Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thirty Years On


Thirty years ago today, at 8:32 in the morning, Mount St. Helens erupted in an apocalyptic horror of searing volcanic gas and steam that vaporized everything in the immediate blast zone—wildflowers, deer, bear, campers, volcanologists. Old growth Douglas fir up to seventeen miles away were blown down like toothpicks. Surging mudflows filled nearby valleys and national parks and highways with anywhere from 150 to 600 feet of hot melted snow and goop. A vast plume of steam and pulverized mountain shot into the air and then began to drift eastward on the wind, a dark rumbling cloud that blotted out the sun and turned what had been a fine sunny spring day into an eerie, lightning-split night. Automatic streetlamps flickered on. Cocks began to crow. And those of us who’d grown up reading about the last days of Pompeii found ourselves thinking about, well, Pompeii.

I was living in Moscow, Idaho, at the time. As incredible as it may seem today, no one bothered to notify the authorities of that small college town that 1) the volcano had blown and that 2) the ash cloud was headed right for us. The annual Renaissance Fair in city park was in full swing, with everyone—including the cops—eying the black cloud on the horizon and going, hmmm, that looks strange. Then, as if some giant hand had drawn a black shade across the sky, day disappeared. A fine ash began to fall.

It fell into the night, drifting down like a weird gritty snow. Although we were several hundred miles from the blast, something about the wind and the lay of the land dumped an extraordinary amount of the stuff on top of us. The next morning we awoke to a clear blue day that disappeared into a thick white haze as people began to stir and the fine ash billowed up again.

I remember we were full of questions no one could seem to answer. Just how toxic was this stuff? No one knew. Could we let the cat out? What would it do to our car engines? To us? And how the hell do we get rid of all this stuff that looks like snow but isn’t? It’s not like it’s going to melt.

And then of course there were the horrible images coming from the mountain. A pickup truck with the tiny burned bodies of two little boys on a fishing trip with their dad. A couple camping 25 miles away from the mountain, far outside the “danger zone,” swept to their deaths. Compared to that, having to wear a surgical mask for months every time you wanted to play Frisbee was not something you felt you could complain about.


Until Hurricane Katrina, Mount St. Helens was the defining natural disaster of my life. I still recall those days with such vivid clarity that it's hard to believe it's been thirty years. Then I look at those funny old cars in the fading photos, and think, yeah, thirty years.


liz fenwick said...

I can't believe it was thirty years ago.

Hope your daughter makes it home without being interrupted by the current cloud.


Charles Gramlich said...

I remember hearing about it of course, but your close encounter gave me a perspective I didn't have on the thing before. The amazing power of such forces. I can imagine seeing that ominous cloud coming in. Wow.

Steve Malley said...

Oddly enough, your post today was *exactly* what I needed... Thanks! :)

cs harris said...

Liz, it's kinda bizarre that my daughter is dealing when another ash cloud just as I find myself remembering this one.

Charles, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Steve, so you're writing a scene about a volcano?

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

Just passing through ...

10 years earlier (Thanksgiving, 1970) a bunch of us in an explorer post led by Tom Ingerson (crazy but fantastically intriguing physics professor) went to Mt. St. Helens in search of Bigfoot, chained up Ingerson's blue van, drove 10 miles up a closed road, camped & trekked through woods briefly in search of Bigfoot. I always pictured Mt. St. Helens as nice, peaceful, snowy woods where you weren't really aware of the volcano.

I was four years gone from Moscow when the eruption happened, but my friends still there have never forgotten it. Ron Meldrum kept a trash can full of souvenir ashes for years, probably still has it. :)

In 2003 my wife & I went back to Mt. St. Helens & drove up to the rim of the crater. It was still an awesome sight 23 years after the eruption. It's well worth a visit if you get a chance.


Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

It's been in the news a great deal in the last week around Seattle (with good reason). One of the most fascinating articles was in this past Sunday's Seattle Times, about the new habitat and ecosystem that has developed in the wake of the devastation around Mount St. Helen's. It's a pretty nifty article.

And it's funny you're writing about my area of the country-- I actually wanted to ask you a question about your neck of the woods, but couldn't find a way of contacting you so I didn't inappropriately hog any comments on your blog.

orannia said...

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Candy. Nature is...incredibly powerful.

cs harris said...

Mike, I remember Tom Ingerson--very interesting guy. And I found a jar full of Mount St. Helens ash when I was going through my mom's stuff. I kept it.

Barbara, interesting article. And feel free to ask about my neck of the woods at any time!

Orannia, it is indeed.

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

Thanks, Candy! It's just it's been many, many, many moons since I was last in NO and I was wondering about the Monteleone. I roughly remember its location, but I can't recall how close you'd be to the true Bourbon chaos if you step outside the doors.

I know, right? How nitpicky could I possibly be? But I'm going for atmosphere.

cs harris said...

Barbara, it's on Royal, which is about as close to Bourbon as most people want to stay!

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

Ha! That's about how I remembered it! Thank you!

I love buildings with history and character-- it's proving to be a fun minor "character" in the current MS.

Nickname unavailable said...

You are one of my favorite authors and I just found that you lived and grew up in Moscow. Crazy. I was 9 yrs old and at the Renaissance Fair that May day. I remember having no idea about the ash cloud until the ash started falling. I too graduated from Moscow High and I was so happy to do so. as much as I love that town I was very happy to get out of there. My father, a native of New Orleans, was prof. at U of I for 34 years and thanks to him I travelled the world too.

Nickname unavailable said...

oh btw I wrote the previous comment and my name is anne. speaking of Moscow what are the murders you mention in another post?

cs harris said...

Anne, that's funny; my father was a professor at the U of I, too, and my mother is a native of New Orleans!

My memory is failing me; what murders did I talk about? The recent ones in Moscow, or the ones back in the seventies?

Nickname unavailable said...

My father is Al Rouyer. Until 2004 he was a prof of the poli sci department. Now he's writing a history of his New Orleans family. In regards, to the murders I think you were talking about the ones in the 70s which I had never heard about. My Mom remembered them though but she didn't have any details. You never think of Moscow has being a place where crime happens. Its such a quiet place. btw I love your mysteries. can't wait for the next one.

Barbara Martin said...

I lived in Edmonton, Alberta when that happened, and everywhere there was a fine dusting of ash. Then a couple of months later I drove to Bend, Oregon to look at a horse and there was ash everywhere on the fields and in the ditches. I imagine now it's acting like fertilizer.

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