Mt St Helens
With much anticipation, I ventured closer to Mt St Helen's last Saturday with James and Amy, en route from Portland to Seattle. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a fan of disaster movies, and the bigger and more spectacular the Acts of God and general carnage, the better! I'm not sure where this fascination with spectacles of this kind comes from: maybe it's the huge scale of forces beyond our control; the visual power of nature at work ahhhh, blagh sounds so cliched.... Let's just say big bangs, major explosions, massive natural events like earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, plane crashes, tsunamis, space disasters a la sci fi, Mt Doom crumbling and Barad Dur collapsing when Gollum drops in with the ring... I love it all and will watch it again and again.
I've always felt a bit guilty about this love of chaos and destruction (which it usually is in some form), because of course I am aware that real time events of this nature involve a huge amount of human suffering on a large scale. I don't at all enjoy the prospect of that in real time, although I do find the stories of bravery, challenge and near misses quite interesting. There's some kind of disconnect goes on in my brain I think between the visual spectacle and the human impact which allows me to enjoy one for its grandeur without it being tainted by the reality of the result. The same cannot be said for me of disasters and human tragedy that I have experienced in human terms - eg I still cannot bear to watch any kind of hospital drama by way of recreation. I don't begrudge those who love their weekly fix of Grey's Anatomy, House or Shortland Street or whatever, but such programmes will never be recreational for me, I think, and I imagine it's the same for others who have experienced a natural disaster in human terms.
Anyway, back to St Helens. I remember as a child being in awe of the drama unfolding when Mt St Helens erupted on 18 May 1980. So an opportunity to go and see the mountain and find out more was an exciting prospect, made even more exciting by discovering in the Lonely PLanet Guide that there was an observatory right on the crater with a lot more scientific and geological information - also of great interest to me. My original information suggested this centre on the crater did not open until 1 May - a bit of a problem since our original itinerary had us leaving the area a few days before that. Then our plans changed and i could see a window of opportunity - we could go from Seattle on 1 or 2 May! Until we were told (bucket of icy water experience for me) that it was a four hour trip from Seattle back to Mt St Helens and therefore not realistic. And when I got to Portland myself and realised that I could see Mt St Helens from there and it was obviously closer to Portland than to Seattle, and that going to it from S would involve severe backtracking (something my logical, linear brain abhors when travelling) I resigned myself to going to the visiter centre that was open en route to Seattle, and to getting as close to the mountain as I could.
Well. the big day I had been waiting for and anticipating for months came, we left Portland and drove to the turn off to Mt St Helens. The cloud was thickening and temperatures dropping gradually as we drove north, and by the time we got to the pretty much deserted Sliver Lake Visitor centre it was quite grey and cold. The mountain was in view, but only just, crouching under a thick mantle of lowering grey cloud. We went into the visitor centre to be greeted by some what i can only describe as complete airhead cashier staff who clearly had no interest or enthusiasm for the subject of their job. one of them blithely informed me that the Johnston Ridge Visitor Centre would not be opening until 18th May!! I was very glad that I had not driven 4 hours back from Seattle on 1 or 2 May to discover this, but I was still very disappointed to miss this because of being too early in the season. Still, I went in and saw the extremely dated video and got my "fix" wandering around the equally dated and (in some cases) broken exhibits. I had the chance to read up about the event itself and what happened to the mountain in geological event terms, and spun it out to about 2 hours reading everything (James and Amy got bored after about half an hour and went back to the car). At the end I asked the attendant how close you could get, and she basically languidly replied I could drive another hour up to Cold Creek, but the road was closed from there because there was still snow, and it wasn't worth doing because the cloud was thickening and obscuring the mountain.
So, all in all, I was disappointed. This of course often happens on trips - something much anticipated turns out not to be as great as you expect. However, this is more than compensated for by the unexpected delights that you didn't know were awaiting you. That was pretty much my experience of lots of things in Portland in the first week. And as a result, my favourite day so far was the one up at Pittock Mansion and the magnificent views of Mt Hood, which has now taken place of Mt St Helens in my affections for US mountains!
SO, if I was writing a Lonely Planet guide post, I would say something like - make sure you go in summer, when you can get past the tired, dated Silver Lake Visitor Centre Exhibition and go to the Johnston Ridge Observatory which sound like it is much more contemporary and fresh.
A final note on fantasy piggy backing on reality: I have always loved the (now dated lol) Dante's Peak - the time when Pierce Brosnan was young and supple! I am sure that movie must have been inspired by the Mt St Helens disaster - so many similarities. It seems to take about 10 years or so with American sensibilities to get past a tragedy enough that making a dramatisation of it is not distasteful - so the timing would be about right with Dante's Peak being produced inthe early '90's. Ditto 9/11 films that came out about 10 years later.
People seem to be a little less 'nice' about disasters in other parts of the world - eg only took 9 years for the Boxing Day tsumani movie The Impossible to come out. I wonder how long it will be before Nz makes a movie about the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
But for anyone that has dragged themselves to the end of this post, I'll leave you with a selection of my favourite disaster movies I'd recommend to anyone with the same proclivity in this direction as myself:
Dante's Peak: volcano a la Mt St Helens - Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton
Air Force One: Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman - plane disaster thriller
The Day After Tomorrow: Ice Age inducing storm for top half of US - Jake Gyllenhaal
Deep Impact: BIG comet hits earth
Titanic: Yes, the corny Kate Wincyette one - apart from the ship disaster thingy, my favourite pay off in this one is Leonard De Capricious getting frozen to death every single time!
Of course, there are also some really bad ones to be avoided if possible: Armageddon - Ben affleck say no more; 2012 - complete crap. I didn't like Independence Day much either, though I can't remember why!