On a recent Saturday, with a heart heavy as concrete, I headed north, leaving my house in Portland, Ore., as rain pounded the windshield. The remnants of a recent breakup cast the world in dull hues.
Mount St. Helens was busy spitting ash into the sky, and I figured, what else cheers the soul like a good case of natural fireworks? I grabbed a good friend, a camera and picnic fixings, and drove an hour and a half to join the throngs of people at Mount St. Helens’ Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center.
Mount St. Helens has been grumbling recently with the most fervor it’s shown in 24 years. On Oct. 1, the volcano erupted with a 24-minute flow of steam and ash. After two weeks of intermittent bursts, a relatively small amount of lava finally reached the surface. Now, the volcano is back to venting hot gas and water, and scientists don’t know when another eruption could occur.
With all that commotion, the crowds have erupted. On a typical day, about 900 people visit this national volcanic monument. In the last few weeks, that number has nearly tripled. On one Sunday, an estimated 7,000 people came to pay homage to the volcano. Cars have lined up nose to tail for nearly five miles. People have flown in from New York, Florida and North Carolina. Vacationers on road trips to Canada or California have diverged off I-5 and headed east.
Like spectators at a tailgate party, waiting for nature’s big game, people bring porch chairs and beach umbrellas; they set up barbecue grills in the back of pickup trucks. On a day without any noticeable action, a group of sixth-graders tried to rally the mountain, counting down from 40 to one. Then, jumping with arms raised, they shouted at the molar-shaped mountain, "ERUPT!"
When I arrived at the visitors’ center, perched seven and a half miles from the mountain, the observation deck was thick with tourists. Kids in parkas raced around, a busload of Japanese tourists took pictures, an older woman with layers of dark pancake makeup leaned over the edge of the wall and stared out toward the mountain, saying simply that she’d come here from Pennsylvania, "to be a part of history."
There was one small glitch: We couldn’t see anything. A thick blanket of gray clouds shrouded St. Helens and the terrain below. The landscape was obscured by the prevailing gloom.
When Mount St. Helens last erupted in May of 1980, I was a 4-year-old, in Seattle. But I remember the Time of the Volcano. My Mom, breast-feeding my newborn brother and, worried about ash-contaminated water, filled our 10-gallon camping jugs and even the bathtub for our personal reservoir.
After the eruption, I carried a film canister full of ash around for weeks. It was the coolest thing, better than Legos or Barbies. I would sit in my very pink bedroom and pour that ash out on to my small palm, to smell the Earth’s insides and feel the soft gray dust.
When the volcano exploded sideways that May, it blew south, killing 57 people. It blasted over 230 miles of forest in just three minutes. Old-growth trees shattered like glass. Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., were a mess of closed roads and ash-damaged cars.
Scientists predict any explosion in the near future will probably be puny compared to the explosion of 1980, but you never know. I wonder why we are drawn here, voluntarily putting ourselves in danger. Maybe it’s the rare opportunity to observe the Earth’s soul, to witness what’s buried deep inside. Most of us have the opportunity to touch the rough bark of a broad tree, to taste the sea’s salt or to wonder at the way low light and shadow obscure perspective. Yet the domain of lava and ash is a mysterious frontier.
As for me, on that cold dreary day, I needed to be reminded how small and insignificant ordinary life is, compared to the long arc of ecological change. I never even saw the volcano that day. But my friend and I had a picnic, we listened to a ranger talk about volcanoes, we stood among the crowd, staring and straining our eyes at the spitting rain, searching for a glimpse of that hulking, living mountain.
As I looked into that gray abyss, trusting that on the other side, geology was working its slow, steady magic, my heart lifted.
Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Portland, Oregon.