was the summer of 1980. Mt. St. Helens had just erupted in May.
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.
Pacific Northwest is perhaps most famous for its weather – a
chill, damp, and often piercing wind is almost always present.
short, it’s a place with weather – and other –
conditions, one needed to be prepared for.
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.
needs human contention or conflict when the earth itself threatens to
swallow, bury or wash you away?
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.
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.
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.
was a city girl, with new boots, expensive equipment and packaged
meals. I was experienced, on a budget, and ready for anything. I
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.
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
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.
girlfriend, rapidly reaching her own state of panic, was calling me
to chase them away. We yelled, waved our arms and finally saw them
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.
did eventually leave. And as they left, darkness was descending, so
we prepared a sleeping area.
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.
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.
immensity – and unpredictability – of nature at its
purest and wildest seemed on display.
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.
this trip, we had, of course, consulted the weather projections.
weather forecast was for clear days and nights.
that night’s sky was clear – if not magnified –
thanks to our altitude.
we looked straight up at the stars, my fiancé kept saying
“There’s something in my eyes”.
assumed it was dust of some sort raised by our hike or the wind or
the actions of the elk.
we looked at the stars, I noticed that the southern sky was darkening
– with no stars visible.
looked like a cloud front was approaching.
was a cloud. But not a normal weather cloud. And not from a normal
the west coast most of the weather comes off the Pacific Ocean. This
was coming directly from the south.
it wasn’t chilly or damp as a rain front might be.
was a total, solid mass across the sky.
stars slowly slipped out of view and a covering, of some sort,
settled in over us.
more dust was falling on us.
was fully dark and making our way back to the trailhead would have
did the only thing we could do – we covered up and went to
sleep – not able to imagine what we would wake up to.
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.
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.
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.
have often wondered what those elk wanted from us. Some kind of
shelter I suppose, some kind of refuge from the awakening earth.
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.
that kind of place; where living things, even history itself can be
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
might explain the loose grip many of us have on what seems so
important to most other people.
we all need what those elk were seeking – companionship and
comfort in a time of danger and uncertainty.
next morning, we packed our things and hiked back to the car in
silence, not sure what to make of any of it.
did marry me later that year. But we never went camping again.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Mort's story list and biography
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