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
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
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
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.
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,
As I looked into that gray abyss,
trusting that on the other side, geology was working its slow,
steady magic, my heart lifted.