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Topless Wonder

Where you are when you're at Mount Saint Helens.

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Think about a classic eruption: a hole in the top of a mountain, lava coming out, then black rock all over the place when it cools. Mount Saint Helens did something a lot more amazing.

On May 18, 1980, there was an earthquake under the mountain, and the entire north side of the peak fell off. The top 1,000 feet and the whole side of the mountain slid down the valley. It went over a 1,300-foot ridge. It went into Spirit Lake so hard that it washed all the water from the lake onto the surrounding hillsides. It whipped down the Toutle River at up to 80 mph, eventually reaching the Columbia River 50 miles away, where it held up shipping for days.

It was the largest landslide in recorded history, and it was also, in essence, a cork coming off a super-charged bottle. Right after the slide, an explosion took place that flattened 150 square miles of forest in an instant. It was -- and still looks -- as if a cosmic hand had simply reached down and swept the ground for miles.

On the south side of the mountain, the Shoestring Glacier melted instantly, picked up a few million tons of rock and debris, and took off at about 45 mph. It scoured out a canyon or two and pinned rocks to trees like thumbtacks 50 feet off the ground.

More than 50 people died that day. It could have been more; it happened on a Sunday when the loggers weren't working. One of the dead was an ornery old dude named Harry Truman, who refused to leave his lodge at Spirit Lake, which he had owned since the 1930s.

About 22 years after all this, when I came around a corner on State Highway 504 and saw a huge cloud rising from the flat-topped mountain, I pulled over immediately. My mind raced off into the future, and I started practicing my story: "Yeah, I was just going up for a tourist visit, and the thing went off again!" Then I heard thunder, looked again, and the little thunderstorm had moved away from the crater.

Visiting Mount Saint Helens is much like visiting any other national park or monument: You pay a fee to enter publicly owned land, you fight crowds at every turn, you pay prices like $9 for a bad hamburger, you walk a hundred yards through a packed parking lot, and then you see the thing you came to see -- in this case, the crater and the blast zone -- and you remember why you're there.

Or you can leave the road, walk a few minutes, and leave 90 percent of the people behind. You can walk to a view of Spirit Lake; after the landslide hit it, the water collected all the trees on the hillside and washed back into the lake, which is now about 200 feet higher than it used to be.

My last visit was for an entirely nonvolcano reason. Two years before, while working on a hiking guidebook to the Portland, Oregon, area, I had encountered two employees of the monument who made it into the acknowledgements section of my book. One was a charming older man, and the other was a beautiful young woman, and I was now returning to hand out copies of the book -- and also, of course, to see if their charm and beauty lived up to my memories.

So, in my mind, I wasn't really up there to see the volcano. But the cloud sitting on top of it snapped my attention back into focus. Then the destruction all around me, even 20 miles from the explosion, put things back into perspective for me. Then the thunder bouncing around the valley humbled me.

There's an old Buddhist expression that goes something like this: If we never stop to notice where we are, we'll never know what's really going on. For most of that day, I had it in my head that I was on some kind of business trip. But looking out over the valley, I realized that in that moment, I was sitting in the middle of a geological event, an ongoing process during which the earth belches up material and then plants and animals move back in, like they have before and like they will again. The rocks at my feet were formed miles under the earth's surface and left here by forces beyond my ability to imagine.

The old guy was not at work that day, and the young woman was still beautiful but too busy to talk much. But by then, I didn't really care. I had seen where I was and gotten what I came for.

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