Monday, May 17, 2010

The Difference of a Day

Thirty years ago on this day, May 17, I naively stood on the sun-washed, quivering flanks of Mount St. Helens. I can see it now: the mountain’s ash-sullied dome, the luminous Spirit Lake, and the family cabins clustered not far from the shore and the lapping, glittering water.

Sixteen hours later, the avalanching summit of the exploding volcano would bury it all.

My being there on that Saturday in the spring of 1980 was no act of bravery. In retrospect, the few dozen of us there were foolish and reckless.

We should not have been there.

I should not have been sent there.

Blame it on my editors, journalistic curiosity and the pursuit of a “good story.”

I was a reporter on assignment for the Daily News in nearby Longview, Washington. I was doing a job that I happened to love.

Three people I interviewed that day were dead the next. Their bodies, the cabins, the parking lot, and the old lake’s bed are now just so much substratum beneath hundreds of feet of volcanic sediment.

No one will ever again stand where I stood that day. The sheriff's deputies, cabin owners (packing up their belongings), reporters and the doomed holdouts were the last to see it in that moment of geologic time.

Spirit Lake is still on the map, of course. If you visit the volcano monument’s overlooks, you will witness a stew of a lake called “Spirit Lake.” It is nothing like the old one, now a remembered jewel set in the Cascades.

Today’s Spirit Lake’s bottom is above the surface of the shimmering lake I admired that pristine spring day 30 years ago.

Each year on this day, I think of how May 17, 1980, came so close to being my last day of life.

I try to attribute a higher purpose to my good fortune but know there was none. The purpose has been mine and that of those who have inspired and supported me.

Still, these years do seem like a gift. Who gave them to me? I do not know any more than I know who gave me life itself. But I do feel it, this ineffable mystery.

And so this day gives me pause, and in that pause I give thanks.

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