When I drove up to Windy Ridge on Sunday morning, my head was dancing with a brand new idea for my future. Though I left home under overcast skies, and the Mt. St. Helens’ webcam revealed no mountain, according to the weather forecast it would improve to partly cloudy by 8am. It’s always a bit of risk to head to a mountain with no more than a promise, but I was feeling optimistic—and more than a bit high over my vision.
The road just outside Randle (if there is an inside vs. an outside of tiny Randle) forks into two forest service roads: FR 23 to Mt. Adams and FR 25 to Mt. St. Helens. Last January, out for an explore, I went a ways down both roads until I ran into a frozen wonderland. I was excited last month to go all the way to Adams and downright giddy now to see the rest the route to Windy Ridge.
My plan was to hike the Loowit Falls trail at the end of the road. According the Washington Trails Association website (a fabulous resource), the hike along an old logging road—the escape route used by people fleeing the eruption—offers some of the best views in the area: “across the blast plain and right into the gaping maw of the crater.” Things don’t always go according to plan.
The fog is dense as I wind up the serpentine FR 99. I can see nothing of the blast zone as it stretches, I am sure, down and down over the ridges to my left and up and up on the right. At the Harmony viewpoint at 10:30 there is nothing to see, but I peer over the stone wall into the foggy abyss anyway. Through squinted eyes, I realize it is not blank after all. Ghostly trees, both dead and living, peer back at me; and wildflowers glow weakly through the mist.
At Windy Ridge, I join others looking over Spirit Lake and the plain. And nothing else. There is a huge mountain right there in front of us, but you have to know it to know it. Hiking the trail past an invisible mountain doesn’t make much sense. With nothing but time, I decide to sit out the fog. I eat my lunch, read my book (I knew this could happen, I came prepared), and wait. Finally I walk up the 482 steps to the observation deck. As I climb I think about my Big Idea. It is very foggy, but I think it might prove worthy when it’s time.
I smile at the signage: “Revegetation in progress. No entry beyond this point.” After 33 years and this is all there is—but Hope Springs a Turtle. At the observation deck, I look down over Spirit Lake. Sad Spirit Lake. The lake’s surface is 200 feet higher than it was on May 17, 1980, and 10 per cent smaller. The trees are gone; the canoes and the campsites are gone; more than a third of the lake is still filled with slowly sinking logs.
I walk a ways up the Truman Trail (named for Harry, who went down with his mountain), until I am right over the log jam. It’s an easy trail along the edge of the ridge, but there are spots where I feel a little unbalanced. I have a bit of a fear of heights. It’s like my life: sometimes the trail is clear and flat and feels safe and I move quickly and confidently; if not without some boredom. Sometimes it seems treacherous. That’s when my heart pounds and my head says, “You can’t do this; you’re too afraid.” And then I do it and I feel great and I’m free to see what’s around the next curve.
As I head back toward the observation deck, it’s looking more foggy down in the parking lot. Now I’m afraid the road will get socked in, and a mountain road I can’t see from a moving car scares the crap out of me. I hustle down the 482 steps and am relieved that it’s not as bad as it looked from above. But the mountain really doesn’t seem to be clearing, so I decide to head back down the road to my #2 trail choice. Conditions are not right today for the Loowit trail; but I can revisit. I live here!
On the Norway Pass trail, the fog clears and the vistas are breathtaking. Meta Lake, a spot of blue among the tree-dotted slopes and ghost-white snags; fireweed and foxglove; huckleberries! (My family of origin came to this mountain to pick huckleberries. I eat some and take some to share with Mama, probably against the rules.) This trail has more twists and curves and surprises than the one on the open, ash-covered Harry’s Ridge. I don’t know where I’m heading or when I might get there; the trail is about the journey. Just before my arbitrarily designated turn-back time, I decide on one more altitude increase, one more curve. And there she is: the ravaged Spirit Lake from the log jam end; her elusive lover still veiled.
The sky is clear, except around the mountain. I sit in waiting for an hour as clouds move at glacial speed over her face. Once in a while, an edge appears to let me know she is really there, then disappears again. As I wait, my mind returns to my future. Sometimes the way is clear far ahead. Sometimes it disappears over a ridge or around a bend or into the fog right in front of your nose. Keep moving, live with the unknown, wait for the unveiling. You can’t hurry the process.
I still think the sainted Helens might come out today, but I need to head home. There will be another day for both the mountain and my future to get clear. That’s the thing about fog: it may disappear everything for today, but tomorrow or the next day or the next the skies will be blue.