the
mountain or around the rim. If only there was a place on the road where I could
stop and gaze for miles upon all the surrounding earth. But to no avail, the
road is a ride along the side of it through endless green forests, mountain
switchbacks, and lots of tourists.
Glacial snows atop Mount Rainer
Heading down the mountain at Chinook Pass
on Highway 410, I come upon construction in the
roadway requiring the traffic to stop. Pulling up behind a brand new Harley
Electraglide, A couple matching the bike is standing on the edge of a rock wall
looking out. I hop off and walk over to the couple. The guy is dressed in Harley
clothes, as is the woman. He has one boot up on the retaining wall and one on
the ground. We can see for miles.
"Walter Webster," he says extending his hand.
"Tim," I reply shaking his hand after I pull my
glove off. It's an amazing view down the side of Mount Rainer looking east.
I walk back to the bike and proceed to replenish my gasoline
supply with one of the two and half gallon gas cans I brought with me. As I fill
up, Walter starts conversation as the smell of gasoline collides with the crisp
"Rented 'er in San Francisco," Walter says as I
admire his bike. "Got another one back home, wasn't going to drive it out
He mentions he picked up his lady friend in Yakima and is
touring around, seeing the sights, that sort of thing. I guess he isn't on a
long trip since he isn't loaded down like myself.
"So where are ya headed," He asks motioning down
"Alaska, for now, but I would also love to get out to
the East Coast sometime. Maine and Nova Scotia have always been a big
fascination to me besides Alaska."
"Maine?" Walter says smiling, "Why don't you
spend a night at my place in York. We can swap stories and eat lobster." I
thought now this is cool, meeting another motorcyclist, I should do this all
across the United States. Walter takes out a piece of scrap paper and gives me
his phone number.
"When you get there, you make sure you give me a
call," he says. It's as if we've known each other our whole lives.
Motorcycling is like that sometimes.
Eastern side of Mount Rainier on Hwy 410 headed for
I am moving deeper into Washington, I have decided to head
parallel along the Canadian border and then cross over at the most remote border
crossing I can find. I turn off Highway 97 onto Highway 20 and head east. The day moves
into evening as I decide to do some night driving. As darkness hits and the
temperature falls, I have to pull over to the side of the road and shut the bike
off. I suit up in a turtleneck, electric vest, leather chaps, and a neckerchief
that covers my neck and my face to the top of my nose. Not a single car goes by
in either direction.
Highway 20 works its way eastward up to the 5575 feet Sherman
Pass through Colville National Forest. The road runs alongside the usual
mountain stream at times. Night blackens the world except for silvery moonlit
shadows splayed on the road beyond the reaches of the headlight. I spot a deer
against a cliff 20 feet above the road and slam on the brakes. From 60 to 20 in
a second or so will get you in touch with your inner self, it's a nice little
adrenaline surge. I don't know if any more deer are standing in the roadway
nearby or if this is the loner of the bunch. My greatest concern riding at night
is deer. Haven't had any close encounters yet since I was in Colorado riding
freeway speeds through a canyon about this time of night. That time I missed the
deer with the motorcycle by inches. I have those deer whistle things on the bike
but who knows if they really work?
I ride off into the night through smooth valleys. There is no
other traffic. It's just the bike and I sliding through the moonlit night. The
countryside is mine and mine alone for this little moment in time. One in the
morning approaches as I pull into Sweat Creek Campground trying to be as quiet
as possible motoring past all the campers and RV's.
I find what appears to be a site and unravel the sleeping
bag. I lie on my back, hands on my chest staring up into the stars thinking
about this day. The hum of the motorcycle seems missing from my ears only to be
replaced by the burble of a nearby mountain stream. My eyes adjust to the dull
illumination of the same silver moon that led me here. Its light barely
reaches the ground and there is no sound. It is so very quiet.
I dream of riding twisty mountain roads. The lean of the motorcycle and the
feeling of rising and falling over hills. Descending into valleys surrounded in
trees, mountains, and rushing hillside streams that stretch for as far as the
imagination can comprehend. This is my dream. And above me, the pines sway
gently in the wind.
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