My husband and I drove recently from our home in Seattle down to Eugene, Oregon, to help celebrate our grandson’s ninth birthday. It’s a five-hour trip down I-5, which runs north-south roughly parallel to the Cascade Range of mountains to the east. North of us stands Mt. Baker – near the Canadian border – but to the south we would be passing Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and finally – crossing into Oregon – Mt. Hood. The Three Sisters peaks are to the east of Eugene, and Mt. Shasta in California is well to the south.
To pass the time as we drove, I got the audiobook version of Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens. After all, we were going to be passing through the countryside most affected by the volcano, and the date of the drive down was May 20th, exactly thirty-six years and two days after May 18, 1980, the day of St. Helens’ disastrous eruption. I looked up the word “disaster” while thinking about this post. The dictionary says the word is “derived from Middle French désastre, and that from Old Italian disastro, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative prefix δυσ-, (dus-) ‘bad’ and ἀστήρ (aster), ‘star’. In other words, slightly Shakespearean, “ill-starred.”
St. Helens is far enough to the east of the interstate that you can see it well only on a clear day. When you do see it, it’s still nerve-jangling thirty-six years after the eruption. Nerve-jangling, thrilling, awe-inspiring, horrifying. 57 people died that day. The force of the blast moved at up to 650 mph. and the vertical plume rose 80,000 feet into the sky – 15 miles high.
On I-5 headed south you cross a bridge over the Toutle River, the river which was devastated by the mudflow and log jam caused by the collapse of the mountainside. Twenty-seven bridges in the eruption zone were destroyed that day.
Driving north on I-5 you don’t see much about the mountain that is disturbing: a diminished peak, 1300 feet shorter than it was, less elegant, fewer glaciers. But heading south from Seattle, you see the north side of St. Helens, which is the side which collapsed. The landside – largest ever recorded, definitely “ill-starred” – presaged the lateral explosion and the vertical plume made familiar by photos of the eruption.
For our trip, we had an overcast day – the gray of a typical day in the Pacific Northwest, with low bunched clouds obscuring the view. We saw Mt. Rainier – the king of the Cascades – as we headed out, but we couldn’t see St. Helens. At least, not visually. Not with our eyes. But with Olson’s narrative playing on the CD player, there’s no doubt we could see it.
Is there anything better than that kind of story, a story which can transport us from a car traveling easily down the freeway in 2016 to a strange spring day in 1980 when Nature reminded us how fierce and uncontrollable it can be?
We listened to Olson’s story all the way down to Eugene and all the way back, pulling back up to our house just as the last CD was ending. Five hours down, five hours back, and they passed like a blink. I’m not sure how much we actually paid attention to what was on the highway during our drive. Did the traffic slow down when we hit Portland? In fact, did we even drive through Portland? I don’t remember. What happened to that usually boring stretch of the road between Kelso and Olympia? What about the irritating traffic jams by the Tacoma Dome? Those, I didn’t see.
Instead of being on the freeway for those ten hours, we were right there with David Johnston, the young USGS volcanologist who died within seconds of the explosion. “This is it,” he said before his radio went dead. We were right there with the couple who almost drowned trying to cling to logs banging madly down the Toutle River. There with the two people circling St. Helens’ summit in a Cessna airplane right as the north face of the mountain collapsed and the lightning-filled ash cloud began to rise. The mountain, the mud-choked river, the blue sky turning black, and those people struggling, I could see them all.
Non-fiction awakens our imaginations just as formidably as fiction, doesn’t it? Real mountain, real eruption, real people losing their lives or fighting to stay alive. All of it real. Non-fiction: stranger than fiction, and at least as mesmerizing.
P.S. Over at my blog, The Drift Record, I’m this week’s host for the Poetry Friday round-up. I posted an original poem about a disappearing river, based on something I read in The Smithsonian magazine. Again, non-fiction! (Well, the article is non-fiction. The poem is appropriated non-fiction, perfectly fair, right?) Head over there to read it, and to see links to all the other Poetry Friday posts.