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Thirty Years Ago

Mount St. Helens, May 19, 1982 -- two years after the eruption

The 30th anniversary today of Mount St. Helens’ eruption has prompted assorted remembrances, as well as a look at the state of affairs at the mountain today. (For example, the Sunday Seattle Times feature article was an excellent piece on the return of various species, especially frogs, and today’s lead article discusses the advances in volcano monitoring.)

Where was I when the mountain erupted? Newport, Rhode Island. I hadn’t moved to Seattle yet, but I had accepted a job here just months earlier, so I knew I would be coming this way. As a result, I had paid closer attention to the Mount St. Helens news that spring that I might otherwise have. That day, May 18, 1980, I took a day trip down to Newport from Boston with my then-girlfriend Christine. We toured a couple of Newport mansions, though I don’t remember which. Marble House was surely one. Later in the afternoon, we drove around and found an outlook to the water. Looking at the map now, I would guess that we took Ten Mile Drive and stopped at Ocean Drive State Park. Wherever it was, we parked, walked down to some rocks, sat, and enjoyed the magnificent ocean view. On our return to the car, we turned on the radio and learned about the eruption.

Not the most dramatic story. Gail’s should be more interesting, since she was living here, but hers too is a little short of drama. She was still closer to the mountain than Seattle, down in Black Diamond where her father then lived. She had to go to work that day at Northgate, the historic shopping mall in the northern end of Seattle. When she got ready to leave, her father warned her that she couldn’t drive, the mountain had blown up. This didn’t deter her. She got in the car and drove away. And indeed, the eruption didn’t have much effect on Seattle, thanks to the direction of prevailing winds. Years later, I would drive in eastern Washington state and see ash deposits left behind by the mountain, but none of that headed this way.

Not much of a story. I know. Two summers later, in August 1982, I got my one close-up look at the mountain. Christine was here in Seattle for part of the summer and we drove down to Portland to visit Gerry, who was out from Boston to see his parents. The five of us had a lovely day’s drive up the Columbia River to Hood River, then south to Mount Hood and back to Portland. At the end of our stay, Gerry was to come up to Seattle with us to spend a day before returning to Boston. As we drove north on I-5, somewhere north of Kelso, we saw a sign advertising Mount St. Helens sightseeing flights available at Rocky’s Flying Service in Toledo, Washington. (I never knew the significance of “Rocky” — was it the name of the company’s eponymous pilot or a reference to Rocky the Flying Squirrel?) Gerry and Christine insisted that we get off I-5 and learn more. The small airfield was a few miles away. I kept saying, as we headed to it, that I wasn’t too keen to go up in some tiny plane. By the time we reached the field, I had become somewhat anxious. We met with the pilot who would take us, learned the cost, and then had to decide what to do. All eyes were on me, since Gerry and Christine were going up, with or without me. It was my choice. No pressure. Join them or wait for their return.

I didn’t want to miss out, but I also didn’t want to go up in the tiny plane. Finally, the pilot pointed out to me that he had his ass up there too. Aha! I got it. He had every bit as much a stake in our safe return as I did. I was convinced. Off we went.

It was 2×2 seating. I was in the rear right. I held on to the bottom of my seat. I don’t think I let go for the entire trip. We headed east until we were more or less due north of the crater. Then we turned south, approached the crater as far as was allowed at the time (the crater was still smoking; the FAA had strict regulations), made a u-turn, and reversed our route. What a sight! Blown down trees everywhere. Trucks everywhere. Timber companies were engaged in a massive salvage operation. And there was the shell of the mountain, a sight I’ve since seen many times on commercial flights, though never at so low an altitude. (The photo above, from wikipedia, just happens to have been taken at around that time. You can see what we would have seen.)

That’s my Mount St. Helens story. Not much, but it’s all I have.

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