Mt St Helen’s Eruption: Ashfall

The sun is beginning to set here in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been spending the day with memories and ghosts. I believe as long as we remember their stories a part of them lives on within us. I’ve skimmed through several documentaries on Youtube trying to find just the right ones to share with you. The ashfall turned a bright beautiful morning into midnight. It was gritty. It was everywhere. There was no where to run and no one knew what to do, so we gathered in groups. We watched and we waited. Fifty-seven people died as a direct result of the eruption.

Louwala-Clough/Loowit/Lavelatla, the names varied by local Indigenous tribes but the translations all represents what she did often. The names translate to “smoking mountain” or “the smoker.”

I was five years old in Spokane on May 18, 1980. This video is the closest I could find to how I remember it:

I’d also you like to meet Harry Truman (no relation to the former US President), a man who became a local legend and folk hero. At 84 years old, he was determined to die with the mountain he loved.

When you click on this video you will get an alert. Select “Watch On YouTube” to watch the video directly on YouTube in a new window.


The boy in the back of the truck

American news media rarely shows images of dead bodies on television or in print. I can think of three exceptions, but this one stands out clearly in my head because it really hit close to home. It must have been in print. I remember staring at it for what felt like an eternity. I think it was A Time magazine special edition on the Mt St Helens Eruption. I was nine at the time I found it. The image of a boy nearly my own age covered in ash lying dead in the back of a pickup truck. A truck like ours. He could have been me. He could have been my brother. He could have been a friend. A part of me will always grieve for a kid I never knew. Frozen in time. Frozen in a historical event. The boy will never grow up.

You can view the image here. I will not pay for it. It is burned in my memory already. That someone profits off this image because that how we do business in America sickens me.

The body of eight-year-old Andy Karr lies in the back of a truck… News Photo – Getty Images


And finally, what have we learned from this day? We learn that life carries on in many ways:

While sad, I hope you find these videos interesting.

White snow, black puddle

For every moment of happiness there is a tinge of sadness. For every moment of sadness there is a tinge of happiness. My Grandmother’s funeral was on my sixteenth birthday. Two weeks later, was my first Christmas with no snow. It seemed fitting. My Grandmother was good at many things. I can’t give her credit for making snow, but she was a necromancer of sorts. What mortal coils we family members dragged around all year long could be brought together on Christmas night by her beckoning.

Once someone brought a tape recorder and the adults had a lively debate over the semantics of words. Why is an orange called an orange? Why is that color orange and not blue? To my remembrance no conclusion was ever reached, but drunken philosophy is always entertaining.

When did I first started bartending? I must have been good at it. The family clientele never complained and occasionally paid in $5 bills. The tab was always open. Adults drank and cussed and if you were a child of a certain age you didn’t dare do the same. You were both literally and metaphorically, “At the kids table” whenever family was gathered. On the playground, I was a decorated war general, a legend among my peers.

Once when Aunt Jean told me to stop serving Great Grandpa Jim. I was obligated to translate his response, “Go to hell!” into kid language “Aunt Jean, Grandpa Jim says to go to h-e-double hockey sticks.” She opened her mouth to retort but decided to deliver the message herself.

The snow brings many things, but it often makes me think of death. It makes tracking easier. I don’t hunt to kill anything, only to bear witness to their existence. Most tracks and trails are made by deer, but I’ve seen just about every other Northwest animal, except a cougar. Once while climbing up a rocky outcrop I put my hand in the remnants of a cougar kill! It was gross, of course, but I couldn’t let go because I was moving too fast to seek a new handhold. It had been a deer. I hurled myself up onto the ledge and landed like a spider trying to balance over the carcass and not in it. There was no choice but to wipe my hand on my pants and keep moving. The nearest source of water was the neighbor’s cattle pond, and I must say, that kind of water would have been no less foul.

One morning at the beginning of an exploration I reached the end of the driveway at the same time as a truck passed. It hit something just up the road and kept on going. There in stark contrast against the freshly fallen snow was a black puddle of fur. It was a neighbor’s new puppy, a cocker spaniel. Such a beautiful precious little life. I could tell by his eyes he wanted to wag his tail, but the message couldn’t be received. His breath was shallow and raspy. I scooped him into my lap and sat high on the snowbank. I held him until the light left his eyes and his breath no longer gasped. Then I took him home and notified the family. Their two kids were under the age of five and maybe this was their first encounter with death, but it need not be scary. Nothing more could be done when you’re 13 miles from civilization on a Sunday.

While receiving presents is nice, the real gifts are the memories we make. Some of them are tragically wrapped and some I would have wished not to receive, but there they are.

One of my favorite gifts was a visit from a white wolf. Of all the ways it could have traveled, it chose to walk through my little light. I was working as a night housekeeper just outside of town on the interstate. The bus stop was a pinprick of light at the top of a hill on a mostly empty road. That night snow was coming down in big puffy flakes. The white wolf trotted diagonally through my circle of light. We looked at each other, then it faced forward and disappeared. It never hesitated. I could have been a potted plant for all it cared. That brief moment of eye contact. The huge paw prints assuring me I hadn’t imagined it. I’ve spent my whole life around different breeds of dogs. When you see a wolf, you know it’s a wolf.