Once such a near-perfect conical feature of the landscape that it was nicknamed the Mt. Fuji of America, Mt. St. Helens now looms over Southwest Washington with ever-present foreboding despite the 1300-foot decapitation levied by the cataclysmic May 18, 1980, eruption that left 57 people dead in its wake. I'd just moved from Oregon to Vancouver, Washington, some 47 miles southwest of the mountain's summit, and had yet to turn 5 years old when the eruption occurred, and I vividly recall sitting atop our family's old yellow 1976 Volkswagen Rabbit watching the volcano's pulsating dark gray column of ash impale the sky above, cloaking the area northeast of it for miles in dense haze and darkness.
In my youthfulness I couldn't really wrap my head around the sheer magnitude of destruction unleashed that day, and even now, walking through the slowly reawakening landscape that was violently reformed into an ashen wasteland 33 years ago, it's still impossible for me to fully comprehend. I look north of where I'm walking and see the remnants of trees blown down flat by pyroclastic flows despite residing miles from the volcano and a thousand or more feet above the valley floor. I look up and contemplate the sky 12 miles up that was violated by the ash column within a mere 10 minutes of the blast. And I look back south upon the volcano and try to envision the 0.7 cubic miles of material that once formed its handsome summit barreling down its northeastern flank at 150 miles per hour and burying the North Fork Toutle River Valley under 600 feet of debris.
It was with equal parts awe, nervous energy, and respect, then, that I made the 4-mile trek from the Johnston Ridge Observatory up to Harry's Ridge, which offered a vantage point straight into the gaping maw of the monster. Persistent puffs of cloud lingered around the crater rim, casting dramatic shadows across the central dome that's reforming. While still below the level of the rim, the relative quickness with which it's formed (in geologic terms) suggests Mt. St. Helens will rise again and someday surpass its current 8,365-foot stature. And someday, she will render judgment upon the local landscape once again.