As travelers we often focus our wanderings on the beautiful and interesting places, so it seems almost counter intuitive to go as a tourist to a place where a natural disaster caused so much destruction and sadness. My first experience with such a place was in the state of Washington when I visited the Mount St. Helens Historic Park.
In May 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted causing the country’s most deadly and most economically destructive volcanic event. This active volcano is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. When it erupted it created a massive debris avalanche that wreaked havoc for many miles in each direction.
The avalanche destroyed 200 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway-and that was nothing compared to the tragic loss of the people who couldn’t get out in time.
I walked through the visitor center looking at the terrible pictures of the damage that was caused by the eruption. This happened a couple years before I was born, but I remembered all through school the many discussions and warnings about this eruption. So to visit this place as an adult and to have the perspective of a few more years, I understood the destruction far more than what my childhood self could have grasped.
I stood at the visitor center looking over the map of the avalanche and then would walk to the lookout to see the mountain itself now missing the top part of the peak and tracing the paths of the debris from the map and trying to see those paths on the mountain. It was so quiet as so many people gathered to look out on Mount St. Helens, each lost in their own thoughts as they considered the event and the impact.
This eruption was so big that the entire top of the mountain was blown apart, leaving a crater like depression in the peak. The entire landscape was permanently changed. Even all these decades later you can still see the thick trees that were broken under the force of the debris.
Visitors today can see the large depression in the mountain where once stood the peak. A walk through the visitor center shows the magnitude of the event and the pictures from it are heart breaking. You stand at the wall size glass overlooking the land and you can’t help but imagine what that must of been like to see such a movement of rock and debris.
The land still holds some of memories of that time. You can see it in the shattered trees and the grass that is just beginning to poke out again. But you especially still it in the faces of the people that were there, working to get others out in the droves of evacuations, that now work at the visitor center. They give a powerful reminder of the power of nature and what happened here on this peak.
A few years ago Mount St. Helens commemorated the 40th year since the eruption. I watched the programs and listened about those 40 years and the research they did and continue to do on the volcanic activity of the area. I heard people talk about the experience of being there and how it changed them. In a much smaller way, I was changed by being there and seeing the place that such an event had occurred. Visiting places like this softens us as people and reminds us how much can change in an instant.