Turns out that big trees, which rarely explode, attract considerably more tourists than a volcano that has in the not terribly distant past made a nuclear bomb seem like a firecracker.

I find this preference passing strange.

Although, as the saying goes, there is no accounting for taste. How else to explain a world in which a formulaic and saccharine film such as “Armageddon” earns $554 million at the box office while a work of revolutionary genius — “Airplane!” — brings in a paltry $130 million?

In the matter of trees versus volcanoes I have, I’ll admit, oversimplified the matter, as writers, or at least writers who eschew complications, are wont to do.

My comparison involves two places of great and dramatic beauty in Washington state — Olympic National Park and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

My family visited both sites in mid-August, and our experiences were so different in one respect that I felt compelled to have a look at the available numbers and see if our anecdotes reflected statistical reality.

The difference was people.

More specifically, there were so many people in Olympic National Park that while hiking I felt at times as though I were in line for an exciting ride that probably would leave me nauseous.

I also had an abnormal hankering for cotton candy and some of those French fries which contain a much higher proportion of oil than potato.

At Mount St. Helens, by contrast, the only place that could reasonably be called crowded was the gift shop at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, and that had more to do with its middling size than with the number of people searching for just the right Bigfoot-themed item.

(Bigfoot, or so it seems based on the hirsute beast’s ubiquity among the makers of trinkets, is as popular as the volcano itself, which suggests that physical reality, when it comes to tourist attractions, is less important than I had supposed it to be.)

Out on the trail, though, there were many points at which we couldn’t see another hiker.

What we could see, despite the bluish haze of wildfire smoke that has been the scourge of the Northwest for so much of this summer, was the mountain itself.

And what a thing it is to see.

I don’t mean to malign the magnificent trees that inhabit Olympic National Park, to be sure.

The Sitka spruces along the Pacific Coast near Forks impressed me with their sheer girth. So did the Douglas-firs and western hemlocks and moss-encrusted bigleaf maples at the Hoh rainforest.

Yet as we rubbed shoulders — literally, in some cases — with the hordes of hikers at both sites in the Olympics, I was reminded that there are quite a number of places across the Northwest where you can also walk among gigantic trees.

But there is only one Mount St. Helens.

More to the point, there is only one volcano in the Cascades that has, within the memory of most people older than about 40, blown off 1,300 feet of its elevation, spewed ash all over the globe and rearranged the topography of much of Washington’s southwest corner.

The mountain is such a singular geologic feature — and its May 18, 1980, eruption such a unique event in post-World War II America — that I find it surprising the national monument isn’t more popular.

Yet according to the latest figures from the federal government, which manages both Olympic National Park and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, the former, if I might belabor my earlier film comparison, is the “Armaggedon” to the latter’s “Airplane!”

In 2017 Olympic National Park attracted 3.4 million visitors.

That same year, Johnson Ridge Observatory lured 220,000, which, if I’ve done the math correctly, is rather less than 10 percent as many.

The comparison, as I conceded earlier, is imperfect.

Olympic National Park is not only much larger — 922,560 acres compared with the volcanic monument’s 110,000 — but it has several popular attractions besides the Hoh rainforest, including Hurricane Ridge near Port Angeles, which has a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains.

Most of the visitors to Mount St. Helens, by contrast, drive the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway to its end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory about five miles north of the volcano. Another 60,000 or so people annually visit Ape Cave, south of the mountain.

Also, the Johnson Ridge Observatory is closed during the winter and well into spring most years, whereas most of the favorite sites in the Olympics are accessible year-round.

I find Mount St. Helens more compelling, though. And not only, or even mainly, because I think an active volcano is more interesting than huge trees that just stand there unless urged into motion by an especially powerful wind.

The human story of the mountain fascinates me even more than its geologic one.

None of the dramatic photographs that document the May 18, 1980, eruption affected me the way that five words did.

The words were spoken by David Johnston, the volcanologist for whom the Observatory is named.

Johnston, before he was killed by the blast while monitoring the mountain from the ridge that now bears his name, managed to yell this message into his radio, a phrase that could be the epitaph for the mountain that was.

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” Johnston shrieked.

When I heard that recording, which is part of the fine documentary that airs at the Observatory, goosebumps dotted my forearms, and my eyes felt hot and damp.

I don’t mean to suggest that the deaths of Johnston and the 56 others who died because of the eruption ought to make anybody feel guilty because they find the truncated volcano beautiful.

But when I hear those five words, uttered by a man who must have been simultaneously excited and terrified, a man for whom the culmination of his scientific career also meant the end of his life, I am jolted, and with some force, into acknowledging that the story of Mount St. Helens is so much greater, so much more profound, than a story about the natural world and its magnificence.

Moreover, I recognize that my comparison of visitor numbers, and my pitting of old growth trees against a volcano, are trivial matters indeed.

J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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