06 October 2004

A geological confession

I'm a volcano junkie.

I've been following the news on the recent activity at Mt. St. Helens recently.  I'm familiar with the area, having visited the observation center there in June of 2003.

I remember clearly what started my fascination with volcanoes.  I was six, and before it became a fascination, it was a short, terrifying obsession.  I read a book at the local library called "Hill of Fire."  It was a children's book about the 1943 formation of the Paricutin volcano west of Mexico City.  Apparently one day the Earth cracked open in the middle of a farmer's field, an eruption began and a few days later the volcano was built up several thousand feet.  The book was vivid in the description of how a farmer was out working in the fields when the eruption started and had to take evasive action to save his family and the people who lived in the nearby village.  Miraculously no one was killed, though everybody lost all they owned.

So I was a six year old reading about how a volcano just popped up one day in the middle of a field, and left the library convinced that one was going to sprout up in our own back yard any day.  It made for some sleepless nights there for a bit.  What was that rumbling noise?  What's that orangish bright light I can see out the window?  Wait, more rumbling...it certainly did not help that we lived half a block from railroad tracks that had frieght trains running all night long.  I had mental evacuation plans ready for about a month.  I think I eventually confessed to my father my fears that we were living on a geological event and he calmly reassured me that the possibility of our backyard transforming into the next Mt. Vesuvius, and that America wasn't exactly the hotbed (HA!  I KILL MYSELF!) of volcanic activity.  I can only wonder what he must have thought about his paranoid delusional son!  And I haven't even mentioned the time period where I thought any sprinkle of rain meant a devastating tornado was on the way...

I remember St. Helens erupting in 1980, the first and only eruption in my lifetime that occured in the continental US.  It was the day before my thirteenth birthday.  I couldn't believe something that devastating and spectacular was happening in the US.  I'll never forget the video footage of the devastation, and the time lapse pictures of the mountain exploding.

I was out west in June of 2003 and on the day that I was driving from Portland to Seattle I decided to head over to Mt. St. Helens.  It was a beautiful day, clear and warm, and the mountain was about an hour or so west of Interstate 5.  I first went to the visitor's center, which had a lot of information pertaining to the area, what it was like before and after the eruption, and a general history of volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest.  There were park rangers there giving presentations on some of these things, but I decided not to stick around for that and drove up to the observation point.  It was about a twenty minute drive and took me up into the area within five miles of the mountain itself.

As I winded up the road towards the observation area, clouds moved in.  By the time I was halfway there, it was pouring rain.  When I reached the center and got out of my car, the temperature was about thirty degrees lower than it was when I started driving.  And there was fog everywhere, I couldn't see a thing.

Inside the observation center there was more info on St. Helens, but the highlight was a movie theater that screened a twenty minute film that detailed the 1980 eruption beter than anything I have ever heard or read about it.  The only word to describe it is "awesome", its energy, its devastation, its complete control over the area surrounding the mountain.  It took my breath away.  By the time the movie was over, I had forgotten that it was cloudy outside and I was not going to be able to see anything for myself.

Then there was a cruel twist of irony, and I suppose I should say here that if you ever plan on visiting the center, you should probably skip this paragraph, as it will reveal a surprise.

At the end of the movie, the screen went black, and then in big red letters said "please remain seated."  A few seconds later the screen pulled back from the sides, revealing nothing but huge glass windows.  The theater faces the volcano in the direction that the eruption occured and theoretically at the end of the movie you are treated to the best possible picture of what the area looks like today.

If you happen to go there on a day that has no fog and clouds. 

While it was disappointing to have been there and not be able to see anything, the presentation atboth centers made it worth the time and effort.  And as I drove back down the area towards the visitor's center, the clouds parted somewhat and I could see the downed timber that still lines the edge of the blast zone, along with the barren edges where the blast destroyed everything.  I was able to spend some time off to the side of the road and observe, though when I tried to take a picture I found that the batteries in my digital camera were dead.

Which is just as well, as the images I saw that day couldn't be reproduced.  It has to be seen to be comprehended, if you go for that stuff.  I am not rooting for the mountain to erupt again, but if it does there can't be the destruction there was before, because there's nothing there to destroy. 

Seeing Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Rainier in Washington during that trip, I realize that if those mountains, which are volcanoes, someday erupt there will be tremendous damage and undoubtedly loss of life.  Yet they are so dominantly beautiful that you almost feel priviledged to be there, to see these things.  They are so majestic that you don't sense the unknown danger.

Speaking of which, is there any movie genre worse than the "dormant volcano that comes to life, threatening the population of the ski resort town/island/Los Angeles because no one bothered to listen to the wise geologist who knew that this was going to happen?"

No comments: