“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” Mt. St. Helens, 40 years later

The anniversary is something of a misnomer.

Mt. St. Helens, a mountain in the volcanic Cascade Range in southwestern Washington State, was always thought to be on the verge of significant volcanic activity, and one day when I was in school in March, 1980, my fourth-grade teacher wheeled a teevee cart into the classroom. She plugged it in and started tuning to one of the local stations, which was carrying the event live. An earthquake had jolted Mt. St. Helens, and the mountain was now venting steam from its summit.

If it seems odd that this was on local news, at the time my family and I were living in Hillsboro, OR. We were about sixty miles away from Mt. St. Helens. We had day-tripped there a few times. I don’t remember much of those day trips, but I remember the mountain being a lot less of a jagged peak than Mt. Hood, which so famously looms over the Portland skyline. Mt. St. Helens was more graceful, a rounded cone.


I remember watching that exciting footage from the summit of Mt. St. Helens with my classmates, although we were all thinking the same thing, having seen so many movies of volcano eruptions from places like Hawaii: “Where’s the lava?” Over the next few weeks we heard about more earthquakes and bulges and things called lava domes. Maybe there’d be lava eventually!
Scientists seemed more and more convinced that a major eruption was likely, and an unlikely local folk hero turned up in the news in the form of an old guy who owned a lodge on the very slopes of the mountain. His name was Harry R. Truman, and he refused to leave his beloved mountain. He was staying right where he was, with his cats. I honestly don’t recall if Truman genuinely believed that the mountain wouldn’t kill him, or if he couldn’t bear leaving it. Given what the mountain looked like for him and what it would look like very soon, I almost can’t blame him.
The big blast that everyone was awaiting finally came, forty years ago today, on May 18, 1980. There was no lava, just an enormous earthquake followed by a landslide that took away one entire side of the mountain. And then? Ash and steam and smoke, in a cloud miles high. More than fifty people were killed in that blast, including Harry R. Truman, whose lodge was buried under hundreds of feet of mud and ash and rock and debris.
The scale of destruction is astonishing for me to contemplate to this day. On May 18, the winds were out of the west, so we in the Portland area were spared large amounts of ash-fall. Not so later follow-up eruptions; I remember hosing an inch of ash off our driveway one morning. It was a fine, heavy, gray powder that covered everything. I also remember one day when some friends and I were playing outside and someone’s father told us that Mt. St. Helens was erupting again. We rushed to the best vantage point in the housing development, just beyond a stand of trees at the eastern end, and there we saw something that looked very much like this (in fact, it may well have been this):

Although from where we were, we couldn’t see the mountain itself. Just this gigantic tower of ash rising into the sky.

Mt. St. Helens continues to be somewhat active to this day, though nothing like what happened in 1980 has happened since.

I remember reading, years later, that as enormous as the devastation was–entire forests leveled, lakes literally sterilized, thousands upon thousands of animals dead–the region came back to life far faster than anyone ever expected. There are fish in Spirit Lake again, and forests are slowly coming back. The evidence of the eruptions still exists, though; Mt. St. Helens will never again be that graceful rounded cone, but a marred shell of a crater, and to this day the waters of Spirit Lake are partially covered by a solid carpet of destroyed trees, blasted from their roots.

Mt. St. Helens and its eruption rank among the most amazing things I’ve ever lived through (weird phrase, that, since it implies that it was somehow an ordeal in which I took part), and it is thus far the largest natural event I’ve ever witnessed. It was, quite simply, stunning. I’m glad I got to see it…from a distance. And upwind.

(Images from Wikipedia: here, here, and here. The title of this post quotes the radio transmission sent by geologist David A. Johnston, to his USGS colleagues. Johnston was encamped six miles away from Mt. St. Helens on May 18, and in this transmission he became the first person to report that the eruption was happening. Johnston was swept away and killed by a lateral blast seconds later, and his remains have never been found.)

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