I was barely twelve years old when Mt St Helens blew on this very day in 1980. Unlike 2011, the sun actually shone every once in a while that Spring and it was a particularly clear and sunny day when the mountain erupted so infamously. News spread quickly – after all it was pretty hard to ignore a giant plume of ash just outside your window. My Mom and I drove over to the Rose Garden (at Washington Park) and eventually made our way to Council Crest to get as panoramic a view as possible. And what a view it was. I still am in awe all these years later.
As a kid I never thought of Mt St Helens as sinister or violent. To me, the mountain was about as imposing as a Dairy Queen ice cream cone which it bore a remarkable resemblance to prior to blowing itself to bits. It was impossible to fathom the power and the absolute destructive power of a real live volcano, especially when it was just a few miles to the North of us. Sure, there had been a series of eruptions leading up to May 18th but they were nothing in comparison and were somewhat entertaining more so than awe-inspiring. On May 17th, the mountain still had a profile that must have been the envy of the volcanic world. Harry Truman was still alive and defiant, ignoring the warnings to move away from Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake was still pristine and beautiful. The surrounding forests had not been reduced to the largest game of pick up sticks ever created nor had the Toutle River become a raging wall of mud and debris. But within 24 hours everything was changed. As were all of us that witnessed it.
Having an eight year old daughter, I have watched all sorts of kids movies. Some have been great while others would make Ishtar look Oscar-worthy. One of our favorites is Spy Kids. In the movie, two children find out their parents are international spies as opposed to the rather ordinary and boring adults they appear to be. In a nutshell, this is exactly what May 18th was like for me. Mt St Helens was idyllic, beautiful, peaceful and perfect. And then suddenly my entire perception of the natural world was completely turned upside down. Violently. The mountain was alive, it was incredibly powerful and it had an agenda all of its own.
I don’t know that my daughter, Ella, will ever witness anything quite like what I did back in 1980. I’ve tried my best to explain that day but my words sound feeble and are insufficient to describe the magnitude of the event itself.
When my Mom bought her first house here in Portland I had the chance to speak with one of the neighbors that had witnessed the eruption of Mt Lassen in California in 1915. It was a great story but just a story nontheless. Imagine my surprise when a year later I witnessed an even bigger eruption. It was an experience a boy never forgets. 31 years later, that’s still the case.