The Oso Landslide

I had seen the gash of the drop off then crumple of the Oso, Washington area landslide in Google Maps’ satellite view when I was routing this weekend’s trip to the Northern Cascades. I had heard and read about the devastation. But it does not prepare you for the experience of passing through the expanse of the sudden, fanned out barren space in the middle of thick forest with the occasional house.

Five months to the day of the landslide, we rode through on our motorcycles. I was in front, and signs said to slow to 25 miles per hour. Too slow, it seemed, for the nice new road in front of me. Then I realized where we were. And it was as if I could not go slow enough, trying to focus on riding while absorbing the shock I did not expect, and feeling as if, with the long line of cars behind me, I was leading a sad, mournful funeral procession through. By slowing further, I was paying my respects.

Passing through that space on a motorcycle, was, I imagine, an even more vulnerable, raw experience than if in the comfort-controlled shelter of a car. This landslide section of Highway 530 is now dry dirt, and in some sections, the dirt felt like it walled us in. (How would it have been when it was flowing, swallowing everything in its path?) We rode through the first time, west to east. Getting, finally, to the end where the dirt suddenly stopped and the trees started again – there was a house. It, and its plot of land, seemingly untouched; spared. (What would it have been like to be on the boundary of the flow? That it stopped at your doorstep? And your neighbors – over forty of them – are now gone? Swept away and under?)

The return route, east to west, you suddenly see the full gouge out of the mountain. As if it was tired of holding itself up and just released. A sheer sloughing off, a whole side of the mountain, gone, the inside of the mountain now exposed. Row of trees at the top of the drop, which now is a sandy descent, into a chaos of toppled trees shored up against each other, in the crumpling of the land. The areas close to the road are all dirt, smoothed out. So tame looking now, that the person I was with, who did not initially realize where we were on the first day, thought it was odd that there was huge construction development work going on in such a small town in the middle of forest.

This second time through, I see a couple piles of debris remaining. Mostly wood, the fallen timber. A tire. Tire means human – man made, man used. That pile may contain pieces of someone’s house, someone’s stuff.

We wanted to take photos, but there is nowhere to stop, and it is not allowed. We wanted to attempt capture the magnitude of the landslide. An aerial shot cannot do so; only a sort of passing through, experience of size, might be able to. The landslide was probably so rapid, that it was nearly over before a body would figure out how to respond. This space screamed one day, five months ago, and is now silent.