Hiking the blast zone

There are days when your perspective changes.

Sometimes, it’s seismic. It’s about challenging your own limits and moving further beyond them than you could ever have dreamed. Cayoosh was one of those. I remember the raging adrenaline high that consumed me entirely for a full week after I’d skied down the mountain. For that week I was still a thousand metres above the world, higher than anyone, capable of anything. No drug on earth could have compared to the way it made me feel. It’s why I’ll keep doing these things, even when they push me far out of my own comfort zone and way beyond safe boundaries.

Sometimes, it’s smaller and more subtle. It’s about going somewhere that results in an underlying shift, a different level of understanding about just how much is out there and how powerful the forces of nature are. This was one of those.

Mount St. Helens

We spent the past weekend at Mount St. Helens. I have never seen anything that compares to the beautiful, ruined landscape we found there. I’ve been to barren places before, badlands and canyonlands, but this isn’t a desert. It wasn’t shaped over hundreds of years by a gradually shifting climate. It was razed in an instant, destroyed, wiped clean of everything it had previously known in one single, cataclysmic moment. Because of that it’s also open to the restoration of the life it previously knew, but it’s such a slow, slow process. Thirty years after the blast, the landscape is still defined by dust and ashes. Life is a tiny sprinkling of wildflowers amid the dirt, a splash of green here and there, a patch of undergrowth, a stunted tree amid the white skeletons of the forests that came before.

Harry's Ridge trail. Mount St. Helens

I grew up in the UK. It’s a country entirely shaped by humans, filled with gently rolling hills where the soft green land is carefully contained by hedges and stone walls. There’s nowhere to go where you can’t see the influence of people, where the natural landscape isn’t subject to artificial constraints. Maybe that’s why, from the very first time I encountered it, true wilderness has had a grip on me like nothing else. It’s a world that I never knew growing up, that I can’t predict or control, and where anything – good or bad – can happen. There’s no intent or malice in the wilderness. There’s no space for lies or pretenses. People are not required to give it meaning. It simply is, and when we venture into it we’re putting ourselves in an elemental space where we don’t get to make the rules. We just try and manage the consequences as best we can.

Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens

We kid ourselves about this, I think. We like to pretend we have a lot more control than we actually do. But somewhere like Mount St. Helens, there’s no room to pretend. This is what happens when nature takes over in one unstoppable, unimaginable moment. The trail we hiked through the blast zone brought us to a viewpoint on Harry’s Ridge, where we looked out over Spirit Lake and the raft of thousands upon thousands of logs that still jams the lakeshore. These were once living trees that blanketed the hills. It’s hard to imagine. Way over on the far side of the valley, miles and miles away, the bleached bones of the forests that once grew here lie like matchsticks in the positions they fell into on the day the mountain blew apart.

Log raft, Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens

The thing about such total devastation is that it’s still so unbearably beautiful. I could have stayed there and stared at that landscape for days and days; I wanted to hold onto the fact that there are places like this not just on earth but so very close to home. It’s a different world than the one I knew before, a strange and surprising place where anything is possible.¬†And in these extremes of space and desolation and wildness, these places where humans are utterly insignificant, I find a kind of peace.

Blast zone, Mount St. Helens

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