I heard two muffled booms a little after 8:30 a.m. forty years ago. I’d finished breakfast that Sunday in Lacey, Washington and was reading. I looked over at my mother who was drinking a cup of tea.
At the time we didn’t think much of the sound as there were frequent booms from nearby Fort Lewis during their military exercises. Later that morning we learned from the local radio station that Mt. St. Helens had erupted. It had been emitting steam since March and scientists warned it may be getting ready for a major eruption. Today was the day.
I was 21, would graduate from the University of Puget Sound in August, and was working part-time as an administrative assistant for Louis R. Guzzo, Counselor to Governor Dixy Lee Ray.
We’d been getting plume trajectories in the Governor’s Office every day for weeks. The areas near the mountain were under mandatory evacuation, but a few souls, interviewed on national television, decided they wouldn’t budge.
The month before, on a day Governor Ray was out of the office, a group of us climbed to the top of the dome to see Mt. St. Helen’s puffing steam. The dome stairs were closed to the public due to previous earthquake damage, but someone found the stairwell key and we were on our way. I saw some staircase bolts pulled loose from the wall on the way up the narrow spiral stairs. Even Mr. Guzzo made the climb. (Governor Ray was a stickler for protocol, and I never called him “Lou.” She also sent a staffer home who’d made the grievous mistake of wearing blue jeans to work the previous winter.) Most of us were winded by the time we got to the top.
Unfortunately, with an overcast sky and an elevation disadvantage, there was nothing to see except a spectacular view of Bud Bay and the surrounding area. At that point none of us could imagine the devastation just a month later.
CNN wouldn’t launch until June 1, so no 24/7 news yet, but we got updates on television and radio. We knew by early afternoon there was a huge ash cloud making travel difficult as near as 25 miles south of us in Centralia, and extending to Eastern Washington.
Ash clogged car engines and seeped through windows to cloud houses and businesses. We got a light dusting of ash in Lacey and nearby Olympia, but it piled in drifts on roadways all over southwest Washington. People put towels on window sills and doorway thresholds in vain attempts to keep it out.
Those who hadn’t evacuated around the mountain were presumed dead. Tens of thousands of acres of forest were destroyed and it was predicted the fruit crops in eastern Washington would be devastated. In fact, there was a bumper crop of apples the following year.
Two years later a pilot friend took me up in a small plane to view Mt. St. Helens. The trees looked like matchsticks spread out, blown down in the same direction. The caldera steamed occasionally and we did not fly directly over. The whole perimeter was eerily barren.
Seven years after the eruption I hiked on the mountain. By that time there was a visitor center, a gift shop selling jewelry made out of Mt. St. Helen’s ash, and well-marked hiking trails. Vegetation was starting to grow; grasses, shrubs, and tiny trees carried out Mother Nature’s grand design.
In the blink of an eye it’s forty years later. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A good time to reflect on the intrepid plants growing beside that hiking trail, so soon after the shock of massive devastation.