May 18, 2020
Mount St. Helens, Ronald Reagan, and the Existential Dread
Today is the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. It’s not an event I often think about, despite being the only time I’ve ever been anywhere near a live volcano. What I remember about it is this: on the afternoon of the eruption, I was riding the bus from my apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square, south of downtown. I was on my way to a print shop where, after hours, all night, we would do the labor-intensive work of producing an issue of The Rocket, the music magazine where I was an editor. It was a clear day, a rarity in the rainy city. When the bus crossed a bridge over I-5, I suddenly had an uninterrupted view south and could see the mammoth ash plume, many miles high, against the blue sky.
Last night, I told my husband this story. He asked, “Were you scared?” I thought about it. No, I wasn’t. I have no recollection of fear. The cataclysm was happening 100 miles to the south; I thought it was cool to be able to see it from my bus. And while the eruption killed 57 people and deluged Portland and portions of southern and eastern Washington with ash and debris, Seattle was largely unscathed.
So my lack of fear might have been prescient, but I suspect it was mostly a function of being 22, living hand to mouth, going to shows every night, and cranking out as much copy as the rock’n’roll lifestyle and my little Olivetti typewriter would allow. I had no time for dread.
The dread, however, caught up with me later the same year: Election Day 1980.
At the time, I didn’t own a TV. I didn’t obsess about electoral votes. There were no daily updates of maps colored red and blue. I expect that I voted — for Jimmy Carter, naturally — but I have no clear memory of doing so. What I do remember is going to a party that night, after the polls had closed. By the time my boyfriend and I arrived at what was supposed to be a big neighborhood shindig — held in a school gymnasium or some organization’s meeting hall — it was clear that Reagan had won. The party was sparsely attended. A few glum people lurked in the shadows along the perimeter. In the middle of the room, a particularly irritating hippie chick named Gail danced all by herself. I watched her spin in slow, wobbly circles — she was oblivion personified — and I experienced an early version, a beta test, of the primal dread that’s greeted me daily since the wee hours of November 7, 2016.