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The Day the Mountain Blew
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The Day the Mountain Blew
  Centralia Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

The thick green forest changed to lifeless gray with such definition it was as if someone dumped a bucket of gravel and sand on a beautiful lush lawn. One spot looked like a spilled box of toothpicks. I was stunned at the total area that was effected. I was stunned by all the dead trees that still lay on the ground.

The helicopter swept across the devastation several times, before landing on the mountain. I walked across the crunchy pumice thoughtfully, respecting the fact that I was examining a catastrophic event that gave birth to a landscape not far from where I lived. I remember it well.

It was 8:30, Sunday, May 18, 1980. I was sitting up in bed reading the newspaper, my back against the wall. Our two Maltese Terriers started to whimper, yelp oddly, and scratch frantically at the door. This was unusual behavior. I know now, they knew that Mount St.. Helen's was about to explode. A couple of minutes later the house shuddered violently causing me to lurch forward.

The blast was heard as far away as the tip of the Olympic Peninsula and felt as far north as our home near Vancouver, Canada. According to written reports, within 15-20 seconds of the quake, a series of explosions ripped through the avalanche of debris, forming a sideways blast of rock, ash gas and steam, at speeds estimated from 220-to-670 mph and reaching temperatures about 570 degrees.

Part of the avalanche slammed into nearby Spirit Lake, forcing a 700-to-800 foot tidal wave up the side of an adjoining mountain. Another section roared across the Toutle Valley floor, up a 1,150-foot mountain and another valley. A third section of the avalanche rumbled down the valley, burying it from wall to wall in an average depth of 150 feet. In less than ten minutes, the plume from the explosion thrust 13.6 miles into the atmosphere and created a dust cloud over a 230-square mile area.

That afternoon, we left for Grand Forks, located in southeastern BC close to the US. border. The closer we got, the grayer the sky got. By the time we arrived, our car was covered in a layer of gritty ash. I scooped it up in a glass jar and kept it on the fireplace for years, just a couple of grams of the 520 million tons of ash that fell across Eastern Washington and parts of Canada that day and for days to come.

Now here I was, stepping across land that was barely two decades old. Except for clumps of scrubby grass, there was nothing but sand, gravel, rock, and pockets of snow as far as I could see. It didn't look out of place like it did from the air, where the colorless ground was so vividly different from the deep green forest surrounding it. It didn't remind me of any place I'd been. Not the California or Nevada deserts, not the lava beds in Hawaii, not the Rocky Mountains -- we could have landed on the moon for all I knew. An occasional puff of steam rose from somewhere inside the gaping hole that was still some distance away. Insects scurried among the rocks, the only signs of animal life, but nevertheless, life.

Back in the air, I could see vegetation closing in across the austere landscape attracting Elk. A couple of hikers had their tents set up directly on a path of a hardened flow. The bright yellow and blue canvas could be seen for miles. I've seen plenty of moving and still pictures of the blast and plenty before and after pictures of the mountain; however, the image that stays with me is that yellow and blue tent .


Hiking with permits is allowed on the mountain, and at Windy Ridge Viewpoint you can get within 3 miles of the volcano. I would suggest, if you are traveling within 100 miles of the area (two hundred, even), do make the effort to come by.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center is the western gateway to the National Volcanic Monument, located just off 1-5, five miles east of Castle Rock on the shores of Silver Lake. It offers award winning film, walk-through interpretive exhibits, a staffed information desk and books for sale.

Windy Ridge Viewpoint is located 90 minutes away from the community of Randle. This viewpoint offers the closest study of Mount St. Helen's.

The Coldwater Visitor Center and the Mount St. Helen Monument is located at the end of Highway 504. It offers panoramic views of the volcano, the newly formed Coldwater Lake and the debris filled Toutle River Valley.

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