An Irishman, a Scot and an Aussie enter a bar in rural Washington State…

Posted on September 10, 2010


It may sound like the start of a cheesy joke but on one camping trip the cliché became a window into the life of a colourful local named Delford Sibart (yes that really was his name) and his classic car collection.  At the time, the setting could easily have been confused for one of those listless opening scenes in a horror movie.  It all began in Cougar, WA…

Cougar, Washington

With just over 100 inhabitants at the last count Cougar comprises of little more than a gas station (with an empty vending machine), rustic pub and rickety mailboxes.  Yet, thousands of visitors and hikers make a visit there every year. Why?  This community is situated 11 miles south of Mount St Helens, placing it perfectly as a gateway to discovery of Washington State’s famous, active volcano, and the attractions that surround it.

Beat up Mail boxes line the main street (only street) in Cougar, WA

Cougar Gas Station

The plan was quickly to stop for gas and a coffee before hitting the road for a day of hiking.  Entering the wood-panelled, rustic saloon at 10am on a Saturday no one expected to find much activity, yet propping up the bar and nursing a whiskey was Mr Sibart and his friend Mike.  As the waitress bustled around, the conversation quickly turned to good hiking trails, and the age old winner…the weather.  Our Australian friend also left his mark on the place by joining many others in customizing then stapling a dollar bill above the bar.

Customised dollar bills stapled above the bar in Cougar, WA

Normally this is where the story would end, as everyone goes their separate ways.  Not this time.  Delford caught up to us outside and invited the group home to see his car / cars (here comes the horror movie aspect).  We follow him in his “small” car (an old banger about the size of a VW Passat) up the street to his home, hidden from the main road by large foreboding pine trees.  We are quickly ushered into a vast garage.  Once the group is all safely inside, the door is closed, and the lights go off.  It is pitch black, for a few moments.  I briefly hold my breath, until Delford whips off a sheet and lights up the dash of his Oldsmobile 1957.  The group let out a collective sigh of relief, that hopefully Delford confused for awe, and we quickly relaxed, absorbing his pride and excitement.

Delford Sibart, on "his" barstool in Cougar Bar and Grill, WA

Delford working on his classic car. One of three.

20 minutes pass, as the men play with their grown up toys, all the vehicles were lovingly restored.  This brief side trip opened a window into rural American life, and brought to life the commanding yet eerie destination.  We had another unexpected insight still to come.  First though, the background.  The story of Mount St Helens’ eruption is a familiar one, with ash covering the world on May, 17th 1980.  However, it is mesmerizing to see the continuing natural impact of one fateful day 30 years on, and how nature is slowly fighting back. 230 sq miles were buried,  and driving almost a full lap around the mountain is a motorcyclist’s dream.  Scenic views and hairpin bends add to the fun.

Visitors look out from Windy Ridge

Visitors to Johnston Ridge Observatory look out at the mountain

One moment you are driving through dense forestry and the next you find yourself in a sparse desert, with nothing bar a few burned trees standing. Every now and then sparks of colour do appear.  A bush here, a flower there.  And it becomes clear that Mount St Helens is beginning to recover from the ash, in spite of spirit lake saying otherwise…

It is filled with thousands of trees pulled from their roots, by a combination of rising lake water and ash.

Life returns to the area, as the logs continue to fill Spirit Lake.

A visitor makes her way down the steps at Windy Ridge viewing point, the closest spot the general public can get to the mountain, four miles away.

It is the diversity of the landscape that is most striking.  Over the course of two days’ driving travellers find that the fauna changes countless times as the road weaves in and out of the blast zone. Our exploration eventually drew us into a tranquil spot created by the blast.  Coldwater Lake, the site of our second chance encounter.  On the whole, we had found the Americans far less friendly than Canadians, avoiding eye contact in camp sites, and rarely striking up conversation. (except for Delford).  Therefore, it came as a shock when the young lady we found sitting on a log in Coldwater Lake not only struck up conversation, but was full of local knowledge.  It turned out she was an off duty park ranger, giving us an impromptu lesson in all things lake and mountain related.  Coldwater Lake, being the final stop, and filled with personality, rounded off a varied trip perfectly.  Two days is certainly not enough to see the area.  It is worth dedicating three or even four, as the trip covers a vast and worthwhile landscape.

An unexpected ranger talk at Coldwater Lake

Posted in: Travel