Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Mount Saint Helens Remembered



It is sometimes hard to picture the pre-eruption Mount St. Helens for me. I only went up there once to visit my now deceased brother who worked at the Boy Scout camp at Spirit Lake. What was once a pristine, still lake became a boiling pool of chemicals on May 18, 1980 incinerating and burying an old eccentric along with his cat and a few dozen others.

I remember it as it was and see it as it is, but somehow the difference in years retains the memories in two mental geographies as if there were two Loowits, the Puyallup Indian name for the mountain.

One was a conical dome like Mt. Fuji in Japan. A mountain of pumice so loose that every step forwards slipped you half a step backward. A place so lush and green that tales of Bigfoot were commonplace and the Elven glades of Rivendell were conjured in the minds of the young. I remember an icy blue lake and mossy waterfalls at the first Loowit.

I remember riding with my brother to see gray, scarred hillsides of blown down timber. This was the second Loowit; it was a different land and a different approach to the mountain. Over a thousand feet were knocked off, leaving a jagged-rimmed crater with a dome of lava in the middle like a Klingon sports facility. Seedlings and small trees were growing, but the land still appeared tortured. The lake was a different shape, the roads to it gone and replaced with hiking trails.

I also remember the transition. The deep concussion heard on May 18, 1980 during a Boy Scout flag ceremony. I remember seeing a black, towering cloud that looked like a giant thunderstorm from Hell and realizing by degrees that a monstrous eruption took place. I remember a month later running around the high school track with a dust mask on to limit exposure to the volcanic ash that had fallen around me.

And now we see that the mountain is not asleep. Indeed, even Mt. Hood has answered with a small earthquake of its own. We live in a volatile region indeed and, as gentle as our climate usually is, there are actions going on below our feet which continue to surprise and amaze us.

9 comments:

The Moody Minstrel said...

It was a typical May morning: too chilly for T-shirts but not quite cool enough for coats. The Boy Scout uniforms or light coats most of us were wearing as we stood at the morning flag ceremony were just about right. The fact that many in the throng had probably had that same uniform or coat on almost constantly for the previous few days, peeling it off only to sleep, was irrelevant. After all, campouts were an event to be looked forward to, enjoyed, and remembered forever. Such things as the smell of dozens of unwashed boys somehow just doesn't enter the picture.

I remember the sky was a lovely shade of hazy blue-white, as Western Oregon skies tend to be that time of the year. It was as still as could be expected, which was actually quite a bit. However rowdy and noisy all those twelve-to-eighteen-year-olds could be the rest of the time, the flag ceremony was the flag ceremony. It was either the beginning of the day or the end of the day, and everyone gave it its due respect. This particular flag ceremony actually served both roles at once; while it started the day, it also signaled the end of that particular Camporee. Those things were always eventful in a multitude of small ways. Whatever the headaches, the forgotten gear, the squabbles, the rearranging of friendships, the happily sleepless nights, the achievements, the failures, the stinks, the messes, the cleanups, or the getting yelled at by adult leaders (often from other troops), still, it was an event to be cherished. It was good to be able to go home to TV, junk food, and a hot shower. It was sad to be leaving an unforgettable experience.

I remember that, when we heard that deep, resounding boom, someone in our troop (maybe it was me, actually,) said, "Oh, there goes Portland!" That drew a few chuckles. We were still living in the Cold War, after all, and it was the beginning of the Reagan Era. Portland winding up being vaporized by a Soviet warhead was a very real possibility that we all faced with a bizarre mixture of patriotism, fatalism, and sick humor. When the flag ceremony concluded and we scattered to start breaking everything down, that eerie, unexplained boom vanished from everyone's thoughts.

I remember that, not long afterward, a kid with a transistor radio was running around screaming hysterically, "Mt. St. Helens blew up! Mt. St. Helens blew up!" That's when we began to wonder about that boom again.

My father arrived to pick me up. He asked me if I had heard about the mountain. As we headed toward home, the view directly ahead was something out of a nightmare or a horror flick. I and Snabbie were in the car looking in the direction of what used to be a beautiful, glistening, white cone. Now the mountain was all but invisible beneath a horrifying wall of gray that filled the horizon, thankfully toward the east. It was as if the right side of the sky had been erased to reveal the ugly slate beneath. The left side, the direction of Portland, was thankfully clear.

We all knew we were lucky as hell. We also knew that others probably hadn't been.

We all remember the news reports, that same sequence of photos of the landslide and blast being shown over and over, the weird preference for Jean Michelle Jarre's Oxygene as background music. All the missing. All the deaths. A beautiful landscape instantly transformed into a lunar wasteland. Those scenes have been etched in all of our minds.

Still, nothing compares with having heard that blast, having dismissed it so casually, and then discovering that it was an indicator that your world had been changed.

Before the volcanic activity had started earlier that year, our troop had been debating going to Spirit Lake for the next summer camp. Everyone who had been there said it was the best of all the camps. I'll never know. I never made it.

The Moody Minstrel said...

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Speaking of rumblings in the Pacific Ring of Fire...

I was just surfing some links off of Fark when suddenly the floor tilted crazily under me and the house started bucking like a giant, wooden bronco. I headed toward the living room just in time to see the big pantry full of dishes rocking back and forth. This computer tower was bouncing around. Let's just say it was amazing and fortunate that nothing fell down.

We get a lot of tremors here. This was nasty. According to the subsequent news flash, it was a Level 5 quake on the Japanese scale (not compatible with the Richter scale. Level 5 means strong enough to topple furniture and possibly break windows. Luckily, Windows in this machine seems to be running just fine.)
The news flash also said that the epicenter was RIGHT HERE. Actually, it was a few dozen miles away at Ibaraki Prefecture's main landmark, Mt. Tsukuba...a twin-peaked mount that is the same type of volcano as Mt. St. Helens. (In fact, its museum has quite a writeup on our beloved Loowit because of it.)

Alright, Mother Gaia, what ARE you up to?

ladybug said...

Wow! Hope everything's ok over there. I remember when I went to Santa Clara Univ-There were two large quakes, and many smaller ones. The first one was when I was Freshman in the biggest dorm on campus. I was on the 9th floor and it rocked back and forth. It was made to do that. The second big one was when I was a Junior, actually knocked a couple things on the floor. Mostly, it was an interesting way to wake up in the morning, as the building and low rumble would gently shake you awake, you'd say to yourself, "Oh, we're having another earthquake, "; yawn, stretch. Nothing fell down? Ok, up to the showers!

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Pemberton:

Now, really. This thread is about volcanoes. All you earthquake trolls go somewhere else.

BOOM! SHAKE!

Oops, I turned into a cabbage.

Anonymous said...

Philrod Piddlewaif:

Inconseq***BOOM***

DewKid said...

I remember when I worked at Oregon Health Sciences University, there was this custodian that preferred to be called "Jim the Janitor". He was always very quiet, and kept to his work, but sometimes could be coaxed into a conversation. Very well spoken, and very nice, he once told us a story.

He said that he was working on Mt. St. Helens early on the morning of May 18, 1980, with his normal logging crew. Apparently the logging companies were ignoring the warnings, and were trying to get as much lumber out of there before the mountain blew. Jim remembered hearing one of his workmates, who was working in an area of trees above him, running down the hill shouting rapidly in spanish. He said he didn't understand what he was saying, except that he was clearly terrified about something he had seen or heard. He and his crew ran from the heat and ash, but only Jim made it out of there alive. He suffered 3rd degree burns over most of his body.

His story still sends a chill down my spine. I always wondered if Jim was telling a fish tale, until one day I saw him being interviewed on a nature channel covering the 20th anniversary of the eruption. Whoa.

Where was I? I was standing out on Dolinda St. looking at the plume of ash rising up into the sky over the horizon with a neighbor friend ("Imagine a Quasit?") Both he and my father were remarking earlier about having dreams involving fire and earthquakes. I probably was just dreaming of Mt. Dew. Mmmmm, glorious Dew.

ElTigris said...

I was in high school chemistry class and were just about settled in when they announced Mt St Helens had a big one. No one new how bad or how much, but this fine dust started coming down after a few hours, very little at first then more later. The sky took on an eerie grayish pall and it looked like a winter day. Except it was warm and the dust covered everything, along with that faint rotten egg sulfur smell. If you breathed too deep around stirred up dust you it could start a little coughing fit. Later watching TV and seeing Yakima buried in up to 18 inches of the stuff. Cars driving around in the afternoon with the headlights on and what seemed like a heavy blizzard.

I will have to find the pictures I was given, of a teacher who was also a pilot, they had taken pictures of the mountian just 2 weeks before. They had some very good photos. Moody we will send you more ash ... if it goes agian we will probably get some *chuckles*.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Well, over here we're just getting YET ANOTHER *&#%@$ TYPHOON! Heck, it was a record year two typhoons ago! Florida is getting hurricaned, and we're getting typhooned.

And, wouldn't you know it, this latest one chose to time its apparent arrival just in time for my tenth wedding anniversary...

ladybug said...

Hey Dewkid-whoa! I remember that some helicopter spotted 2 guys struggling in the ash flows; a Spanish speaking guy and a Caucasian guy. They did a impromptu rescue and got them out. The Spanish guy later died at the hospital, so the Caucasian was the only one who lived....maybe that was Jim? Etigris, I had forgotten, and you reminded me, that yes, the light was really weird that day. My aunt and her family lived in Yakima, and we went to help clean up afterwards. What a mess, the ash covered all the plants and we helped shovel it off. It looked to me like a nuke had gone off! It was quiet, no birds, people outside, nothing.