My first encounter with Mount St. Helens

Written by Bryna R. Campbell, in honor of the 36th anniversy of the Mount St. Helens eruption, May 18, 1980

“I don’t know, maybe we should just pull over and go back,” I said for what seemed like the fourth time that day.

“A little further,” said my dad from the driver seat.

Yes, a little further. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard and did the math. We could drive 10 more miles before we’d have to turn around and go back.

We had left Portland earlier that day in my parent’s rental vehicle, the three of us alone for the first time since they had landed at the airport earlier that week. My mom and dad had come to celebrate their grandson’s third birthday in the town that we had moved to a mere six weeks earlier.  It was early November and while there were still bursts of yellows and oranges in the trees, Portland had already began to take on its characteristic winter hues of green and dull gray.  For three days, I had pointed off into the distance swearing that behind the thick clouds were some of the most magnificent mountains they’d ever see. For three days, we lounged about in our depressing little apartment hoping the clouds would break. By that last day, I was desperate. Treating the partly cloudy forecast on my weather app as a sign, I hatched my last minute plan. While my husband was at work and my son at daycare, we’d steal away to the nearest mountain I hadn’t visited yet since our move:  Mount St. Helens, in southern Washington.

Mount St Helens_public domain
May 18, 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens, public domain photo

Mount St. Helens is one of dozens of well-known peaks along the Cascades, the volcanic range that forms a backbone on the eastern side of the I-5 corridor in the Pacific Northwest. On clear days in any one of the cities along this corridor (Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene), their profiles appear as steady reminders of how powerless humans really are. Almost all of them are active volcanoes, and while most of them have been quiet for many centuries, when you live along the corridor you know that any one of them could erupt at any moment. Of course, Mount St. Helens’s distinctively rounded profile tells a very specific story of eruption from 1980, one that those who have lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough will recount to you in detail.

To visit Mt. Saint Helens is to be confronted with the rawness of such a cataclysmic event – to see the earth still cracked open, broken, and transformed. To put another way, to visit is to experience what British travel writer Jonathan Raban characterizes as the uncanny in nature – that is, that phenomenal sensation that can make a person momentarily feel transcendent from everyday realities.

That morning when we set out, I so deeply wanted to transcend my everyday realities, which were incredibly stressful, being a newcomer to a city that still seemed so utterly strange. I wanted to forget how lost I felt in a place not yet my home. As a midwesterner, I knew the furies of the sky, the tornadoes, the clashing thunder. But never could I imagine a fury so great that it could so profoundly – and so quickly – reshape the earth. I was jealous of those with tales of seeing the eruption.  I wanted a phenomenal experience to buoy me through my first wet dark winter in the Pacific Northwest.

I also wanted to grow a memory that made me feel in some small way connected to that larger history. I already instinctively knew the advice Jonathan Raban gives to any new transplant: “Grow a memory and grow it fast.” Going with my parents, specifically, was important because I also longed for something familiar to steady my restless energy. Overcome with homesick nostalgia, I set out to recreate something of that wonderment I remembered during childhood when our family would take vacations across the American west.

Wonderment I did experience that day, though not in the way that I imagined it happening when I had schemed up the trip that morning.

When we left earlier that day the prospect of seeing the volcano up close seemed promising.  However, as my dad drove us north along the interstate, the pockets of blue that had dotted the sky  at the beginning of our drive started to disappear. By the time we’d turned off to head east, the sky had turned mostly gray. Our moods had grayed with the sky, as bickering, frustration, and disagreements set in. At that ten minute warning, I distinctively remember sulking a bit like a selfish child who was angry that she wasn’t getting what was promised to her.

We began to ascend from the valley floor. The overcast sky grew darker. It began to rain. I remember another mumble from one of us that we should turn back soon. But my dad, perhaps even more determined than me, drove on.

Even in our frustration, we also sensed a palpable aura of the place. That sensation grew as the clouds and rain turned to fog as we continued our ascent.  We had already seen evidence of eruption in the treeless valley. I recall my heart pumping a little faster as we climbed.

Then just like that, I found what I was looking for. We’d reached the top of a ridge and had ascended above the clouds.  We had transcended out of the Pacific Northwest into another world.

File May 22, 6 24 44 PM

Although I have been back to Mount St. Helens several times since (and on clearer days too), whenever I spot the profile of the mountain on the horizon from my city, I still think of that drive with my parents.  Just me, my parents, and that snow capped crater.   There was the broken, wounded, terrible, terrifying volcano that decades earlier had blown its top.  There was Mount St. Helens on top of the world with me, helping me to grow a memory of a place that I wanted to call home.


2013-08-31 18.11.34
From a later visit in the middle of the summer.

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