We spent another couple of nights outside in a lush forest filled with trees of similar age, girth and height. There were little girls with matching brown braids, huckleberries ripening in the sun, a good long talk with a friend around the campfire and kissing wood nymphs. At dusk, with the setting sun blazing through the threes, we were dazzled by a mesh of mottled light. This is what the surrounding forest looked like as it covered the local mountain before the morning of Sunday May 18, 1980. This is why families enjoyed living, vacationing and camping in this area, even if it was at the foot of an active volcano.
At Mount Saint Helen's National Volcanic Monument, 230 square miles of forest were flattened in less than three minutes. I was amazed by the gray wasteland that dominates the landscape 33 years later. As we drove closer and closer to the crater, the devastation was apparent. Among the little critters and wildflowers that have returned to the area, there were many remaining trees that had been stripped of there bark and limbs by the force of the lateral blast. I tried to notice what was growing back. I remembered the stories the park rangers had told us. I was smitten by the image of little gofers who had been buried under many feet of ash. They dug themselves out and brought with them seeds for new plants and the basis for new life.
I gawked at Spirit Lake, previously a vacation area lined with cabins and YMCA camps for children. The unstable north flank of Mount St. Helens that suddenly began to collapse in a gigantic rockslide and debris avalanche - the largest landslide ever recorded - landed directly into Spirit Lake. I thought about the adoration 83-year-old Harry R. Truman had for the mountain when he decided not to evacuate before the impending eruption, despite repeated pleas by local authorities. He and his beloved 16 cats remained in his cabin on Spirit Lake and they were never found under 150 feet of debris.
I gazed at the photo of a family of four who had been camping on the mountain on the morning of the eruption. They tried for a full day to get back to their car that was only a mile away. After climbing over layers of fallen trees and ash for hours with their four year old daughter, they were rescued by a local man with a tiny helicopter small enough to land on a pile of trees stacked on top of one another. Only the people were allowed into the heli, not their packs. It would be too much weight. The woman however, would not drop her pack and fought aggressively to bring it with her when they tried to take it away from her. Fuel was running low in the chopper and no one could hear one another under its loud spinning blades. They played tug of war with her backpack until finally she opened it up and showed them her 4 month old baby inside. Everyone survived and got to safety.
As my kids, husband, friends and I snuggled safely into our tents and slept soundly under a sky of stars, I thought about what happened here. I was a young girl, the same age as my daughter, at the time. I feel blessed to have visited, absorbed and began to understand more of what this land and people have been through.