Spewers of Hot Air

Thursday, October 08, 2009
Vancouver, WA

Spewers of hot air?? So, what could this cryptic title possibly refer too? Well, yesterday's explorations took us to the Washington State Capitol Building and Mount St. Helens -- two things that have both spewed incredible amounts of hot air and debris in the past. And because the nature of things doesn't change quickly I expect more of the same in the future.

The Washington State Capitol

Here in Washington the State Capitol Building is referred to as the Legislative Building. For the sake of this article though, I'm going to use the term "Capitol". Built during the mid-1920's, it's the last of the State Capitols built in the traditional domed style. It's the dominant building among a collection of 5 similarly designed buildings referred to as the State Capitol Campus. Some of the functions normally designed into Capitols in other states were decentralized from the beginning and placed in these surrounding buildings -- house and senate offices, Supreme Court, insurance commissioner, and others. Because of this tight grouping of buildings we had to work at getting a good photo of the Capitol by itself.

The Capitol Campus is situated on a hill overlooking Capitol Lake, part of an inlet of Puget Sound. Like other seats of state government, it's impressively landscaped and maintained. Because the part-time legislature is not in session, it was easy to find parking close by and there was virtually no congestion anywhere we went on the campus -- I assume all the bureaucrats and state workers were busy at their desks, right? Here again, as in Oregon and Minnesota, the building is totally open to the public. The high security check-points they had for a while after 9/11 were removed when common sense eclipsed fear.

The dominant feature of the Capitol is it's dome, a 287 foot tall all-masonry structure built of brick and sandstone -- the tallest self-supporting all-masonry dome in the USA. In fact, it's the 4th tallest dome of this type in the world. The dome on the Nation's Capitol in Washington DC, although slightly taller, isn't counted in this grouping because it's made of steel.

Sandstone quarried from the base of Mt. Rainier dominates the exterior of the building. The interior is mostly marble -- the largest quantity of marble used in any State Capitol in the USA -- marble marble everywhere. It also boasts the largest collection of Tiffany bronze lighting fixtures in the world. The 5 ton chandelier that hangs in the rotunda, the largest single piece Tiffany ever did, is so large (25 feet high) a small car could be contained within it.

While the building has a lot going for it, and is very impressive and stately, there's a noticeable lack of paintings, murals, or statuary that could provide symbolism, a sense of history, and a record of the struggles and sacrifices of early pioneers. One can find large plain-painted walls in the rotunda and each of the legislative chambers that could easily be utilized in this fashion. I think it would only enhance the feeling of reverence for the rule of law and the power of the people. But, for whatever reason, the Legislature hasn't felt the need to do so.

Being in Western Washington puts the Capitol atop a lot of geological activity. Three major earthquakes have rocked the building since it was finished. The last, in 2001, a 6.8 rated affair centered just a few miles from Olympia, actually shifted the 26,000 ton masonry dome slightly -- it wasn't fastened down to the rest of the building as architects figured it's weight alone would keep it in place. This has since been remedied along with other structural improvements and strengthening which have now made the building more earthquake resistant.

We tried to see the Governor, Christine Gregoire, but were unsuccessful once again. We made it as far as her outer office before being turned away. A number of people who work in the building commented on how much Dar looks just like the Governor. I even took a photo of Dar beside a current picture of the Governor, not being able to meet with the real thing. But I don't think the likeness is really all that close since we were unable to use Dar's face to get a free lunch in the Capitol Deli or some free place mats or coffee mugs in the Capitol gift shop. But at least we tried.

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge

Isn't it wild that it's been almost 30 years since Mt. St. Helens erupted in May of 1980?

The entire area effected by the eruption, some 110,000 acres, was declared a National Volcanic Monument in 1982. Entrance to the monument from the east side is a series of Forest Roads along the south and east side of the Mountain to Windy Ridge, about 5 miles Northeast of the Mountain. Access to Windy Ridge has been open since the middle 1980's. You can also come in this way from Randle to the North. Entrance from the west side is from I-5 at exit 49, and then east on WA-504 about 55 miles to the Johnston Ridge Observatory and Visitor Center, about 4 miles Northwest of the mountain. The elevation changes from less than 500' near I-5 to 4,200' at Johnston Ridge. Conveniently, there is another Visitor Center only about 5 miles from I-5 on this road for those who don't have the time or determination to make it all the way to Johnston Ridge.

We moved to Washington in 1987 and lived here for almost 8 years during my working years. During that time we made several family excursions to Windy Ridge, always interested in the weathered evidence of the power of nature and seeing the area during different times of the year. But in all the years we lived out here, and during visits back here since, we've never taken the drive to the Mountain from the West side. That's precisely what we did yesterday, Wednesday.

Mt. St. Helens, the eruption, was a huge display of the power of nature, but was actually a small event in the geologic history of the area. All the mountains in the Cascades are volcanic in origin... formed as two large continent-sized "plates" -- the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate crush into each other just off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. These forces create tremendous heat some miles beneath the surface, and melts rock which occasionally boils up to the surface about 100 miles inland, creating a mountain range of volcanoes -- The Cascades. Mt. St. Helens is but one example. There are many more here in the Northwest. The ground is alive, moving, and shaking all the time.

Much of WA-504, the route we took into the Monument, was totally rebuilt and re-aligned in the years since the event. Most of the old one was destroyed or buried. The road is in excellent shape and the new bridges that cross deep valleys and streams are amazing for their design and their apparent cost, especially considering this road only goes to Johnston Ridge and the Visitor Center. The cost of rebuilding it must have been astronomical. And then it's closed altogether during the deepest part of winter. There are plans, I've learned, to continue the road about 7 or 8 miles further to the east, across the eruption blast zone, to an intersection with Forest Road 99 on the east side of the Monument. But the lack of funds now may make that a way-in-the-future project.

29 years after the eruption much of the landscape near the mountain is still relatively barren... but there are growing signs of life. There's a greenish cast over what used to be gray barren moonscape. A bit further away where the ground wasn't totally steralized by heat, trees have taken root, and are struggling upward. Plants have taken root in the hoof prints of elk, which can hold water and germinate seeds like a flower pot. The population of elk has bounced back to pre-eruption levels. New lakes have formed where debris dams plugged previously free-flowing streams. It's a landscape that has changed forever. But change is part of the natural history of this planet. We're just able to watch this one up close.

Our day was clear and, at 4,200' of elevation, downright cold as the sun dropped low in the sky. We took a couple hundred pictures. We sat through a couple presentations and a film at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. We scanned with binoculars and found a herd of a dozen or so elk. Later, on the way out of the Monument, as the sun was setting below the hills to the west, we stopped at an overlook and enjoyed a happy-hour snack as we watched shadows climb the sides of the mountain and one more day was complete.

What an enjoyable day.



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