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The theater grows dark. On the screen a story begins to unfold, rolling out into a star filled galaxy,“It is a dark time for the Rebellion…”

My husband was eight years old in 1980 when “The Empire Strikes Back” came to his local theater in Portland, Oregon. He was already in love with the characters and the epic adventure that George Lucas was playing out in a galaxy far, far away. For two hours my husband was lost in this surreal world where the bad guys ruled and the good guys were the rebels.  It was a world unlike any other. A world formed by imagination and created by special effects.

But, unbeknownst to anyone inside the theater, the world outside was equally surreal and unimaginable–and it was created by nature over forty thousand years ago.

After spending a good part of the afternoon traveling through space with Luke, Han, and Chewie, my husband and his dad shuffled out of the theater to a sky filled with the volcanic ash of an erupting Mt. St. Helens. The world around them had suddenly turned grey; the sun dimmed behind a thick cloud that stretched across the entire sky. Under their feet a cushioning layer of pulverized rock and glass muted the sound of their footsteps as they ran to their car.

Talk about surreal.

It was a world  only a handful of people could witness in real life but I remember the news that came out of the Pacific Northwest that summer. In less than fifteen minutes the blast rose 80,000 feet into the air and in only three days the cloud had spread across the United States, circling the Earth twelve days later. Ash was found within a 22,000 square mile area, with a 10 inch depth of ash and pumice at 10 miles, 1 inch at 60 miles, and 0.5 inches at 300 miles downwind. Fifty-seven people perished in the blast and subsequent landslide, along with 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk and bear), and all the birds and small mammals in its path. Millions of dead fish cooked in the rivers and streams where temperatures rose to ninety degrees Fahrenheit from the hot ash that floated on top of the water. In the end hundreds of square miles of forest were destroyed, causing over a billion dollars in damage ($2.74 billion in 2012 dollars) and years of management to rebuild.

Mt. St. Helens experienced several smaller eruptions from 1989 to 1991, then quieted down for over a decade until the mountain became active again in late 2004, and stayed that way until January 2008. I had moved to Portland by then and secretly I was wishing for another big one to blow because I wanted to live in a surreal world, too. I wanted to walk out of a theater and “sense a great disturbance in the force”.


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