Remembering a mountain

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

Those probably were the last words ever uttered — 30 years ago today — by a young geologist, David Johnston, who was blown into oblivion by Mount St. Helens. Johnston was manning an observation point not far from the volcano when he radioed those words to the U.S. Geological Survey office in Vancouver, Wash.

There are some things one never thinks he’ll ever witness. A volcanic eruption is one of those things that, for me, I never imagined I’d be able to remember. I grew up in Portland, Ore., about 50 miles southwest of Mount St. Helens. I was still living there when the mountain exploded on Sunday morning, May 18, 1980. It’s kind of one of those days for Pacific Northwest residents you remember — kind of like where you were when JFK died or when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On that day, it was overcast, so we didn’t actually witness the blast from our Portland home; we did, however, watch a similarly spectacular ash cloud in July of that year. But still, the live pictures of that moment on our TV screens were as good as being there.

Thirty years ago today, Portlanders’ vision of the world changed forever. It was expressed to me several times in the years immediately after the eruption how upsetting it was to look along the city’s northern horizon and see Mount St. Helens with its top blown off. For those of us who grew up awestruck at the mountain’s snow-capped symmetry, the sight of the mountain today remains quite a blow.

The mountain was supposed to look as it always did.

But alas, human beings cannot control many things. We’re such pipsqueaks when compared to the unfathomable force of Mother Nature.