It Was The Summer of 1980

Mort Morford


© Copyright 2023 by Mort Morford

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash
                                                 Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

It was the summer of 1980. Mt. St. Helens had just erupted in May.

In the Pacific Northwest, earthquakes, tremors, and now volcanoes, had become yet another surging undercurrent of the landscape – a reminder, as if we needed more, that the earth, and life itself, is always in motion.

The Pacific Northwest is perhaps most famous for its weather – a chill, damp, and often piercing wind is almost always present.

In short, it’s a place with weather – and other – conditions, one needed to be prepared for.

Up in the mountains, you can find year-round snow, and even on the hottest days, there’s an underlying breeze, mostly from shadowed valleys and multi-thousand-year-old glaciers, of a chill that defies human measurement.

Who needs human contention or conflict when the earth itself threatens to swallow, bury or wash you away?

On the west side of Mt. Rainer, back in 1947, a plane full of troops crashed. After much life-endangering search, the wreckage was found - but never recovered.

It’s that kind of place; where all manner of cougars, bears, glaciers, landslides and washed-out trails can cause a mere human to disappear without a trace.

It was in the context that I, as a young man, convinced the woman who would become my wife to go on a short overnight backpacking trip.

She was a city girl, with new boots, expensive equipment and packaged meals. I was experienced, on a budget, and ready for anything. I thought.

It was a short hike in – about two miles, but thanks to a late start we got to an open area where we could camp shortly before dusk.

As we took off our backpacks and looked over our options for camping in an open area, a herd of about ten to fifteen elk emerged from the distant woods.

They circled us in a state of panic, running, snorting and stirring up dust and small branches from the lush groundcover. They seemed to be in an ever-tightening concentric circle around us.

My girlfriend, rapidly reaching her own state of panic, was calling me to chase them away. We yelled, waved our arms and finally saw them run away.

These were, of course, alpine elk – the size of horses – wild and frenzied, and we had no idea what had stirred them into a frenzy – or what they wanted us to do.

They did eventually leave. And as they left, darkness was descending, so we prepared a sleeping area.

Back then I was a fan of open-air sleeping – no tent for me. It was breezy at that point so we had no mosquitoes of other tiny flying pests. But we had stars.

We were at about 4,000 feet above sea level, with no obstructions or city lights. The stars were luminous and seemed within our reach. Galaxies and falling stars lit up the sky.

The immensity – and unpredictability – of nature at its purest and wildest seemed on display.

We humans and our creations seem so important until we have the opportunity - or accidental encounter that reminds us how fragile and vulnerable we are to nature’s whims and ineffable processes.

Before this trip, we had, of course, consulted the weather projections.

The weather forecast was for clear days and nights.

And that night’s sky was clear – if not magnified – thanks to our altitude.

As we looked straight up at the stars, my fiancé kept saying “There’s something in my eyes”.

I assumed it was dust of some sort raised by our hike or the wind or the actions of the elk.

As we looked at the stars, I noticed that the southern sky was darkening – with no stars visible.

It looked like a cloud front was approaching.

It was a cloud. But not a normal weather cloud. And not from a normal direction.

On the west coast most of the weather comes off the Pacific Ocean. This was coming directly from the south.

And it wasn’t chilly or damp as a rain front might be.

It was a total, solid mass across the sky.

The stars slowly slipped out of view and a covering, of some sort, settled in over us.

And more dust was falling on us.

It was fully dark and making our way back to the trailhead would have been impossible.

We did the only thing we could do – we covered up and went to sleep – not able to imagine what we would wake up to.

We opened our eyes to see a thin layer of grey dust over everything. What we had thought was a cloud was in fact a massive smoke cloud carrying volcanic ash dust from one of the many secondary eruptions of Mt. St. Helens.

The elk had apparently sought help, protection and shelter from us. They had probably felt the sensation and trembling of the minor eruption – about a hundred miles away.

Something of an ancient ethic of human helping animals, or perhaps creatures helping each other emerged that day – something akin to Noah’s Ark - a surge of oneness with Creation that has never left me.

I have often wondered what those elk wanted from us. Some kind of shelter I suppose, some kind of refuge from the awakening earth.

Thousands of elk and deer and a multitude of other creatures had been killed – and buried – in the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Many people had been killed as well – their remains never found.

It’s that kind of place; where living things, even history itself can be swallowed up.

We in the Pacific Northwest live in a precarious timetable, where cities and freeways that seem so permanent, can easily, with a few shifts of the seismic scale, turn into dust or just another layer of sedimentary history.

That might explain the loose grip many of us have on what seems so important to most other people.

Maybe we all need what those elk were seeking – companionship and comfort in a time of danger and uncertainty.

The next morning, we packed our things and hiked back to the car in silence, not sure what to make of any of it.

She did marry me later that year. But we never went camping again.

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