IN THE OVERNIGHT silence, snow blanketed the steep roof of Spirit Lake Lodge at the threshold of Mount St. Helens. It was mid-March 1980, but in Kathy Paulson’s memory, it feels like yesterday.
She and her boyfriend — Rob Smith, a Grateful Dead fan, self-described Mountain Man and proprietor of the lodge — were lying in bed on the third level of the aging hideaway.
“Out of the blue,” she says, “no wind, no storm or anything, the whole top of the lodge started weaving back and forth.”
The Backstory: 40 years later, the stories of St. Helens unearth the wonder and dread of a lifetime
The lyrics to ‘Fire on the Mountain’ shake Rob Smith — and Portland
Was it from snow falling off the roof? Rob padded downstairs to look. Soon, he returned.
“It wasn’t the snow,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ I sat straight up in bed and thought, ‘Get me out of here.’ Something was going on.”
Rob used a walkie-talkie to radio the U.S. Forest Service. The voice on the other end seemed to shrug. But within days, the University of Washington began hauling seismic equipment up Spirit Lake Highway.
“There were tremors,” Rob says. “It wasn’t just a little tremor. It was continuous.”
LONG BEFORE ITS May 18, 1980, eruption made it legendary, Mount St. Helens defined Rob’s persona.
During his boyhood in Castle Rock, his family often drove up to Spirit Lake to camp. A late-1950s photo of Rob as a tyke on the boat dock of Mount St. Helens Lodge, run by the chattering curmudgeon Harry R. Truman, is a precious keepsake.
Rob’s dad managed a loggers’ credit union. A child of woodland culture, Rob began working at a family tree farm at age 10. In his teen years, when things got tough, the St. Helens forests became Rob’s getaway.
“There were thousands of acres of Weyerhaeuser land that was like our park,” he says. “It was, ‘Where’s the latest road? Oh, it’s up here on this huge ridge.’ It was all old-growth timber, and it was fantasyland for Nature Boy to get out on pretty much unrestricted access to all that property.
“That was everything to me in high school: ‘Hey, school’s out, it’s snowing, grab a case of beer.’ It was always, ‘Let’s go up to the mountain.’ ”
Like his peers, he worked at a Weyerhaeuser pulp mill.
“That was your destiny in a mill town,” he says. “I didn’t like it, but it’s what you do. You get married, go to work in the mill and that’s your life. Retire at 65, and you die the next year. I was getting nowhere, just getting wages, making $3.80 an hour. Someday you’d be a machine tender.”
But one September day in 1973, soon after he turned 20, Rob’s dad offered a way out.
“I can buy the lodge,” his dad said, meaning Spirit Lake Lodge, a mile west of Harry’s. “You want to go up there and take it on?”
Instantly, Rob said, “I’m in.” He sold his tiny house and Jeep, bought an International truck, moved up and settled in. “I belonged up there, away from everybody.”
THE LODGE SAT on 3 1/2 acres near the end of Spirit Lake Highway. Its six second-floor rooms could hold a dozen visitors.
To the south, the snowy peak of St. Helens gleamed. Sightseers, often from nearby Portland, ventured up to cross-country ski, snowmobile, stay at the lodge and soak it all in. “Flatlanders,” Rob called them.
He had brought his wife. Soon they had two sons. Harry, a St. Helens fixture since 1928, at first called their operation “Hippieville,” a label that offended the hardworking Rob.
“But then [Harry] saw that, ‘This kid’s not going anywhere,’ ” Rob says. “We weren’t equals — he was in his 80s, and I was in my 20s — but we had mutual respect. I never felt that he looked down on us at all.”
Rob cooked, cleaned and did repairs. “Most of the time I spent in the kitchen. I didn’t get out that much.” The life was Spartan, with long stretches of isolation. No utilities. Electricity by propane only. Heat by wood only. Everything to aid living was hauled in.
Visitors would burst into the lodge breathless: “Where’s the phone? I gotta make a phone call.”
“Don’t have one.”
“Well, I’ll pay you if I can use your phone.”
“No phone! Got it? No phone lines? If I had one, you could use it.”
The austerity, plus the conditions (winds approaching 50 mph and temperatures plummeting to 0), led to the disintegration of his immediate family.
“To me, we had everything we needed, but it was miserable sometimes,” he says. “I don’t want to sound too macho, but a man could handle it better than a young woman with a couple boys.”
After his wife left, Rob continued his routine at the lodge — alone.
FOR 10 YEARS after high school, Kathy Paulson had slogged through desk jobs in Portland. Then she moved to tiny Toutle to live with her mother, Luella, and save money for college.
In September 1978, Kathy and Luella drove to the top of the St. Helens highway to pick huckleberries. Before heading home, they stopped for coffee at the lodge, and there was Rob.
“He was the mystery man of the highway,” she says: “a very nice man, gentle. I could tell he was a kind person, and we hit it off.”
Kathy became a highway flagger and a weekend partner for Rob, helping him build clientele. They devised a jaunty — and all-too-prescient — motto: “We’re not in it for the money. We’re in it for the glory.”
BY LATE MARCH 1980, a minor eruption had blown a hole in the top of the mountain, sending an ash plume skyward and triggering a symbiotic frenzy of media and tourists.
Rob took cues from their neighbor Harry. The folk hero, who sipped constantly from a Coke glass of whiskey, scoffed at the fuss. His mantra was, “It’s gonna go away. This isn’t gonna happen.”
Then came orders to evacuate.
Harry remained resolute. “Ah; it’ll blow off a little steam, get a little mud flow down the mountain,” he told Rob. “I’m not afraid of that thing, and I’m not leaving.”
But Rob packed his truck. In went chain saws, a rifle, some clothes — “what I could live on temporarily until I could get back to the mountain.” Also came Master Chef stainless-steel cooking pans he had bought four years earlier.
Through April and early May, while bunking at a friend’s vacant house at Silver Lake, Rob drove up the highway several times, bypassing a government gate to investigate lodge break-ins by so-called “volcano watchers.”
“I had to go up there,” he says. “It was my home. I lived there.”
But some of Rob’s actions didn’t make sense. “I’d clean it all up, mop the floor, put chairs at tables, get ready to open for business. I’d been doing it for seven years. But of course, nobody came.”
Once, he checked in for a chat with Harry, who batted him on the arm. “Kid, you know I can’t go anywhere,” Harry told Rob. “This is my place. Nobody’s going to take me out of my place.”
Eyes filling with tears, Rob recalls that he could muster only, “Bye, Harry; I’ve gotta go.”
Kathy also implored Harry, inviting him to join them at her mother’s home on Silver Lake: “You don’t have to stay here. Just c’mon down and stay at Mom’s.”
To her generous plea, Harry had a defiant, one-word reply: “No.”
NO ONE KNEW for sure that Saturday, May 17, would be the day before the big blow. But tremors had continued, day and night. News crews had filed daily, on-scene reports.
Owners of nearby property clamored to return to retrieve items. Gov. Dixy Lee Ray acceded, allowing access for the weekend of May 17-18.
The State Patrol escorted Rob and Kathy to the lodge. The trip, however, became a family party. “They weren’t prepared to move anything, and there was a bunch of media,” Rob says. “So I fired up the stove, cleaned the place up, cooked hamburgers for everyone. It was like business as usual, relaxing in a way.”
But the tremors kept coming. That afternoon, they say, not a minute went by without one. “The wine glasses clinked together on the shelves,” Kathy says. “It was scary.”
“We had beer signs in the window,” Rob says, “so you’d hear them hitting the glass a little bit. But it was not a jolt. It was just a little shake, like a semitruck driving by, not like it would shake you.”
At one point, Rob, still intent on packing more things, asked Kathy, “Why don’t we just stay here tonight? We’re coming up tomorrow, anyway.”
Her eyes flared.
“No way,” she replied. “Not with tremors every 45 seconds.”
By evening, a state patrolman told the group to leave. At nearly 8 p.m., Rob and Kathy drove off. But instead of heading downhill, they stopped in to see their friend.
Harry was visibly exhausted and shaken. “He wasn’t his normal self,” Kathy says. “He had a tear in his eye, and I’d never seen Harry shed a tear.”
“C’mon, Harry,” she told him. “Why don’t you ride down with us?”
“No; I’m not doing that,” Harry said.
Then, with tears welling, he grabbed Rob’s arm.
“Keep a stiff upper lip, kid,” he said. “Keep a stiff upper lip.”
THE NEXT MORNING, shortly after 8:30, Rob and Kathy were finishing breakfast at Luella’s, ready to head back up to the lodge, when Rob’s mom, Mariam, telephoned from Castle Rock with blunt news: “The mountain blew.”
Rob and Kathy were dubious. But there was no way they could have heard it, because while the blast was audible hundreds of miles away, the area near the mountain fell within an unearthly cone of silence.
“I don’t think you’re going up there,” Mariam told Rob.
The couple drove with Luella down the road, where they stopped to gaze at ash clouds billowing endlessly. They took Luella’s little boat out to the middle of Silver Lake, 30 miles or so from St. Helens, where they “sat and watched the mountain blow all day long,” Kathy says. “Half the sky was black.”
They pondered the fate of the lodge. “But we knew,” Kathy says. “Inside, we knew it couldn’t possibly have survived what we were seeing.”
They also knew that Harry and his lodge were buried. And it sank in that Kathy’s “No way” had saved their lives. “Thank God,” she says.
Kathy recalls her profound awe. And Rob? “I couldn’t even really feel. I was numb.”
ST. HELENS EXPLODED five more times that year. The aftermath included a toll of 57 known deaths and a profusion of images and statistics bespeaking devastation and, eventually, new life.
Not long after the blasts, Rob and Kathy moved north to a quiet lane in Kirkland. Kathy enrolled at Seattle University, securing a degree in literature and journalism before diving into a real estate career that isn’t over yet.
Rob immersed himself seven days a week in construction work for a salvage company in Pioneer Square, an “escape” from what they had lost on the mountain. In 1983, he became a hands-on manager of commercial property, a job he holds to this day.
Post-eruption, Spirit Lake Lodge lay hundreds of feet underground. Rob’s dad paid off the 18 months left on the mortgage, and the Forest Service condemned the site, offering him a tract near Roslyn in exchange. He declined, and in the end was paid $1,500.
For a while, Rob and his dad searched the state for another mountain lodge for Rob to run. “We couldn’t find anything like Spirit Lake,” Rob says.
In 1997, Rob and Kathy married. But the numbness of the Mountain Man ran deep. For years, he avoided the place he thought would be his forever home. “I just didn’t care to see it.”
IT TOOK ROB and Kathy two decades to hike back to the entombed site of Spirit Lake Lodge. There they were interviewed — mostly about Harry Truman — for the 2000 TV documentary “St. Helens’ Fury,” narrated by Seattle’s Tom Skerritt. Six years later, Rob bought 11 acres north of the mountain. He occasionally returned to hunt elk.
Over the past year, however, a different kind of shooting has sustained Rob.
With a 1,200-mm lens, he creates photos and video of elk herds, contributing to the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s visual evidence of a trend that troubles him — a surge of painful, contagious rot in the hooves of the gracefully antlered species. He also has captured stunning images of the maimed mountain.
He pines for the pre-eruption era of more access and fewer regulations, but photography lets him re-embrace his fervor for St. Helens. “It’s still personal,” he says, “but now I see it all through different eyes, and I’m enjoying the place a little more.”
Kathy hasn’t returned to the lodge site in the past 20 years but yearns to do so. In her mind’s eye, it’s a cathartic paradise. Though it became the proverbial paradise lost, for her it never lost its power.
“When I moved to Mount St. Helens, everything changed for me, for the better,” she says. “To this day, my attachment to it is calming, transforming, very personal.”
Indeed, she and Rob maintain that Spirit Lake lived — and today lives — up to its name. “There was something very spiritual about it — quite profound,” Kathy says.
“Everybody felt that,” Rob says. “It’s not like other mountains or passes. We were on a dead end, so that’s where you were going. You weren’t going through. It was so close, so beautiful, so clean, so easy to get to.”
Stirring his soul is a vision from before St. Helens began to rumble: “At any given time, you could be the only one on the mountain.”
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