The Day Mt. St. Helens Blew

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass Photo credit:  Wikimedia.org

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass
Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Note: Inspired by memories of my younger days, this story is the second in a series looking back on my experiences growing up in Seattle.

It was May 18, 1980. I was standing on a snow-covered ridge south of Chinook Pass on a bright, sunny day with Mt. Rainier towering over the western skyline. Above us to the east stood Naches Peak, a 6,000 foot peak overlooking our snow camp. I was encamped with nine teenagers and one other adult – my friend Scott.

Scott and I were leaders of an Explorer Post in Seattle with nine teenagers including three girls. These were kids I had backpacked with a number of times. I had led backpack trips over previous summers with each of them as members of the group. They were all great kids, and like me, they loved the mountains. Now they were sixteen and old enough for their parents to entrust them to my care to teach them mountaineering.

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak Photo credit:  EasyTrails.com

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak
Photo credit: EasyTrails.com

Our snow camping and ice axe training was the final field trip before our planned graduation climb of Mt. Rainier. We had hiked in from Cayuse Pass the day before, and we were busy kicking steps in the steep snow after breakfast. Scott and I were supervising ice axe practice from our vantage point on the ridge above our campsite. I looked west to take in the fantastic view, and that is when I saw what appeared to be a massive storm cloud, and it was clearly moving in our direction. I even thought I saw a bolt of lightning. That was strange.

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption. Photo credit:  Joan Magin

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption.
Photo credit: Joan Magin

It was a sunny day and the weather report had been favorable. I looked at my altimeter which would indicate an increase in elevation with any drop in barometric pressure. It showed no change from the day before. This was too weird. Nothing in my experience would account for a sudden weather change without a corresponding change in air pressure. All I knew was what I could see, and that was a colossal storm headed directly for us.

In my experience, when something is happening that you do not understand, do something now and ask questions later. I yelled out to the group, ‘That’s it, we are done! Coil your ropes. Pack up. We are leaving NOW!’ These kids could hike! We boogied down the mountain and within an hour we were back at the parking lot. It was about 10:00 a.m. as we headed down the highway. Droplets began striking our windshield, but there was no water. These drops just blew off our windshield. I soon realized those droplets were volcanic ash when, thirty miles down the road, we finally had radio reception. That was when we first heard that Mt. St. Helens had erupted at 7:32 a.m. that morning. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I realized we had averted a major disaster.

Ash cloud looking north Photo credit: USGS

Ash cloud looking north obliterating Mt. Rainier in the background
Photo credit: USGS

By the time we arrived back in Seattle, the ash cloud from the eruption had turned day into night in the City of Yakima, and our camp had been directly in its path. I have no idea what happened to the day hikers who were out there when the ash started to fall. I only know how relieved the parents of my young climbers were when we called them from my house in Seattle to say we were all safely back in town.

A few weeks later, six of my young scouts reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. My reward was the satisfaction of seeing the elation on their faces. It was the 16th anniversary of my first climb of Mt. Rainier, and these kids achieved the same goal – reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier as a teenager. I could not have been happier for them.

I eventually lost track of these young people as they got on with their busy lives. Although we did not climb together again as a group, we will always have the experience we shared that day, the day Mt. St. Helens blew her top.

My Most and Least Favorite Things About Spain

Spain has been an interesting contrast with the other countries in which we have lived over the past three years. As we prepare to move on, it is natural to reflect on the high points and the low ones. Here are some thoughts about what I most enjoyed and least enjoyed about Spain.

#1 Least Favorite – Dog poop

I find it incredible that dog owners in towns all around Spain do not clean up after their poopy dogs. There are piles of dog crap on almost every sidewalk of every block of every town I have visited. The big cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, and so on, are well-enough funded to have maintenance employees in the city centers who pick up pet poop along with garbage. Not so in the other areas of the towns. If the people of Spain had any idea how disgusting it is to tourists to have to dodge these piles, and how poorly it reflects on their country, they might do a better job of enforcing dog sanitation regulations. Thank goodness dogs are outlawed on the beaches!

#1 Most Favorite – The people

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me.  Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me. Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

We have made friends in every country we have visited, and Spain was no exception. It is always the memories of places and events shared with locals and fellow travelers that seem the most vivid. Even if we never see some of these friends again, we will never forget the kindnesses they have shared with us that made our time in Spain memorable.

#2 Least Favorite – The poor

There are poor people in every country, but that is no reason to forget about them. The poor economy hit Spain harder than most industrialized countries, and they have lagged behind the rest of the world in recovering. Personally, I think Spain has the resources it needs to take care of its people. Unfortunately, much of the revenues that flow into the economy seem to get siphoned off through corruption and unethical business practices.

When Spain recently announced Felipe VI as their new king, he proclaimed he would work to achieve greater equality and more opportunities for the unemployed and the needy. I hope he has the influence, the leadership and the integrity to bring about these benefits for his people.

#2 Most Favorite – The Food

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

I love fresh markets, and Spain is a fantastic place to find countless varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and prepared foods to meet most people’s tastes. The land is fertile and productive. There is no reason for the people of Spain to ever go hungry. We also learned they make delicious chocolate in Spain!

#3 Least Favorite – Pickpockets

In the resort towns along the coast, there is little concern about personal safety and security. I have never felt unsafe walking alone or with my wife. And even though we were never directly approached in the big cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cordoba – we were always cautioned to be on the lookout for pickpockets. This was especially true in the bus and train stations whenever we were toting luggage. After having my wallet lifted in Rome, I have become more vigilant about watching out for thieves. They have become quite sophisticated in some instances. For example, I witnessed a well-dressed man in a fine suit carrying a clipboard and hanging around our hotel in Granada while the tour buses were unloading. When he saw that everyone remained standing next to their personal bags and he noticed my wife and I were watching him, he walked away.

#3 Most Favorite – The Weather

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja's many local parks.

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja’s many local parks.

Although the Costa Blanca has experienced its worst drought year on record and there have been dozens of brush fires in the surrounding countryside, it has been pleasant living on the coast just a few short blocks from the beach. The evening breezes coming of the Mediterranean Sea are cool and refreshing. In fact, we have seen rain here on the southern coast of Spain just a handful of times during our stay. We have been most fortunate weather-wise when we take into account that Madrid received over a foot accumulation of hail on July 3rd. The traffic on the freeways feeding this city of 3.2 million was brought to a standstill and the precipitation eroded the track of the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid. The Metro subway and the airport were flooded forcing delays and diversion of flights. I am grateful that we live on the Costa Blanca where it was 85°F and sunny.

There is something for everyone in Spain, and I am sure I will think of more things I could have added to this list after we leave.  Suffice it to say Spain should be on your list of countries to visit. Should you decide to go, I will be watching for your stories so that I might reminisce about our time in Spain. Buen viaje!

Resurrection in Torrevieja – an Easter Story

Beach cafés thrive during tourist season.  Bring a chair, a towel and some sunblock and you need not leave the beach all day.

Beach cafés thrive during tourist season. Bring a chair, a towel and some sunblock and you need not leave the beach all day.

Here in Torrevieja, Spain, things have been quiet up until this week. Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, also marks the official beginning of the travel season. Torrevieja, a city with a population of about 100,000, slumbers peacefully through the fall and winter seasons with less than half that number of residents.  Suddenly, along comes Good Friday and the city bursts at the seams. This wave of visitors to Spain’s Costa Blanca is the annual ‘British invasion’ since most of the recent arrivals are from the UK, many of whom own apartments in the city.  Restaurants that have been sitting dormant suddenly come to life like a bear coming out of hibernation. Beach chairs, towels and beach umbrellas are flying out of the local stores. Cold beverages and snack foods are also big sellers.

Most of Spain’s fellow EU citizens enter Spain driving their own vehicles, and now finding a parking place on a city street would be like looking for an unoccupied parking meter in Times Square. One should keep in mind that the driving distance from Europe’s northern cities to Spain is less than 1,000 miles, a straightforward two-day drive. This proximity and the relatively low cost of living in Spain compared to many Western European countries explains why so many non-Spaniards have taken up residence in Spain, both seasonally and permanently.

The larger Catholic churches conduct Easter parades during Holy Week.

The larger Catholic churches conduct Easter parades during Holy Week.

Thinking back to Easter Sundays from my childhood, I recollect colored Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies (white chocolate was my favorite), jelly beans and pastel colored M&M’s hiding in simulated grass-filled baskets. Here in Spain I have seen no grocery displays for egg-dyeing, no candy displays, no special chocolate treats. The focus for Easter is almost entirely on the religious significance of the holiday. During Holy Week the churches in town, almost all of which are Catholic, parade down the city streets with statues of Christ on the Cross or of The Virgin Mary in glorious robes hoisted high on the shoulders of young men. Often, the parades of made up of parochial students in their school uniforms while their parents walk alongside with video cameras or stand back to proudly watch their children.

There is a daily migration to the beach in Torrevieja and coastal towns all along the Spanish Riviera.

There is a daily migration to the beach in Torrevieja and coastal towns all along the Spanish Riviera.

Just like in the United States where Independence Day marks the beginning of the travel and vacation season, the media here warns of extra highway patrol officers to crack down on speeders. It is estimated that 12 million motorists hit Spain’s highways in the days leading up to Easter, and the added traffic patrols are fair warning for all drivers to maintain safe practices on the highways.

That is Easter week here in Torrevieja. Our Easter was peaceful and pleasant. I hope yours was, too. And it turns out the Easter bunny left a white chocolate candy bar in my cupboard!

The Highs and Lows of Travel Life

One of my favorite high points - Whistler Mountain, BC Photo credit - whistlerblackcomb.com

One of my favorite high points – Whistler Mountain, BC
Photo credit – whistlerblackcomb.com

The insights revealed by our travels over the last few years have been nothing short of amazing. There have been so many beautiful places and interesting people. I continue to fulfill a lifelong desire to better know and appreciate the world we all share. I try to keep an open mind and to demonstrate my desire to reach out to people and to understand their culture, and I have learned that we are all not so different.

Mt. Villarica and the town of Pucón, Chile, another favorite peak

Mt. Villarica and the town of Pucón, Chile, another favorite spot     Photo credit: Wikicommons

My greatest love of the outdoors is the mountains. This was something I acquired at a young age as a hiking and climbing partner with my dad. I learned to love the clean air, the fresh water, the exhilaration of looking at the world around me from the highest perch I could reach, and the camaraderie that comes from sharing these experiences with like-minded outdoorsmen. Even though my legs are nowhere near as strong as when I was a constant hiker and backpacker, I dream of the heights when I spot snowcapped peaks on the horizon. At least there is a chair lift to the top of one of my favorite peaks, Whistler Mountain, so I will still be able to visit the high alpine country even when I am too old to hike the trails.

Not every day on the road is an adventure. There are health issues that crop up. I had to have a root canal performed on a broken tooth while we were in Mexico. I broke out in hives a few weeks back, an apparent allergic reaction that made me itch so bad that I felt like my whole body was one big mosquito bite. We also have money concerns, just like everyone else. I think the hardest part about traveling full time is missing family. I do not have a lot of family – two daughters and two grandsons. Other than my in-laws I am not close with any other family.

I have often heard the phrase on television shows and from friends that ‘family is the most important thing.’ In my case that has hardly ever been true. My family of origin was never close. In one way or another every member of my family abandoned our relationship. My father was hauled off to the East Coast by my stepmother’s family, and after 2005 I never saw him or heard from him again. I found his obituary online a last year and learned that he passed away in 2009. He would have been 90. My mother never had so much as a memorial service. Maybe that was not a bad thing. I am not sure if I would have attended. My sister, two years older than I, just one day stopped communicating with me. We have had no contact with one another since 2008.

All of these family failures sometimes make me wonder if I unwittingly sabotage relationships? Have I been a good enough father to my two daughters? Am I a good enough husband to my wife? Am I at fault for the failure of my first marriage of 28 years? I cannot take all that on myself. Relationships are a two-way street. All I know is I miss my daughters and my grandsons. They are on the other side of the world, and I cannot easily commute to see them.

I love my life on the road. Every day holds the possibility of a new adventure. I love adventure, and I always have. I also love my daughters and my grandsons. I miss them. I know their lives are busy. Mine was when I was their age. Alas, not everything about our traveling lifestyle is easy.

Starting Anew in Torrevieja, Spain

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja.  This beach is two blocks from our apartment.

There are two miles of beaches lining the coast of Torrevieja. This beach is two blocks from our apartment. Pedestrians can walk the entire waterfront with shops and restaurants lining the walkway.

We have walked the city streets, learned the bus routes, visited the central shopping mall, checked out the main cathedral and located the nearest supermarkets and the public library.  Now that we have our feet on the ground we are free to check out the interesting sights of the city.

The 'coralista monument' is a tribute to music and musicians.  It references the Habaneras singing style brought to Torrevieja by sailors who brought Cuban-style song and dance back from the Caribbean in the 18th century.

The ‘coralista monument’ is a tribute to music and musicians. It references the Habaneras music adopted from Cuba via shipping trade dating back to the 1700’s.

Torrevieja, or old tower, is a city of 100,000 people with double that number when you count the surrounding suburbs.  The original tower that gave the city its name was built as an overlook facing the sea.  The tower no longer exists except for some foundation stones that mark its origin.  The city has since erected a stone tower representing the city’s namesake.

The Torrevieja area had proximity to sub-sea level lowlands just a half-mile inland from the coast.  Some early settlers dug a ditch from the sea to these lowlands and flooded two areas to form shallow lakes that were used as dehydration ponds to make salt.  These two salt ponds are huge, combining to cover over 9,000 acres.  Salt production still takes place and now exceeds 800,000 tons/year exported mostly to Western European markets.  The shoreline areas of the salt lakes are protected parklands serving as habitat for birds and wildlife.  Wading birds are common as they prey upon fish in the shallow lagoons.

Torrevieja's main church viewed from Plaza Constitución.

The city’s central church was rebuilt in 1844 using stone blocks from the old tower that was left in ruins from this earthquake.

The city does not have a natural port, so the area was overlooked until the 17th century as far as a hub of commercial activity.  Early settlers were mostly fishermen from Genoa and Naples looking for less competitive fishing areas.  To this day Italian surnames are common among the local population.   Modern day Torrevieja features a water-break seawall that extends nearly a mile around the city’s main marina which moors over 300 boats.  People can stroll the entire length of the seawall on a beautiful boardwalk and get an outstanding view of the city waterfront from offshore. 

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The elaborate altar inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception

The main church in Torrevieja, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, was originally built in 1798.  A severe earthquake in 1829, which would have registered a 6.6 using the Richter scale, had its epicenter close to Torrevieja and devastated the city.  Surrounding towns were also nearly destroyed.  There was little history of seismic activity along the Mediterranean coast, so the local populations were caught completely by surprise. 

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

Picturesque parks are found throughout the city, like this one a few blocks from our home.

The current city of Torrevieja is a tourist and expat destination.  Nearly half of the population is made up of British expats who own a home or apartment somewhere around the city.  English is spoken in most shops, restaurants and businesses.  There is an English language weekly newspaper, an English cinema, and innumerable groups and clubs including golfing, cycling, acting, hiking and jogging.  Runners were drawn to the 31st annual Torrevieja Half-Marathon, which took place on February 23rd and draws over 2,000 runners. 

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

The Central Market of Torrevieja offers a variety of fresh fruits, deli items and goodies.

While we are not beach people per se, we enjoy strolling along the waterfront on a warm sunny day and feeling the cool breeze.  And now that we have our bearings, we look forward to getting to better know our new home town.

Our New Home on the Costa Blanca

Our hosts, Esmeralda and Raul showed us this apartment in Villajoyosa, just south of Benidorm.  Too bad we could not afford it.

Our hosts, Esmeralda and Raul showed us this apartment in Villajoyosa overlooking the marina, just south of Benidorm. Too bad we could not afford it.

Our greatest experiences in the countries we have visited have been the people we have met.  Spain has been no exception.  We were fortunate to have found a room to rent for our first month in Alicante with a welcoming couple, Raul and Esmeralda, which served as our base to search for an apartment.  After a few days decompressing and learning the terrain, our apartment search began in earnest.

Benidorm is a lovely spot overrun by expats.  Most of the high rise buildings are apartments.

Benidorm is a lovely spot overrun by expats. Most of the high rise buildings are apartments.

Benidorm, about 30 miles north of Alicante, is one of the coast cities that has been taken over by the British, either on holidays or as expats.  We liked the city well enough, and there is just as much English spoken as there is Spanish.  However, we became disillusioned with the housing options.  They were either above our budget or just plain dumpy.   

Sensing our frustration, Esmeralda phoned her sister in Torrevieja, about 30 miles south of Alicante, who had an apartment to show us.  We knew the moment we saw the apartment and the neighborhood that we were home!  A city of 100,000, Torrevieja is also a favorite British landing spot.  They have an English language cinema, an English weekly newspaper and several British pubs and restaurants.  An expat city like Torrevieja would not be our typical move.  However, it is pretty with lots of areas to walk and shop, and there are lots of places in and around the city to explore.

The view of the sea from the Castle of Santa Barbara

The view of the sea from the Castle of Santa Barbara

Having found a place to live freed us up to explore a bit more.  We took the oceanfront elevator 500 feet up to the hilltop Castle of Santa Barbara, about the same height as the ride up Seattle’s Space Needle.  However, the elevator shaft was cut through solid rock, so there were no views until we got to the top.  Although artifacts pre-dating Roman times have been found on the slopes of Mount Benacantil, the fortress was established in the 9th century, a time of Arabic Muslim control.  The castle was taken by Castilian forces on December 4, 1248.  That was the feast day honoring Saint Barbara, patron saint of the military, and that is how the castle came to be known.

A 450 year old church, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas is picturesque and beautiful inside.

A 450 year old church, the Cathedral of St. Nicholas is picturesque and beautiful inside.

I visited the Museum of Archeology, an award-winning museum that captures the evolution of the Alicante area from pre-historic times up to the 20th century.  The ancient Roman city of Lucentum is only a mile or so from the museum, so there are plentiful artifacts depicting the Roman Era. 

Further exploration has taken us to The Explanade, the city’s colorful mosaic pedestrian walkway along the waterfront.  We explored the nearby suburb of San Vicente del Raspeig, Alicante’s university district.  We discovered the Mercado Central and the downtown walking and shopping areas.  We took in the Museo de Taurinos, the Bullfight Museum, which is operated by the City of Alicante and free to the public.  We visited the 17th century Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the ABC tour (the Another Blessed Cathedral tour for newer readers).  We have also visited the Museum of Chocolate, shopped at the Open Market, and we have eaten tapas, empañadas and seafood paella.

Bullfighting still takes place in Alicante.  The city runs a bullfighter school for young aspiring bullfighters.

Bullfighting still takes place in Alicante. The city runs a bullfighter school for young aspiring bullfighters.

The Valor Chocolate Company is still family owned.  They produce a variety of chocolates including these designer goodies.  The ones in front use various liqueurs.  The quality compares with the best we have tasted.

The Valor Chocolate Company is still family owned. They produce a variety of chocolates including these designer goodies. The ones in front use various liqueurs. The quality compares with the best we have tasted.

There is much more we can see and do in and around Alicante.  Unfortunately, our sightseeing was cut short when Florence caught the flu.  Other than catching the flu, our first month in Spain has been pleasant by every account. 

All photos copyrighted by Florence Lince

Life on the Costa Blanca

The palm lined Esplanade in downtown Alicante divides the harbor from several high end hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings.

The palm lined Esplanade in downtown Alicante divides the harbor from several high end hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings.

After arriving in Spain via a Grimaldi Line cruise ship ferry from Italy, we divided a week between the two great cities of Barcelona and Madrid to spend time sightseeing and to visit friends.  There is no question that the highlight of Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia, although I will admit that the sights of Madrid impressed me somewhat more than did Barcelona.  They are both beautiful, world-class cities.  However, the rich history of Spain seemed more evident to me in Madrid with its parks, palaces, cathedrals and art museums. 

We walked past Alicante's Plaza of the Bulls.  Bullfights still take place in the arena during the summer.

We walked past Alicante’s Plaza of the Bulls. Bullfights still take place in the arena during the summer.

I will also admit that playing tourist after leaving Croatia in early January left us both mentally and physically drained.  So it was with more than a little relief that we rode the motorcoach for the five hour ride to Alicante.  We emailed our host family of our estimated arrival, and they were waiting to greet us as we landed on their doorstep, just a 10 minute taxi ride from the bus station.

The Castle of Santa Barbara has stood watch over Alicante for over 1,000 years.

The Castle of Santa Barbara has stood watch over Alicante for over 1,000 years.

I had read quite a bit about Spain and its many great cities.  Somehow I was drawn to the region known as the Costa Blanca, thus named for the pale color of the sandy beaches on the Mediterranean coast.  I now know the decision to come here was absolutely the right one.  Alicante is approximately halfway between Barcelona and Gibraltar on the Spanish Riviera.  Here people enjoy over 300 sunny days per year.  There is a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally, and the area is so gorgeous that it is mind-boggling.   

The beachfront of Benidorm, one of Spain's most touristic cities.

The beachfront of Benidorm, one of Spain’s most touristic cities.

Our host family is helpful and kind beyond any expectation.  Our arrangement with them is to rent for a month while we look for a more permanent setting.  This has given us the gift of time to get our bearings and explore the area.  Our first venture was to explore the city of Alicante itself.  We walked the mile or so into the city center and discovered the Central Market, the City Center and the Esplanade, the colorful, tile-paved waterfront pedestrian walk.  We did not think we could find anything finer than downtown Alicante.

Overlooking the sea is Benidorm's Church of St. James.

Overlooking the sea is Benidorm’s Church of St. James.

The next day we hitched a ride with our host, Raul, to the touristy seaside town of Benidorm, about 20 north.  We were struck by how many tourists there were in January.  We heard English, French and German spoken by those we walked among along the beach.  And we noticed almost everyone was at least our age or older.  Clearly, the pensioners of Europe come here to escape the cold weather up north.

This beautiful promontory divides Benidorm into north and south halves.

This beautiful promontory divides Benidorm into north and south halves.

We have yet to explore further south to Torrevieja and Murcia.  Considering how much we have enjoyed each of the cities we have visited in Spain, it is hard to imagine we will not also enjoy our upcoming visits there and points beyond.  Spain has proven to be comfortable and hospitable.  The prices for essentials are affordable on our budget, which means we can also afford to tour more of the country in the weeks ahead.  In the meantime, we should have a place to call our own in time for my February birthday, and that will be the finest gift I could wish for.