Study Break

Mount Saint Helens National Monument, Washington
~8 miles, ~1600 feet elevation gain

**Nature deficit disorder, related to full time nursing program, secondary to midterms, projects, clinicals and volunteer events, as evidenced by patient reports 10/10 pain, self-reported longing for the outdoors, pallor, grouchiness, mood swings and distraction.** 

February FakeOut has arrived, those anomalous winter days punctuated by sun and warmth, where the world actually has time to dry out before nature rips the proverbial rug out from under us until June-ish. I have no hard data to support this beyond what my scattered brain wants to believe, but February FakeOut seems to arrive every year here in Portland: just when you think you cannot take another day of the deluge, the soggy pant hems, the tip-toeing through leaf-clogged puddles, the steel gray sky.... POOF! Sun! We've had over a week of clear, windy skies torturing me from the windows of clinical, taunting me during my slog up the hill to lecture. It is gor-geeeee-ous outside. And right now, I am badly in need of a mental health day. Being neck deep in chronic illness 24/7 is making me twitchy.

Pharmacology be damned, I'm going outside.

It feels exceedingly strange to put on sun block.

One of the things I love about the alpine is its ever changeable mood. We were looking for an eclectic hike, full of views and shifting conditions so we headed north to one of our favorite areas, the blast-tortured north face of Mount Saint Helens. On our way up long, winding Washington State Route 504, Andy commented how strange it is that people travel from across the globe to visit Helens, yet for us, she is practically in our backyard- a beloved recreational area. Living in the Pacific Northwest is not for everyone, but it is necessary for souls like ours.

The area near Johnston Ridge never fails to fascinate me. Here, the north face of the mountain fell away, scouring an entire new landscape in its wake as it deposited the largest (recorded, mind you, recorded) landslide in history down the valley of the North Fork of the Toutle River. The pyroclastic blast felled old growth like toothpicks, and the splintered remains of the ancient forest still litter the ridgelines. Whole new lakes were formed while others were obliterated, the entire area basically picked up in a giant fist, remolded, and set down again upon the earth.

Boundary Trail, January 2011

We arrived at the Hummocks trailhead to sun, bluebird skies, and basically being overdressed. Patches of icy snow lingered but nothing tangible enough for the snowshoes strapped to our packs. Our sights were aimed higher though, so the snowshoes stayed on.

The Hummocks trail is an interpretive trail, which I usually tend to avoid like the bubonic plague. But this one, I give credit to: it's an outstanding (and unpaved, thank god), undulating, 2.5 mile walk through the hammered landscape of the North Fork of the Toutle River, where the landslide deposited 3.7 billion cubic yards of earth fourteen miles down the valley. You literally walk upon ruined pieces of the mountain's previous summit- hummocks.

From the Hummocks trail, we picked up the Boundary trail, which quickly winds its way up the ridgeline on its way to Johnston Ridge Observatory. Once around a corner, the wind found us and remained fierce for the remainder of our hike.

Upon hitting wind-scoured snow, the trail was lost, and in this area, there is no hope of finding any trace of trail once it is gone. So tortured, so unique is the landscape, no semblance of any path remains once it disappears under snow. In summer, the Boundary trails hugs the cliffs, traipsing its delicate, precarious way to the observatory. With the snow and wind and the awkwardness of snowshoes strapped to our feet, we stayed high and left of the trail, climbing a large promontory overlooking the Loowit Viewpoint. 

Here, the true nature of the 1980 eruption becomes painfully clear, the landscape literally pounded flat, scoured naked and raw by the mountain. In the summer, the pumice, riding the almost-always-windy landscape, soaks into everything: hair, teeth, eyelashes, nose, camera gear. It's like taking a bath in a crystallized sand dune.

Hugging the cliffs, March 2010

I sat, buffeted by the wind, watching the mountain, my vision tracing the undulating lines left over by the landslide, taking in the tormented color of the earth, the snow-covered silhouettes of the Mount Margaret backcountry and Mount Adams gracing the skyline. I sat for a long time, until I was almost too cold to move, even though I was now wearing everything I owned. From the trailhead, the temperature had dropped 25 degrees.

These are the days I need to remain grounded, to resettle my soul, to remain humbled in the face of all that is before me. 

Time to tackle pharmacology again.