Beloved on the Earth
"And what did you want? / To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth."
Late Fragment by Raymond Carver
“I wonder where the old man lived,” Marie says.
We’re sitting on a dirt path at the edge of a meadow of yellow and white wildflowers. Mount St. Helen’s snow-topped dome sits on the horizon in front of us between two smaller mountains.
I’m here, in the Pacific Northwest, with my Aunt Marie for a week-long trip to explore Portland, Seattle, and the mountains in between. It is a gift for graduating high school that I’m redeeming seven years late. I told my aunt when we scheduled the trip a few months ago that I finally found time for it, but the truth is, now that it’s been a year since my back surgery, I finally feel strong enough to travel.
My back pain started in high school when I was seventeen due to a genetic, degenerating spinal condition and three herniated discs. For six years, I managed my chronic pain until my toes stopped moving. My brain sent the signals, but my nerves didn’t receive them. I was diagnosed Drop Foot, a condition that causes the front of the foot to drag while walking due to the compression of nerves in my spine from one of my original herniated discs. Three weeks after graduating college, I went to the doctor and ended up in surgery the following week.
“I’m not sure where he lived,” I say. “I think he was pretty close though.”
The old man’s name was Harry Randall Truman, and in the 1980s, he lived near Spirit Lake where he owned a lodge about a mile from Mount St. Helen’s peak. Truman refused to leave his home when officials urged him to because Mount St. Helen had been experiencing activity for a few months. It was smoking. It was a matter of time officials said, but Truman refused.
Back then, Truman said, “I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my life’s here.”
I could stay right here, too, I think as I watch the breeze softly blow the yellow grasses and purple flowers. My home and my life are over 2,500 miles away in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but I feel grounded here. I close my eyes and feel that same breeze that threaded through the flowers carry my hair across my face. I snap pictures, trying to capture this landscape, this feeling, on my camera, so I can play it back later.
Marie and I walk back to the car. I plug my phone in to charge, and One Republic’s I Lived blasts through the speakers. It’s sudden and brutal against the silence. Marie drives around a curve, and Mount St. Helen appears in the distance between two sets of evergreens.
“Oh I wish I could get a picture of that,” Marie says and looks for an area to pull over. “Do you remember the day Mount. St. Helen blew?”
“Considering I was born 19 years later,” I say, “I do not.”
“That’s right,” she says. “It just doesn’t seem that long ago.”
Marie pulls the car over in a gravel space on the side of the road. I get out and start up a hill. My ankle struggles to absorb the uneven ground. There is some motion back in my foot, but I still don’t have the full use of my leg. My ankles are unstable due to the length of time I walked incorrectly from pain. I bend forward and let my hands grip onto a few rocks to balance myself as I climb. The warm stone is sharp, but the moss cushions my grip.
At the top of the hill, I enter a clearing that reaches to the edge of a cliff. This isn’t a stop for tourists on the way up the mountain, but I need a view away from graveled and crowded paths. I want open space. I want to feel my body move.
I walk towards the side of the cliff and watch my feet fade into rough, golden grasses. Small grasshoppers jump away between the blades as my feet intrude into their space. Waves of them glide ahead of me, and I try to move on rocks to avoid disturbing them. My feet move. My right ankle shakes back and forth. My left foot drops still. I can’t control the speed my toes fall or cushion their landing. I step, and they hit stone. Even with my disabilities, I want to hike rocky paths and tree-covered trails. My body can’t do that yet, maybe ever again, so I push myself forward to the edge of this cliff. My body needs to feel like it’s climbed something, like it exists.
After my surgery, my foot didn’t improve. I could wiggle my toes, but I still couldn’t lift or feel them. I wouldn’t admit my limitations. I wouldn’t accept that this problem was possibly permanent, but my father pushed me to.
“Get the doctor to sign this,” my father said and handed me a few papers. At the top, the words “PERSON WITH DISABILITY PARKING PLACARD APPLICATION” labeled me.
“I’m not handicapped,” I said.
“You can’t walk long distances. The nerve damage could be permanent. You need the sign just in case.”
I went into surgery knowing the “just in case” could happen. I had an 85 percent chance my foot would recover. I was worried I’d be in the other group, but I hadn’t expected it. At my follow up appointment, my father was the one that handed the disability papers to the Physician Assistant for my doctor to sign, not me.
At my one-year post-op appointment, my doctor said, “It will take a month for each inch to heal.”
It did take months for my leg to recover. In fact, it’s still recovering. I went through two months of physical therapy, and I still exercise the muscles every day hoping pulling my foot against an oversized rubber band and squeezing my toes around a towel isn’t a waste of my time. I want to heal. I want to feel my leg again, to be able to move every inch of me again. I want my nerves to regrow, my strength to build. I want to look at myself in the mirror and be unable to remember a time when I was like this. This trip is supposed to help me heal some part of me.
I move towards the edge of the cliff. The mountain is glorious from here, but so is the valley. The green, tree-carpeted mountains slope down and fade into light golden grasses, and then milky water passes between gray rocks in smooth curves and sharp angles. It looks too perfect, this landscape.
“Why is the water milky?” Marie asks.
“It must come from a source other than a glacier,” I say. “Maybe from the lake?”
Marie takes pictures of Mount St. Helen, but I capture this valley. We are high up in the mountains now, so high that the trees at the bottom look like shrubs. How many people have turned around to look at this view? I like to look back, to see how far I’ve traveled. Maybe that’s why I started writing. I like to press on moments and see why they happened, why they matter, and how I changed because of them. Sometimes it’s the only thing that propels me forward. I snap another picture of the valley but know I won’t capture it properly.
At the last view point, I can see Spirit Lake. Truman had only been a mile away from the volcano when it blew in 1980. His home and his body were buried after the eruption in mud, snow, and ash. They never found him or his sixteen cats.
“The peak is so close,” Marie says.
We’re leaning on the metal railing at Johnston Ridge Observatory on the North side of Mount St. Helens. The two sides of the mountain slope upward and crown around a crater. The actual summit of the volcano is gone, blown away during the eruption. Now, the mountain looks like someone scooped out the center to create a dish chair for a giant-sized being. Couples and families shift behind and around us. They stop to take pictures of each other, of themselves. I watch some of them smile and take selfies. But mostly, I keep my eyes on the mountain and the clouds moving to settle in the crater.
“It’s actually five miles away,” I say, reiterating knowledge from one of the plaques scattered around the trail.
My foot slaps down on the graveled path as I move around the viewing area. The mountain is still sparse compared to the revitalized land around it. The mountain is gray and white lines against blue sky. Its slope fades to green the farther away you look. Long white trees litter the landscape. They’re all pointed away from the mountain, away from that blast from 35 years ago, tallies of the vegetation lost that day. I try to count the fallen, but there are too many.
Only a few months after the volcano erupted, there were fireweeds growing. In time, the rivers eroded new paths, the trees sprouted new roots, snow froze to ice over the peak, flowers blanketed the fields, and the lake filled with water. The scientists studying the revival were surprised vegetation came back so quickly and that animals returned the next summer. It’s taken over 35 years for this landscape to heal, and it’s still not done.
“It will take a month for every inch to heal,” my doctor had said.
I try to imagine the landscape during the blast. I erase the wildflowers, the new tree growth, the white ice on the peak, and the new paths the rivers have carved. I imagine the smoke, the ash, the lava. It’s hard to think about this place as anything other than wildflowers, grasshoppers, and wind-blown grasses.
“It might take over two years,” my doctor had said.
I run my hand along the ridges, trying to feel this place’s bones through every sense. I want to see these slopes bare in those moments of destruction because I want to know something beautiful can be leveled. I need to know all this life and vegetation came back from nothing.
Michelle Boring is a graduate of Chatham University's MFA program, an editor for Stranded Oak Press, and a teacher of Creative Nonfiction at Pittburgh's Creative and Performing Arts school. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Atticus Review, and more.