23 Jul 2016

Road-trip in Oregon - Mount St. Helens & Astoria

Before we left Portland we had one last breakfast in a popular café (Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessan) - again a rather disappointing meal - the corned beef hash was okay, but we also ordered pastrami with scrambled egg and the portion was surprisingly small and the eggs a little bland.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at Blue Star Doughnuts to get some for the journey, thinking that we had to try at least one of Portland's famous doughnut shops. Unlike Voodoo this place was just a normal café with a large selection of doughnuts available to take away, and most importantly, no queue. A regular customer came in and we asked her for some recommendations. We chose four (sugar & spice, dulce de leche, apple fritters and cointreau) and carried our box back to the hotel. We ate a couple in the hotel room before we set off and took the others with us, for a little snack along the way. I'm not a massive fan of the cakey American doughnuts, but these were surprisingly good.

And then it was time for the road-trip in our yellow Mustang convertible to begin! It was still pretty hot, although a little less so than the previous couple of days, with clear blue skies and the sun burning any unprotected skin.

First stop on the itinerary was a quick dip into Washington state to visit Mount St. Helens. I'd visited the dormant volcano on my first ever road-trip with my friend Dara in the summer of 2001. Even though it was a similar time of year then, the weather had been very different - grey, drizzly, windy and cold. We drove out of the city, roof down, across a couple of bridges, heading north on the route 5, under beautiful clear skies.

I'd planned the route on the map on my iPhone and soon we took a right turn off towards the mountain. There was a distinct lack of signs advertising the route of Mount St. Helens, and after about 10 miles I checked the map and realised that although we were headed towards the mountain, we were on the wrong side of it. We turned round, headed back to the highway, drove another 25 miles north and then took the right turn-off at Castle Rock towards our destination, signs everywhere!

We stopped at the visitor centre, polished off the remaining doughnuts (one had a syringeful of cointreau to squeeze inside), paid the fee to look around the museum and learned about the 1980 eruption, getting our first real view of the mountain from the ground.

It was a beautiful drive, through forested hills, with the snowy peak coming into view from time to time. Even as we got closer to the mountain there were plenty of trees, with signs saying when they'd been replanted (in the last fifteen years). They had grown back remarkably quickly. My main memory from before had been the desolateness of the place, with endless ashy hillsides covered in dead trees, swept away by the pyroclastic flow. It seemed like a completely different place now, with the dead trees gone and just a few silver trunks remaining dotted around wildflower-covered meadows. We climbed a considerable amount in altitude and the air was definitely cooler and thinner.

We reached the Johnston Ridge Observatory, paid another entrance fee, and then stood listening to an earnest park ranger give a little background about the place, the eruption and the continuing developments of the dome in the crater. Additionally we learned about the glacier that had formed and was now flowing down the slopes - you could just see it, under dirt and snow.

The mountain looked spectacular, even under the harsh midday sun, with the slopes below us covered in a small purple flowers, which were apparently a type of lupine; a few red wildflowers sat among them. Visitors stopped to stare at the majestic mountain, trying to see where the little lake had been where an inhabitant had stubbornly stayed when everyone else was evacuated in the months leading up to the eruption; he paid the ultimate price for his decision. We could just make out a pile of floating logs that still sit on the surface of Spirit Lake, where the man had lived, to the west of the volcano. Quite a moving and sombre place. It was also weird to imagine how much higher the mountain would have been prior to the eruption, now the top and side had been blown off. We wandered around a bit to different viewpoints before heading back to the car to continue our journey towards Astoria.

I took over the driving (what a fantastic car to drive too!) as we made our way back down the route 5, crossing back into Oregon over the Columbia River at the town of Longview, passing massive quantities of tree trunks stacked in piles (it must be an important logging town!). We then took the 30 heading west, which was a pleasant road winding along above the river, until we got stuck behind a slow camper van just before we reached Astoria. Finally we reached the town, our stop for the night, and easily found the Commodore Hotel, a historic building in the centre of town.

We were greeted with a beer from the nearby Fort George brewery - a nice welcome after a long hot drive. The hotel reminded me of the Ace Hotel in Portland, with a cool, wood-panelled reception area with some sofas built in, with a doorway through to a coffee shop. Our room didn't have an en-suite or a view, but it was nicely decorated and quiet. We noticed that in spite of reapplying sun-cream we'd both managed to get a bit burned, mostly from sitting in the car. I had a nice red stripe down my left arm and a couple of burnt patches on my neck that soon became itchy and annoying!

We went for a wander along the waterfront, on the tram tracks, towards the impressive Astoria-Megler Bridge that spans the Columbia River and reaches McGowan in Washington in the distance. The sun was beginning to set and it was a beautiful evening, with a few other people out enjoying a stroll. We passed some cool old buildings with trompe l'oiel paintings on the outside walls.

The shore of the river was covered with hundreds of old wooden piles that once upon a time had held piers with salmon canneries; almost all of that business had dried up a long time ago. Under the bridge was a moving memorial to the town's dead - a good number of them were gillnetters or commercial fishermen.

We headed back towards the town and stopped at the Buoy Brewery for some beers and supper.

We ate a delicious salmon steak, some enormous oysters served with tomato ketchup (what's that all about?!) and some deep-fried cheese curd, which seemed to be a bit of a local speciality. The beers were tasty, the place was heaving and there was a nice view of the river through a large open window.

After dinner we headed up to the Fort George brewery, stopping for me to try out a couple of long exposures of the ruined pier piles - I couldn't find a composition that was quite right and didn't have my tripod - I should've gone back to the area with hundreds of them, but beer called.

We tried a flight with one of each of the brewery's current beers - 13 in total. The barman brought them over to us and told us a bit about each - pretty thorough. In spite of each sample only being 2.5oz we still managed to feel fairly drunk fairly quickly, and called it a night once they were finished.

Driving map of the day's trip
Click here for my blog from Portland - Part 2
Click here for my blog from Astoria, Fort Stevens & Cannon Beach

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