Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fossilizing in Fossil, Oregon

Thirty-five years ago I was an undergraduate student at Portland State University.  I was enrolled in six or seven classes, one being Geology.  I kinda liked playing in the dirt a bit, so I decided to take some extra 1-credit weekend classes.  Field trip classes.

It was pretty exciting to be in a college Geology class in 1980 because there was a great deal of seismic activity going on around Mt St Helens in Washington.  For about two months we watched steam escape the mountain and felt earthquakes shake our world.  Everyday many of us would gather around the seismic activity meter deep in the basement of Cramer Hall to watch it go a little crazy.  We anticipated the volcano erupting "any day."  We had pools betting when it would erupt, new pools when it would erupt, again when it would erupt.  The excitement was high.  Yet no matter how great the zags, how long they continued, the mountain stayed together.

The Geology department had been postponing their field trips so students and professors could be here when Mt St Helens blew, but finally had to go out into the field.  There were graduate retreats and field trips, instructor and professor retreats, and a nice undergraduate field trip, all heading somewhere in Eastern Oregon.  One professor stayed in Portland to run the department.  My trip with the other undergraduates was to play in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  There are three parts to this large area around the desert-like Eastern Oregon: the Clarno--made up of ancient volcanic mud flows, which swept up and preserved a diverse array of wildlife and plants from what was once a tropical area, the Painted Hills--we camped with these gorgeous colored clay hill around us, and Sheep Rock, which has glorious strata.  It also has exposed fossil beds.  All-in-all, there was much to see.  All field trips, classes, and retreats left PSU on Friday, May 16.

On Sunday, May 18th, we were to travel to Fossil, Oregon but instead perked our heads up from breakfast to the yells of our professors/guides.  An earthquake at 8:32a had caused the whole side of Mt St Helens to slide off, exposing gas and causing steam and molten lava to spew.  Mt St Helens had blown her top.

We all wanted to rush home in order to hang out with news crews and family, especially the professors, but we still had to visit Fossil.  One student said, "The whole world is changing and here we are fossilizing in Fossil!"  The leaders finally relented and we headed home, taking the shortest route.  We headed north to I-84 and straight on to Portland.  We stopped for a rest in Biggs, where we ran into some Oregon National Guards who had been working through some of the disaster across the Columbia River.  They said it was like night as the ash blew down through the valley.  We couldn't wait to get home.

Mt St Helens' eruption was the largest current volcanic eruption within the United States; the mudslide was the largest landslide ever recorded.  Fifty seven people and over 7000 bears, deer, elk, and other big game, died that day.  For several weeks Portland had thick inches of ash.  Over the years artists have made many an object with this ash.  Necklaces.  Ashtrays.  Earrings.  Sculptures.  Just about everything.  Even just little glass containers of ash.  Many people walked around downtown wearing masks.  It gave strangers something to talk about. 

And the irony is that the mountain blew while the entire Geology department at PSU was away...

I learned a great deal from the eruption and at this time in my life.  One thing I learned is to just get on with life.  So many times we wait and wait and wait and then finally just go/do/eat.  This anniversary is a reminder that I need to simply start living my life because stuff is going to happen whether or not I wait. 

In memory of Harry R. Truman, David Johnson, Reid Blackburn and the 54 others who died on that mountain.  In memory of all those animals and fish.