Mt. St. Helens & me 40 years ago today

MT. St. Helens

I was living in a village near the bottom of Mt. St. Helens when it blew.  We had lived there for eight years. We had taken our children up to it and gone sledding, building snow forts, making snow angels, the works. 

It was our mountain. Our beautiful mountain. It reminded me of an upside-down ice-cream cone.  It was perfect in every way.  Everyone knew it was a volcano, but it had formed thousands of years before and would continue like it was for thousands of years in the future. We knew this because the local Indians told us it had last erupted a thousand years earlier.  Now it was our mountain, and it belonged to us to do with as we pleased.

But it wasn’t our mountain.  One morning I looked outside. It seemed as though we had been plunged into the inside of a furnace with all its ashes. I stared. It was snowing gray ash.  I stared more, wondering what the birds had done.  Relieved, I saw them huddled together under bushes.

Of course, the radio and TV had switched to Emergency. We were told to stay indoors because ash is deadly to the lungs since it is a form of glass. If we did go out, we had to wear surgical masks. If we drove, we were told to put nylons over the air filter and to not go over 10 mph.  Even then, the ash flew everywhere. Our freeway entrance and exit were blocked. The most disturbing thing I heard on the radio (yes, everyone kept their radios on) was that we were at the top of the San Andreas Fault.  And so, we like the birds, huddled and waited for more unknown.

After about a week, the “snow” quit falling and the radio told everyone to go up on our roofs and shovel the ash off.  Snow is heavy but ash is heavier. People’s roofs were in danger of collapsing.  Of course, some people could not climb up there, so the neighbors pitched in.  No one was left without help. After a few days, snow trucks made their way down the streets pushing the ash out of the way.  Next, we were told to shovel the ashes off our lawns and sidewalks and pile it all in the street next to the curb.  In a few more days city dump trucks made the rounds picking up and hauling away Nature’s trash.

I volunteered for a telephone hotline where people called in to find missing relatives.  Anyone who had been even partly near the mountain a few days before it blew were asked to check in with us.  We had a running list.  Many made it out alive, but it was harrowing. And many did not survive.

The locals couldn’t believe this friendly mountain would ever be anything different. So, life went on as usual for many.  Campers went camping up near the mountain as usual.  Hunters went hunting and fishermen went fishing up near the mountain as usually.  The mountain was “just blowing smoke” to scare people.  The government tried to corden off roads that led to the mountain, but many went around the blockades and went happily on their way.

When the mountain blew, the fiery blast of heat out of earth’s core rushed like a cyclone and burned people’s lungs. Since most were up there along the Tootle River fishing and camping, they put their coats up over their head, rushed to the river, and plunged under water. They held their breath as long as they could, and when they had to come up for air, their lungs felt as though they, too, were on fire.

And the Tootle River?  It had a tidal wave 30′ high.  For years, we could see the ash where it had mingled with the water and cover the trunks of the highest trees.

Everything impossible was now happening. Everything unreal had entered our reality.  Not only was our mountain turned inside out, but our world was too.

People have expressions that something is “as eternal as the mountains” or “as old as the hills.”  Not true. Nothing on earth is eternal. That also includes things, people, power, position, belongings, even dreams.  Eventually, they quake and sway and are gone. 



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