The Day I Had Lunch at the Crater of a Volcano
The first time I saw Mount Saint Helens, I knew I had to climb it. I was at the observatory five miles away from the summit during a stop on a short road trip with friends, but even from a distance, I found the environment stunning. Saint Helens is a place of destruction and rebirth, where a single event eradicated the life in the area, and then nature gradually reclaimed it. The scars of the devastation are still there, but so is the healing.
Years later, I took another trip to the northwest U.S., and made plans to hike the trail up to the crater. The climb started like a leisurely walk through the woods. For the first hour or so, there was no sign that I was at the site of a volcanic eruption. But once I emerged from the tree line, it became an entirely different experience. There was no shade. There was barely any plant life. It was just rocks, and larger rocks, and ash, and gravel. The destruction from more than twenty years before was all around me. The forest was what this mountain had looked like before the eruption, the rocks were what it looked like after.
For hours, I wove between large stones and climbed over boulders, following the line of wooden stakes; there is no trail at that point, and no way to make one, so the stakes are the only way to mark the path. It wasn’t the most pleasant hike, to be sure, but it was spiritually powerful. A huge section of the mountain had broken apart, and lava had burned up everything around, and I was moving through the shrapnel of that event. It’s one thing to know that volcanos are destructive and that the forces of nature are powerful. It’s another to be there among the pieces it left behind.
The last leg of the climb was the most physically brutal. The top of Mount Saint Helens is nothing but ash and gravel, and with each step the ground gives way a bit, making you feel like you’re barely advancing. At my most tired, I started pacing myself, taking ten steps between one-minute rests. After hours of climbing, it still felt like I’d never reach the summit, even though I was close enough to see other…