What We See and What We Don’t

. St. Helens - Before

Mt. St. Helens – Before

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 - After

Mt. St. Helens – After

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.

St. Helens bridge in mudflow, North Fork Toutle River, north ...

Bridge in mudflow, North Fork of the Toutle River, 1980.

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.

mt-st-helens 2

8:32 a.m., May 18, 1980 – Lateral Surge and Explosion

mt. st. helens 4

Vertical Plume – with Mt. Rainier visible to the north. Ash from Mt. St. Helens traveled around the world.

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.

mt. st. helens 5

North Face, Mt. St. Helens, 2016

 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.

11 responses to “What We See and What We Don’t

  1. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Before the eruption, that glorious mountain was so majestic – now it looks sadly deflated. A disturbing image of the awesome power of nature. That’s awesome in the original sense of the word – not meaning “wonderful” as the language butchers use it today, but DREADFUL! When nature goes berserk, it certainly puts poor humanity in its place.

    • It really was an “elegant” mountain – sometimes called the “Mt. Fuji” of America.” The Cascades seem to be either feminine (Mt. Baker, Mt. St. Helens) or masculine (Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta.) Or maybe I’ve just thought that since I was a little girl!

  2. I remember how the eruption changed the weather in much of the country. So powerful.

    • Yes, Linda – a side effect that was a surprise to locals reading about how the ash cloud moved across the country. Listening to Olson’s book, I was amazed to hear how little the scientists knew (and openly admitted that they did not know.) For example, the lateral blast was something they had rarely studied and didn’t adequately anticipate. And they learned quite a lot after the fact by putting together the 22 photos snapped by an amateur photographer and making a “movie” of them to study how that lateral blast progressed.

  3. Reading your post must be something akin to listening to the captivating CDs, Julie – you put me right there. I’d forgotten how very devastating it was; was probably preoccupied as a 17-year-old, but still – I better appreciate the losses now. Beautiful and terrifying descriptions & photos. Thanks for sharing.

    • The audiobook is just a tad over-dramatized for my taste, but still – totally worth it. WONDERFUL book – you really get a good idea of the people involved, whether scientists, tourists, long-time locals, or politicians.

  4. It seems you made a good choice for your trip, and now I’m remembering back, too. We in Denver did not see the sun for a long time, and as Linda above said, it changed our weather. I do wonder about the volcanoes still exhibiting some small erupting, especially those in big cities like Mexico City & Popocatépetl. Thanks, Julie.

  5. Linda, scientists are saying Mt. Rainier is “a ticking bomb,” and the whole area around it is so much more populated than around Mt. St. Helens. Would be devastating if it erupted. Mt. Baker sends up an ash/steam plume from time to time, too, and scares all of us. Yikes. My next book needs to be something funnier, maybe?

    • I didn’t know about these recent worries, wow. I seem to be in the throes of reading some n-f & sad ones too. I just finished Unbroken, & am now reading a book about N. Korea, Nothing to Envy. Although fiction, also just finished Challenger Deep, a YA about mental illness, & much from the author’s son’s experiences. I guess, like you & Mt. St. Helens, I want to know about these topics.

  6. laurakvasnosky

    julie. what a great post. i will never forget that day. tim was on a camping trip w his school 15 miles from the summit. we could see the plume of of ash and steam from our front window in seattle. it was a long day waiting until they made it safely back, the cars covered w thick ash.

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