Thirty Years Ago Today…

… I was driving South on I-5, snaking my way from Seattle to Cowlitz County near the border with Oregon, to witness the eruption of Mount St. Helens.  I skipped school that day, along with my school chum Warren Lewis.  We had actually decided to skip school that morning because it was widely believed that the mountain would erupt that day.  In true form, it did – at 8:32 AM, while we were barely on the way.

Most of the trip was anti-climatic, just 25 or 50 miles of ash-covered highways, while the ash was still falling.  We wanted to get close to the mountain, but the roads at the base were all closed.  We dawdled around the base for about an hour, and then gave up and decided to drive home.

On our way back around the base (we had driven nearly the circumference of the base, trying to find a way in) we were on an old country road, very near the actual base of the mountain – you could see out the passenger window the curve of the mountain, stretching upward – a man ran down the base and toward the road.  He was tattered, out of breath, and looking for a ride.  He flagged us down.

We were a bit skeptical at first, being high school juniors, not wanting to allow a stranger into our car.  But, upon thinking about it a bit more, we were at the closest point to the base of a mountain that just exploded three hours earlier.  How many ne’er-do-wells would pick that as their target?

So we picked up the hitchhiker.  It turned out his friend’s house, where he was headed, was around the other side of the base, in the direction we were headed.  So we set off.  The hitchhiker was dazed, but began telling us his story.  It turns out, he was a resident of the mountain.  His house had been blown away by the eruption, and he nearly with it, save for the fact that he was several hundred yards away at the time.  His house went, he was saved.  That’s how close the line was drawn between still-standing earth, and millions of cubic feet of dirt, houses, horses, people, dogs, and cars that instantaneously evaporated into the soft ash that was still falling from the sky, like snow.  Every ash flake was unique.

So we listened to our hitchhiker tell his story about surviving, then trying to find his way down the mountain that had just erupted.  He talked about new rivers that had formed, blocking his journey, and old rivers that were now clogged by tons of timber and ash-mud.  He told us about his house, on the mountain, and how he defiantly stayed there like many others.  He talked and talked, Until we reached his friend’s house, where we dropped him off, bid him a great life, and went back to our journey home.

I’ll never forget this day.