When the Mountain Came a Tumbling Down

The world is always ending somewhere. It just depends on whether it falls in your line of vision or not.

Akwaeka Emezi

My twin daughters were three years old when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. I remember the day well, for my husband and I had taken them on a long bicycle ride near Seattle, and when we returned home we heard the news, and could see the plume of ash rising in the south. The mountain itself had never been visible from our home, but everything changed that morning as the ash rose into the sky and darkened the world as far east as central Montana. It was the kind of day that Baby Boomers like myself remember, like when John F. Kennedy was killed or when the twin towers came down. What were you doing on that fateful day in November, 1963 or on September 11th when you heard the news? And then we tell our individual stories, as if to anchor ourselves in time. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens was a local event that is not remembered with the same clarity by most people, but it is remembered by me and with a mixture of sadness and awe.

I was probably about my daughters’ age the first time I camped at Spirit Lake on the north slope of that mountain. It was a favorite camping trip for my family for many years. (See Spirit Lake 1959, August 1st of last year). When I learned that the eruption had far exceeded expectations and that the top of the mountain had essentially blown off and the surrounding forest leveled by the blast none of it seemed real. I suggested to my husband that we go for a Sunday drive the next day and head to the mountain to examine the evidence for ourselves. Then the evening news showed aerial vistas of the devastation. Reports of deaths began to come in, flooding from melted glaciers that forced road closures, and warnings of possible further eruptions. That pastoral beauty with the snow covered mountain rising in a perfect conical shape above the lake had been turned into a site of devastation, the landscape forever altered, my favorite campsite buried under hundreds of feet of hot ash. I still wanted to take that drive, to enjoy a picnic while we gazed at the ash plume, and admire the forces of nature. I wanted everything to be normal.

It was normal of course. Volcanoes dotted the landscape to the east. From my bedroom window in Tacoma, where I grew up, I looked outside to see the snow covered vista of Mt. Rainier on clear days. We were reassured in school that all of the volcanoes in Washington’s Cascades were extinct, which was blatantly false. Many years later I wondered if we were deliberately lied to by our teachers to ease the fears of young children or if they really did not know the difference between an extinct volcano and one that was merely dormant. There was nuclear holocaust to think about in those days, so a smoldering volcano might have seemed like no big deal.

A few years later, after the area had been declared a National Monument by President Ronald Reagan and a visitors’ center had been built, I took my daughters on that long awaited Sunday drive, where I tried to describe to them what the landscape had once looked like and how my family had picked huckleberries on the mountain’s slopes. I wanted them to know what it had been like, how it was to be a child swimming in the lake everyday and roasting marshmallows around the fire at night, how I had learned to waterski on that lake which was now choked with floating logs, and how I had climbed to the summit of Mt. Margaret with my father on my first long hike. I wanted desperately to create for them the kind of childhood I had once enjoyed at Spirit Lake, but I could only tell them about it and gesture to the changed landscape where much of it had taken place.

My marriage had ended by then, and my life had changed, not unlike the volcanic landscape. I had figured out that nothing is permanent, that destruction is always waiting to shake loose whatever sense of security we might have once believed in, that the very earth on which we stand can rumble beneath our feet and change our lives.

Change has once again shaken things loose again for me, forcing a recent move. I am better at it than I used to be. I have come to appreciate the changing vistas, the way a place can have its way with me, to watch how I am impacted by my new landscape. But I am cautious as well. This too can change. It will. I am ready.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

2 thoughts on “When the Mountain Came a Tumbling Down

  1. Hello Colleen, I would like to get the posts in my email. Please sign me up for The Solitude Trail.


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