COLDWATER RIDGE, Wash. – The rumblings, the steady earthquakes, the throat-clearing steam blasts all seem so eerily familiar. But nearly 25 years ago now, it was a deadlier show that Mount St. Helens (search) put on for the world.
Rumbling to life after more than a century of inactivity, the volcano erupted May 18, 1980, with mind-boggling fury, blasting away its glorious Mount Fuji-like dome and north flank. The blast killed 57 people, flattened 230 square miles of forest land and flooded the valleys.
An apocalyptic plume of ash and pumice shot 15 miles into the heavens and turned that brilliant May morning into nighttime for hundreds of miles. The ash cloud girdled the globe, and youngsters started learning geology.
It was a story of a lifetime for a young Associated Press writer — the sheer audacity of untamed nature, the tragic deaths, the worldwide ashfall, the demolition of countryside where I had camped and hiked.
It was almost too much to take in.
I remember a first airplane ride over the blast zone, hours after the eruption. We were looking for survivors, but saw only destruction. I was supposed to be taking notes, but spent most of my time slack-jawed, gawking out the window at the awful transformation.
I noted the randomness, the odd, the inexplicable. Once-mighty trees flattened like rows of Paul Bunyan toothpicks. A shiny red convertible stuck on a newly created island. Horses stranded. Cabins buried to the rafters. A lunar landscape not far from still-wooded slopes that had been shielded by a ridge.
Spirit Lake (search), where I'd camped at the state park and rented canoes from a crusty old local man named Harry Truman, was covered with trees and mud, no longer recognizable. Truman died in the blast, a folk hero who refused to leave the mountain he loved.
I remember hitching a ride on a National Guard helicopter and heading very near the yawning crater, only to be chased out by a steam eruption. We beat the steam but not by much, if the pilot's extravagant relief was any indication.
I remember how intrigued then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray (search) was with the volcano. A scientist by training, she toured the area both before and after the eruption, and I tagged along. A rugged individualist, she loved the spunk and feistiness of Truman and others who didn't want to leave their cabins and businesses, but nonetheless did her best to get people out of the Red Zone she had designated.
In time, nature mostly recovered the slopes and foothills. Foresters replanted, the birds, animals and winds reseeded the meadows, the elk returned and the tourists, hikers and backpackers followed. New roads and bridges were built and, until a few days ago, it was possible to hike to the crater, which began resurrecting itself months after the blast with dome-building eruptions.
So when the mountain started rumbling and shaking more than 24 years after the 1980 blast, I was antsy to get back.
Some of it was so familiar: the scientists watching those jiggling seismographs, monitoring "harmonic tremors," and warning darkly that "magma is on the move!"
What's different this time is the circus atmosphere, the desire for a front-row seat and the utter lack of fear. Since the eruption, the government has offered the volcano as entertainment — creating a 110,000-acre national volcanic monument, building two beautiful visitor centers and staffing them with bright young rangers who show videos and give lively talks on the hour.
And in this era of reality TV, a 24-7 news cycle and instant everything, many of the visitors want DRAMA — on cue, now!
"When's it gonna blow?" one woman demanded of a ranger at Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center (search) on Sunday.
"Hey, last night they said in 12 hours," complained her impatient friend.
Time and again, the rangers explain to visitors, and a huge gaggle of reporters, that it's geologic time we're talking about here, with an unpredictable volcano — not the Old Faithful geyser.
But I do get how excited people are, and why thousands flock to the mountain. In a long career that has included covering governors and presidential candidates, searching for skyjacker D.B. Cooper, lunching with serial killer Ted Bundy and reporting assorted natural disasters, the mountain remains my personal favorite.