August 14, 2003

The Lure of Destruction

The Washington Post says Mt. Rainier is far more dangerous than we knew. My first reaction: excellent. Only later did I think yikes.

I can see the mountain from my office in Portland. Itís bigger than you think.

rainier.jpg

Shelly and I drove 1,000 miles along the Andes range in Chile last December. And we didnít see a single mountain as massive. Nor did we see a place so wracked with violence as the ground around Rainier.

The drive to the mountain is spooky. The land is shot through with gouges cut by eruption flows. Snow-covered ridges, themselves as tall as mountains, thrust straight up from the ravines. Rainier itself is incomprehensibly huge. Three miles tall and many miles wider, it looks to the eye the size of a planet. Red and yellow pools burble along the trails around the lakes. At the foot of the mountain I saw a grove of evergreens sprayed with rust-colored minerals that had exploded out of the ground. The mountain is rotting from within. Unfelt earthquakes roll beneath the ground on a regular basis.

It grumbles. It stirs. And it moves.

I was nine years old on May 18, 1980 when I sat on the roof of my house and watched Mt. St. Helens go mad. The apocalyptic explosion packed thousands of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. I was 100 miles away in Salem, and the eruption was a gray silhouette painted in ash on the horizon. The sound wave thundered into downtown Portland, arced over my sleepy town, and hit the ground an hour south in Eugene. I heard the cries of birds and the soft roar of traffic, but people in Eugene said it sounded like war.

sthelens.jpg

I was lucky I was a child. If it happened ten years later I would have driven straight toward ground zero. Only the police or the army could have kept me away. I needed to see the mayhem up close; the mudslides, the ash cloud, the terrible black sky that one survivor said looked like Hell.

A few years later my dad put me and my brother in the car and we drove toward the mountain to the end of the road. Halfway between I-5 and the crater the highway was blockaded by a chain-link fence with a stern government warning to stay the hell out. Danger lie ahead. The air was hot and sticky and close. I felt an electrical charge. I imagined myself scaling the fence so I could walk the rest of the way, ducking from government helicopters that surely (or so I imagined) kept a watchful eye on the criminally adventurous and the stupid.

Later they opened it up. The mountain was supposed to be safe, which also meant it was boring. But at least we could see what had happened.

We drove through a vast dead fireplace. The flame was out, the ashes cold. The ancient forest was blown down. Hundreds of thousands of stately firs were reduced to entombed gray logs. The earth was a moonscape of ash. And we were still far from the mountain.

I would have driven this far, I thought, if I were old enough to drive on the day that it happened.

Iím glad to be alive, of course, but part of me feels cheated as though I had slept through it.

Our horizon is a skyline of mountains. Mt. Hood watches over Portland like a sentinel. It looks grumpy and tired in summer, and is a shimmering white jewel in the winter. Every couple of years it throws tantrums and fits. The geologists say to watch out, and the local papers blow it all out of proportion. I think the journalists want the mountain to blow.

hood.jpg

I donít want it to blow. Towns would be annihilated. Portlandís easternmost suburbs are in danger. I canít wish death and destruction on my community. But it sure would be interesting, at least in the sense of the Chinese curse. Payback time for my nose-bleeder seats back in Ď80. Mt. Hood is right at my door. I could watch the pyroclastic flow down the side of the mountain. I could hear the primordial roar and feel the blast in my bones.

My wife and I will visit Guatemala this winter. The old colonial capital of Antigua nests in a valley between three volcanoes. One of them, Volcan Pacaya, is constantly active. A wisp of smoke is a nearly permanent feature, and lava sometimes streams down the sides. From the city at night you can see it glow red from the fire. Iíll rent a car, or Iíll take the chicken bus, and I will get as close to that mountain as the roads will allow. Brave tourists can pay a guide to take them up top. Sometimes they flee in terror, and sometimes they die. Iíll need my wife to keep me from scaling its walls.

guatamalavolcano.jpg

(Photo copyright Quetzal Adventures.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 14, 2003 01:29 AM
Comments

That's very funny; I never think of Mount Rainier as visible from Portland as it is our mountain in Seattle.

Posted by: David Sucher at August 14, 2003 06:42 AM

My friend, who was here in Portland during the Mt. Saint Helens eruption, recalled stepping outside from time to time to watch the smoke cloud...he was thinking, "Well, I'm fifty miles away from it, so those tiny black dots crawling up the side of the cloud must be rocks the size of...boxcars..."

Also, I'm told that if Hood goes, the main blast probably will be on the southern side, so Portland may skate on that one, too...

Actually, I worry about the supervolcano that is Yellowstone Park. If that goes, it will probably take out the entire eastern half of the US...

Posted by: Brian Swisher at August 14, 2003 08:19 AM

In my final manuscript for my MFA, I wrote a long essay about the landscape here - my psychological reaction to it, as an outsider, my sense of connection and disconnection . . . so I know what you mean by the lure of danger. The earthquake swarms on Mt. Hood have largely been tectonic activity (as opposed to being caused by magma), but the newspapers either don't know the difference or prefer the sensationalism of imminent destruction. There is, however, a bulge in the ground near Sisters. It has been growing since the 90s, and was first picked up on by satellites. This bulge could be magma, but no one is yet sure . . . I check USGS regularly, and I'm always excited by the swarms, always turned on by the idea of Mt. Hood erupting . . . always longing for it, even as I realize how horrible it would be. Of course I don't really want it. But I do. Anyway, my old, defunct blog has a post about this, from several months back . . . Thanks, Mike. Love the pictures and descriptions of Mt. Rainier.

Posted by: karrie at August 14, 2003 08:40 AM

PS: Also love the idea of you as a little kid, sitting on the roof and longing to drive to ground zero. That is soooo Mike Totten. :)

Posted by: karrie at August 14, 2003 08:43 AM

When I was 7, we visited Washington on summer vacation. After we saw Mt. St. Helens, we drove up Mt. Rainier. Dad was distracted and missed a turn in the road. There was no guardrail because, as the ranger later explained to us, still shaking from the fall, a guardrail would have marred the scenery. We rolled in the car about 50 feet down the face of the mountain. That's really all I can think about when I read the name Mt. Rainier. Supremely immature, I know, but maybe if it blows, I'll be able to think of something else (No, I don't really want it to blow... its just a thought).

Michael, don't get eaten by a volcano. You're far too interesting.

Posted by: grs at August 14, 2003 09:12 AM

Rainier is a WIMP! The real civilization buster is the caldera under Yellowstone. That'll put out the lights for a long time in most of the United States.

Posted by: Van der Leun at August 14, 2003 11:48 AM

I lived in Eatonville, WA during the early 70s. The only worries back then were UFOs and Bigfoot.

We moved back to Oregon and had an excellent view of the Mt. St Helens eruption off our deck in Hillsboro.

Posted by: Calvin at August 14, 2003 01:16 PM

I was 6 when St. Helens blew, and I can remember wearing the masks at school, and the amazing midday darkness. The regrowth of the forest is something to see.

Mexico City has a similar volcano on its outskirts: Popocatepetl. Always active, and dumping even more crap into the already viscous air. Now that would be a bad eruption.

Posted by: brett at August 14, 2003 06:01 PM



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