The Mountain Blew Up!
Yesterday the 18th was the 23rd Anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and for my generation this is probably the one defining event that ranks akin to Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the Apollo 11 moon landing, or the Challenger (and perhaps now Columbia) disaster that practically everyone in this country can respond to when asked the "where were you when -- ?" question.
If you lived in the Pacific Northwest at the time, you can't help but remember it. If you happened to be more directly affected by the eruption, like I and many others were, the images of those days will probably remain etched in our memories with photographic clarity.
I can clearly recall waking up around 7:30 that Sunday morning and looking out the window of my dorm in Barto Hall at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. The window faced north, and the morning sky was clear, blue and promising a sunny, warm spring day ahead. I went back to sleep, but was very shortly awakened by one of my neighbors running down the outside walkway, banging on a succession of doors, loudly proclaiming "The mountain blew up! The mountain blew up!" I remember jerking up out of a sound sleep, and the first thing I saw was a roiling cloud of such intense blackness, that it looked like a smoke plume from some huge fire. It covered half the sky, creating a weird diptich effect, the right side blue and featureless, the left side a convoluted mass resembling the lobes of some gigantic brain the color of river mud. You could actually see the cloud moving across the sky, while at the same time literally boiling as it scudded along.
My first thought was to try to contact my Mom, who lived in Longview, a scant 50 miles as the crow flies from the mountain. Of course telephone lines were already jammed, and so I had to content myself with calling my father in Oakland to let him know I was okay, and to ask him to call my grandparents in Portland, as I couldn't get through to them either. At this point, around 9:00 a.m. or so, I still had very little idea as to what was going on. The eruption had been in-progress for literally only a few minutes, the news coming out of Seattle showed spectacular live pictures of the eruption in progress, a huge atomic-war mushroom cloud looming beyond the backdrop of the city like something out of a George Pal movie. But, the reports contained very little specific information in terms of what areas were being affected and how badly. All I knew was that in the few minutes it had taken me to get up and make three phone calls, the sky outside my dorm had grown increasingly dim, as if there had been a sudden, unexpected solar eclipse. In a matter of minutes the entire sky was completely obliterated by the advancing cloud, and shortly thereafter, the ash began to fall, a fine mist that shrouded the campus outside in a gritty, gray fog that smelled unnervingly like burning matches. It quickly became impossible to see the 50 yards or so across the open field that separated Barto from the dining hall.
It's still the eeriest, scariest, and at the same time most beautiful image I've ever seen.
One of my upstairs neighbors, no doubt driven to inspiration at the sight, started playing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon" at what must have been around 150 decibels. He had this huge pair of Boze speakers, each roughly the size of a small refridgerator, and of course his first response to the news was to park one of these on the walkway outside his front door and crank the volume to "11". Even though it was loud enough to rattle windows (not to mention my teeth!) it did seem like an appropriate soundtrack for the event.
A few minutes later, I noticed someone actually prowling around outside in this hellish landscape. There was a small tree just below our room, next to the main entrance, and this figure ran out of the fog to just underneath it, in what at first appeared to be a desperate attempt to use it as some sort of shelter from the falling ash. As soon as he reached it however, he began shaking the slender trunk violently, causing the ash that had already fallen onto it's leaves and branches to cascade down into a small avalanche. For about two seconds, the tree and tree shaker disappeared in a solid column, like the concrete support to a freeway overpass. As soon as it stopped, the shadowy figure darted out from beneath and vanished into the choking mist, undoubtedly in search of the next opportunity to shower himself with ash fallout. I only hope he still has working lungs 23 years later.
For the next four days the CWU campus was completely shut down, as was for all practical purposes the entire town of Ellensburg and a good portion of the eastern part of the state for that matter. I-90 from Snoqualmie Pass to Spokane was essentially shut down, and people were warned to limit driving to absolute necessity only. For most of that Sunday and well into Monday, the ash continued to fall in a constant, dry, eye-burning, lung scraping drizzle. We'd walk around with damp rags over our faces, and every nook and cranny of our clothes and skin would get covered with the stuff. It seeped in under the doors, so you'd have to roll up a towel and place it at the base of the door in an ultimately futile effort to keep it out. But of course, the grains were so fine that the mere act of opening and closing the door would cause plumes of it to be swept in.
For several days we were the biggest story on the planet with images of the eruption, it's aftermath and stories of our efforts to deal with the crisis circling the globe (no mean feat considering cable mega-news channels such as CNN didn't even exist at the time) . I still have my copy of the Longview Daily News (being the closest city to the eruption cite, and for a brief moment in history, the focal-point of world attention) published two days later, with the full-page spread of the blast zone. Jimmy Carter came to town to view the devastation and with promises of rapid mobilization of Federal emergency support. They even made a movie out of it (regretably quite forgetable, even with veteran actor Art Carney playing Harry Truman, the stubborn owner of Spirit Lake Lodge, who refused to leave his home of some 40-odd years, and who is now entombed beneath the pyroclastic outflow created when the upper third of the mountain slid down into the lake), which had it's world premier at the Columbia Theatre. We were big news, and everyone wanted to know how we were dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in human history.
And deal with it we did, although in ways that were decidedly less than heroic. We ventured outside only when absolutely necessary, and then dressed like deep-sea divers or moon-walking astronauts, every inch of our bodies covered to try to keep the ash from sifting into our clothes, our bodies, into our eyes, and noses and lungs. We washed our clothes repeatedly, ate oatmeal, macaronni-and-cheese and hamburgers for three days, because the food service staff didn't know how long it would be before the next deliveries could arrive. We dialed phones millions of times, always hoping that somehow the lines would clear and we'd finally be able to contact parents, loved ones and friends (by the time I got ahold of my Mom sometime on Monday, it turned out that everyone in Longview was fine, although there had been some concern since my other grandmother's house was right across the street from the Cowlitz river, which crested about a foot below the top of the embankment). In short, we did what people always do in these situations, we tried to carry on with our lives as best we could under adverse conditions and just waited for things to improve. Eventually, they did. The skies cleared, the Kittitas winds swept the ash into the air, the rain washed it out of the sky and into the ground. Roads reopened. So did school. And over time, things got back to normal.
I didn't get a chance to go home until nearly three weeks later -- and wouldn't you know it? There was a second eruption that sent another ash plume southwest this time instead of northeast; before things finally settled down later that summer, I had the distinct displeasure to be in the fallout zone of all four major eruptions.
It wasn't until about ten years ago that I finally got a chance to get an up-close look at the mountain, and even though the plant and animal life was already well on its way to recovery, the difference was still startling. Hundreds of thousands of acres of trees had been blown down, and the downfall salvaged over the years to the point where there were now vast bare tracts, with only a few plants and seedlings sprouting out of the ground. It still looked very much like photos of lunar landscapes brought back by the Apollo missions.
We'd spent a lot of our summer weekends as kids at Spirit Lake Lodge, and I was shocked at the difference in the landscape. I can still remember the pristine clarity of the water, where you could easily read the labels on pop cans 50 feet below the surface. And at night, the sky was so clear and dark you could see the entire belt of the Milky Way spread out like a curtain over your head. We'd lie in our sleeping bags under the open sky and watch the tiny pinpricks of satellites traverse the blackness, catching our attention simply because they moved against an unmoving background. Today the lake remains a shadow of its former self -- it's basically just a large mud puddle -- but the water quality has been slowly improving. Plants and animals have returned. Trees are growing, people can even drive right up to the new Visitors Center and look straight into the gaping maw that was once a mountain. And as they make that drive, some of them might think to stop by a small plaque that marks the the site where Spirit Lake Lodge and its irracible owner are buried under hundreds of meters of pyroclast and felled trees.
It's probably not a bad way to go at that.
on 4:01 PM