The tag on my souvenir bottle of Mount St. Helens ash reads:
On May 18, 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake triggered an enormous landslide, uncorking a monstrous volcanic eruption which blew 1300 feet off the top and north face of Mount St. Helens. The blast relocated 1.5 cubic miles of mountain and flattened 230 square miles of timberland, killing virtually all life within its zone.
Superheated gas and clouds of volcanic ash shot more than 17 miles into the atmosphere and around the earth. Hot ash melted ice and snow, triggering a mudflow and flood containing more than 130 million cubic yards of debris.
Thirty-eight years ago this country witnessed a startling natural event within our own borders. I am old enough to remember the disastrous eruption of Mount St. Helens. I was living on the east coast at the time, so it was basically a drama unfolding on TV. Within a day of the blast, ash had traveled to the midwestern states, and a couple days later fine ash had even reached the northeast.
Back then, I never imagined I would move to the west coast or ever visit Mount St. Helens, but in 2007, after moving west, I did visit the National Volcanic Monument.
Approaching the volcano, I saw the path of the winds and ash: downed trees all facing the same way, layers of ash still in and around Toutle River.
The blast zone, I thought. The blast zone, where all things in its path were blown down, covered in ash or obliterated. Once green, forested lands were now gray.
It was a spooky landscape. Scary words like lahar, pyroclastic flows and blast zone echoed in my head.
The eruption had changed the shape of the mountain and filled Spirit Lake with ash, debris and trees. Fifty-seven people had died.
The visitor center has an excellent, sobering documentary about the volcano. Images of thick billowing ash clouds rising from the crater are singed in my memories. They are reminiscent of Vesuvius.
Today, vegetation continues to rebound, and the volcano still sends up steam.
From 2004-2008 the volcano reawakened with some dome building. There are frequent small, local earthquakes. Geologists continuously monitor its activity.
After driving through the Mount St. Helens blast zone back then, and experiencing ash fall from wildfires in eastern Washington just a couple years ago, I could imagine what it was like to suffer the ash clouds from St. Helens. I would never choose to live so close to a mountain that could erupt, or to forests that could burn.
Disclaimer: My images are 10 years old, so these scenes might look slightly different today.