Barnstorming the Pacific Northwest

Mount St. Helens as seen in the summer. Bummer that I wasn’t afforded this view. More on that later.

In the days following the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, I learned that ash from the volcano would eventually circle the globe. As a grade school kid living in the shadow of a bunch of other high mountains, the saga that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest fascinated me.

Years later, it still does. Maybe more than any single location in that part of the country, a visit to this scene of volcanic violence has been on my mind for some time.

I got a chance to head that direction last week, but with just two days to explore the area, this leg of the trip turned out to be a barnstorming tour, hitting the highlights of one locale briefly before moving on to the next.

It wasn’t enough, but at the same time, was plenty good. The drive west from Spokane to the Cascades stoked my appetite to see more.

Spokane reminds me a lot of Denver. It’s relatively dry, but gets enough snow and rain to support large stands of pine and spruce forests, which grow thicker as you move east. But 20 minutes west of the city, Washington state flattens and dries out, leaving a rolling landscape that supports mostly scrub brush, irrigated farms and sporadic vineyards.

But I noticed something else. Rocky outcrops occasionally jutted out the hillsides, revealing blackened stone. In the fields, rocks of similar composition littered open rangeland. It reminded me of the vast grazing lands of northeastern New Mexico, territory no good for farming because underneath thin topsoil were the hardened remains of ancient lava flows.

Washington, like the rest of the West Coast, is known for its seismic activity. The great Cascade peaks are all volcanoes, powered by an offshore subduction zone where one tectonic plate reluctantly slides under another. Once these fault lines slip, massive earthquakes and tsunamis can result. Pressure deep underground also pushes magma to the surface, which in turn erupts to form the enormous piles of ash and rock that, on most days, look like grand mountain scenes.

But here I was, hundreds of miles from that fault line, and evidence of volcanic activity was all around.

The mighty Columbia River, seen from an overlook east of Yakima, Wash.

It became more stark once Interstate 90 crossed the Columbia River. A deep gorge has been carved into the landscape, with layers of volcanic rock exposed by the gash in the earth carved by the river. It’s worth a stop to take it in.

Across the bridge, the landscape begins to change. The gentle hills of the middle of the state give way to bigger, steeper slopes. In the distance, barren mountains appear. And beyond them, you can see the snowy peaks of the Cascades.

I knew that once we entered the range, it would become much greener. But out here, the rain shadow of the Cascades leaves behind a desert that extends south into Oregon. Most great mountain ranges do this: On one side of the range, atmospheric moisture is hemmed in, dropping rain and snow in abundance, creating lush forests and grasslands. The other side is left with thirsty scrublands and deserts.

West of Yakima, there are a number of roads that lead to Mount Rainier National Park, the first stop on this jaunt. Mount Rainier is a bucket list climb for me, so seeing it was high on my list. As it turns out, even in mid-May a number of passes and roads leading to the park are closed, still buried under snow. But we got there, only to be greeted by thick clouds and occasional rain.

Mount Rainier, with its upper reaches obscured by clouds. This would be a theme.

I knew the mountain was huge – much bigger in mass than anything in the Rockies, and at 14,410 feet above sea level, one of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. We got to see the peak up to about 10,000 feet, and it is indeed enormous. This much I would tell, even with the top 4,000 feet or so socked in by clouds. Funny thing about the Cascades – they don’t always avail themselves to the views craved by tourists. We saw what we could see, then beat a path toward Mount St. Helens.

The hope was that the weather that cloaked Rainier would clear out by the time we got to Mount St. Helens. But all the way up the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was clouds, rain and fog. There was a good chance there’s be nothing to see at all.

Once we got there, we got what I’d call “a true mountain experience.” Winds were hitting us at 20-30 mph, laden with rain and sleet. Once at the observatory, most of the mountain was shrouded in swirling gray mists.

Oy. What to do. I could see right up to the bottom of the crater, but no further. Socked in again. But with the winds blowing hard, I thought there might be a chance it would blow enough of the cloud cover away to reveal more of the mountain.

Mount St. Helens, mostly hidden by clouds and fog. Still pretty impressive.

So I hiked out on the ridge, my attempt to wait it out. Clouds whipped by, and high whistling sounds whipped through the tree limbs of the few evergreens that were growing out here. Once lush with old growth forest, Mount  St. Helens erupted with such violence that it wiped out thousands of acres of woodland, buried Spirit Lake, and caused a collapse of the mountain that caused its summit elevation to drop by more than 1,300 feet. Pre-eruption, its near-perfect conical form earned it the nickname “America’s Mount Fuji,” but now it’s shaped like an amphitheater, with a small but growing lava dome at the bottom of the bowl of the now hollowed-out mountain.

Even with so much hidden from view, seeing the landscape around the mountain was fascinating. Grasses and willows now carpeted the scarred land, the area a mix of browns and light greens surrounded by forest covered ridges. I imagine from the air, it looks like a giant scar (which it is), with Mount St. Helens at the epicenter.

Hiking out on the ridge, I fought the winds, the cold and the rain. One day I’d like to hike the munros of Scotland, and I imagined the weather was a lot like this. I confess to having the wrong clothes to be out there in those conditions, so it didn’t take long to get a bit soaked. Hiking back to the car, I gave up waiting out the mountain, snapped the best pics I could and called it a win. It’s a marvelous place, and I hope to come back on a day when the weather is more forgiving.

Multnomah Falls, Ore. Highly recommend this accessible stop along the Columbia River Gorge.

A night’s sleep means turning back east, but not before making one last stop, this one requiring far less effort. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, east of Portland, tall waterfalls drop from steep cliffs. Of these, Multnomah Falls is the most dramatic. A thin, silvery band of water drops 611 feet from the cliffs above, falling into thickly wooded, moss-covered basins below. The drive to the falls is pretty, and you can pull over to see other handsome waterfalls as well. But Multnomah is the monarch of the Columbia River Gorge falls, made more majestic by a bridge centered about a third of the way up that makes for an excellent viewing deck. Scores of camera-laden tourists happily made their way up to the falls, looking for that perfect pic. Honestly, you’d have to have terrible photo skills to not get something gorgeous.

Driving back east toward Spokane became a review of what was seen on the way out west. It’s easy to looks at landscapes and see “mountains,” “deserts,” “hills,” “rivers” and whatnot. But what struck me is that all these landscapes were related, made the way they are because huge pieces of the earth are in a slow-motion collision eons in the making. Everything is connected here, born from the same ongoing geologic trauma. Sometimes that brings on cataclysmic eruptions or earthquakes. But on nearly every other day, we’re given natural spectacles that stick in our memories for years to come.

Pastoral scene, with Mount Hood in the background.

Bob Doucette

A lesson that ‘House of Cards’ taught me

"House of Cards" is a great show, but the lives depicted in it are not for me.

“House of Cards” is a great show, but the lives depicted in it are not for me.


After all the hype over the release of the third season of “House of Cards,” I finally gave it a whirl. You know, just to see what the fuss was about.

For the record, the show lives up to the hype. It’s that good. Kevin Spacey channels LBJ in a way I’m not sure many other actors can.

But something else I got from the show was a sense of “homecoming,” I guess, in that I recognized so many of the places filmed in the show. Those row houses in Georgetown, the lesser-known parks and greasy spoon cafes, and the Capitol office building cafeterias — all those Washington nooks and crannies that most folks don’t think about because the times they’ve been there were to see Capitol, or take a picture of the White House, or view the exhibits at the Smithsonian. The show includes the out-of-the-way places, and it was fun to pick ’em out.

I know a smattering of such locales because there was a time that I was certain I was going to be having a career there.

Funny how things turn out.

Back in my college days, I was all about finding a way into public service. I studied politics and government, learned about other countries, and dreamed of working for the State Department, or perhaps the CIA. Maybe I’d spend some time on the hill as a legislative researcher, or become a high-powered advocate for a  think tank or something.

But my time there, while making quite an impression on me, was limited to a summer as an intern at the Capitol, working for a Minnesota congressman by doing mostly benign administrative tasks. By the time I wrapped up college, I was snapping up the best available job I could find in media, with hopes that maybe one day I’d find my ticket to D.C. by being sent to a Washington Bureau. Or something like that.

Ah, the Capitol. Great place to visit. Not sure I want to live there.

Ah, the Capitol. Great place to visit. Not sure I want to live there.

Obviously, none of that ever happened. No stint in the diplomatic corps, no long nights at Langley, no big stories as part of the fiercely competitive D.C. press corps. I had to find work in a small Oklahoma community, and I had to do it right away – keeping a roof overhead and food on the table squeezed out far-flung dreams.

So life took me to other places. At first, small towns writing about football games and small-time crimes, then frying bigger fish for bigger outfits.

On my own time, I got to travel some, sometimes abroad. And of course, there was plenty of time hiking and running trails, climbing mountains and driving across the country finding — and making — stories far more dear to my heart than anything I could have done slaving away in the middle of the Capitol Hill  boiler room.

I’ve been back to Washington a couple of times since those intern days, and I must say it’s a fantastic city. So much to do and see, and filled with smart, dedicated and talented people. I have incredible memories of that place, but usually they have nothing to do with high-stakes politics or important figures. More often, it’s about meeting who was then my brother Steve’s future wife, playing softball in after-hours beer leagues and getting to know normal people doing normal things in one of the most extraordinary cities on the planet.

There are times when I wonder if I missed out. Had I not been so hard-pressed to find work instead of going to grad school — getting that doctorate, learning a foreign language, or doing whatever else it took to break into one of those sweet federal gigs — could I have somehow cracked that inner circle? Some of my college friends did.

Or what if I’d really put my media career first, gave my ambition a shot of steroids, and really gone for broke on joining the Washington media circus? Could I have done it?

If so, what sort of life would I have?

Here’s what I do know: When you’re working in high-stakes careers, the job comes first. Everything else comes second. Rare is the man or woman who can put their family, health or whatever before their profession in a place like Washington. I’m sure the same could be said in many New York circles, too. Power and riches come with a price, one partially purchased by your undivided attention. Other costs pile up, too.

And I guess you could predict that you might have to sacrifice other things in a “succeed at any cost” or “ends justify the means” sort of way, but I don’t accept that as a given. I know it’s common (or even expected), but I don’t think it’s automatic. Maybe it just seems like it is.

I believe that had things gone according to “plan” I might have had a shot at some or all of those scenarios, but I think I would have lost out in many other ways. How many friends would I have never met, or distant lands would I have never seen? Would I have bothered to ever return to the Rockies, except as a drive-through tourist tethered to a lodge? Would I have ever seen the expansive views from a high summit in the San Juan range if I were chasing political stories all day?

Would I have already died of a heart attack?

I'm pretty sure there is no view in D.C. that can come close to this.

I’m pretty sure there is no view in D.C. that can come close to this.

Life takes funny turns. I’m sure I never would have been a Francis Underwood-type politician (I hate the nasty side of politics too much), and I barely got out of German with a passing grade, so you can kiss that diplomatic career good-bye. The whole CIA thing was probably a pipe dream, too. Ditto for the Washington press corps.

But I did become a bit of a traveler. I got to see some great places on three continents. I somehow found a way to become a marathoner. I’ve even dabbled in mountaineering, which is every bit as cool as it sounds.

Could I have been all those things and had a big career in Washington? Maybe, but I doubt it. And given the choice, with hindsight as a guide, I wouldn’t choose any different. Quiet solitude on a mountaintop or breezing through the trees on a run just sounds way better than becoming a slave to the grind. When 2016 rolls around, or some new political or international crisis strikes, there is a good chance I could be somewhere much more peaceful and interesting than what my younger self envisioned.

A wise choice or serendipity, I’m not sure. But it certainly is a better fit.

Bob Doucette

New York Times goes deep on the Tunnel Creek avalanche at Stevens Pass


Usually I don’t plug an article or a series of articles in this space. I save that for Twitter. But this one deserves a little extra mention.

On Feb. 18, a group of expert backcountry skiers and snowboarders went to an out-of-bounds area near the Stevens Pass ski area in Washington state, setting out to take advantage of mounds of fresh powder that had fallen there.

The group had 16 people in it. Some time after noon that day, they headed down the back side of Cowboy Mountain, known to locals as Tunnel Creek.

An avalanche broke free during their descent, killing three.

The New York Times interviewed many members of the group who were there as well as loved ones of those who died. This is a multi-part story and it’s pretty long, but worth the read. The website also includes video interviews of the subjects, audio files of emergency calls made to first responders and multimedia presentations illustrating the avalanche and how it swept three top-notch skiers to their deaths. It’s also available in an e-book called “Snow Fall.”

Take some time to read it — it’s worth it. With apologies to Outside magazine, this is some of the best outdoors reporting and writing you will see. It’s also an excellent lesson to anyone who wants to take part in wintertime backcountry adventures.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Running and exploring the streets of Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol. It's a stately place, even when the things going on inside frustrate us so much.

If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I’m a big proponent of exploring communities on foot. And if you can do it while getting some exercise, so much the better.

I like running in parks and on trails, but most of my runs take place on city streets. This is how I’ve gotten to know my neighborhood, a place where I’ve lived for less than a year but know pretty well by now.

Recently, I was in Washington, D.C., on business. I’d lived there over one summer back in college – a pretty long time ago. Being there for four days gave me a chance to get reacquainted with the nation’s capital.

I was there for work, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have time to go on foot and do a little exploring. Some thoughts…

Washington, especially downtown, is a very pedestrian-friendly city. Crosswalks are wide, and the traffic lights give you time to cross. I walked more in that city than I have since my last hiking trip. Plenty of people who work and live there also take off on foot rather than fight the traffic.

People in D.C. run a lot. And at all times of the day. Early in the morning, mid-day, even late at night – I saw people outside running the streets. Washington is hillier than you might guess, meaning that you can create some challenging routes. It was encouraging to me, as every time I passed by someone out on a run I wanted to get back to the hotel, change, and then go out and join them.

The city has changed a lot since I was last there. 9/11 changed D.C. significantly. Streets that once carried car traffic near the White House are closed. Traffic police around the Capitol carry assault rifles. And there are TONS of cops. The city has always had a significant police presence, but it’s grown much heavier over the last 11 years.

The Lincoln Memorial. America's shrine to one of its greatest leaders.

And the growth of government following 9/11 – yes, the acceleration of government growth can be pegged on that event – has meant that the city and its surrounding communities have grown along with it. Dozens of tower cranes rise into the sky downtown and all the way out to the suburbs. Old buildings dating back to the city’s early days are far outnumbered by new construction that has occurred over the past decade.

I only got to run once while I was there. Too busy to get out much. But I saw a lot.

On a cool, overcast morning, I took off, leaving behind the shining offices of the K Street lobbying firms to the White House. Tourists, office workers, lawyers and protesters shared space around the presidential mansion. And yes, the Occupy protesters are still here, planting stakes in a small green space just a couple of blocks away from the White House. One anti-nuke protester has his tent and signs across the street from it.

From there, I turned toward D.C.’s tallest structure – the Washington Monument. I couldn’t see evidence of damage from last year’s earthquake there, but I was amazed at the inspectors who rappelled from its crown to examine it.

Back in the day, the lawn around the monument would often be occupied by people playing softball in the summer. I wonder, if in this post-9/11 environment, if that still happens.

The Mall itself is changing, as the reflecting pool has been emptied for reconstruction. So it’s not as scenic as it used to be. I’m sure when it’s done it will be scenic once again.

I then turned and set my sights on the Lincoln Memorial. The building and its statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln has to be the stateliest thing I’ve ever seen, fitting for the man who many see as the country’s greatest leader. But before getting there, I was able to run past and around the World War II Memorial. It’s an awesome, dignified and fitting tribute for what was arguably our nation’s biggest struggle. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list.

Sometimes this is what the First Amendment looks like in Washington.

My trip back included passing the moving starkness of the Vietnam Memorial (you can’t help trying to be reverent when you’re in its presence), back up Constitution Avenue and eventually to the hotel.

Given more time, I’d like to run much more of this city. There are some amazing sections that house embassies and cool neighborhoods, none of which I got to see for very long.

More than anything, though, this reaffirmed my belief that running is an excellent way to explore a community. I first discovered this in tiny Tecumseh, Okla., and I still find that the thrill of seeing a town or city on foot never gets old.

Do you have a city where you like to run? Tell me about it and what it is about that city that makes it such a great place to run and explore.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Four skiers killed in Washington avalanches

In what has been a tricky avalanche season across the west, the worst possible news came Sunday when an avalanche broke loose, killing three skiers in a backcountry area in Washington state. A fourth was killed in a separate, unrelated incident.

According to an Associated Press report, there were about a dozen people skiing in deep powder on the back side of Stevens Pass when the avalanche struck. All 12 were caught up in it, but most were able to dig themselves out.

The three who were killed were swept about 1,500 feet down a chute in Tunnel Creek Canyon, the AP reported.

The skiers were all described as experienced and well-equipped, the report said. CNN reported that all the skiers were wearing avalanche beacons.

CNN identified those killed in that slide as Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph and John Brenan. Jack was a ski tour judge for the Freeskiing World Tour, an event for high-level extreme skiers in the U.S., Canada and South America, CNN reported.

A fourth skier who was caught in the slide was saved by an avalanche safety device she was wearing, the report said, though it didn’t make clear what device that was. CNN reported that it was an airbag-type system that helped the skier stay above the surface of the avalanche.

Those who survived tried CPR on the three victims, but to no avail.

The report said authorities had issued a high avalanche danger in areas over 5,000 feet because of warmer weather and heavy weekend snowfall — up to two feet in some places.

The report cited the Colorado Avalanche Information Center as saying there had been  13 avalanche deaths this season across the West as of Thursday.

Other media reports say that a snowboarder was killed an another avalanche in a different area. No identification was made in that incident.