Day 47 – Ends of the Trails

It was a Sunday, and I had promised my mom that I would go to church “if I find one that looks interesting.” As I looked on my map at the route I would take that morning, I saw “Claquato Church” as a point of interest just a short drive down the road. Taking it as a sign, I set out to find what made that church interesting.

After a couple of dead ends, I was finally able to find the church in the near-ghost town of Claquato. The tiny church building was a historical site—well-kept, but no longer used for Sunday services.

For the third straight day, it was foggy—not froggy, but foggy—which made it hard to get any decent pictures of a white church. The building was rather plain anyway, but it had one interesting feature: instead of a traditional steeple, it had a ring of spikes sticking up from the bell tower. According to the historical marker, the spikes were supposed to represent Jesus’ crown of thorns. To me, though, it looked more like an evil tower from the movies: the church of Barad Dur, or something.

That’s 3 Lord of the Rings references in 47 days. That’s not enough to make me a geek, is it?

A granite gravestone by the church claimed that Claquato was the end of the Oregon Trail, or close to it, even though it is in Washington. A rough map of the trail listed only a few major stops along the trail, including Chimney Rock way back in Nebraska. I had taken a bit of a scenic route in-between, but was glad to see I had finally finished the Oregon Trail, without dying.

The fog had finally cleared by the time I reached the exit for Mount St. Helens.

I was a bit young (about 4 months) when St. Helens blew her top, so I don’t remember much of anything about it. When I did hear it mentioned in later years, I thought it referred to my grandmother, Helen, losing her temper, and I hoped I wasn’t the cause.

I pulled into the Mount St. Helens visitor center, which is near the start of a long, dead-end road up to the mountain. I wisely checked to see if it was worth making the drive, and if the road was even open in the winter.

“If you get a beautiful, clear day like today, in January, you need to take advantage of it”, the park ranger replied, assuring me that the road was open except for the final few miles.

He also encouraged me to check out a video they played in the visitor center theater every hour, which would be free courtesy of my National Parks annual pass.

The video, of course, told the story of the 1980 eruption. It threw around some impressive numbers: a landslide involving nearly a cubic mile of rock; waves of water 600 feet high caused by dumping a mountain into a lake; a cloud of gas and ash that was as hot as 680 degrees, traveled at 670 mph and covered an area 23 miles wide and 19 miles long. Just as impressive were the stories of people who survived the blast and flash flood; folks who were “safely” 20 or 30 miles away from the volcano when it erupted.

The Mount St. Helens explosion seems like a power beyond imagination, but as an exhibit in the visitor center explained, it does not come close to being the biggest volcanic explosion ever. In fact, it is not even the largest Mount St. Helens explosion ever. Around 1900 B.C., St. Helens blew her top in a blast 4 times as large as the 1980 eruption. Krakatoa, in 1883, produced 20 times as much debris. The biggest known explosion was at prehistoric Mount Mazama (now known as Crater Lake), which was an estimated 42 times more powerful and produced 150 times as much debris as what we saw in 1980.

That’s a big boom.

As I walked out of the visitor center, I stopped to see the snow-covered remains of St. Helens in the distance. A kindergarten-aged girl trotted away from her parents to lean on the stone handrail and look out at the mountain. I recognized the girl; she had sat behind me during the video. Normally I would not notice the person sitting behind me in a theater, but she had drawn attention to herself by constantly talking, asking her parents questions about the video, and generally annoying everyone else in the theater.

The girl’s mom called for her to follow the family to the car.

“I wanna see the volcano blow up,” protested the girl.

“We did just see it blow up, on the video,” the dad replied.

“I wanna see it blow up now,” she replied, with a pout.

Um, no, you probably don’t, I thought. Even at this distance, you are not necessarily safe from the effects of such an explosion.

“We need to go now,” the girl’s mom warned.

“I wanna see it blow up!” the girl cried.

“It’s not going to blow up.”

“But I wanna see it. Make the volcano blow up!”

“Let’s go.”

“MAKE IT BLOW UP NOW!” screamed the girl.

I tried very hard not to laugh as I walked away from the argument, and managed to hold it in until I got back into my pickup. Something told me the little brat was used to getting whatever she wanted. Unless her overly-permissive parents also have god-like powers, though, I do not believe she was going to have her way on this particular issue.

I turned toward the ocean when I reached the Columbia River. I figured it would be a shame to pass up a chance to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway for a while.

As I followed the ever-widening Columbia, I also was following once again in the footsteps of Lewis, Clark & Co. When I at last reached the point where the river turns into the ocean, I also reached the point where Lewis & Clark ended their westward trek.

A historical marker at that point noted the significance of a seemingly unimportant event. Lewis and Clark asked the members of their traveling party whether they wanted to spend the winter on the north side of the river, in present-day Washington, or on the south side in Oregon. They took a quick vote, and Oregon won. Hardly worth talking about, except the voters included York, a black slave, and Sacagawea, an Indian woman. It would be many decades before women or African-Americans would be allowed to vote in the U.S.

I followed them across into Oregon, where I would also set up camp, but for only one night.

I pitched my tent at one of the many state parks along the Oregon coast.

The nearby town had only a convenience store as a source of supplies, so I made do with what I could find there: a large Hot Pocket, some peanut butter cracker sandwiches, and the like. I roasted the Hot Pocket over a campfire, which worked decently, but the food itself was still hardly worth eating. Stay away from the Philly cheesesteak.

As I sat in the dark, surrounded by low trees that blocked any possible views, I heard a persistent distant rumble. It sounded like highway traffic, or semis driving over a rough road, but I knew there were not many vehicles driving the two-lane Pacific Coast Highway.

I grabbed my coat and a flashlight, and set off across the campground to the path I had seen earlier, labeled “to beach”. The path cut through the wall of sand dunes and ended at a wide, deserted beach. Here is what I knew must have been the source of the noise: the endless pounding of waves from the Pacific Ocean.

In the moonlight, I could see the dark shape of something on the otherwise flat beach, and set off walking toward whatever it was. The smooth, flat sand was wet far beyond the reach of the waves, and I tread somewhat carefully just due to the unfamiliarity of it. I was wearing cowboy boots that day, and they were not designed with a beach bum cowboy in mind. They are well-made for their purpose, but their purpose involves sitting securely in a stirrup and protection from harsh brush and rough conditions. The wet sand reacted to them strangely. While walking, the sand was as solid as a flat slab of cement; but when stopped, I could feel the sand grains shift and roll out from beneath me, causing me to sink just ever-so-slightly.

I made it to the dark shape, and found it to be a sawed log, perfect for sitting. I sat down to enjoy the solitude and watch the ghostly white waves crashing in the distance.

The ocean has always been a bit of a, well, fear of mine. Fear is too strong a word for it, since I don’t think I have an actual phobia, but the open ocean just makes me a bit nervous. I love being on rivers or small lakes, and find that sitting by such enclosed bodies of water is incredibly peaceful and relaxing. But, there is something about the vast edgeless space of the ocean that makes me uncomfortable. The ocean is just too big, too powerful, and seems too unpredictable to get that “by still waters” feeling.

As if on cue, an otherwise average-looking wave pushed its way an additional 25 yards up the beach, turning my log into an island and wetting the bottoms of my boots. The miniature tsunami was only an inch or two deep, but it had made its point. It was almost as if the ocean did not want me there.

As the wave receded, I started walking back to the campground, the Pacific nipping at my heels. This feud would have to wait until daylight.

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