This one is a bit of a rambling reflection on a volcano with which I’ve always felt a strong connection.
The little kid crouching down in that photograph to the right is me, not quite four years old, on a trip with my family to the Grand Tetons. I was more interested in the rocks and minerals of the gravel road the rest of my brothers and father stood on while posing for the picture. I’m still captivated by the treasures that sit beneath our feet.
It was May 18, 1980, 8:32am on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, when David Johnston, a geologist stationed on a hillside facing Mt. St. Helens, excitedly radioed in to the geological headquarters 100 miles away, “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” Moments later, Johnston lost his life doing what he loved most: Following the events of this giant mountain, once dormant, and which had roared back to life before his eyes. He was one of 57 who perished that day.
At the time, I was not yet five years old, living some 200 miles south in Oregon. I remember the excitement surrounding its murmurings as it slowly awakened.
Over the months, it had belched bits of steam and ash. Earthquakes had increased. The news covered its unfolding events with each passing day. It was almost surreal when, that Sunday morning, I learned of the news that it had erupted. I watched my brother place a large, plastic lid on the hood of the family station wagon, and hours later note that ash had collected on it.
After a few hours, the ash was falling everywhere. In three days, it would circle the planet. The eastern portion of Washington state was placed into a near apocalyptic nuclear winter. The sun blotched from the sky, pitch black in the middle of the day, ash everywhere, surgical masks the only way to safely breathe in the ash-filled air.
Following the eruption, the local newspaper published a special section on St. Helens. I still have the crinkly old pages.
In 1988, while visiting my grandmother’s house in McMinnville, my family helped clean her house and outdoor garage. We were surprised to find plenty of ash still in the gutters.
I still have an old, glass Bayer aspirin jar that we filled with the ash from that day. It sits in a cabinet of my living room, next to a small jar of ash my son acquired on a recent trip up to the volcano.
Volcanoes have always been a part of my life. Growing up in the valleys of the Pacific Northwest, it’s something we accept as normal. No matter where you live, there’s a dormant volcano at most, an hour or two away. They serve as a powerful reminder, most often quiet, sometimes ferocious and terrifying, of the power of nature and the fact we are interconnected with a planet that keeps its own time and agenda.
The quiet resolve and strength of these monuments are in part why I settled on mountains as a naming convention for Canvas Host’s web servers. We never use a mountain name twice, partly for security but also out of respect for the identity of the name itself. At one time, installed in our cabinets was a server named Loowit, a Native American name for a maiden whose spirit was believed to have been transformed into what the Western worlds calls Mount St. Helens. It’s a typical love triangle, really — Loowit was sought after by competing suitors. The gods had had it, and turned them into what we know as Mount Hood and Mount Adams. No matter what you believe, the stories of these majestic peaks are pervasive throughout Northwest culture. Each time we install a new web server, we pay tribute to our culture and history.
A photo I took of a simmering Mt. St. Helens during an August 5, 2005 visit to the Johnston Ridge Observatory
In recent years, Mt. St. Helens has shown signs of returning to life once more. From 2004 to 2008, it rumbled, spewed ash, and built up several new lava domes within its crater. At one time, they were growing by three dump trucks full of magma each second. Small quakes persist, and it appears magma levels are beginning to rise once more within the volcano’s depths. From the Johnston Ridge Observatory, built on the site where David Johnston once stood, visitors can see straight into the mouth of the volcano. If you’ve never visited the area, I highly recommend it. The journey is worth it, with more than a dozen excellent parks, visitor centers, trail heads, and primitive camping sites where adventurers and families of all types can learn and enjoy the raw beauty of nature.
– David Anderson