Beauty from Ashes – July 25-29, 2016

Quickly setting up camp at beautiful Seaquest State Park, we headed down the 504 for the 60+ mile round-trip journey to see Mount Saint Helens.


We studied her geology, eruption, and aftermath a few years ago as a family and with our homeschool group.

To us, this was the point at which we had “arrived” at our vacation destination.

It has always been one of those “impossible” things that we’ve wanted to do.  Now we’re here.

I was overcome with emotion as we drove and looked and stopped at the viewpoints.  THIS was the scene of such devastation.  THIS was the area where old-growth forest trees were leveled in seconds from the force of the blast alone.  THESE were the homes and properties covered in ash.  THESE were the people whose lives were rocked by the volcanic eruption.


By the time we made it to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was closed.  But we were glad to take in the scene, knowing that we would return in a couple of days.


In the meantime, Cliff & I split the next day and the kids 50/50.  In the AM Cliff, along with Uriah & Obadiah, fished for trout in the Toutle River while I stayed home with Isaiah & Nadia to catch up on math and piano lessons.  In the afternoon, we switched kids while keeping the agenda the same.


After spending a slow, quiet morning in the campground the following day, we began the trip up to Johnson Ridge again.


We stopped at “Patty’s Place” for lunch, enjoying the view from our table on the back deck.


Along the way we stopped at the Buried A-Frame.  This family spent 7 years slowly building a vacation getaway here.  It was scheduled to be completed 3 days after the blast, which instead deposited tons of 100-degree mud into its first floor.  The mudflows raised the level of the surrounding land so high that it now looks like the family incorporated a basement into their design!


There also appears to be a lot of Sasquatch propaganda here.  I heard that some locals think that Big Foot may have been killed by the Mount Saint Helens eruption, because there have been no sightings in this area since then. (!)


We caught a Ranger talk first thing, in sight of Spirit Lake.  Ranger Anna did a great job of explaining the leadup to the eruption, as well as the blast and aftermath.  She also recounted brief snippits of survivors’ stories that choked me up.  The 30-minute talk left me wanting to know more.


This place is more than geology and nature.  This event changed and shaped this community’s life and even its identity.  I imagine that even the tourism itself is quite different than before.


We spoke with some older men who worked for the forest service who still express much sadness, and even anger, that their beautiful area is gone and forever changed, living only now in photographs and memories.


It is a bit intimidating to be here, so close to the place where almost 40 years ago all life was forcefully destroyed in the blink of an eye.

We have seen lots and lots of mountains during our trip.  Though every one of them commands awe, none of them gave me the cold, fearful feeling that Saint Helens dealt.


After leaving Johnston Ridge, we took a hike around Coldwater Lake, which didn’t even exist before the blast.




We filled up on on wild huckleberries, blackberries, raspberries, and more.  Oh, yes.  Ripened to perfection, right off the vine.  These are some mighty tasty antioxidants!


Believe it or not, by the time we arrived at the other visitor centers in the area, they were closed.  So we had to make a trek up there for the 3rd time!  (Jill, and anyone else who has visited here, you KNOW why I am sighing while I write this, don’t you!)

Continuing our story from there, the Forest Learning Center was very well done.  We probably spent the most time here.


Although we do have some logging in Indiana, we really knew nothing more about it than they cut down trees!  We learned about harvesting, manufacturing, and replanting.  We really enjoyed the hands-on learning center and wished that we had more time to “play” in there!


What was absolutely amazing to us is that Weyerhauser was able to salvage almost all of the downed trees from the blast, ultimately gleaning enough lumber to build 85,000 average-sized 3-bedroom houses.  To do this, the workers had to dig off inches of ash & burned tree bark from every tree before making each cut with a chainsaw.


This is a great place to mention two stategies used in bringing the area back to life.  While Weyerhauser salvaged the lumber, they planted all of their land with new trees.  It is a stunningly beautiful forest to behold now, almost 30 years later.  These young trees are so uniform-looking, their trunks all being perfectly straight and parallel with each other.  Even the branches seem to grow at exactly the same angles!  It is so perfectly beautiful that it almost seems unreal and unnatural!


In contrast the neighboring Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument has let nature run its course.  The area has regrown indeed, but at a slower pace and in a more natural way.  It possesses its own beauty.  The beauty of recovery.  Of overcoming.


I dare not say that one strategy is at all better than another.  In a crisis, each one of us sets his own course based on the needs dictated by our wounds and on the situation itself.  All I can say is that I am glad that both strategies were attempted and that all these years later, I am witness to their fledgling results.

We finished off at Hoffstadt Bluffs, which was really a tourist trap masquerading as one of the museums.  We did get to see a helicopter take off, though!


It was also our very last view of the remains of the mountain, seen through the miles of devastating Toutle River mudflows.


It was here that we paused and asked the Lord…what do you want us to come away with?  We spent 5 miutes or so pondering this, which seemed an eternity to some of us, only an instant for others me.

Was it a message of beauty for ashes?  If so, the ashes are still here.  The burnt remains are still here.  And the beauty is a transformed and developing one, all the while leaving behind the ugly remnant of the mountain which wrought it.


Was it a message of “who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”  A message of Noah and of Jesus?

Was it one of geology?  Of a cataclysmic event which has transformed our previous way of thinking, creating Coldwater Lake, fossils, petrified logs, and new rock layers  in “The Little Grand Canyon” in minutes, days, and years rather than millions of years?  (One of the titles of a kids’ display was “Are you older than a rock?”  It exhibited rocks created by a recent geological event in the mountain.  The rock was the same age as Obadiah!)


Was it one of the human spirit?  Of those who lost lives, family members, personal property, livelihoods.  Of those who changed neighborhoods, having never changed their addresses?  They each have a heart-wrenching story.  It brings to mind Sade’s song, “It Hurts Like Brand New Shoes.”  Like Weyerhauser and the Volcanic Monument, I am sure each individual attempted recovery in the best way he could.  I am sure that in a parallel way, there are ashes and scars, beauty and recovery in their lives.


I really never got an answer to my question about the message to come away with.  At least, I am still ruminating on thoughts.

We spent our last night at the Harry Gardener park, right on the Toutle River.  Cool beans.



Here are the boys taking a little pre-breakfast swim before we took off toward the Olympic Peninsula.


We’ll pick up from there in the next post!

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