17 August 2009


Fifty years ago, the Hebgen Lake, MT earthquake triggered what is now generally known as the Madison Landslide near West Yellowstone. I don't often rerun posts, but this one--written several years ago and first published here in 2007--seems worth revisiting.

I. September 1988, Idaho

I am sitting on a playa, in the dry grass, on a warm September afternoon, high above the car & the cows milling about it. High above the man responsible for bringing me here, but watching him trundle over the hummocky ground, in search of some elusive piece of the coring device that we’ve dropped somewhere between car and landslide. I am supposed to marry him in three months. The wind whispers, stirring the clump of trees behind me to the left. Above me, a small group of cows grumble gently, shifting, mooing softly.

I like involvement, but I also like solitude, and this is a rare moment to myself, sitting on a landslide. I think of the times I’ve sat in a coffee shop, allowing others’ conversations to swirl about me, and the pleasures to be had in the voices and stories of those I don’t know. The wind lifts my hair and I feel the back of my neck prickle. Something is in the trees, and it is watching me. The chill feathers up my spine as I hear quiet movement. I was long a desert dweller, but I believe in the secret lives of trees. My greatest fascination on long car trips has been to look between the trunks for what lives within. I always thought that when I grew up, I’d finally have the chance to pull the car over to the side of the road, and venture into the trees. Today, my courage fails me—cow? bird? ghost?—and the trees will have to wait for another day.

Landslides have become interesting to me, by default. It is what he is studying and now I’m learning their ways. Cows are wise in the ways of sturzstroms, and smart enough to know they can’t outrun the fall of rock, mud or ice, and so run sideways. Humans are stupid and try to run away, and so die.

We core the playa, hoping for organic matter than can be carbon dated, leading to a time line for the landslide. The good weather doesn’t hold, and by next day, I’m pushing the hydraulics to keep them from freezing, and hoping an errant lighting bolt doesn’t hit this metal pyramid that peaks above my head. But our persistence paid off, and the cores yield ash from the Mt. Mazama eruption, giving us a date range. I am pleased to have added to human knowledge with this small bit of science.

II. September 1992, Montana

I am sitting in a car, huddled in the seat, looking at the desolate vista through the windshield, while the wind whips and moans, causing the car to rock slightly with each gust. The Madison Landslide occurred in the 1950s, when an earthquake struck this valley in the middle of the night, causing an entire mountain to fall, destroying a campground and the families sleeping there, and damming the lake below me. The wind ripples parts of the lake, yet the center seems still, mirror to the sky.

Driving up here, we stopped to look at the fault scarp created that night. I ran my hand over the broken, ridged rock. Six feet of displacement, a violent rupture indeed.

But sitting here, looking at the blasted mountain face before me, I feel sorrow that could make my heart break. Sitting here, easily several miles from the base of the mountains opposite, I am atop the landslide, which jetted across the valley, washing up against the other side like some demonic wave of rock and soil. The wind seems to cry with the voices of those who died that night, overcome and overrun by forces they couldn’t begin to dream of, and I sense in them the confusion of those who simply don’t know what hit them. I am isolated here, so truly alone, as the small life that will now go unrealized ebbs from my body. That small soul joins the chorus: “Don’t forget us.”

And years later, visiting Mt. St. Helens, I realize that the blasted landscape there at least shows the signs of rebirth, something conspicuously lacking at Madison, where the dead trees and bare dirt might just as well be on the Moon.

III. August 2003, Montana revisited

After an argument held in a hissing undertone, I am back at the Madison, a place I never wanted to see again. Where I sat in a car 11 years earlier, there is a now a parking lot, attached to a small visitor’s center. Where I sat contemplating the loss of a child unknown, there are now two, running up the path toward one of the enormous boulders that once comprised a mountain. One child only slightly more precious than the other because I nearly lost her too.

I agreed to come back only out of curiosity. I wondered if the desolation I felt that long-ago afternoon was a product of my own loss or if sorrow had been ground into the soil with the bodies of the dead. It’s an odd day, today, August 17, and a freak winter-like storm is pelting my face with icy rain. The lake is dark, storm tossed, almost angry. It happens to be, quite coincidentally—though I don’t believe in coincidence—the anniversary of the earthquake and subsequent landslide. Those watching the video in the visitor center stir uneasily as they realize this.

The loss is mine, but it is also of this place, a sorrow discrete, but forever connected with my own.

Go listen to some good music: "Landslide" from the album Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac.

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