We fly by Mt. St. Helens and watch the mountain spit smoke plumes. It’s murmuring again, repeating warnings from twenty years before. Spirit Lake, buried in the 1980 eruption, belongs to the dead, according to Native American legend. The mountain might not be finished reclaiming sacred ground. From a commercial jet, not too close, I strain to glimpse its ragged and powerful edges. I remember the time before, engrossed in my own life as a teenager, when I grew up here. Back then, I’d doubted the volcano.
A postcard mountain, Mt. St. Helens looked too serene to be a volcano. It curved upward like a replica of Mt. Fuji, perfect in its inverted, ice-cream cone shape. About 100 miles south of our home, apart from neighboring peaks, the mountain stood alone in white calm. Volcanoes were the stuff of exotic places, like Hawaii and Pompeii. Natural disasters didn’t happen in Washington State. No tornadoes, no loud thunderstorms, floods a rarity despite all the moisture. The only emergency drill we had in school was for earthquakes, hiding under our desks yet sure nothing would happen.
The murmurs from Mt. St. Helens, which began on March 20, had that same vagueness.
It was a familiar oddity, nothing to get excited about. Geologists gave updates on these rumblings so often that they became ordinary, like rain reports. It was something for adults to care about, like income taxes and the weather. While the mountain stirred, my teenage attention focused on horses. Their gentle power and sweet hay breath drew me from the structure of classes, the rules of home. When school let out during late spring afternoons, I borrowed the car and drove to May Valley Stable about two miles from my house. I cleaned stalls and helped with the evening feed, earning rides on the bay thoroughbred Oliver Twist or the scary-smart appaloosa named Moose. I galloped alone on nearby Cougar Mountain, staying on the trails to avoid coal mines and the mountain man said to live there.
Harry Truman, the man with a presidential name and an imposing outlook to match, didn’t let mountain rumblings bother him. The 83-year-old managed a lodge on Mt. St. Helens, his home for the past 50 years. Having outlived his third wife, he remained at Spirit Lake with 16 cats for company and a pink ’57 Cadillac for fun. His past included hunting, flying planes, and bootlegging booze from Canada. In Truman’s backyard, Mt. St. Helens shook with small tremors. Like a fresh bruise, the pressure from within bulged against the mountain’s northern face.
Truman attracted attention not for his life on the mountain, but because of his refusal to leave it. While I plotted my getaways from home, Truman fought to stay. He became a mountain mascot to both local and national media. Rather than becoming annoyed with the attention, Truman gave frequent interviews about why he chose to stay on his mountain despite geologists’ warnings. As the legend of Truman grew, it became more difficult for him to leave both home and proud words behind. The myth and man entangled in the lakeside setting. Truman was not alone in his desire to stay on the mountain. Other property owners who also wanted to stay grew restless with the geologists’ warnings, particularly given the quiet that spilled over Mt. St. Helens in early May. A few of them pointed out that in Hawaii, you could drive right up to the lava flows.
From the news reports I watched over dinner, I decided that Truman and his cats would be all right. Just like our weather reporters who tried in vain to find sunny days, the geologists too would be wrong. Some of them predicted a large, sudden blast. Others favored a gentle eruption, something you could tour. No one thought it was a good idea for Truman to remain so close to the mountain summit, but he refused to form an escape plan. Although the point of science was to know things, none of the experts knew what the mountain would do, what Truman would do. I didn’t understand his steadfastness to the place.
“Do you think he’ll come down?” I asked my brother Ken.
“If he were smart he would.”
“So, you think something’s going to happen?
“I dunno. Maybe.”
My brother, the meteorology student, didn’t know better than anyone else. It remained an issue for others to solve, something that didn’t concern me. I shrugged and went back to my room, thinking about which horse I’d ride the next day.
On Sunday, May 18, I drove to the stable in the morning, determined to spend as much of the day riding as possible. The crabgrass reached for the sun, clouds parted to open sky. I cleaned stalls, rode Oliver over a few jumps, and put away the tack, old leather smell mixing with the leg liniment. I even wrapped the gelding’s black legs in support bandages, just in case, while his muzzle explored the waiting oats. When I couldn’t find any more excuses to stay, mane to untangle or bits of straw to sweep, I drove back home late that afternoon.
My parents and brother stood in the kitchen watching television when I arrived. Their attention didn’t budge as the picture flickered. I watched the folded arms and grim expressions, and wondered what had happened to keep them inside. Sunny days weren’t something my mom wasted. No one commented on my hours away from home, another surprise.
“The mountain blew,” my brother said, his face still aimed at the television.
I didn’t know if he was teasing, but my mom nodded agreement.
“Dad heard it first thing,” she said.
I replayed my version of the morning. The only loud sounds I’d heard were horseshoes clicking on concrete, the thump of my feet finding ground when I jumped off a horse’s back, a plane overhead buzzing into the clouds. A volcano had exploded somewhere between the hooves and sky, and I had missed it.
The television announcer’s voiced droned. “For those of you who are just now tuning in, Mt. St. Helens erupted at around 8:30 this morning, surpassing even expert predictions of what this active volcano might do. Since early March, scientists have been carefully monitoring seismic activity associated with the mountain…” The /images showed a raging mountain in black and white. Time-lapse photos depicted a blast that imploded in dense clouds of smoke and ash. Rather than erupting upward as predicted, the explosion burst sideways, blowing off the mountain face. A mushroom cloud of smoke hovered in the final /images.
The station switched from the photo series to live footage of the Toutle River, which flowed at the base of Mt. St. Helens. The once calm water now gorged on mud, logs, and one house roof. It looked like the floods in Louisiana after thunderstorms, or one of the East Coast hurricane scenes. The station must have had only one piece of river footage, because it kept showing the same roof scene over and over. Yet another station kept following the structure as it approached a bridge. We cringed as the roof came closer to the cement supports, and then crumbled to kindling against the bridge. I turned away from the television, not wanting to see more.
“What about Harry?” I asked. My dad said nothing, just looked hard at the screen.
More than 50 people died in the blast of Mt. St. Helens, Harry Truman among them. With a 24 megaton blast equal to 500 Hiroshima atomic bombs, the mountain’s northern face blew off in the direction of Spirit Lake. Native American legend came true – the area belonged to the dead. As Truman’s lodge was located about four miles from the mountain summit, the lateral blast took about 90 seconds to reach him. Within a minute and a half, several hundred feet of mud covered his lodge and lake. Truman had little more than a few seconds to glance in surprise from his morning coffee, and then recognize the event for what it was. Although some speculated that Truman had planned to leave once he saw the lava flow, he never had a chance. He stayed with his mountain, as promised. Twin spirits, Harry and his lake, shared their demise.
Two others lost in the immediate blast zone, geologist David Johnston and news photographer Reid Blackburn, had followed the mountain since its early rumblings. Johnston, the young bearded geologist, left his final words on a radio transmission, “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.” The excitement of the event reached him before the doom of the blast hit. Even in death, the eruption to Johnston was about discovery, not self.
Further down the mountain, 12 miles from the summit, a family of four perished in a Chevy Blazer. In the same campground area, eight people died trying to escape the violent mud flows. Several loggers, there for work, also died. The mud captured some mid-sentence, preserving them in poses that looked like picture taking. I hoped they never knew what hit them, preferring to remember them snapping their cameras in awe. Although doomed, they took part in something outside themselves.
Animals also lost their lives on the mountain, including 7,000 deer, elk, and bear. Countless birds and small mammals died from the blast. In the rivers, 40,000 young salmon were killed from the choking mud and fallen trees. In towns like Castle Rock at the foot of the mountain, some residents claimed to see fish trying to jump out of the hot waters. Their escape made my teenage flights to the stable seem trivial. I thought of those desperate fish and envisioned a net, large as the sky, to save them.
Along with ground devastation, scientists kept their eyes on the horizon, anxious to see where the three mile-wide ash cloud would spread. It had already drifted 80,000 feet upward from its mountain origins. I ran outside the house to search for ash. Having missed the blast, I could at least share the volcanic aftermath and feel as if I’d experienced an event. I peered south where the mountain lay, but the sky looked clear as before, the late afternoon sun unfailing. Only some dense clouds hinted at volcanic forces. It was hard to tell them apart from the usual rain clouds.
Meanwhile, three miles of ash, enough to fill a football field 150 feet deep, floated eastward after the lateral blast. The prevailing winds pushed it across the Cascades until it snowed down in thick layers over Eastern Washington. I watched the haunted scenes on television of darkened skies in midday, people in masks, cars with their headlights on. I wanted to be in those towns where the dust fooled the streetlight sensors, turning on the lights in Yakima, Ritzville, and Spokane. But I was west of the mountain, and safe.
I imagined myself into the science fiction scenes the television showed us, envious of the gray snow. In Southeastern Washington, 2-5 inches of ash fell. Traces of it traveled beyond the state, as far east as North Dakota and southwest to Colorado. A random portion of ash found its way to Oklahoma, settling in an oval-shaped region. It didn’t stop in the United States, but continued eastward, circling the globe in less than three weeks. The ash fall danced around me, skirting my life, not affecting it.
After the ash settled and the horizon came back into view, the main problem was what to do with it. Entrepreneurs from the eastern half of the state did not wait long to scoop it up and transform the breaths of dust into finery. Mt. St. Helens ash took many shapes, from sculptures and shot glasses, to magnets, coffee mugs, and pumice soap. I bought a few Mt. St. Helen’s ash Christmas ornaments as soon as I spotted them in an outdoor stall at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, right between the vegetables and cultivated honey. I still had only experienced the volcano with the indifference of distance and youth. I might as well have been from New York, my involvement had been so little. These new ash figures, fired from volcanic rock, minerals, and glass, gave me a small albeit trivial part. The souvenirs and I, token players, remained peripheral to the event itself.
During a clear summer day two years later, perfect for weekend horseback riding, my dad suggested we make the two-and-a-half hour trip south to Mt. St. Helens. The mountain had cooled, the danger wasn’t as great. Although he didn’t say it, I also knew he wanted us to see the mountain on our own terms, free of television commentary and replayed footage. But I’d long since given up participating in the mountain tragedy.
“I’d like to go,” my mom said. She started looking for the right shoes, something between hiking boots and tennis shoes.
“Is Ken going?” I said.
“No, he’s busy with school,” my dad said. He dug through the hall closet, searching for binoculars. I hesitated, then set aside the riding boots and began hunting for my toughest pair of hiking shoes. Here was an opportunity to make amends for what I’d missed as an outsider to the event, a teenager lost on that wide expanse between self and remote concerns. I could always go riding another day. Two years after the fact, I had a chance to meet the mountain.
The three of us drove along I-5, the highway signs guiding us south toward the Oregon border. I watched the Aberdeen exit go by, our usual route for ocean weekends. Nothing seemed different along the way, trees filing alongside the car and a few clouds floating.
We aimed for Toledo, the town where my grandparents had once lived. My dad drove past the city to the foot of the mountain, as far as the road lasted. It was mid-morning, and we were the only tourists wandering through volcano country. The landscape stood dry and alone, parched gray from ash fall.
The road ended near a former Weyerhaeuser logging station. We left the car and crossed what used to be a green meadow by foot, heading for the closest knoll. The wind gusted by in gentle tufts, with little vegetation to break it. Dust swirled up and made me sneeze as we hiked, but I ignored it as Mt. St. Helens came in sight. The uneven ice-cream cone mountain startled me. Its former science-fair symmetry now looked jagged, primeval. Nothing stood between it and our binoculars, no trees or hillside to soften its threat.
We wandered back to the car and drove along the Toutle River, following its path downstream from the mountain. Although the water had long since returned to a normal flow and was no longer brown with mud, we could still see the inland gouges where it had scoured new boundaries into the banks. I remembered /images of the Toutle choked with trees, and the roof that smashed into a bridge. I thought of those who had experienced its fury firsthand. While I’d had a television set between me and tragedy, they’d had none.
“How would you like to fly over the mountain?” my dad asked.
“I’ll do it,” I said. We drove back to a sign that offered chartered flights on the outskirts of the town. With nervous energy I waved to my mom, who stayed behind, and climbed into the small plane with my dad and the pilot.
The pilot curved in an arc around Mt. St. Helens, which waited for us like a piece of the moon, rocky and dark. The airplane engine sounded small and thin in that vast quiet. We saw flattened trees, toothpick-sized, by the thousands.
They lay where they’d fallen, blasted in one direction by the volcano. The pilot told us that loggers were still cutting them into pieces in preparation for eventual harvest.
“Look at the ponds,” my dad said.
He pointed to craters of water, orange and green from volcanic chemicals. Maybe this was how the world had started, bare and fiery. Even a few years later, nothing grew on the ash turf that surrounded these pools. The pilot motioned us to look where Spirit Lake had once been, its contours filled with silt and logs. “Truman’s old home,” I mumbled to no one. I admired his conviction, even though it led to his death. He had settled for nothing less than full participation, refusing to look on from a distance.
The plane bounced as we came closer to the crater’s edge. The pilot steered us near the rim, but was careful not to cross it.
“Does the heat cause this turbulence?” my dad said. He looked more interested than alarmed.
The pilot nodded, circling the mountain but never crossing the summit lest we hurtle out of control, into the volcano rather than around it. Even on the outskirts, the plane shook. I gripped the seat to keep my stomach still. Although we didn’t cross the volcano mouth, our path wavered near enough to look down into it, open and deep. I watched it spit thin towers of steam, warning us.
Once the plane landed, we walked to the car in satisfied quiet, having met the mountain in its backyard. I felt closer to what had happened, no longer a bystander taking quick glances from the safer boundaries of my own world. Just as I was becoming more aware of events around me, the mountain too was changing. Geologists predicted that vegetation and animal life would one day reclaim the mountain. Playing devil’s advocate, they cautioned in the same breath that the mountain would erupt again.
Mt. St. Helens disappeared from sight as we drove on the interstate, yet still followed me home. After the volcano, things beyond the immediate mattered, and being part of a place meant more than just living there. The mountain, whose early whispers I’d disbelieved, took lives and swept forest contours into a lunar landscape. Even today, when I fly over Mt. St. Helens on trips home, I study its flattened top line with humility. The broken Mt. Fuji looks serene in its deceptive quiet and wisps of cloud. Although the snow softens it, the volcano, silent for now, waits.
Gail Folkins, a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at Texas Tech University, writes nonfiction. Her recent publications include an essay in an anthology titled Horse Crazy and a scholarly article in Lifewriting Annual. Her nonfiction manuscript Dance Hall Revival is under contract with Texas Tech University Press.