Thirty-five years ago today, the mountain I observed from my home every clear day for ten years of my childhood, changed her face when a cataclysmic eruption blew out her north side. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day. There were several eruptions during the spring and summer of 1980 that snarled traffic on one side of the state or the other, plunging drivers into darkness in mid-day, clogging engines with ash, and rendering wipers useless. The ash cloud eventually swept around the world. It was epic. I wasn’t there; I was living far, far away. But I wept for the loss of our beautiful mountain.
My family camped at her base, paddled canoes on her Spirit Lake, ate our tuna sandwiches and picked huckleberries on her grass and pumice-covered slopes. Mt. St. Helens, Lawetlat’la to the indigenous Cowlitz people and Loowit to the Klickitat, was known as the most beautiful of all the northwest peaks because of her perfect symmetry. Did I mention Helen is my middle name, making her my mountain? I don’t remember that we took visiting relatives there—no star power. They wanted to see the mighty Rainier. The demure St. Helens was a quiet, private lover.
She is a young volcano, only some 40,000 years old. But that day in 1985, she lost her youthful beauty, and a third of her height. For years only scientists inhabited the blast zone. That’s what they called it: The Blast Zone. Roads, bridges, and railroads had to be rebuilt; and her fragile habitat had to heal. Then the owners of the timber were allowed in to salvage what they could of the billions of board feet that lay prone. But she’s making a comeback, and she’s changing again. It’s hard to keep a good woman down.
There is a plastic washtub full of ash under the shed at the back of the carport along with a two-pound Maxwell House coffee can full; other containers of the stuff occupy shelves in the shed and a space in the basement. My father collected it when he shoveled tons of it off our flat roof. Under moss and layers of bark in the trees, if one were to dig down, there is a layer of the gritty gray stuff. Yesterday, as I was digging a hole under the big leaf maple in my Garden Where Nothing Will Grow to put in a sword fern I dug out of the middle of a trail I was building, I swear I dug into ash and teeny tiny gravel that shouldn’t be there. I’ve been digging in that patch of yard for the past two springs, and hadn’t encountered that soil composition before.
Everywhere are reminders of that spring—most notably out the window and across the valley.
I have been hiking at St. Helens since I returned to the PNW. She’s a different mountain than she used to be, and she still looks like a not-so-long-ago disaster zone; but she isn’t lost after all. We all change. But we are still beautiful, strong, and resourceful; or at least interesting. Betty Friedan said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” I guess it applies to mountains, too.