I once read that every breath I take has something like .00005 percent of Julius Caesar’s last exhale in it. I’m breathing some of the same air as did Julius Caesar. Of course the point of that fact is just to show how recycled our air is and any other example of a breath would have worked just as well (there was nothing particular about Julius Caesar’s breath — any one of them — to make it especially suitable for the example). But I was reminded of that fact today as I was cruising through the Cascades, over the barren and misshapen landscape surrounding Mount Saint Helens only some twenty-three years after it blew half its shape into the surrounding terra firma and poured billions of cubic meters of liquid ash into the air, reaching as high as twelve miles up into the stratosphere. I thought it no wonder that I still smelled hot rock, burning trees and dirt, scalding pools of subterranean water boiling up so much pressure that they eventually spewed all the land above — in quarter-mile diameters in some cases — vacating a perfectly smooth crater. I smelled the devastation of the mountain volcano and its adoring countryside. And the many people it took down with it. I smelled them all and much stronger than Julius Caesar’s lungs, since this was some 1938 years sooner and on location, as opposed to half-a-world away in Italy. The smell was real, I’m sure of it — just as sure as I am of the tens of thousands of stripped tree trunks laying on the ground, all respectfully pointing to Mt. St. Helens like needles of iron shavings point towards a magnet.
And of magnets, they say that anything metal and indeed, even the soil that mindlessly covered the ground, was so magnetized by the eruption that the braces on children’s teeth would hum, binoculars would hum, anything metal would hum, and compasses would spin out of control, confused. Some photographers, days after the initial eruption, set out to video the devastation and got lost because of the problem with the compasses, and were only saved by a series of “miracles.” The first was a rainstorm that thinned the ash-clouded air that surely would have suffocated them. A second and third dealt with a tree that had fallen into the shape of a cross and marked the point of the horizon where the saving helicopters would eventually come.
The site is full of stories, all limited to a few mile radius and a few days time in May of 1980. It’s amazing how many stories can come from such a tight set of parameters. There’s the story of Harry Truman, an old man who lived near Spirit Lake in the shadow of the mountain and who decided there was no way there was enough material in that mountain to make it all the way to his house. He refused to leave, even temporarily. His stubborn attitude brought him lots of nationwide media attention leading up to the eruption and the stubborn old man eventually died because of that attitude — there was enough material in that mountain to not only reach Spirit Lake, but to send waves 800 feet up the side of its surrounding ridges and eventually permanently raise the lake 200 feet from its original height.
There are stories of loggers, preparing to head home for the day but unexpectedly swept over by the initial blast, silent to anyone within a certain radius but loud enough to hear 300 miles away in British Columbia. The whole north face of the mountain would slump and explode and shoot across the valleys at roaring speeds, toppling trees up to eight feet in diameter, and a few of the loggers would live. And some wouldn’t.
There’s a story of a couple fishing, with no time to react to a wall of water and logs tearing around an S-curve in the river, the river raising six feet in a matter of seconds, pulling the couple out and under, smashing their legs and arms between huge stealthy beasts of trees. And they’d live.
I loved the stories and I loved the photography, all the actual footage of the eruption. Time delayed videos. Incidental photographs. Planned and prepared documenters. There was enough footage, enough photographs, enough computer-generated reenactments, and enough overly-dramatic voiceovers to make at least the three videos that I watched today in a handful of the park’s many visitor centers. The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument has a different visitor’s center for all kinds of specialties. I stopped at the first one, the main one, for the general exhibits — a timeline of the explosion, general information on plate tectonics and volcanic activity, artifacts from the explosion like melted hand-radios and newspapers, and the first two videos of the day. One video told the story of the eruption and included all the anecdotes that I mentioned above, while the second explained a bit about all the potentially-active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, from Northern California, all the way through Washington and Mt. Rainier.
Access to the mountain is unfortunately very simple. There is a single road, Route 504, that extends 52 miles east of the major freeway, I-5. This long-jut of a road is the only access route to the volcano — and thus, the only way out too. So I had to drive a couple of hours out of the way to experience Mt. St. Helens, and I’m not sure whether I can judge that quite yet (evasive factors include: how often I use the information I learned, and how desperate I am for time in the next few days). But it was all very interesting, especially the drive out, more aware, more knowledgeable. I could recognize that many of the tiny mountains that dotted the Toutle River were actually deposited there by the initial blast — they call them “hummocks.” There were many more hummocks around the base of the mountain, but they were filled in by the molten pumice that came later, making a smooth ramp from the open mouth of the crater inside the volcano.
It’s still alive, of course, and actually a bit frightening to look into its mouth there and see the big bulge, the swelling lump of magma, a goiter of molten lava, growing. I can’t remember what heals goiters, but Saint Helen needs a lot of it.
My tour of the site also included a brief stop and one-mile hike to the “new” Sediment Retention Dam on the Toutle River, completed in late 1989 to clear the river of the extreme amounts of debris and sediment it now carries with it. It was one of the Corps of Engineers first projects following the eruption, a necessary step to maintain proper water-flow in the Toutle River and safe shipping through the Columbia River downstream. It’s different than a typical dam in that it doesn’t stop water from flowing — nay, instead it simply slows the water down, giving time for the thick sediment to settle to the bottom and clean, unobstructed water to flow onward. One of the signs said that the whole dam will be filled up with sediment, from bottom to top, around 2034, and that water will simply flow, sediment-free, over the top of the dam from then on — job complete.
The Mt. Saint Helens detour was the major event of the day and occupied most of my hours. I didn’t leave Lakewood and the Wollens until 11 a.m. I slept in, just as I had planned, and loved every minute of it — I didn’t get up until 9:15. And then Erika and I lounged around at watched thirty minutes of a dating show which felt like a long span of TV-watching, strangely (this coming from a guy who once could watch six hours of television and wonder where his evening and night and next morning disappeared to — every day!). But it was nice, the TV, since I don’t get a chance very often. I said goodbye to Erika and Lori after using their computer to update and collecting all my stuff together again. I sooo appreciated everything they’ve done — all their time to show me around Seattle and Mt. Rainier and the use of their showers and beds and LAKE and computer and kitchen and for all the costs included within. It was generally a relaxing couple of days and I had a lot of fun, a very pleasant diversion to my normal routine.
But I’ve moved onwards, southwards, beyond Mount St. Helens and into Oregon. I crossed over mid-state and bee-lined it for the coast, arriving here at the very northern tip of the Oregon coast at 7:30 or so tonight. I’m staying in a state park called Fort Stevens, some sort of maritime historical site, where the campground has nary an available site. The entire tent-area was full when I arrived and they only had four other sites left, so I had to pay four bucks extra, even though I will not use the electricity or water hookups. The place is crowded — I’m constantly amazed by the number of people with RVs and mobile homes, out and traveling and “camping” everywhere. I have neighbors playing pseudo-volleyball, others complaining about the fish not biting, others hermited up inside their fancy screened-in mobile abodes. What an opportunity to meet people! But I don’t, not usually.
I’ve had Subway for two meals today, beginning my regimen of healthy-eating as I proceed down the coast to the land of flat-stomachs, fake boobs, and faker personalities. I admit that I’m a victim as I’m already planning my low-fat meals, scheduling my tanning on the beaches, and fussing over my dire need of a haircut. I had my usual sandwich for lunch — the roasted chicken — but tried something brand-new for supper: I had the veggie delight, all lettuce and onion and olive and pickle and green pepper, and it was really good. Not very filling, no, but good.
It’s cold tonight, low sixties now and falling, and I love it of course. The plummet of temperature came almost exactly when I crossed the border into Oregon and they kept falling the closer I came to the ocean. It was so cold I had to roll up the windows and close the sunroof, even as my back was still sweaty from the 97° temperature in Washington.
I will officially begin my plunge down the Pacific Coast tomorrow, tightly cuddling the ocean for 230 miles before jutting back inland to Crater Lake (created by an eruption of 20 times the mass of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, resulting in the States’ deepest lake). I will unquestionably also drive my ten-thousandth mile tomorrow. I want to do something to celebrate the milestone, but I’m afraid popping open a bottle of champagne roadside might not go over with the police too well. So, alternatively, I think I’ll probably just buy some grapes, pull over and eat a bunch, wherever that mile comes along — and that’s if I’m lucky enough to remember and notice. And perhaps I’ll treat myself to a haircut as well.