A serene terror loomed outside my schoolroom windows.
I went to school at the foot of a mountain made of dacite, the same kind of magma that blew Mount St. Helens apart. If I’d known that then, I probably would have had to change schools. I’d seen the eruption on television and read about the destruction in Marian T. Place’s excellent book. I already spent an inordinate amount of classroom time watching Elden for the slightest sign of steam, and that was back when I thought it was a shield volcano and the school would merely be buried in streams of red flowing lava, just like unfortunate structures in Iceland or Hawaii. I’d probably have come undone if I’d thought it would explode. I had a volcano phobia.
But I adored what I feared. I might go to school believing Mount Elden would suddenly awaken and kill us all, but I loved it. When we hiked to the top of it in sixth grade, I loved touching its boulders. When we drove past its crags on the way to the mall, I’d stare into them and look for the eagles living amongst the cliffs. And I only really feared that great lump when we watched videos of erupting basaltic volcanoes; the rest of the time, it was my quiet companion, and while it might turn deadly at any second (so I believed – after Mount St. Helens, I never believed people when they said something was extinct), it wasn’t any worse than the horses we owned, who were, after all, just as lovable and threatening.
Mount Elden was a mild sort of fear; I indulged fantasies of it destroying us all more from boredom than conviction. The mountain that truly frightened me was the stratovolcano that loomed behind it.
In this view, we’re standing on lahar deposits from that very mountain. It looks like a range of peaks, with the highest, Humphreys, reaching 12,633 feet (3,851 m) into the sky. But that is a single massive mountain, one stratovolcano, which lost an enormous chunk. Glaciers? Explosion? Sector collapse? I’ve just obtained a paper that promises to answer that question. But I remember the day I stood at Bonito reading the sign that said the meadow was a lahar from the Peaks, and turning around to look into the caldera, and feeling a chill run right through me as its resemblance to Mount St. Helens became clear.
I’d been terrified of it since learning it was a stratovolcano as a child. When you first learn what a stratovolcano is by seeing one explode all over the place on teevee, you tend to look a bit askance at the one visible from your backyard. But I grew up with that vista, volcanoes framed in the sliding glass doors. I camped on those peaks (watching for imminent signs of doom all the while). I’d have repeated dreams of them erupting, of fleeing for my life as pyroclastic flows roared down the mountain, of fires started by blazing hot ejecta. Then I’d wake up and go stand in the doors, drinking them in. They were the most beautiful peaks in the world to me. When we moved away from Flagstaff, I felt relieved we wouldn’t have to evacuate due to an eruption – and bereft, horribly homesick for my peaks. When we drove into Flagstaff, I’d have my eyes fixed on the horizon, waiting for the first glimpse. “Hello, ‘Frisco,” I’d whisper. “I’ve missed you.” It’s a ritual I still repeat when I return home.
You learn to live with the fear. You learn to enjoy the beauty while you can. You can firmly believe, in the same moment, that there is no more perfect place to be than at the foot of this magnificent mountain, and that you should be anywhere but here. You make fretful plans for escape, you watch for the slightest sign of activity, you run disaster scenarios in your mind – and you drive up to the top on a day when you need peace and calm restored. You go there to renew your soul and learn to accept your inevitable meeting with Death. You tell your family that you’re so outta that city the instant the volcano wakes up. You explain to them the difference between dormant and extinct, and you describe with relish all of the terrible ways to die in an eruption. You assure everyone around you that you will never in a million billion trillion years set foot on an active volcano. This is what you do when you have a mild volcano phobia, but have grown up in the shadow of the Peaks.
Then you take it into your head to move to Seattle.
Well, sure, the city’s surrounded by active volcanoes, but hey – they’re monitored! We’ll have plenty of warning before they blow! And I’m renting, not buying, so I can flee any old time I like. I can be back in the Valley like that. Stepmom and Dad have a spare bedroom.
And it’s not like I’m going to actually traipse around one of them while they’re erupting, right? Not me. I’d never do that. Except, you know, we went to Mount St. Helens that one time when it was actually in the middle of an eruptive phase, only we didn’t know, and I looked into the caldera and saw steam rising from the dome. I saw the parking lot filled with little burn marks from hot ejecta. I saw ash-covered slopes.
And I wasn’t afraid.
Fear became fascination. I still harbor a healthy respect for what these fire mountains are capable of, and I’m still in my parents’ spare bedroom in half a heartbeat with the cat and whatever possessions I could throw in the car at five minutes’ notice if Seattle looks to be targeted for annihilation, but I’ve learned enough now not to panic. Knowing these volcanoes intimately doesn’t make them feel any safer. It just makes me feel more capable of assessing their threat, and more accepting of the fact that I might be wrong. I’m willing to take that risk now. As long as it’s not Glacier Peak waking up, I’d like to stay for the show.
I love my fire mountains too much to leave them.
I’ve walked flows five hundred years younger than the ones at Sunset Crater, which at less than a thousand years old were uncomfortably recent to my childhood mind. The stratovolcanoes visible from there are far younger and much more restless than my quiet old Peaks.
I’ve stood on the rim of a volcano that blew far more catastrophically than Mount St. Helens.
I’ve walked the basalt flows of a cinder cone that’s virtually the twin of the one I grew up with, although it’s six thousand years its senior.
I’ve stood at timberline on a volcano that seems made of nothing but rubble and hydrothermally altered rock.
I know them intimately now. I know their greatest danger doesn’t always come from their eruptions, but by bits of them failing catastrophically. Sector collapses can happen without eruptions; lahars can wash down slopes with no warning, since it’s not just eruptions that cause them. When you’re near a volcano, you’re always seconds from catastrophe.
I find them irresistibly beautiful. “Yet do I fear thy nature,” as Lady Macbeth said. My paradises have always contained that element of danger that demands respect. Maybe I love them so much because I can’t take them for granted: what they are today is not what they will be tomorrow. It’s in their nature to blow up, to fall down, to intersperse long periods of serene beauty with utter disaster. It’s wise to approach them with a measure of awe and a dash of respectful fear.
(Why, yes: this entire post has been an attempt to distract you with pretty pictures. I’m still fighting with the lateral blast at Mount St. Helens. It has proven to be most resistant to being wrestled into narrative form. Having conjunctivitis in both eyes for a week did not help. But I’ve very nearly got it pinned down, and you shall have a delicious continuation of The Cataclysm within a week. In the meantime, tell me about the geologic processes you love and fear.)