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May 2000 Cover

Mount St. Helens
Nature on Fast Forward


(Excerpts from the May 2000 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

By Rowe Findley

With 500 times the force of the Hiroshima blast, [Washington State’s] Mount St. Helens erupted 20 years ago this month. Today life is returning to the devastated slopes of this youngest and most active volcano in the Pacific Northwest, which has repeated its cycle of destruction and renewal again and again.

The eruption...disrupted human lives. Those who lost loved ones wrestled grief and futility. How could the whole world change so suddenly? Among those trying to sort it all out was Donna Parker. On that momentous May 18 she had stood outside her home in Canby, Oregon, near Portland, and watched the blue-black pillar of ash roil over Mount St. Helens, 70 miles [113 kilometers] away. The plume expanded ominously into what had been a cloudless Sunday morning. “I walked up the hill for a better view,” Donna recalled, “and I thought, I’m so thankful we don’t have anybody up there.”

But later came word that her brother William P. Parker and his wife, Jeanne, were missing. An air search located the truck and the couple on an ash-covered spur of Coldwater Ridge. “It’s the picture on pages 32 and 33 of your January 1981 GEOGRAPHIC,” Donna said. A roll of film from inside the truck miraculously printed. “It shows my brother sitting on the stump in the foreground. It was taken the day before he died.”

Donna soon realized she was not at peace. She decided to place a white wooden cross where William and Jeanne had died. Others had perished in the area, and some were longtime friends, so her list of crosses grew—to 12. “I tried to visit the crosses on the eruption anniversary, and I’d leave a flower at each one.” For a while she also organized picnics for survivors. Some of them joined her visits to the crosses, including Ty and Marianna Kearney, ham radio operators from Vancouver. They had fled their watch post west of the mountain just ahead of a speeding wave of ash—and just after receiving a final radio message from Gerry Martin, a fellow watcher: “It’s going to get me...”

On the first anniversary of the eruption William Parker’s truck was retrieved by friends. “They brought it home, blew the ash off the valve covers, and put in a new battery,” Donna said. “It started right up. We gave it to them, his fishing buddies, and they restored it. The last I heard it was still running somewhere in Alaska.”

The vision of that truck chugging away in Alaska is cheering to those bereaved or traumatized by the eruption. I think I understand this because I became more personally involved in this story than in any other I ever wrote. Another assignment had brought me to the area for the first tentative stirrings of the mountain; then circumstances kept me there. Over a period of weeks I acquired a caring stake in many lives. I knew some people who died, or who lost loved ones or narrowly escaped themselves. I knew that many still had trouble accepting the momentous changes.

From the porch of her home beside Silver Lake, Gladys Dodge Robards, 87, had witnessed the event 30 miles [48 kilometers] away. As a girl she worked summers at Harmony Falls Lodge on Spirit Lake at the foot of Mount St. Helens, and she loved the area. Her son John had told her about the devastation, including the huge landslide. Among other consequences, the landslide raised Spirit Lake’s surface by 200 feet [61 meters], burying not only the lodge but also its 150-foot [46-meter] namesake waterfall. John wondered why she had never asked to go and see the remade landscape, not even when the Johnston Ridge Observatory opened just five miles [eight kilometers] from the crater. This visitor center features a 16-minute film on the volcano, then the screen is raised to reveal a giant picture window framing the actual mountain. “One day I just drove my mother to the Johnston Ridge visitor center,” John said. “I took her in to see the movie. When it ended and the screen was raised, showing the crater, she cried. I think for the first time she really accepted what had happened.”

* * *

There was a man who said he’d rather die than see his beautiful mountain blasted into an ugly shell of itself—and he got his wish. Despite many chances to evacuate, Harry R. Truman chose to remain at his St. Helens Lodge on Spirit Lake. He is there yet, together with his multitude of cats and, at last report, 38 bottles of bourbon, all buried under hundreds of feet of landslide debris and elevated lake waters.

For half a century Harry had loved the mountain, communing with it in spirit. “I talk to the mountain, and it talks to me,” he would say. He and his wife, Edna, ran the inn for an increasing fan club of vacationers, including the late William O. Douglas, [U.S.] Supreme Court justice, author, and world traveler. Harry’s talents included a gift for telling stories eloquent with adjectival profanity. In a troopship in World War I he’d survived a torpedoing off Ireland. He was an aircraft mechanic in France, a bootlegger in California during Prohibition.

In the weeks before May 18 I’d come to know Harry, and on my recent return trip I looked up his brother-in-law, D. O. (Buck) Whiting of Kelso. “Edna used to tell Harry he’d become a legend, and Harry would make a joke of it,” Buck told me. “Edna died in 1978, and Harry lost interest in keeping the lodge going. Then the first eruptions started in March 1980, and when he said he wouldn’t leave his lodge, everybody wanted to talk to him. He enjoyed all the interviews and cameras and helicopters coming to his door. After he died, people wrote songs and books about him, and a Hollywood crew came in and put him in a movie. And we remembered what Edna said.”

As time passes, others who died keeping vigil on the volcano are becoming part of legend. At an observation site eight miles northwest of the crater, Reid Blackburn, a 27-year-old photographer from the Vancouver Columbian, fired off four frames as the destructive wall of gases and ash rushed toward him. Heat ruined his film, and the car in which he took shelter could not save him. His wife, Fay, takes pride in a scholarship fund in Reid’s name, which by now has helped 18 aspiring photojournalists.

David Johnston was manning a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) post five miles [eight kilometers] northwest of the mountain. Though only 30 years old, he had become expert on explosive composite volcanoes, particularly those in Alaska. David knew the risks, but he was excited at the chance to learn more. It was he who sent the radio message to the world at 8:32 on Sunday morning, May 18: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it.”

Get the full story in the May 2000 issue (available in our online store). Or subscribe to National Geographic and get the world in your mailbox each month.

Share your thoughts in our natural-disaster forum.

Read an excerpt of the classic St. Helens article, and hear a photographer’s recollections.

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