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« Blue Highways: Portland, Oregon | Main | Blue Highways: Astoria, Oregon »

Blue Highways: St. Helens, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon stops momentarily in St. Helens, Oregon and asks people to name the mountains that overlook their town in the months before Mount St. Helens erupts.  While they all agree on Mount Hood, they can't get the others right.  I'm sure that changed when St. Helens blew its top.  If you want to locate St. Helens, Oregon, here's the map.

Book Quote

"St. Helens, Oregon, high above the river, was remarkable that day for splendidly clear views of the white summits of four great volcanoes: Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams northward across the river in Washington, and Mount Hood southeast in Oregon.  Each has its distinction:  Hood is the most notable American mountain named after an enemy military leader...; Mount Rainier, even after blasting away two thousand feet of summit, is still the highest volcano in the country; Mount St. Helens...youngest of the peaks, was quiet again but perking....And there's Mount Adams; poor Adams, second in height only to Rainier. remains the greatest unknown American mountain....

"To citizens of St. Helens, the names were insignificant anyway.  I asked three people to confirm which mountain was which; while all agreed on the location of Hood, they argued over the peaks in Washington.  To live so uninformed before such grandeur is the hallmark of a true native son."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5

View in St. Helens, Oregon. Photo by Mary Pellegrini at the Oregon Bed and Breakfast Guild site. Click on photo to go to host page. St. Helens, Oregon

I've already focused on volcanoes in two previous posts in this Oregon series of quotes.  But it's hard to get through a post without a nod to Mount St. Helens, which on May 18, 1980 produced the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in United States history.  The eruption sheered 1300 feet from the volcano's height, sent a billowing plume of ash up to 16 miles high that eventually reached as far as Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and sent massive mud and debris flows down river and stream valleys.  57 people were killed.

LHM doesn't mention the eruption but does mention that St. Helens was "quiet again but perking."  I take that to mean that when he went through, the eruption hadn't happened yet.  If he may have seen steam coming from the top of the mountain, then he had to go through sometime between March 27th, 1980 and the May 18th eruption.

While Mount St. Helens, located in Washington but clearly visible from St. Helens, Oregon, is the youngest of the volcanoes in the region as LHM mentions, there are three others in that general vicinity that he also writes about.  Of the three others, Mount Ranier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  It is on the "Decade" volcano listing because of the extreme danger it poses to a highly populated area (Seattle and Tacoma), especially since it has the characteristics for an explosive eruption like Mount St. Helens.  Oregon's Mount Hood has a 3-7 percent chance of erupting in the next 30 years, but is not considered to be a candidate for an explosive eruption like Mount St. Helens.  Mount Adams has showed very minor activity recently, and is considered dormant and not likely to erupt soon.

With all of these volcanoes on their very doorstep, I find it amusing that when LHM drove through, the residents he spoke to could only really identify hood out of the four volcanoes that they see every day, disagreeing on the rest.  I suppose that the eruption of Mount St. Helens meant that for a few years, at least, they were able to also identify that peak pretty quickly.  LHM's statement that living "so uninformed before such grandeur is the the hallmark of a true native son," is funny to me because I see it all the time.

Here's an example.  When I was growing up, a botanical garden was established in my hometown.  We never paid attention to it.  Occasionally when I mentioned it to my mother, she would dismiss it.  After all, we had the coast and could see practically all of it.  Why would we want to visit a place where we would have to pay when we could see it all for free?  Yet occasionally, after I moved away, I would meet someone who had visited my hometown, and would gush over the botanical gardens.  What an amazing place, they would say, as if I knew and had been there.  Of course I hadn't, and they were astounded that I'd never visited.  Of course, a few people in the town had been very dedicated to building it and making it such an attraction, but most of the town saw it as an attraction for tourists only.  It was only in the past 5 -10 years or so, with my mom firmly in her 70s, that I got her to visit.  And the place is beautiful.  It brings all of the flora that I would never be able to see in one day, week or even lifetime into a pleasant experience that could last me a morning or an afternoon.  My sister, who had never been, now goes regularly to meet with a friend and to enjoy all of the plants.

Another example from my experience.  North of my town was terra incognita to me and still is.  It is called "The Lost Coast" for a reason.  There are very few residents and a lot of rugged but beautiful territory.  My family rarely ventured north for anything.  Maybe, just maybe, we would go up to a small village about 15 miles north, but that was it.  A few years ago, my mom suggested that my wife and I visit a winery up there with her.  We took a picnic lunch and did some wine tasting at this lovely winery situated on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific.  Thinking that this was a new business, I asked the person pouring when the winery had opened, and was astounded to find out it had been open ten years.  My wife smacked me on the shoulder and said "you mean this has been here for ten years, since you first started bringing me here, and we've never been?"  I could only shrug.  We just didn't go north, ever.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course.  Many people know everything about their towns or cities or areas and are happily willing to tell you.  But many times I find that locals are oddly resistant to exploring their own areas.  My wife and I, adventurous souls, are often subject to comments about how much we explore in the city where we now live.  We have been to events and places that locals don't seem to know about or have never tried.  I find that kind of amazing, sometimes a little sad, and mostly amusing.  It bothers me sometimes that people are so uninterested in many of the things that make their towns, cities or areas special, but it's their choice, I guess.  When you live someplace, you have the right to take it for granted, even as others gush over it.

I think, however, should I visit St. Helens someday in the future, that I would love the vista.  The mighty Columbia River flowing right past the town, the four mountains visible in the distance.  That spectacular view would engage me because it's different.  Maybe if I lived there awhile, the view might become everyday and commonplace.  But I'd try not to let that happen.  Every so often, in this city where I now live, I make myself look out toward the mesa, toward the small dormant volcanoes at the top, or east toward the large mountain at the city's edge, and I make sure I appreciate it even for a small moment.

Musical Interlude

One famous resident of Spirit Lake, in the shadow of Mount Saint Helens, was a man named Harry Truman.  Truman refused to evacuate, saying that he had lived on the mountain and that he would die on the mountain if need be.  Truman did die when mud, water and ash overwhelmed Spirit Lake on May 18th, 1980.  A song was written about him by the band Headgear on their album Flight Cases, immortalizing the feisty man who died in the place he loved.

If you want to know more about St. Helens St. Helens
City of St. Helens
The Columbia River: St. Helens
Port of St. Helens
St. Helens Chronicle (newspaper)
Wikipedia: St. Helens

Next up: Portland, Oregon

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