I was 5 years old living in Bothell.
It was a Sunday morning, so my then-1-year-old brother, Matt, and I were in our living room watching cartoons. I remember it was a relatively clear day, with blue skies and sunshine.
Out of nowhere, there was a sudden noise like a bomb had gone off. It was very loud, and I looked worriedly at my brother. Being one, he didn’t have the same reaction to the sound as I did, but since the house was still standing and no one seemed to be panicking, I resumed watching cartoons.
A few moments later, my father came downstairs in his underwear and asked if we knew what that sound was. I remember replying, “It sounded like a sonic boom.” Growing up around Western Washington, we often lived near military bases where jets would create sonic booms as they exceeded the speed of sound over our heads. My father looked out the window for a few moments and, seeing nothing immediately wrong outside, turned and headed into the kitchen.
Several hours later, after driving to work, my father called us from his office.
“I heard it on the radio on my way in. Mount St. Helens erupted. That was the sound we heard this morning,” he explained to me.
Having visited the mountain before, I immediately recalled the pristine scenery, the wildlife, the evergreen trees, and Spirit Lake. I wondered what it must look like now, having only a 5-year-old’s grasp of the kind of devastation only a volcano can wreak upon the landscape.
Several years later, after the area was declared safe for travel again, we returned to the mountain. There was absolutely no way to prepare for what we were about to see. The entire landscape was bare and gray. Thousands of trees lay flattened, as if combed down like strands of hair. Nothing lived… at least, nothing we could see.
Fascinated, I peered through the glass of our blue Ford Econoline van as we traversed the newly opened road. We stopped at a few scenic overlooks, including the fenced off wreckage of a vehicle that had been caught in the searing-hot ash cloud. I remember wondering if there had been people in it, perhaps vainly trying to outrun the cloud. Morbid curiosity kept my interest in the event piqued.
Over the next decade, we often traveled to Spokane to visit my cousins. I remember at some point every trip, we’d pull over to the side of I-90 somewhere in Kittitas or Grant County and walk about twenty feet out from the road. Reaching down, we could easily scoop up ash from the St. Helens blast just lying several inches thick on the ground. I still have a baggie of it somewhere in the house.
The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption sparked for me a lifelong fascination with the geology of the Pacific Northwest. At one point in college, I even tried to become a vulcanologist (until I realized how much science was involved). Still, it’s a fond memory for me to travel back to the site and tell the story to my wife and son, watching his eyes glimmer with the same fascination.
Seeing animals and greenery returning to the mountain is a wonderful way to express to him how, no matter how devastating something may seem, life will find a way to persevere.
Though it was a tragic event, it is also a valuable and historic teaching opportunity, one which will forever be etched into the story of Washington state, our great nation and our planet.