A Fair Weather Escape: Mt. St. Helens, Gardening, and Approaching 70

April 7, 2022
4 miles (to date: 11.9 / 70)

After last week’s daily change in this week’s weather forecast—three days of sun, no sun, one day of sun, three days of sun—there ended up being two days. On the first one, I removed a wheel barrow full of weekend storm debris from the roof, cleared the meadow of three times as many fir branches as there were after the entire winter, then cleared all my trails that access the official trails in the adjacent natural area. I planted the new raised bed box (the building of which was not really a one-woman job, but I did it) with edible flowers. The peas are up! As I write this, the meadow has had its first mowing of the season, and the new box, peas, and lettuce (which is not up) have had a natural watering.

Day two, I claimed my reward and ran up to Mt. St. Helens. Yes, at an hour and a quarter away, I can literally “run up there” any time I want! I’m so lucky. It was a gorgeous blue-sky day. To drive in the dark and get to a viewpoint for sunrise, or leave at dawn, drive in the light, and watch the sun come up over the prairie is always a tough call. I chose the latter this time.

I’m listening to a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr (author of a favorite book, All the Light You Cannot See). He was awarded a one-year writing residency he did not apply for and, accompanied by his wife and their six-month-old twins, spent a year in Rome. I feel momentarily melancholy as I contemplate rounding into seventy in June and consider all the adventures I didn’t—and now won’t—have. Topping the list is travel beyond North America. Unlike my sisters, I did not have a term abroad during college. I haven’t traveled to foreign countries other than a week in Australia (with a parent-driven agenda) and a fantastic trip to Africa. Living in Italy for year sounds incredible. I quickly move on to the amazing things I have done. Several cross-country road trips top that list. And hopefully there are more road trips to come. And living in this magnificent place. And, not to forget, being a grandmother. And publishing a book.

A large elk meanders across the road in front of me, and I stop well back and watch as a herd of sixteen or so, male/female/young, all molting, jump the guard rail and stroll to the other side—some stopping to look at my incongruous orange car—then scramble up the steep embankment to graze.

I drive to Johnston Ridge, the road open earlier this year than last. This mountain is so close. At 9600 feet (before May 1980) it was only the fifth highest peak in Washington. But it rose above the hills and the trees—unlike Rainier, which is hidden until almost the top of the road—and is in your face all the way up. I try to remember how imposing it must have been at 1300 feet higher than it is now. I can’t. I squint my eyes and try to imagine it. I really can’t.

It was warm and calm at Coldwater Lake when I stopped at the bathroom, but it is cold and the wind is whistling at the still-closed visitor center. I walk up through snow, hoping to see the mountain goat trip reporters have said is hanging out near the building. I saw it early last season, but it was just out of range of my phone camera. This time I have my real camera, but I don’t see it. And I don’t stay long. (Turns out I just missed Heather Cox Richardson and her husband, touring the PNW.)

I head back down to the Hummocks parking lot and hike out the Boundary West trail until I get to bottom of the scary switchbacks. I’ll wait for the flowers to bloom in the meadow on top before I tackle that, and probably will get there from the other less dizzying side anyway.

Multi-color Oregon grape
Snow in a hole
Hummocks
Snow in a hole

It’s such a treat to be up here while there is still snow on this mountain, snow and ice that used to be perennial and now melts almost completely in the summer. Change, everything changes.

Coldwater Lake

Ten million trees were lost when the mountain erupted. Try to fathom that number. I grew up with a forester father who was a pioneer of sustainable forestry. I can’t drive through the timber company lands at Mt. St. Helens, or out at the peninsula coast without reading the signs that tell travelers when the land was harvested, and replanted, and when it will be harvested again. A lot of the land here was replanted in the early ’80s, after the trees were felled prematurely. But I realize when I come upon an orange-vested planting crew loading packs with seedlings then trudging up the steep, rugged, stump-filled hillside (not as easily as the elk did it), I don’t think I have ever seen planting in action. I turn around and drive by again and then again on the return. They must have thought I was nuts.

Few of us get all the adventures and experiences. We choose a cruise in this life (and I know I am privileged to have choices), maybe without knowing until too late there were other options; and if we are lucky, it is enough. I didn’t get the mountain goat this time, but I did get the elk. I hope my time is not up; but if it ends tomorrow, it has been enough.

One more view of her shortened self on the way down.

I invite you to check out my author website: www.gretchenstaebler.com. Subscribe to my e-letter there and read the first two chapters of my memoir: Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, coming from She Writes Press in October. 

6 thoughts on “A Fair Weather Escape: Mt. St. Helens, Gardening, and Approaching 70

  1. What a great photo journal! While I was lucky enough to see the mountain goat last week, I rarely get anything other than butt-shots of those elk. I’m always so impressed by what you accomplish on this beautiful property. I walked the trails yesterday and am about to go again. I have to say that your musings about your milestone birthday are thoughts that I share even as I’m a decade behind you. You inspire me every day to stay active and engaged. Thank you for that. 

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With my mother’s age in my face for the first six and a half years of my 60s (and you are experiencing that now with your parents), I think I kind of took the last four years off from thinking about it. Suddenly I am again, though in a different way. I might have to reflect on all of that!

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  2. Being satisfied with what we have is almost as challenging as those switchbacks! But I wonder if Doerr has seen what you have seen. An amazing mountain, even in its diminished form. I laughed at the snow in the holes.
    And, Gretchen – on the roof! building a raised bed! clearing trails! Are you superwoman??
    Thank you for sharing the journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess I try to be. Though it’s not a role I revel in particularly. That snow in the hole made me laugh too. Intrepid, just like the mountain and all that surrounds it. Yeah, and maybe me too. (I’m sure Boise, where Doerr lives, is a very nice place, and I’m glad I live here! Better to live in Paradise than just to visit.)

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