Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mt St Helen's Day

On the coast of Oregon, ninety miles away from the eruption, it was a day to commemorate. 28 years later, I honor it still.

My first time to the mountain was nine months before any hint of volcanic activity, a spontaneous jaunt on a beautiful June morning. Setting foot on the overlook, the highest point of the road, on the side that later was blasted across fifty square miles, my then wife immediately urged a quick departure. Her tone left no room for discussion. “Something feels really weird here.”

Below the mountain, we rested at Spirit Lake, spending the night at Harry Truman’s Lodge. His only guests that night, he drank his rum, told his stories to us, and wriggled his player piano. From our cabin in the middle of the night, kids sleeping soundly, I was in awe of the moon sparkle across the lake to the limitless majestic trees, the most beautiful place in all the world.

Excitement, wonder, anticipation, and awe were just some of the emotions rising with the increased reports of an awakening volcano. People set up tents on the perimeter in hopes of a good show.

All accounts tell of the surprise and incredulity when Mt St Helen’s finally blew. There were quick deaths and terrifying escapes. The tales and pictures fill many books, sold at tourist stands in the reborn area.

I had Back East friends visiting that weekend. After the first news bulletin, with little knowledge of the enormity of the event, we went for a walk on the high bluffs of the coast to enjoy incredible vistas of the vast ocean.

Living there for several years, I had learned, like shooting stars, with patience, you could see whale spouts and flukes just about any day of the year, easily a burst of them in the seasons of migration. Several times a year, with luck, you can actually see one breach, mammoth bodies out, up, and over with a crash of water back into the sea.

On the day of St Helen’s eruption, we watched for hours as groups of five whales leaped and danced, splashed over, and were followed by more, then again more. From above, we witnessed a pod of 150 grays, 30 to 60 feet long, black shadows effortlessly erupting. The shudder of the volcano reached the seas, and the whales romped in echo.

In the following week, amazing stories and pictures were revealed of harrowing accounts and desperate maneuvers to survive the devastation. Glued to the television, we witnessed whole houses float down the river and splinter to pieces hitting a steel bridge. A couple in a tent awoke to find themselves spared and their friends crushed by trees. A family raced 80 miles an hour on dirt roads outrunning the cloud, and still taking pictures out the window, documenting. A news reporter struggled for three days barefoot in soot, filming himself preparing to perish. Harry Truman was never found.

A smaller eruption a week later, made Portland look like a nuclear wasteland of grey, dry rain, only the fewest and bravest of people scurrying with masks on their faces. The ash reached the coast. Rumors abounded that Mt Hood and others were showing seismic activity. It would seem we were in for a life regularly interrupted by eruptions. People talked of moving to safer ground.

But like all major events in our lives, things settled back into our normal patterns. For a year or two, “little” puffs were acknowledgements, reminders of an old friend. At work, I might be gazing out to the unending blue sky of the East, bend down to drive nails, and stretching up again, see that same sky filled with the plume. Rounding corners on the highway towards Portland, I always looked for the glimpses of the mountain.

Life goes on. The tremors subsided, went through a flurry several years ago that raised the level of attention, even as I now live 3000 miles away. The area apparently is revitalized with life, a veritable science lab of education and reaffirmation of the Earth’s ability to heal.

Life goes on.

Please share with your friends


Anonymous said...

Wow, I remember that. It seemed so surreal at the time.

TheElementary said...

I like this.
"His only guests that night, he drank his rum, told his stories to us, and wriggled his player piano" that's such a great description. That's my idea type of place to stay, where the proprietor doesn't just take your money and leave you.
Loved the bit about the whales too.

This is such a sad story. 28 years. You wouldn't forget something like that, ever.

Kip de Moll said...

Curiously, I bumped into one of those visitors a few years back. Exclaiming to her how that day with the whales was one of the best sights ever for me, she didn't really remember. A perfect example of creating our own realities: her memory was more of concern for the drive East they would have to make the next day through ash falling.