A World of Speculation

When we were in Louisiana, my daughter said she’d couldn’t understand why anyone would live in Florida because of the hurricanes. I said they could be bad, though not usually this bad, but ecverywhere you go has its own share of disasters.

When we got home, Mount St. Helens was in the news.

The first time it blew in living memory was May 18, 1980. I remember the day, because my husband and I were in St. Louis, saying goodbye to friends, with a loaded U-Haul trailer on the back of our 1976 Chevy van. We were moving to Oregon. Gary said, “You’re getting fireworks up there.”

A couple of days later, May 20 or 21 or so, we were on the high plains of southern Idaho running into a strong headwind that carried a thick pink dust. We had to stop a couple of times to wash off the radiator. I asked the clerk in a gas station if it always blew like that, and she just shrugged.

It was the blast from the volcano.

That first explosion blew the top off one of the most perfectly formed snowcaps of the Cascades. A pristine mountain lake is no more. Millions of board feet of timber were blow down in the blast, and 57 people died, among them the famous Harry Truman (well, not that Harry Truman, not quite that famous), who lived in a cabin on the side of the mountain and refused to leave and at least one photographer shooting the blast when it came his way. The Toutle River has never returned to its pre-volcano condition after the tons of mud and debris went flowing down it.

In July that year, the mountain sent up another plume of dust, and we woke the next morning to what looked like an unseasonable fall of pink snow. The wind had blown the ash our way. It was a quarter-inch thick on the streets, foliage, cars, everything. Whenever the wind blew, it picked up clouds of silicon-based dust. People walked the streets wearing dust masks or bandit-style bandanas for a couple of months.

Mount St. Helens is between Seattle and Portland in a sparsely populated area of Washington.

The thing to know, though, is that Mount St. Helens is not the only volcano in the Cascades. Mount Lassen in northern California is fairly active; Mount Hood, about 60 miles east of Portland, last erupted in 1790, a minute ago in volcano time, and is listed as an active volcano by the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s not likely to be as devastating an explosion as St. Helens, though. Mount Rainier last erupted in 1840, and it has a history of mudflows that could be devastating to the Seattle metropolitan area.

I’ver heard that busloads of school kids have been heading out toward Mount St. Helens for volcano observation trips. I appreciate the impetus; it’s a stunning sight — powerful, beautiful and awe-ful, a small hint of planetary processes. But busloads of kids? It’s not a tame mountain.