Mount St. Helens

August 5, 2012 — She has a name that sounds like the punch line of a dirty (and blasphemous) joke, but I still love her. She was, after all, my first volcano, even if she wasn’t the first one I ever posted about on OTIS. I just wasn’t as close to her as Vesuvius. She was frostier than her Italian counterpart, and I was never able to get intimate enough with her to look into her smoldering maw. Still, we had a magic time together.

On May 17, 1980, Mount St. Helens was just a mountain with a distant volcanic past. At about 5,000 feet, she (I’m going to keep addressing her with feminine pronouns even though her namesake was a man…a man, by the way, with a last name that got us dangerously close to getting a deadly volcano called Mt. FitzHerbert) was the fifth highest peak in Washington and part of the Cascade mountain range, as well as the Pacific Ring of Fire. The next day she rocketed to infame, when she erupted, causing an enormous cataclysm unique in U.S. history.

Hundreds of millions of tons of lava, ash, and debris were ejected at some 680 miles per hour. The death cloud buried about 200 miles of mostly wilderness, killing everything within the blast zone and sterilizing the land for years afterward. A total of 57 people died, including this scientist, who used his body to protect a camera full of compelling photographic data. In fact, since this occurred during the modern era, the eruption and aftermath are insanely recorded, and you can spend days lost in all the footage, pictures, and stories.

Thirty years later, you can still see the effects of her destruction if you know where to look (just past the big “Blast Zone” sign and informational placards). Much of the flora and fauna in the region have returned, but it doesn’t take long before you start noticing the twisted, gray, stunted trunks of dead trees on the sides of otherwise hills.

Mount St. Helens was vicious, but I couldn’t have had a more serene time visiting her in early 2009. We were there in May, so too early for the Johnston Ridge Observatory to be open for the season, but just late enough that a lot of the snow had melted or been removed from the roads and scenic viewpoints. As a result, we had the big girl all to ourselves.

She was cold, quiet, and capped in white, the opposite of everything we associate with volcanos. What was once a majestic peak was now a massive crater that’s no less majestic, if a bit more terrifying since it’s a reminder that the hunk of snow-covered rock is one of the Earth’s many dragon mouths and further proof that humans are pretty low on the priorities scale for the planet.

Since that time at the beginning of the Michael Jackson era, no other major eruptions have occurred, although she’s always threatening, always threatening.

On the way back from the volcano we stopped just off Highway 504 in Kid Valley to see an A-frame house still buried by some of the flow. The second story was level with the ground, and its interior was filled with a bad syrup of rain water, lizards, trash, and I think I remember appliances. It shared a parking lot with a 28-foot-tall cement bigfoot. Because the Pacific Northwest doesn’t like to put all their tourist eggs in one tourist basket…especially if that basket can be covered in lava at any point.

Coming soon to SyFy, Volcano Sasquatch, starring Fred Savage and Stacy Haiduk.