Moments & Misadventures :: Remembering Mount St. Helens


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 eruption of Mount St. Helens (photo: mcchord.af.mil)

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.

after the eruption (photo: usatoday.com)

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.

35 thoughts on “Moments & Misadventures :: Remembering Mount St. Helens

  1. I remember seeing the eruption on the news and being astounded at the scale and violence of it. I’m glad this visitor centre is preserving the records of what happened and providing opportunities to reflect on the lost lives as well as marvel at the power of nature.

    1. I thought the visitor center was really well done in talking about the terrible event but doing so with great grace and compassion. I can’t even imagine watching that eruption unfold.

  2. I lived in Portland in those days, as an adult. I remember watching the ash plume from my front porch. What is often not discussed it the aftermath of the eruption in Oregon and Washington. Thankfully the wind was blowing toward the east which took the ash away from Portland. Even with that the city was coated with ash, ash that is like microscopic sandpaper. We changed our car air filters at least weekly, if the ash got into carburetors, boy is that dating us, the ash would grind into tiny jets and ruin the carburetors. I was in the fire protection industry and we sold rolls of fire hose so people could wash off their parking lots. We wore masks long before covid. In the eastern parts of the states they had six inches or more of fine ash all over everything.

    1. What a terrible experience to have been there during that time. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like to watch that happen and to live in such terrible aftermath of it and To have that ash in the air everywhere and covering everything.

  3. I remember hearing about it on the news and although we weren’t affected, ash covered parts of our western provinces. I can’t imagine what it was like to be closer. It sounds like the Park has an interesting display. Maggie

    1. The museum really did a good job of talking about the awful event and destruction but they did it with an incredible amount of grace and compassion. Where I lived, people said that we were too far south to get any of the ash but that there were shock waves that could be felt from it.

  4. Oh Meg, this brings back memories. I was a college senior living in eastern WA when it blew on that fateful Sunday morning. When I went to work that morning at 7am, it was a beautiful, sunny, spring day, a few hours later the sky was pitch black and the ash was falling like snow. There was at least 6 inches of the gritty stuff, which caused a multitude of problems. In addition to the health issues, like asthma and emphysema, it clogged engines, seeped into houses and you felt like you were covered with it constantly. It lingered for months. I lived through one volcanic eruption and hope I don’t have to experience that again. Thanks for writing about this historic event.

    1. Oh how terrible to be there and experience such an event. My heart just aches at the thought of all those like you who were so engulfed by that ash for so long. I appreciate your comments on this (though I’m sorry for bringing up such terrible memories) because I think it’s an important part of remembering such an event to have the difficult aftermath of it shared as well. The impact is so far reaching.

      1. Interestingly, it’s really not a bad memory. The community rallied and worked together to get through it. The devastation and loss of life was tragic, and is always sad. In the next years, the area began to recover and regrowth began.

  5. I enjoyed reading your post, Meg. We haven’t been to Mount St. Helens yet, but we have an itinerary planned for someday. When the volcano erupted (which I remember well), we had ash residue in our skies for a couple of weeks, and we live almost 1800 miles away! My roommate at the time went sometime later to visit relatives in Montana and brought me back a jar full of ash that she collected from the relative’s rain gutters. I still have it.

    1. That’s amazing that the ash spread so far away! A neighbor of mine said that our area in Utah didn’t get any ash but that they could feel the shock waves all through the state from the eruption. The museum there was really well done I thought with gravity enough for the event, but compassion for those that were there.

  6. I experienced something similar at Earthquake Lake in Montana last summer. It’s so sobering and humbling to witness the aftermath of such a destructive event. I haven’t been to Mount St. Helens but this makes me want to visit.

    1. sobering and humbling is a good way to put it. Even not being there when the event happened, just learning about it and seeing the impact softens us. Earthquake Lake is somewhere I would like to visit.

  7. I recall hearing about the eruption too. I’ve glimpsed it from the air but not visited though we have been to Mount Ranier NP which if my memory serves me right is reasonably close by! Great post Meg.

    1. Thanks Marion 🙂 I think they are only a few hours drive from each other. It would be really interesting to see the crater from above and really see how the landscape was changed from the eruption.

          1. Sorry it’s not Tennessee this time but it will be one day! We’re off to California spending our time equally between San Fransisco and LA. Hopefully, managing without a car this time too.

          2. Oh that will be a fantastic trip! San Francisco is such a beautiful and interesting city and of course you can’t go wrong with a little Hollywood glam in LA. Can’t wait to see your posts on your trip 🙂

  8. It’s wild to see and hear about the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens eruption. We’re actually flying into Seattle next month and will be taking a road trip along the Oregon Coast. I’ll have to add this to our itinerary.

    1. Oregon will be beautiful this time of year! Can’t wait to see your posts about your trip. The museum is really well done and so interesting to see the impact of this event.

  9. Sad and fascinating, Meg. While I have of course heard of Mount St. Helens and its eruption, I didn’t really know all that much about it so most of this was new to me. I can well imagine the impact of visiting the park and experiencing the exhibit whilst simultaneously having that vista before you. The images of those tree remains are so simple but powerful I feel.

    1. It was powerful to talk to those that had been in the middle of it and then to look out over the peak with the missing top. The shattered trees, even after all these years, was unreal to see. Places like this are sad reminders of how much can change in an instatnt.

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