In mid-October, after I'd finished teaching for the week, I caught the last Thursday night flight out of DIA to the Pacific Northwest. I had a simple plan for the weekend. I wanted to see if a volcano would blow its stack.
The volcano was Washington's Mount St. Helens. On Sep. 29, after almost 20 years of slumber, it had suddenly rumbled awake, coughing up some impressive looking plumes of steam and ash. Since then, I'd been tracking its rocking and rolling on TV and the Internet, and wondering what might happen next.
An erupting volcano is one of the Earth's most awesome spectacles, a hurry-up moment in deep, geologic time. Would Mount St. Helens – the youngest of 15 major Cascade Range volcanoes – soon crank up its volume? Or would it simply drop right back to sleep? I had recently researched and written a book about volcanoes around the world, so I knew that either case was possible, or something in between. The timing, I also knew, was ridiculously hard to predict.
Plus, I might not get anywhere near the action. A volcano in full-tilt rage can close roads and airports and divert air traffic for days. Here's a creepy fact: ash that's been shot sky-high can actually "clog" turbojet engines in mid-air. After Alaska's Redoubt volcano erupted in 1989, a Boeing 747 unknowingly flew into its drifting ash cloud and completely shut down. It dropped in silence for three vertical miles before the first of its engines bit back into air.
Now, as my jet approached the lights of Portland, I listened to the steady whine of the engines. Good! They seemed to be sucking in nothing but cold, empty air.
I looked north out the window and tried to pick out a red glow of lava. Nothing. Given Northwest weather, the volcano might be socked in all weekend.
Still, I knew that Mount St. Helens had been producing its biggest fireworks since May 18, 1980, when it literally blew itself to bits. At 8:31 a.m. that fateful Sunday, the volcano, which was once called the Mount Fuji of America, stood in graceful, snow-capped symmetry. Two minutes later, the entire top of the mountain was gone.
So were miles and miles of forests. Douglas firs with trunks 3- to 6-feet thick had been blown flat or atomized. Torrents of instantly melted snow that mixed with broken tree trunks, boulders, boiling mud and volcanic debris were starting to pour off the mountain.
And a sunny morning had turned to midnight. For nine hours, millions of tons of ash roared out of a jagged crater, dropping a black, sludgy rain for miles around and then out over eastern Washington. The next day, a film of ash settled on the CSU campus. Within a week, the finest particles had girded the Earth, creating flaming orange sunsets.
In all, 57 people perished on or near its slopes, making Mount St. Helens the deadliest volcano in U.S. history.
Nobody had died so far this time. But then, U.S. Geological Survey volcanologists were not expecting a cataclysm. There just wasn't enough of the mountain left above the powder keg of rising, gas-packed magma to create a prodigious eruption.
However, by mid-morning Friday I could see that the volcano was affecting people in other ways. At a visitor center 30 miles from the crater, a young gift shop clerk told me that one of her recent customers had informed her that The Big One was due now, because her migraine was starting up. Another said the same about a crick in her neck. Then a man called in to say he'd devised a mathematical formula to determine the precise time of any eruption on earth. But he couldn't predict this one because a prominent scientist kept stealing his data.
The clerk looked at me wearily. "Then there are the folks who ask if they can drive their campers all the way into the crater. 'Sure,' I say, 'As long as you don't mind a softball-sized rock zooming through your skull.'"
Outside, at a volcano "view site," I scanned around with my binoculars – nothing but white sky.
I jumped into my rental car and drove on, steadily gaining elevation. Soon the highway was curving above the rugged-looking Toutle River. During the 1980 eruption, here and downriver, boiling torrents had overwhelmed sand bars and riverbank foliage. The scars were still obvious and trees that had sprung up since then all looked the same height. A guy I stopped to talk with said he had seen entire houses pushed downstream by what looked like the world's biggest flood of wet cement.
"Fish were trying to jump out of the river ahead of the hot stuff," he said. "Then they quit moving and died."
Six or seven miles from the crater, I pulled into a parking lot crowded with TV trucks with satellite towers. A press briefing was starting. Standing in the glare of lights was a bearded guy named Mike Glynne. He wore a brand-new green parka with the logo: "USGS – Science for a changing world."
Perfect description, I thought.
If my travels to rattling volcanoes in Sicily and Hawaii and the Caribbean had taught me anything, it was that the world is constantly changing. Over the long arc of time, tectonic plates that carry continents on their backs grind over, under or past each other at the rate that your fingernails grow. Volcanoes roar, fall asleep for a century or 10,000 years, then roar again. Rock moves all the time, everywhere.
It was moving through Mount St. Helen's right now. Glynne told the cameras that molten rock from deep below the mountain was feeding a new bulge in the crater floor at a rate of one truckful of volume every second. The steaming lava dome could grow for weeks or months and still not cause a catastrophic eruption.
He described how remote satellite sensing helped measure the tiniest deformations in the lava dome and the entire mountain. Also, a military spy drone they'd named the Silver Fox could circle the volcano and take measurements during weather that made ordinary flying too dangerous. None of this stuff was available in 1980.
I looked for the steam plume past Mike Glynne's shoulder. Nothing. So, was I chasing a volcano or a ghost?
A few minutes later, police barriers shuttled me off the highway into the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center. The road actually ran a couple of miles further, to the top of one more ridge that was just emerging from the mist. It was there, mere seconds after the giant blast of 1980 had begun, that volcanologist Dave Johnson screamed his famous last words prior to being overcome by lava and dying into his walkie talkie: "Vancouver! Vancouver! THIS IS IT!"
As I walked around, shivering in a steady breeze, I noticed how closely people were listening to rangers giving their talks, even though they still couldn't see a thing. These were true volcano fans, I found out later, many having flown in from Germany and Japan, especially. There were lots of expensive spotting scopes and megaphone-sized camera lenses.
Suddenly I noticed that my back felt warm. The first bit of sun all day had emerged. Thanks to the wind, the mist on the lower slopes of the mountain was slowly peeling back and dissipating. "Go, go," I whispered, as people all around me murmured and jockeyed for position, lifting binoculars and cameras.
And after a few more minutes, there it was, right in front of us and as large as all the world – the broken-topped volcano in all its steaming glory. A great, white-gray plume twisted up from the crater. It marked the place where the newest earth on Earth was being formed, a landscape of new beginnings.
I looked around. I was just one of dozens of people smiling and smiling and smiling.
**John Calderazzo is a CSU English professor who teaches creative nonfiction writing and recently published the book "Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives." Read a review of his book on page —.