MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wash. - A reawakening volcano sparked a makeshift festival here Sunday, as thousands of people staged parties at every wide spot in the two-lane road to the mountain.
Geologic spectators set up lawn chairs in the beds of pickup trucks and fired up barbecues from the park entrance to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center at Milepost 43 - where the road is closed just 8.5 miles from the simmering volcano. Impromptu entrepreneurs hawked hot dogs and coffee.
"There's such amazing energy here, and a connection among the people here. People are exchanging addresses and e-mails and telling their stories and sharing their binoculars," said Roberta Miller, 62, of Electric City.
At the futuristic visitor center, with a view straight into the crater, the wraparound veranda was jammed with people in lawn chairs - most of them with cameras.
"It's beyond amazing," said Steven Uhl, 31, of Everett, who's tried to visit every year since 1982. "I've been a volcano nut since 1980. Seeing the big eruption on the 18th made me a nut."
"Just to be here is almost a religious experience," Uhl said, though he noted as he scanned the throngs: "A lot of these people weren't even interested three weeks ago."
Debbi Pflughoeft, 49, Rogue River, Ore., said she's wanted to study volcanoes "since I was a little girl."
"My parents told me girls don't do things like that, but the bug is still there," said Pflughoeft, who drove up with her husband Wednesday night.
Chris Sawyer, 40, of Dundee, Ore., had a large camera with a big zoom lens set up on a tripod in what he hoped was a good spot.
"I hope to see something," he said. "It'd be neat if it spews something over and out."
Miller arrived Friday and was camping nearby at Seaquest State Park.
"It is just absolutely amazing that in our lifetimes... we're getting two different episodes," she said. "It's too good to waste. We had to be here."
Nearby, an artist known as "O" from Santa Monica, Calif., was working on a 4-by-5-foot painting of the mountain, using three dozen cans of bargain house paint in various tones, mostly grays, blues and olives.
O, who declined to give his age but appeared to be in his 40s, had completed much of the painting. The top part was blank, waiting for what he called "the money shot."
Officials felt people were "out of harm's way" at Coldwater Ridge, said Peter Frenzen, monument scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the mountain and surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The agency evacuated the Johnston Ridge Observatory just five miles from the mountain on Saturday due to concern about volcanic signals indicating a possible magma release.
"We feel more comfortable now that we've pulled back to what we consider a safer distance," Frenzen said. "We understand it's exciting and interesting for folks.