Tuesday, November 20, 2012

... on a volcano.

When I hear about someone who knew what they wanted to be when they grow up as a kid, and then actually went ahead and ended up DOING exactly what they said they would, I'm curious. It's almost as though that five-year-old had already figured out what really interested them, and had the possibility of interesting them all throughout their adult life. I know that most kids don't end up being astronauts, or zookeepers, or whatever it was that they were keen on, but some do, don't they, and some of them knew that from the start.

I was five when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. First I knew of it, though, was a couple of years later when I was flicking through one of our huge collection of National Geographic magazines; their yellow spines occupied a whole shelf in our living room. They were dog-eared and much read; often I would select one and look at the pictures from cover-to-cover, thrilled by the illustrations of, say; Inca rituals, or; macro photographs of the eye of an insect, or; in one case, terrifying pictures of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. For some reason I kept coming back to that one, the January 1981 edition. I knew it backwards. I read the eye-witness reports. I dreamed about eruptions.

Years passed. The National Geographic collection disappeared. The internet was everywhere. One day about ten years ago, I discovered that there was a webcam pointed right at Mount St. Helens, and I started to look at it daily, just to see what was going on. The mountain had been busy in all those years since the eruption - steaming and shaking and toiling and troubling, and building up an exciting new lava dome in the crater. I bought some volcano books, big coffee-table ones. I took it into my head to search for that January 1981 National Geographic, and got lucky in a charity store one afternoon.
More years passed. My father died. Life started to feel like it could be really short. I was working an extremely ordinary job that had a three hour commute, and one morning, whilst gazing wistfully at the webcam, it occurred to me. I could go to Mount St. Helens. I could GO there. Suddenly, and for the first time, the idea of visiting America was on my mind. I was surprised! I had money saved. I threw in the extremely ordinary job. Life is too short!

My first visit to Mount St. Helens was in 2005. I was backpacking around the States, and was in Seattle for only a few days. I had no transport. I was the youngest person on an all-day bus tour that almost didn't go because the weather forecast was terrible, and didn't look like changing. At the pickup spot the bus driver took one look at the number of people waiting (6), took the coach away, and came back with a minibus. The day was, miraculously, fogless. As the little bus toiled up Spirit Lake Highway towards the mountain, I got my first glimpse of a vast snowy shoulder, and was, for want of a better description, blown away. It was big. SO big. At the Johnston Ridge Observatory I had one hour before the bus left, so I walked a little way down a trail, found a bench to sit on and stared at the mountain. I knew I'd be back. I just had to come back.
I was back there, staring at the mountain, a few weeks ago. Like my two previous visits, this one was characterised by some degree of luck in regards to the weather. It should have been snowing up there by then... but no. It was clear and sunny, and my bro humoured me by letting me go off on a five-hour hike from Johnston Ridge while he read the latest Terry Pratchett in our rented RV.
I headed towards the Truman Trail - a trail offshoot that climbs up a ridge which gives the only full views of Spirit Lake from this side.
The trail was very steep in parts, and really gave me the willies. I just had to set my jaw and concentrate on not slipping off the edge, or causing a rockfall.
The view behind me as I climbed up Harry's Ridge (named for 84-year-old Harry Truman, who lived in a lodge down on the shore of Spirit Lake and refused to leave. He and his house and his many cats were buried under a huge amount of ash and debris when the mountain blew.)
Spirit Lake. The whole level of the lake and surrounds was raised more than 60 metres during the eruption. It's still filled with the many logs which were blown into it that day. They float about depending on the winds.
You can see part of the trail I've come on snaking across the opposite hill.

What a perfect day. The mountain, the first sight of that beautiful lake, the sunshine, the tinkling of my bear bell to keep me company, the crunchy sound of the ashy rocks beneath my boots, and the curious silence when I stopped. Lucky girl. As soon as I got back to Australia I looked at the webcam, and the whole place was covered in snow.

So, why? I can't explain it. I've experimented with other volcanoes, but the magnetism just isn't as powerful. Perhaps it's that my interest was caught as a kid. My Ma has a theory, which I'm not sure I should be sharing; she's quite sure I was conceived in a VW van in the carpark of a volcanic hot-spring where she and my dad camped for a few days. My 5-year-old brother would have been sleeping across the front seats. Romantic, huh? Well, it is quite a romantic notion. Maybe those steamy sulphurous fumes got into my soul when it was in the making.

I have a sub-theory that I was bewitched by a man I spoke to on a Paris railway station, because my renewed interest in volcanoes came on after this incident; he asked me whether we were on the right platform for the TGV train. I'd been taking French classes for a year, so I gathered some together in my brain, apologised to him for how bad it was, and told him. He asked me where I was from. I asked him where he was from. He said he was from La Reunion. I'd only recently learned about La Reunion because of going to those classes - it's a tiny French island between Madagascar and Mauritius. He told me there was a volcano on La Reunion. I asked him whether it was active. He said 'Oui!' very seriously, and he leaned down to rummage in his bag. He then handed me a small piece of pumice stone, which was sharp and very fresh-looking. When I tried to pass it back to him he said "Non. Pour vous." For you. I put it into the bottom of a hole I dug to plant a magnolia tree in a few days later. That way I'll always know where it is.

I'll have to go back to Mount St. Helens. There'll always be something I haven't yet done. I want to camp out on the pumice plain by Spirit Lake. I'd love to climb right into the crater - they've just started letting geologist-guided groups back in there. This time the road around the eastern side of the mountain was open, but so foggy on the day we were passing through that we couldn't see a thing. I'll have to go back. I think I'll always have to go back.


Anonymous said...


Angelhellcat said...

Love your writing.

Gail Engel said...

This is such a lovely story. Makes me want to go there too!

Anonymous said...

Lovely to see that nature can stillhave an effect on people. You really shoud see Mt Fuji next, rather than go back a third time.