Not Dead Yet II: Still Not Dead!

September 25, 2000

I pull out early, with an easy drive to Mt. St. Helens. I take my time, enjoying the view as the interstate winds it way alongside the Columbia River Gorge. It is warming up nicely, and at lunch time I have to shed a couple layers of clothing to keep from overheating. I make the turnoff at Castle Rock around 4:30pm, early enough to be leisurely about where I stay for the next two nights. A short distance back I had seen a campground alongside a small river that I could see people fishing in. This time of year the steelhead and salmon are running, so I have a great place in reserve if nothing this way pans out. I stop at the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center and inquire about campgrounds and I am told the one across the street is the closest to the mountain that still has showers. Although it'll be a 52 mile journey each way, I like to stay near hot water. I go across the street and drive through the campgrounds, expecting a decent place to stay because it is a state park campground. Instead, I am rather disappointed. The tent clearings are small and the undergrowth has not been managed well, to the point that I feel like I would be camping on the plants themselves. Well, back to that campground I passed. Hmmm...I thought it was at this exit, but I don't see anything. I better stop and ask someone at this tourist info center where it is. Never heard of it? Well, I'll ride back a few more exits. That's odd, I know I saw it here somewhere. Gees, is nothing easy? Now the sun's heading for the treetops and it'll be cooling off soon. I better go back and see if there are any campgrounds further up the road toward the mountain.

I stop at one place, which looks good, and I ask about a tent site. Reasonably priced, but the owner suggests looking at the area first. For some odd reason, I decide to do so, and I am glad I did. Whereas the RV sites has some security, being behind a row of trees, and almost of them had a view of a lake, the tent area was right up against the road with nothing but a beat up fence to keep people out. So I press on, looking for a campground called "EcoPark," as I saw a sign for it some 20 miles toward the mountain. I come to a campground that seems decent, and I ride up the road another mile, but there doesn't seem to be anything and this seems to be about where the EcoPark was supposed to be, so I stop. The sun is setting and the temperature is dropping fast. I'm tired from spending two hours trying to find a place to camp for the night. After getting my tent up, I go across the road to a convenience store and buy some milk for cereal, my only dinner. I'm too tired to boil some rice and beans. I just want to eat and sleep. As I'm getting into my tent I notice the milk carton has an odor to it, one of spoiled milk. Hoping that it is only milk spilled onto the carton, I pour some cereal into my bowl and open the milk. Immediately the tent is filled with the disgusting smell of spoiled milk. Yuck. Somewhere the milk wasn't kept cold. Now I have a bowl of cereal I need to pour back into the bag. I decide to tough it out and pour some water on the cereal, if nothing else just to moisten the stuff so I can swallow it. Well, I'm not so tough and I can't eat but a couple of bites. Forget it. Wash the bowl out, brush my teeth, I'm going to bed.

I don't know why I woke up, but there I was, awake in the middle of the night, wondering why I'm awake and when am I going to go back to sleep, when POOF! POOF! What the hell? Two very bright, almost blinding flashes of light go off close by outside my tent. No sound of thunder, but then three more flashes, like a large camera flashbulb has just gone off. I can't see the inside of my tent because the flashes are so bright, even through the tent walls. Something huge must be at work here because of the intensity of the light and the quick recovery from the discharge. Do I really want to find out? Maybe I can just go back to sleep and not care, why the hell does something weird have to happen every night I camp out? I am almost asleep when a truck drives by my tent along the dirt road circling the campground. Great. I get up, as I can't ignore my bladder any longer, and I look around while walking to the bathroom. There's nothing that could cause the flashes. On the way back I spend more time looking around. I am convinced nothing could have caused those flashes, and I am sure I did not dream them. The truck must have come over to investigate. Good grief.

Sept. 26, 2000

In the morning I find a fresh pile of dirt about three feet from my tent opening. The pile is about three inches tall and four inches across. It is dark and moist, and I see no visible signs of dirt being scooped up from somewhere nearby. Man, this is getting too weird. I pack up, not bothering with breakfast because I know the milk across the street is spoiled, and as I am packing up I notice other piles of dirt in the area, randomly scattered about, and I am relieved in that at least I wasn't a target of whatever is making the dirt piles. I need a chill pill, or something, because I'm letting a stupid movie get me way too freaked out. Flashes of light and piles of dirt, gees. Happens all the time, no big deal. Speaking of chill, it is getting cold at night. I'm sleeping in my clothes and pulling my bedsheet over my head to stay warm. I haven't seen frost yet while camping, but it's getting into the 30's at night.

A couple miles up the road I find the EcoPark. Since it offers breakfast I pull in. The owner used to be a software engineer for Wang, but gave it up to move out here. The zoning regulators won't give him water or power, so he's dropped a well and hooked up his own grid. The park is almost completely self powered, between the solar panels and wind-driven generators. He has to run a gas powered generator about four hours a day to provide enough energy for the restaurant, but he's managed to pass all the food safety requirements, and I can attest that the food is great. I talk to him at great length about what he is doing and the area in general. I ask him about the flashes and he tells me that in this area the atmosphere is very clear and this time of year the solar flashes are quite powerful. I'm not sure he means "solar flashes," but I know what he's talking about, where the solar winds collide with the earth's atmosphere and the ions create large electrical discharges similar to the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). Now I am disappointed I didn't go out and investigate sooner. That would have been quite a display. And the piles of dirt? Moles. He said I was lucky, he's been out camping and had them come up directly under his tent.
br> After breakfast I go down to his tent area and look around. The place will be great to stay for the night so I leave my gear with him and head up the road to see where Mother Nature really blew her top. It is a pleasant drive, and rather winding, but this is neat because it keeps the view of the opening hidden until the last few miles. Up until then I can see that the mountain is missing the top, but I don't see the huge gaping hole in the side of the mountain until I reach the summit of the hill across from it. The mountain is a bit more active today than usual, and it is thrilling to see steam and dust gently wafting upward into the wind currents. The morning is clear and brisk, but by midafternoon the dust has turned the sky hazy. In the center of the opening is the lava dome, and it continues to grow an inch or two a day, sometimes as much as a foot an hour, and yes, occasionally the pressure builds enough that little miny eruptions occur.

Around the mountain is devastation, even twenty years later as it was May 18, 1980 when it erupted, but there are signs that nature is retaking the area. There were two parts to the eruption, the first being the landslide that signified the collapse of the mountainside, the largest landslide in recorded history, and the second was the expulsion of hundreds of millions of tons of dust and ash. The second part caught up to the first part seconds after it began, and the two together created a huge cataclysmic event. I didn't catch all of the details, but I know the event had enough coherence that the scientists have found "rebound" effects, where a hill or crest redirected the flow of the shockwave. With the vent occuring in mid-May, there was a lot of snow and ice nearby, and this flash melted, created a huge torrent of water and mud, wiping the land clean of the trees that had been snapped off at their trunks. Inside the blast area no tree was left standing, no matter how big or strong it was. And I'm talking stumps that are four to six feet across, from trees that used to be 100 to 200 feet tall. The intense 2500 degree heat instantly dried out the trees, superheating the moisture within them causing them to explode into thousands of fragments. Further out the trees were flattened like a giant comb had run through them, lining them up in the same direction, outward from the blast. Outside the blast zone the trees were left standing but completely stripped of their leaves and bark, blasted away by the wind. An entire forest died upright, left to be monuments in their own right.

On the land in front of the mountain the landslide raced downhill at 150 miles an hour, with the dust cloud punching through at 300 miles an hour. A river had been carving through the valley, but now it was buried under hundreds of feet of dirt and rock, up to 600 feet in some places. The water under the ground was also superheated, and exploded upward, leaving craters that were as much as a quarter mile across, erupting even days afterward, posing a serious risk to scientists who had come in to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. The landslide followed the local terrain, even filling in a lake with such force that the water was pushed up the opposite side several hundred feet, allowing it to settle back down on top of the mud slide and remain intact. The resort lodge that was on the old lake shore is now 300 feet underground. Because of the flow and turbulence of the landslide, large chunks were deposited along the way, forming a new rough and bumpy terrain. Closer to the mountain the snow and ice melt smoothed out these hillocks, as they are called, and created an ice rink smooth surface.

One unusual and unexpected effect was that people only one or two miles from the eruption, but in areas aside of the blast, never heard a sound, other than the trees being snapped off at the ground. People in towns and cities hundreds of miles away heard great booms, like large artillery going off. The force of the blast was so strong that it took the sound waves with it, and created a sound zone that bounced off the atmosphere and then off the ground, repeatedly, for hundreds of miles. If you were in between a bounce location, you didn't hear anything. Fifty eight people died as a result of the eruption, including a couple scientists who had miscalculated how the eruption would occur and were facing the side that collapsed. The ash from the eruption caused major havoc in Portland, Seattle, and Spokane, and eventually circled the globe, shoing up on the west coast of Washington. Everywhere is grey. The further out one goes the more is returned to green, and the green is slowly reclaiming the land. Within a couple years after the eruption the caribou and elk had returned to the area, and in the last few years the lake has once again started to yield fish, although the locals suspect someone stocked the lake. We think in terms of what is long in our life time, and twenty years is a fair length of time, longer than many friendships and careers, longer than the prime of our lives, but Mt. St. Helens has erupted 10 times in the last thousand years, and already the land is returning to its original appearance. The lava dome will continue to grow, until it fills the gaping hole, and then it will again relieve the pressure building beneath the surface, and our descendants, generations from now, will come in and research the results and learn, piece by piece, in a low process of waiting, how nature behaves on a time scale it sees as dynamic and ever changing.

I wearily make my way back to the EcoPark, and decide to pick out my spot before getting my gear. The few campers in the area have pulled out, and I begin to note that there are no lights, and there are no people, and I recall that the owner talked this morning about the elk rutting and carrying on in the middle of the night, even going to people's cabins and looking in, and the sun is still pretty high, and I am just too tired to deal with some weird stuff happening yet again, so I tell the owner that I wrapped up earlier than I expected and I plan on making some miles toward Vancouver, where I have a relative I plan to visit for a couple days. In the end, I stop about thirty miles up the Interstate at a KOA campground, near the freeway, where there are plenty of people and plenty of lights, and I sleep like a rock, cocooned in my clothes and sleeping bag, with my bedsheet pulled over my head.

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