On the morning of May 18, 1980, while standing outside my family home in Bountiful, Utah, adorned in my two-piece Strawberry Shortcake jammies, attempting to find the valve in our flooded sprinkler box so I could perform my assigned chore of turning off the sprinklers, I noticed a dusting of what I initially thought to be snow settling upon the damp grass, the driveway, the street and then the shoulders of my flannel pajamas. “Seriously, if it is snowing right now, right on the cusp of my summer break,” I thought, “heads are going to roll.” Whose head, and how I was going to go about getting it to roll, had not seemed relevant.
As it turned out, it wasn’t snow that was gently alighting upon the saturated grass that morning, it was ash. That Sunday morning, at approximately 8:32 a.m., an earthquake caused the entire north face of the Mount St. Helens volcano in Skamania County, Washington, to slide away. As a result, the volcano erupted 80,000 feet into the atmosphere and it rained down ash throughout 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. A recorded 57 people were killed as a direct result from the eruption.
One of those lost lives belonged to an 83-year-old man named Harry Randall Truman. He owned a lodge on Spirit Lake, at the base of the volcano. Some days before the blast, he had been repeatedly urged by officials to leave. He is quoted as saying, “I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my (unprintable curse word) life’s here. My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me, and I’m part of that (unprintable curse word) mountain.”
This is why people stay. Earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, cyclones happen. People deliberately purchase homes in areas where there is inherent risk of potential peril. Not because they have a death wish but because the benefit outweighs the risks. Much of Northern Utah sits on one giant fault line; thus, in a way, we all did it.
In fact, just a few months ago (seems like years since it was pre-earthquake, pre-COVID, pre-riots), I moved to a home that sits directly on a mountain. My backyard is literally a forest of oak and pine trees. One of the prophetic comments that came from my stepdad’s mouth when he came to our home for the first time was, “You better hope there’s not a fire.” The very next night, there was a fire. Our entire street was evacuated.
Before we purchased the home, we discussed the risks of living directly at the base of a mountain. We talked about earthquake and fire potential. We even discussed potential flooding after a fire. We measured the risks, minimized them as much as possible and moved forward. When I come home in the evenings after work and have a seat in our backyard to relax, watching and listening to the variety of birds and wildlife with the smell of pine and dirt, I have not one regret. Truth be known, this is where I am right now.
That May morning of 1980, my 13-year-old self couldn’t possibly comprehend why anyone would choose to live in a place that could be so devastated by lava and ash that it rained gray soot for days throughout the entire northwest. Ironically, my stepfather, who was not my stepfather at the time, lived in this beautiful state. Not only did he choose to stay, years later, he married my mom and she moved up there as well. I visited often. It is a beautiful place. The numerous hiking trails, waterfalls, lakes, rivers and evergreen forests are truly spectacular. If it weren’t for the constant rain, I could have lived there myself.
A few years later, they traded volcanoes for earthquakes. I recently helped some clients from Alabama, find a home here. They didn’t move here to trade the tornados and flooding for earthquakes and fires, they moved here for the mountains. We are either picking our poison or finding our paradise. Either way, it’s the same place. There are inherent risks in everything.