Last week I had the very distinct pleasure of hiking into the blast zone of Mount St Helens. The Pumice Plains area has been on my list for several years. I’ve done a lot of reading about the eruption and what has often been its beautiful aftermath. It is a story brimming with life and destruction, people and place, resilience and renewal.
As I have noted before, it is a stunning drive on a late spring morning. I couldn’t help but imagine standing at the Johnston Observatory rock wall as civil twilight paints the sky. Next time I will be here to witness the breaking of the day. In my minds eye I can see the colors spread out across the plain as what remains of that beautiful peak stands in stillness, a silhouette awash in morning light.
The trails I chose on this Wednesday morning were lined up on my map as though a march through history. Boundary Trail to Truman Trail to the Pumice Plain and beyond. Loowit Falls had not been on my radar but an adventure is an adventure !
I thought a lot about Harry Truman as I meandered the Boundary Trail toward the long path that bears his name. If you don’t know a lot about this legendary caretaker at Spirit Lake it is a wonderful story within a story.
He was well known in that part of the mountain. He opened the Mount St Helens Lodge in the early 1940’s. The lodge itself was built in 1939. There were several cabins as well and some great fishing at Spirit Lake. Harry had leased 50 acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad as he sought to escape civilization.
His story is pretty fascinating and worth digging into. His brief celebrity revealed a man of character, or rather, revealed the man AS a character. He hated Republicans, hippies, young children and old people. He loved discussing politics and swore quite excessively. He died on that mountain with his 16 cats, his pink ’57 Cadillac and an impressive amount of bourbon whiskey and Coca Cola.
Bottom line, I get it.
If I were living in the shadow of this mountain I would have made the same choice Harry did. I would have stayed. I am sad that he lost his life but I choose to imagine that he was there bearing witness to something not another soul would see. The truth is, as the eruption began we don’t know what Harry saw. Did he make it into his steel mine shelter ? Was he entombed for days as time fell from his storied life; as life itself slowly slipped away ? Was he caught in the pyroclastic flow ?
He is a legend. A folk hero. He became, as we all eventually do, a story. And what a wonderful story at that. Nothing but respect, Harry. Nothing but respect.
As you travel along the Boundary trail you reach a junction taking you down toward the Pumice Plain via Truman Trail, or up to Harry’s Ridge. The flowers are beginning to bloom RIGHT NOW. The Boundary and Truman trails are lined with purple Lupine and fiery Indian Paintbrush. It is a stunning walk through a truly miraculous place.
I saw just one other person as I began what would be a 14 mile trek. I met Craig, a photographer, on the edge of the Boundary Trail. He was sharing that the whole place might still look like the barren surface of the moon had it erupted in August rather than May. Snow and fallen trees protected many of the seeds that would later be exposed as the prairie gophers and other small creatures began to emerge from hibernation. As they came up through the ash, they turned the soil and played an important role in the renewal. We chatted a bit about his night in the Mount Margaret backcountry and his chance meeting with another adventurer who had witnessed a herd of 70 elk the previous day making their way across the plain.
Walking through this area was like nothing I have seen. The mossy path, the pumice and ash beneath my feet and the colors ! Spirit Lake was a rich, deep blue and seemed silent and serene. I thought about Harry here, too. I also came upon a green, milky pond that was like a chunk of jade in a barren desert.
The thing I love about hiking here is that even someone as “navigation- challenged” as myself can easily follow the trail. The boundary posts serve as a visual guide and it seemed like every time I was unsure of which way to go, there was a post within my field of view that made it impossible, even for me, to get lost.
As I moved further along toward the Loowit Falls trail, it was boulder piles that provided the necessary visual cues I needed to navigate the trail. There is an unmistakable sense that life is happening beneath your feet at every turn. It is absolutely imperative that you remain on the trail. Even a short walk through this fragile meadow could erase decades of slow, steady growth.
Let all things be as they are.
I felt like a guest here. There is something honorable about being invited into this place. I saw so much: wispy clouds that seemed to shoot out from the crater, skeletal remains of something a friend later sumised might be a goat and an explosion of caterpillars in the alder and willow shoots that seemed such a natural part of things that even my deep fear of the acid-haired crawlers fell away enough for me to proceed to my ultimate destination. ( I spent a good twenty minutes standing before this wall of shoots. I could not imagine this was the trail, nor could I imagine going through it. But it was. And I did. Sometimes the only way there is through … )
It was a day of days. Solitude, birds, and here is maybe the best part, I felt great. I felt alive with an energy I’ve been missing. I had the kind of clarity that had disappeared for a spell, but came roaring back in a big way that Wednesday. I walked further and stayed much later than I intended.
It was the visual definition that could live alongside the quote: ” I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ” – John Muir