Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Day the Mountain Blew

In Southwest Washington State, most people who lived here thirty years ago are talking about what they were doing on May 18, 1980, the Day the Mountain Blew. It's etched in my memory too, but despite the fascination I've had for Mt. St. Helens long before that major eruption, the day I remember so poignantly was exactly one week before, May 11, 1980.

It was Mothers' Day that year, and the present I was given was a drive down from Olympia, Washington, where we lived then, to get up as close to the mountain as we could, and see what it looked like. Changes were happening. It was venting, rumbling, even bulging on one side. There were barriers up marking the Red Zone, and signs encouraging people not to go closer. But we saw no sign of the State Patrol.

There wasn't all that much we could see anyway, for it was a very typical Northwest spring day, rainy temperate, with thick, low clouds. Not until we were about to leave did we actually get a glimpse of the mountain, and I was shocked at how close it seemed. We should have been about ten miles away. Or was it really that big?

Disappointed in how little we saw, we fooled around in the stream beds and picked at unusual rocks in road cuts. I found one I've never identified for sure, with tiny, very pale bluish green crystals arranged in globules. My son, in an attempt to get a better glimpse of the mountain, climbed to the top of the nearest ridge, a good thousand or better feet above the stream bed where the rest of us foraged for agates. (It was everyone's ambition to see the mountain "blow", but few if any of the people there had any real comprehension of what that meant). He got his glimpse, but only barely, before the clouds closed in again.

So we didn't get everything we wanted, yet it had been one of those wonderful little adventures we cherished so much.

Exactly one week later, we heard the news. My husband was working overtime in Tacoma, and I had gone with him, just because, well, newlyweds do that kind of thing. At 8:32 a.m., Mt. St. Helens had erupted. Blown out almost the entire north side of the mountain. Ash billowed five miles into a bright blue sky, turning the world around the mountain dark as night, and carried eastward through the entire state and into Idaho . Super-heated pyroclastic flows rushed down the valley up over what is now named Johnstone Ridge after geologist Dr. David Johnstone who died there, down the far side, and up the next, blowing everyone and everything off the ridge where my son had been standing. In the valley below, the Toutle River became a rushing torrent of hot, deep, ashy mud, carrying huge boulders and chunks of ice from the mountain's flanks.

We'd been told the Red Zone was 10 miles from the volcano. At that location, it was barely more than 3 miles.

If we had taken our trip one week later, we would all have been wiped out. There is no out-running such an explosion. That isn't likely, really, although if we had not been able to go that Sunday, we would have gone the next. Nor is it really likely, with about a three hour drive from Olympia and up the Spirit Lake Highway, we would have reached the area before the eruption. Yet when we think of the mountain, we can't help but realize, when it comes to such forces of nature, just how helpless we human beings are.

It was five more years before we were allowed to return to the volcano, and then only from the east side, up a winding mountainous road that was only cleared wide enough for one lane of traffic. The ash in the air was choking, for the line of cars slowly snaking up the mountains to the lookout point seemed endless. And at the lookout on Mt. Margaret, we suddenly realized the devastation we had we had traveled through getting to the viewpoint, was beyond anything we had comprehended in all the time since the mountain blew. Even in future years, we couldn't identify where we had been before. What had been Elk Rock, where my son had stood, was swept bare. Nothing survived there.

I have some pictures from that trip, and one old Polaroid from the May 11 trip, but my scanner isn't working. Perhaps I'll post them another time. We've been up the New Spirit Lake Highway a number of times in the last twenty years, and always look forward to going again. We love to take visiting friends and family. The pictures here are the ones from our last trip. Spirit Lake has completely changed its shape, but it lies like a sapphire against a malachite background of tall firs, as if it had always been that way. It's hard to imagine now the immense devastation of thirty years ago, when the Toutle River ran so fast and hard, its bridges were washed away and buried in the flow of muddy ash and rock. But close to the volcano, the deeply slashed, vertical-walled trenches through barren gray ash can still be seen. From the volcano's mouth on the north slope, where for some reason no one had given the slightest thought the mountain would explode, a thick flow of mud, rock and ash protrudes like a giant lolling tongue.

Thirty years, and the mountain has found again new awesome beauty, yet is completely changed from what it had been. And for all that, the signs of the eruption are everywhere. In milennia to come, this eruption will still show its scars, just as past eruptions can still be seen.

About Me

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.