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Know the West

Cheering on Mount St. Helens is a spectator sport


On a recent Saturday, with a heart heavy as concrete, I headed north, leaving my house in Portland 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 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. Helen’s visitors’ center at the Coldwater Ridge.

Unless you’ve spent the past month shutting out all media, you know that Mount St. Helens has been spitting and grumbling recently with the most fervor it’s shown in 24 years. On Oct. 1, Mount St. Helens 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 already erupted. On a typical day, about 900 people visit this national volcanic monument and stay an average of three hours. 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 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 BBQ 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 make-up leaned over the edge of the wall and stared out towards 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. There was less than 100 feet visibility, and for all we knew there could have been a strip mall on the other side of those clouds. Even so, we were like crazed teenage fans outside a movie premiere, waiting for clouds to part and give us a glimpse of the big star.

When St. Helens last erupted in May of 1980, I was only a 4-year-old child 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 with water 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 onto 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. Cities like Portland and Vancouver, Wash., were a mess of closed roads, ash-damaged cars and dismal air quality.

Scientists predict any explosion in the near future will probably be puny compared to the explosion of 1980, but then again, you never know. I wonder why we are drawn here, to voluntarily put ourselves in jeopardy.

Park Service Ranger Todd Cullings, who has worked at St. Helens for 18 years, thinks it’s because people want to witness history. Myself, I like being reminded of how small and insignificant ordinary life can be. 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 something bigger than ourselves.

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.