Monday, 12 October 2015

OddBike USA Tour 2015: Part IV - Mount St. Helens

Aprilia Tuono Mount St Helens

The following day I hit the road alongside Neal. I learn very quickly that at this altitude the Tuono is even more of a homicidal maniac than I'm used to. When a car tries to cut me off in the early morning traffic I give it a handful in first gear to scoot past and the front instantly rockets skyward with the sort of alacrity that is both terrifying and endlessly entertaining. I apologize to Neal for drawing any unwanted attention and gesture to the luggage; the extra weight on the ass end makes this thing ridiculously wheelie happy.  

Aprilia Tuono Spirit Lake Highway

I head down the I-5 through Seattle, painlessly bypassing most of the morning's commuters via the HOV and express lanes. While I’d love to stick around and check out the sights (the Museum of Flight is on my bucket list, but time is too limited this time around) my goal for today is a bit further south.

Aprilia Tuono Mount St Helens

As a child I was simultaneously terrified and awed by volcanoes, and Mount St. Helens was the prototypical event of the modern era for the overwhelming power of nature's geological wrath. The fact that one day in 1980 a mountain up and exploded, blasting so much ash and rock into the atmosphere that my parents recall the colour of the sky changing on the opposite side of the continent, captivated me. Actually it scared the shit out of me. Mount St. Helens and the story of Parícutin suddenly rising out of a farmer's field in Mexico were the two events that cemented the terrifying power of nature in my young mind. To me the sudden violence of volcanic activity remains the ultimate expression of the supremacy of nature, a force that can only be rivalled by the detonation of atomic weapons (perhaps not coincidentally another one of my terror/awe obsessions).

Mount St Helens

The images of that day in May 1980 are burned into my mind. A mountain collapsing and exploding, sending rivers of mud and ash and fallen trees flowing across the landscape. I can still picture the footage in my mind, scenes of grey mud and dust enveloping the surroundings, obliterating the dense Pacific Northwest forest, of felled trees choking Spirit Lake. I had to make a pilgrimage to the mountain to see what remains.

The detour begins innocently along Spirit Lake Highway, a pleasant secondary road off the interstate winding through idyllic pastoral fields. The area is sparsely populated, a few farms and the tiny towns of Toutle and Toledo close to I-5. As you continue along the fields subside, the forest closes in, and the road begins to twist and turn as it climbs several thousand feet into the Cascades, quickly becoming a winding mountain route that is pretty entertaining in itself aboard a motorcycle. Even if you weren't interested in seeing Mount St. Helens, you'd have fun riding the road that takes you there.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

For the part of the ride there isn't much to suggest you are approaching what was once a scene of utter devastation. It seems impossible that something so cataclysmic happened a mere 60 miles up the road, particularly on a warm, clear day like today when the sun is painting the scene in brilliant hues and the trees are resplendent in their lush, late summer foliage. This is Bigfoot country, dense forest and tall trees with only tiny outposts of civilization along the way, the human element fading quickly as you climb higher and higher into the mountains.

Mount St Helens

Gradually the evidence begins to come into view. Tributaries choked with sun bleached logs and stagnant from the lack of sunlight and oxygen, mudflows grown over with green cover but still exhibiting the signs of their rapid movement through the landscape. Suddenly you see the outline of the volcano looming off in the distance. The shape of its hollowed-out northwest flank is unmistakable, a massive crater surrounding the still-active caldera. The hair on my neck stands up and a wave of anxiety washes over me, my spine tingling and my muscles pulsing. I stop and stare at it off in the distance. This is the sum of my childhood fear and my fascination with the uncontrollable power of nature, right there on the horizon. It seems closer than I imagined. Once again I'm disappointed at how little the photos convey, and how the sense of scale is impossible to translate into a static image. Riding along this road watching this broken mountain creep closer and closer is an intense and humbling experience for me.

Mount St. Helens May 17 1980
Image Source
I ride to the summit of Johnston Ridge to visit the observatory and national monument. This is hallowed ground; volcanologist David A. Johnston sat here on the morning of May 18th, less than 6 miles from Mount St. Helens, and transmitted his final words and the first report of the eruption at 8.32 AM "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" before the lateral blast obliterated everything on the ridge. He was credited with helping prevent the premature re-opening of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest due to his belief that a lateral eruption was possible, in the process saving the lives of thousands of spring tourists who might have been in the area had the evacuation notice been lifted. His body was never found.

Photo by Harry Glicken of David A. Johnston 13 hours before the eruption of Mount St. Helens
Image Source

The monument is a fantastic tribute to the event and the lives lost or altered by the eruption, a sober and modern concrete structure that offers a spectacular view of the volcano. It serves as an educational centre and scientific research station, part of the ongoing monitoring of the site since 1980. And it is absolutely worth visiting.

Mount St Helens

The view over Mount St. Helens from Johnston Ridge is incredible. Photos are disappointing in their ability to convey your proximity to the mountain. I feel as though I could throw a rock into the crater, standing far, far closer than I imagined. I am truly awestruck by the scene. Nature has reclaimed most of the area, even the pumice plain beneath the crater is showing signs of greenery. Evidence of the landslide and the pyroclastic flows are subtle, mainly visible as irregularities in the shape of the land and the presence of fallen trees. It is not nearly as stark and dead as I imagined it would be. The iconic images we are all familiar with are those immediately following the eruption, with less attention paid to how the region has recovered since then.    

The experience is extremely moving for me, to see firsthand what has become a legend in my mind. This relic of nature's power, of my childhood fear and awe, is just as imposing and beautiful as I hoped it would be. I spend a few pensive moments standing on the ridge, staring at the crater and collecting my thoughts.

Mount St Helens from Johnston Ridge

I don't know if many would be as overwhelmed as I am. Perhaps they see this as just another scenic view among thousands of scenic views available in the area. Maybe I'm just weird, living within a hyperactive mind that tends to ascribe deep meaning to ordinary things. I can become very passionate and emotional about inanimate objects - one of the main reasons I truly love motorcycling. I obsess over my interests to the point of insanity.

Mount St Helens

My intensity gets me into trouble. I have a tendency to pour all of my emotion and my manic obsession into all-or-nothing gambles in my relationships. I then analyse things beyond any reasonable measure and worry about every detail until I can't live in my head anymore, then the whole thing blows up in my face, and then I repeat the same mistakes I've always made despite recognizing the patterns I've developed over years of fucking things up. Then I have to tell myself to forget it all, to clear my mind and reset the counter so that the next time I don't fall into the same traps I lay out for myself. Then I do the same thing again, because I'm crazier than a bag of hammers, naïve, and a sucker for punishment.

Mount St Helens

I know I'm nuts, and some days I spend most of my energy desperately trying to keep my mind in check while maintaining the disguise of normalcy. Everyone has their own pet solution to your problems, usually ones that involve modifying your personality to suit the needs of other people. It's self-destructive to try and please everyone and constantly alter your ways to play the game, adding new layers to the façade to isolate your true self from an unsympathetic world. I find it better to learn from my mistakes and use them as impetus to better myself, maintaining a positive view of humanity even when I'm being exploited, and channelling my insanity into my creative pursuits. I'm at my best when I apply my obsessive nature in a positive way.

Mount St Helens

Some days I win, some I lose. But when I'm out here on the road I can briefly escape from my demons and enjoy clarity of thought I rarely achieve when I'm stuck at home or in the office, stewing over my darker thoughts and anxieties.          

Johnston Ridge tree

Back along the twisting mountain route that, if worth doing once, is well worth doing again. Again I find a sense of contentment washing over me, the calm satisfaction brought on by a day well spent and a ride well chosen, a peculiar sensation I have been missing intensely over the previous months. My anxiety and my stress have melted away, and I have many more miles to go and many more sights to see.

Mount St Helens

I head back onto the Interstate through Portland and Salem on my way to the coast, slogging through congestions and a series of towns linked by sprawl and swirling freeways. I need to get free of this cruel urbanity. I need to make a beeline for the coast, to return to the quiet winding roads where I can think and move. The city stifles me and occupies my mind with stress and contempt for the other drivers who impeded my progress. The less said about my journey through that dull grey concrete sprawl, the better.

Aprilia Tuono Portland

I'm heading for the Pacific Coast, a route I've wanted to travel for years. My father had driven the coast many decades ago and expressed his longing to return, to ride along the beaches and dunes that surround picturesque communities. Places like Pebble Beach, Monterey, Big Sur, San Simeon - iconic locales that are well known throughout the world for their idyllic beauty. Places I've wanted to discover and experience firsthand.

Aprilia Tuono Rest Stop

The sprawl subsides and begets the rolling hills of Oregon's vineyards, which gradually transmute into coastal forest and tall trees. At ease again.

Aprilia Tuono KOA Lincoln City

I stop for the night at a KOA "Kampground" just outside Lincoln City, the first campground I find when exhaustion has set in and my mind enters the "you must stop riding now" mode that is best heeded before you make a catastrophic mistake. It may be kitschy, but at least it's classless. It's a reliable choice provided you can stand the people who congregate there. I setup my camp and sit down to take my notes for the day while a pair of drunken dolts across the lot make their presence known to everyone within earshot. State/Provincial/National parks don't seem to attract the same sort of obnoxious riff raff that private campgrounds do. I'm all for having a good time and I like beer as much as the next guy but getting blasted while driving around a campground crawling with kids, honking your horn and yelling obscenities, seems like a recipe for disaster. Or at least a good reason to get knocked the fuck out by a concerned parent.

Lincoln City KOA

I've always tried to keep my drunken stupidity to myself and a circle of close friends. When I get wasted, I'm still me - just dumber and a bit more prone to doing things usually precluded by my inhibitions. So when I see people who are complete and total fuck nuggets when under the influence, my assumption is that they were complete and total fuck nuggets to begin with and are using booze as an excuse to be the assholes they were in the first place.

They disappear into the night, driving off somewhere to seek adventure and more libations. They don't return. I only hope they ended their night with a DUI while being plucked out of a ditch, without hurting anyone along the way.

With the douchebag distractors gone and a fire ban precluding any late-night musing in front of mesmerizing flames, I settle in for the night. Tomorrow will be a long, long day of riding through some of the most spectacular roads I've ever had the good fortune to experience.