In the Distance
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
From the crater rim at the top of Mount St. Helens, the Johnston Ridge Observatory was just a small white dot, barely visible in the haze. The observatory is the most popular destination at the national monument. It marks the site near where volcanologist David Johnston watched the volcano erupt in 1980, forever changing the shape of the mountain and its environs. I first visited the observatory many years ago, when I was an East Coast kid traveling in the Pacific Northwest with my parents.
To get to the observatory, we’d schlepped far south from Everett, where my uncle lives, and snaked along the mountainous roads to Johnston Ridge. In a darkened theater at the visitor center, we watched a video that detailed the eruption, its aftermath, and the ongoing recovery. Then the screen lifted, the curtain opened, and through a glass wall we all marveled at the blunted peak. The large round lava dome nesting in the crater was pocketed with snow and backed by steep gray walls.
Another visitor asked if it was possible to climb the mountain, and the ranger said it was. In fact, there were probably a handful of people up there at that very moment. I never imagined that roughly two decades later, I would be one of those people, looking across the smoldering mound beneath my feet at the small white cliffs of Johnston Ridge specking the green foothills.
When I was a kid, I didn’t even really like hiking. Maybe it was because most trails tended to look the same to me—dirt, rocks, creeks and trees—only to reveal a view at the top that we’d take in for a few minutes while wolfing down peanut butter sandwiches before returning to the woods. Or perhaps it was because the pace of the world is slow in the outdoors, and I had a tendency to race through. Either way, hiking was an activity I often resisted. On the same visit to the Pacific Northwest, I’d refused to hike at Hurricane Ridge, a trail that feels like the top of the world, offering mountain and coastal views in Olympic National Park.
So the obvious thought that came to me on Friday when I stood at 8,300 feet all these years after first seeing Mount St. Helens was “look how far I’ve come.” I’ve turned into someone who not only has the ability to reach these altitudes, but who enjoys it, who feels truly alive when slogging through the crumbly volcanic rock on the way to the top.
But, somehow, that isn’t what I felt. At least not when I unpeeled my eyes from the glory of the crater and located the observatory in the distance. What I felt then was a kind of sadness at how far away the memory of that first visit now seems. Back then, I had my whole future ahead of me. Mountains to climb—or not climb. Nothing was certain, but everything seemed possible. In some regard, I suppose I’d outperformed my expectations by summitting a peak I never thought I would. But the inescapable gloom that pervades my life right now is failure. To be fair, not failure as a father or a husband, but professional failure. I’ve long allowed my identity to intertwine with my work, and now I’m unemployed. I can’t help but wonder if, in my haste, I wandered down the wrong paths, ascended the wrong mountains.
On Friday, we spent more than an hour walking along the rim on a surface that feels like the moon. It was an unforgettable experience, staring into the underbelly of an active volcano. But isn’t that what I thought when I first saw Mount St. Helens as a kid? That it was so awe-inspiring it’d always feel fresh? It saddens me that the memory of my climb will one day fade, just like my recollections of visiting the observatory. It’ll always be there, of course, but eventually it’ll occupy only a small space on the periphery of my past.
St. Helens’ steaming lava dome is a reminder of what caused the explosion 40 years ago and what could cause another one in the future. But, largely, Mount. St. Helens offers a story of perseverance. In the immediate fallout of the eruption, everything died. Two decades ago, the gray land still revealed the path of the volcanic debris, which wiped out everything it crossed. Today, color is returning, green growth making its slow march up the mountain.
The thing about time is that it races ahead, unimpeded, the way I used to on trails. The way I might have as a younger man. Lately, I find myself just wanting to slow down. —Andrew Waite