It was a nice spring morning in southwest Washington, the air crisp and heady. When out of the sun, the altitude caused little bumps on the arm, but in the sun, it grew warm. The fir gave off a primal smell, and the wonder of the forest made you feel alive like no other feeling.
I was leading my troop on a day hike. It would be hard to get lost on the worn trail even without the map and compass each one of us had stuffed in pockets or a daypack. We could even go off the trail. Numerous places could give us spectacular views, each one of us loved to climb, although we were careful when we did. An injury meant a forty-minute car trip just to get to a paved road.
We were in a small alpine valley when we got the first inkling something was wrong. One moment we were walking slower than we should and talking about girls, the next I felt vaguely ill. The very air around us felt different, and it stopped us all in our tracks. Smiles and small talk gave way to narrowed eyes and frowns.
That is when we noticed, to our left over a ridge, the sky was growing dark. And it was a strange dark, the absence of light gave off a greenish tinge. In moments, this darkness looked like smoke, but it couldn't be smoke, it was filling the sky like no smoke I had ever seen.
"What is that?" Kevin asked.
"You don't suppose that could be a monster forest fire?" asked Patrick.
The thought sent a chill down my spine.
"We should climb the ridge and see," said Kevin. He does not look too happy about it, it was off the trail, and if we had to make way for camp in a hurry, we would have to backtrack. But it was the highest vantage point.
"Yeah, we should," I said. The troop was looking at me as if I was in charge and need to make an Important Decision. I guess I better. So, off we went. We made our own switchbacks, with slight detours for large rocks and even larger trees.
Then we crested the hill.
We looked northwest.
We saw, we saw Hell.
How do you describe the indescribable?
Picture, if you will, in your mind the most horrible thing you have ever seen. What lies beyond the end of that vision is what we saw when we crested the hill. The utter destruction of beauty, something so ugly, even today, my heart beats faster, my stomach feels nervous and that ill feeling washes back over me like some perverted oil slick molesting my soul.
Most of the mountain was gone. It was just gone. In its place was a boiling cloud of ash, rock blasted with such force it was a fine powder. The ash plume was so large, my mind wrestled with trying to put in it perspective.
"Oh my God, oh my God," whispered Patrick, normally a bouncy kid without a serious bone in his body.
The cloud grew and grew, and soon the lightning started. The static electricity from tons of boiling ash caused gigantic bolts of lightning to spew forth and impact the ground. Where they struck, a huge rent in the earth appeared, as if the mountain was angry at its destruction and was lashing out in honest fury.
And it was silent. Oh so silent, we could not hear anything except our breathing. No sound from the mountain, no chirping birds, no insects, nothing. Silently the mountain continued its destruction, silently the cloud drifted east, and when there was no more of the top of the mountain, it churned magma into ash and spat that out too.
Halfway to camp we meet one of the adults. He led us back to the trucks left there just in case we all had to leave in a hurry. Our things were already packed.
Later I found out we were so close to the mountain, the sound wave traveled over our heads. Eventually I did hear the explosion---it had circled the Earth.
Mt. St. Helens, our favorite summer destination, blew up on May 18, 1980. Fifty-seven people died, some of those missing with no hope of ever recovering a body. By noon, the ash cloud was over Idaho. Day turned to night, and life for many east of the mountain was a living testament to the unnatural dark of destruction.
If you hold out one of your hands in front of you, what do you see?
Is it a feminine hand with slender, soft fingers, fingers made to touch a lover's skin in a silky caress?
Or is it a worker's hand, a male hand that has seen toil, a hand of strength and fingers like tools.
Is it like mine, a small hand with long fingers, a hand of character, a piano player's hands? A writer's hands?
A simple compass point defines my life. On May 18, 1980, if you shifted me north of the mountain instead of south, the hand before me no longer exists, blasted away to mere dust. The boiling ash would have stripped the skin from my bones, and then burnt the bones. Before then, I would have died from the shockwave slamming into my body, breaking everything that can be broken and scrambling my insides.
If we move me north, but further, I still do not fare well. The largest landslide ever recorded buries me in an instant, suffocating me while twisting my body around as if I was in a big blender full of gravel set on puree.
Even farther still, death was not pleasant. This time the ash lands on me and simply burns. I can brush it away, but soon it fills my lungs. I drown. I down in rock.
If I was near a river, I die a conventional death. I simply succumb to mud and water.
I have been accused of having an abnormally cheerful disposition and never, ever, sweating the small stuff. Or the large stuff. Last month, I received a rejection from a short story I poured my heart into, a story requested by an editor. It was even a form rejection, despite the personal appeal to submit it.
At least it was just a rejection. I could be dead by volcano.
One day I got a speeding ticket driving too fast in the Wife's sports car. It was only a ticket; I could be dead by volcano.
Problems with Chapter 5? Better than death by volcano.
One day I learned there was a leak in the roof. Better than death by volcano.
Fear and Worry are twins, and for all of us it is relative and personal. But the points of the compass are relative, and one can measure out a quiet existence by bearing witness to the unthinkable. When the dark clouds roll in, they could be darker.
They could be much darker.
When the writing seems bleak, there are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and relatives that would trade that bleakness---that very angst---if only once more they could look upon the hands of those lost on a spring morning in May. In a heartbeat they would trade it, in a span of time faster than it takes for half a mountain to disappear, they would make that deal.
If I could, I would trade all of your fear and worry to blot that despicable vision from my mind.
Compass points are relative.
And so are you.