By Don Nelson
It’s become one of those moments — you have to be old enough, and recall exactly where you were, and in some cases have actually experienced it, to claim a bond with something epically memorable, the Kennedy assassination being the classic example.
I can cite all three qualifiers for the historic (meaning, humans were actually around to observe such a thing) eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 — 35 years ago.
I was working as a reporter for the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard. That otherwise quiet morning, I was jogging on the Prefontaine Trail near Autzen Stadium when, to the distant north, I heard a faint but sonorous boom — Nature’s wake-up call for anyone who thought the earth was done fussing about.
I stopped, sensing that something dramatic had just happened, knowing that the mountain was in that direction and had been threatening to undo itself in recent days. The volcano — finally, we could call it that — was more than 100 miles away, and blew up further towards the north, but it might as well have been in our back yards. Before long, portions of it were.
At the newspaper, we mobilized within hours, sending a reporter toward what was in that moment the destructive center of the universe. But other commitments forced him to return, and the next reporter up for us was my then-girlfriend, now life partner Jacqui, who dressed for combat, filled her nearly new Honda with gear and raced up Interstate 5 to bash her way as close to the action as possible. She was good at it.
Jacqui was there for days, and it cost her the Honda. The fine, scouring ash that drifted down in all directions throughout the Northwest was ruinous to car finishes, the more so the closer you were to the eruption. Later, when she traded it in at a dealership in Minnesota, the salesman asked her what had happened to her car.
The same abrasive fallout sifted south and settled on Eugene, where we were warned to gently blow it off our cars, and other scratchable surfaces, rather than brush it away.
The Mount St. Helens story was heady bordering on chaotic for those of us in the media, as we tried to learn about, appropriately describe and add some cosmic context to what had happened. As usual, we “locals” and “regionals” had to fight for space among the hordes of media drop-ins from around the world — most of them pretty sure they could do the job better than we could.
But they didn’t have our long-term motivation. They were going to eventually go home; we’d be living with and writing about the consequences of Mount St. Helens’ big burp for decades. The nearby Longview newspaper scrambled everyone in the building and commissioned them as reporters. Their extraordinary efforts earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
As time passed and access to the “blowdown” area became less restricted, the curious among us could not resist probing the cataclysmic core of unimaginable destruction. We all used the word “moonscape,” because there is no other word that approximates the tortured, mottled gray expanse that once was a verdant forest with lakes, streams, plants, animals and human beings that were all now vaporized and redistributed in a towering debris cloud that circled the planet as if on some Nature Channel road show.
Still later, we witnessed the greening of the gray as the next cycle of life optimistically staked its claim to the seared terrain.
Today, Mount St. Helens is primarily an instructive tourist attraction that still has the power to remind of us what forces are at work below the thin, unstable crust the human race presumes to occupy.
I don’t know if you can assume that one thing will necessarily prepare you for something else, but when the Carlton Complex Fire blew up around us last summer, I felt something like déjà vu — and knew that it would be this newspaper’s responsibility to stand in the fire and take the long-term view of how to cover the valley’s very personal natural disaster. Because 35 years from now, some of us will still be talking about it, and where we were, and how it changed our lives.