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The Washington state deputy sheriff looked suspiciously at the motorcycle strapped to the back of the odd little French car. The motorcycle was a recently repaired Honda 90, sporting a fresh coat of grey spray paint. The driver, Robert Rogers, kept a neutral expression as the officer examined his pass for the Red Zone that now surrounded the volcano Mount St. Helens. Rogers knew everything was in order.
Normally, Rogers didn’t care much for rules or regulations. He was a trespasser. The 29-year-old regularly climbed Portland’s city bridges, radio towers, and high rises, often at night to avoid police. He’d also recently lost his job as a radio engineer, so work no longer interfered with his exploits. But the newly installed tight security around Mount St. Helens made compliance necessary.
The officer waved him through, and Rogers drove into the Red Zone. Even if his pass hadn’t worked, he would have found another way in. Rogers knew the terrain surrounding this mountain better than anyone.
Nothing was going to keep him from his grand plan: hiking into the newly formed Mount St. Helens crater. And he was going to do it on 18 May 1981—the anniversary of the day this mountain nearly took his life.
Mount St. Helens was one of three snow-capped Cascades visible from the city of Portland, each one as triangular as a child’s drawing. For centuries Mount St. Helens was known to the Cowlitz people as Lowetla’ła, “the one who smokes.” But in the 91 years since Washington had joined the United States in 1889, the mountain had been silent. Many of the people who vacationed in the lodges and cabins in Mount St. Helens’ shadow had a hard time believing it was really a volcano.
That changed on 20 March 1980. A 4.0 earthquake kicked off nearly continuous rumblings, sending avalanches of snow down the mountain’s slopes and cracking the glaciers that ringed the summit. On 27 March, Robert Rogers drove to the top of Portland’s West Hills for a better view as Mount St. Helens’s summit poked through a layer of clouds and flung a column of ash into the sky.
His whole life, Rogers had shifted from obsession to obsession, conquering one subject and moving on to the next. Now, his brain latched on to Mount St. Helens.
Robert Rogers had shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes behind large round glasses. Before his doomed stint as a radio engineer, he’d attended Portland State University, but he dropped out before finishing a degree. Women occasionally wandered in and out of his life, but they, like his parents, never understood why a full grown man felt the urge to dodge locked gates, doors, and law enforcement just for the thrill of conquering a forbidden bridge or mountain.
As the volcano spewed smoke and ash, Rogers strapped on a pair of skis to meticulously map the web of logging roads crisscrossing the forest. He spent the next few weeks covertly hiking into the volcano’s crater and distributing rock samples and photographs to geologists at Portland State University, even as the mountain’s north side began to bulge. The scientists at Portland State didn’t condone this shady collection process, but data was data, and Rogers had plenty of it.
The U.S. Forest Service, the organization in charge of Mount St. Helens, requested assistance from law enforcement to help their employees keep people away from the area, so Rogers avoided them, too. He was such a frequent visitor to the trembling mountain that by mid-May, he was an expert trespasser.
The morning of 17 May 1980 was warm and clear, a rarity for spring in the Pacific Northwest. Rogers, who had no plans for the day, decided to return to Mount St. Helens. The weather would be perfect for mapping more logging roads.
Rogers drove his 1965 Simca on his usual route through Cougar to Merrill Lake and then Goat Mountain. It was a French car with a rear 4-cylinder engine, so good at getting out of rough spots that Rogers called it “Mountain Goat.” As he bounced his way along the road, he noticed a Ford Pinto parked off to the side. He pulled over and peered into the windows, noticing an ice axe in the backseat—the kind required for summiting Mount St. Helens.
Curious, Rogers went looking for the vehicle’s owner. Near the road stood a man facing away from him, staring up at the mountain. As the man turned, Rogers realized that he was wearing a Forest Service uniform.
The two men stared at each other. Rogers decided to take a risk. He said, “If you’re going to try climbing that sucker, I can help.”
Originally from the Southwest, Francisco Valenzuela had recently transferred from New Mexico to Washington. His first day as recreation coordinator for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the federal organization in charge of Mount St. Helens and the surrounding woodlands, was tomorrow.
That meant he wasn’t supposed to be in the Red Zone yet. In fact, recreation coordinators weren’t supposed to be in the Red Zone at all. But he did want to summit Mount St. Helens, and this long-haired, long-nosed man clearly knew the area.
Valenzuela got into the passenger seat of the Simca. Together, he and Rogers wound their way along the gravel logging road that followed the South Fork of the Toutle River. Before long, they encountered a zone called a clear-cut, the tree cover ripped away and exposing the area to prying eyes. They stashed the vehicle in the last remaining grove of trees and continued on foot. Across the river was a lone orange tent, its owner nowhere to be seen.
The two men reached the Sheep Canyon trailhead, the official edge of the Red Zone. Valenzuela began to feel nervous. He was, after all, a Forest Service employee in charge of keeping trespassers away from the mountain. He wasn’t just risking his life if he went further—he was risking his job.
In response to Valenzuela’s nervousness, Rogers suggested they come back at 3 a.m. Valenzuela agreed. Together, they retrieved the car and drove back to Goat Mountain. Seven-and-a-half miles from the summit, they encountered a husband and wife camped on a high ridge. Rogers noticed that call letters for a ham radio were stenciled on the back of their Dodge van.
Ty and Marianna Kearney were volunteer radio operators. Already, they had camped in this spot for a week as part of an emergency response from the Washington Department of Emergency Services. The pair were experienced mountaineers, but Marianna had also studied art in Detroit. She occupied herself with painting in the hours between radio transmissions about the volcano.
Rogers and Valenzuela said hello, but kept their distance from the couple. They didn’t want anyone knowing their true intentions. That night, Valenzuela loaned Rogers a sleeping bag and they slept out in the open under a sweeping blanket of twinkling stars as the ground beneath them trembled with earthquakes.
Well before sunrise, the two men woke in the chilly stillness of pre-dawn. Without waking the Kearneys, they slipped out of camp and into Roger’s Simca, which he drove back to the clear-cut. With the car once again safely stashed in the grove of trees, they hiked up the Sheep Canyon Trail by starlight until they reached another clear-cut, albeit one Rogers had already found on an earlier expedition.
Valenzuela was still feeling sleepy. In the early light of dawn, he wandered over to a cluster of trees and lay down on a log. Rogers continued up to the timberline with his camera, where he took a picture of the sun rising over the mountain. It was a perfect day for a climb.
Back in the clear-cut, Valenzuela felt the log shake beneath him as another earthquake wracked the mountain. He jumped up, suddenly wide awake. By the time Rogers returned, he was freaking out.
“We got to get the hell out of here,” Valenzuela yelled. “It’s too damned uncomfortable here.” The tremble of the log had reminded him that Mount St. Helens was indeed a volcano ready to blow. He wanted to be as far away as possible.
Rogers quickly got the car and they began driving back to the Kearneys’ campsite. On the way, they passed the orange tent they’d seen the previous evening. Now, there was a green station wagon next to it, parked facing downhill for a fast escape. Through binoculars, Valenzuela noticed a tripod with a camera pointed towards the mountain.
“I think I’ll hike over there and tell those people they need to go to higher ground,” said Rogers. If the volcano erupted, the heavy poisonous gasses would hug the river valleys, exactly where the orange tent was located.
“No way,” Valenzuela said. “We don’t have time.”
It was 8:20 a.m. by the time they returned to the Kearneys. Marianna had her easel set up and was working on the pencil sketch for a watercolor painting as Ty asked where the men had been.
Valenzuela sat down on a stump and began peeling an orange. Rogers quickly made up a story about fishing. Ty squinted at the Simca, probably looking for their imaginary fishing poles.
Nearby, the radio squawked. “Now there’s a new one that’s just opened up there,” said the voice on the radio. It was Gerry Martin, another volunteer operator.
Everyone looked up. A tan-colored cloud had erupted from the mountain near Wishbone Glacier.
To Rogers’ relief, Ty ducked inside the van to answer. “I reported it yesterday,” he replied, “but that’s okay. You’re seeing the same thing I’m seeing.”
“It’s coming out of the crater,” Martin continued, “going straight up, going straight up that south wall of the crater and coming over the top. Uh, oh. I just felt an earthquake.”
Ty felt the vehicle move. “We’re in an earthquake!” he called to his wife.
Valenzuela, who was still peeling his orange, felt the earth beneath his feet rise and fall.
“Uh…” said Martin, “there’s…”
A black cloud shot from the crater. Grey clouds followed, billowing out of the north flank of the mountain.
“Now we’ve got an eruption down here,” Martin continued calmly.
Rogers sprinted back to his car for his camera as Valenzuela exclaimed in shock and excitement. Marianna jumped. She hadn’t noticed that the men had returned.
Ty also dove for his camera and stepped out of the car. “A big slide is coming off the west slope,” Martin said on the radio. “Now we got a whole great big eruption out of the crater. And another one opened up on the west side.”
Rogers tried to focus his camera on the roiling ash cloud as he frantically hit the shutter over and over.
“Look, there it goes!” Valenzuela shouted. “The whole north side is just sliding away.”
Rogers’ camera jammed. Without the camera, there was no reason to stay. Rogers and Valenzuela ran for their vehicles. Ty raised his camera and began hitting the shutter, pausing to wait for the dust cloud kicked up by their tires to settle.
“It’s coming over the ridge towards me,” said Martin. “It’s gonna get me too. I can’t get out of here.”
The black cloud had now obscured the ridge where the operator was stationed. “We are leaving the area!” Ty shouted into his radio. Marianna added a few more touches to her pencil sketch and folded her chair and easel. Ty was already in the vehicle, having tossed their table and stove in the back. Marianna asked about their propane tanks. “Forget ’em!” Ty shouted, “Get in!”
Rogers was already racing down the logging road, followed by Valenzuela’s Ford Pinto. For one mile, their only road out headed east—straight for the volcano. The gray cloud raced towards them like a mass of foam, flanked by streaks of yellow lightning. Along the side of the road, tall white alders bent in the fierce wind of the eruption.
In the Kearneys’ Dodge van, Marianna crawled into the back and crouched down, gripping the radio. The volunteer radio network had to keep operating, despite the fact that Martin had gone completely silent.
“Which way are you leaving, Ty?” asked another volunteer.
“We’re going south,” Marianna answered.
Rogers kept his foot on the gas as the Simca continued to barrel towards the volcano at 60 miles per hour—until he reached a fork in the road. In his panic, Rogers couldn’t remember which way led back to Cougar.
He swerved to the right. Valenzuela followed close behind. In the rearview mirror, he saw the Kearneys’ Dodge van turn to the left.
Rogers slammed on the brakes. The old Simca spun on the unpaved road and skidded into a wide mud hole. Behind him, Valenzuela frantically tried to avoid hitting his new companion. His Ford Pinto swerved off the road and into the mud.
Rogers hit the gas and his rear-engine vehicle crawled forward onto solid ground. With the rising ash cloud from the volcano above them, Valenzuela tried to dislodge his car from the muck. When that proved impossible, he threw open the car door and ran for the Simca. The moment he was inside, Rogers hit the gas. The Kearneys must be wrong, this road had to be the way back to Cougar.
Their view of the volcano was now completely obscured by the rising cloud, but they could hear it rumbling. As the road took a sharp bend, Rogers realized that he had no idea where he was. He needed to get his bearings.
Rogers pulled over and the two of them jumped out of the vehicle. A hot wind whipped their clothes and hair. Above, the billowing black ash cloud had formed into a massive column, climbing high into the sky before flattening out like the head of a mushroom. The hazy edge of the cloud blocked the sun and plunged the world into an eclipse-like darkness. Flashes of lightning hit the ridge north of the South Fork of the Toutle River over and over, where trees that had been standing only moments before lay on the ground like toppled matchsticks.
Rogers and Valenzuela hiked 60 feet and found the river. On the opposite bank was the orange tent, the station wagon nowhere to be seen. In the distance, a tree was struck by lightning and burst into flames.
Rogers realized that he had taken the wrong turn. Kearney had taken the left fork, which led to Merrill Lake and back to Cougar. But rather than get back in the car, Rogers reloaded his camera. The two men leaned their heads back further and further, trying to see the top of the eruption column. They couldn’t.
For a moment, the cloud shifted and the mountain was visible. The men stared in shock. “The whole damn top of the volcano is gone!” Rogers shouted over the deafening roar of the eruption. In a matter of minutes, Mount St. Helens had gone from Washington’s fifth highest peak to its thirtieth.
The wind shifted, blowing in violent gusts toward the volcano to fill the updraft from the massive cloud. Papers fluttered out of the Simca’s open windows.
A red pickup barreled toward them, fleeing the volcano. Valenzuela ran into the road and grabbed the edge of the open window as the vehicle slowed. “My car’s in a ditch!” he shouted. “Help pull it out!”
“No time,” said the driver, a man. “We’ve got to go!”
Valenzuela continued to grip the window as the vehicle crawled forward.
“Just get in!” said the driver.
“No. It’s all right.”
He let go. The red truck promptly picked up speed, disappearing in minutes in a cloud of dust.
“We can’t leave your car back up there,” Rogers shouted. “The authorities would make sure we never got back in and you’ll probably get fired.”
The two of them got into the Simca and drove back down the road to the Ford Pinto, where they began to hack at the mud surrounding the tires with ice axes. When that failed, Rogers retrieved some nylon rope that he tied to the front of the Pinto and attached to the back of his Simca. With both men hitting the gas, the Pinto finally crawled out of the mud.
Rogers realized that he was missing his last roll of film. The last thing Valenzuela wanted to do was spend time looking for a film canister, but Rogers refused to be dissuaded—they had to go back to their campsite and find it. Soon he was back in his Ford Pinto, driving north toward the site they had just abandoned.
As they approached the site, Rogers spotted the yellow film canister on the road. He slowed the vehicle, opened his door, and leaned out as far as he could while keeping one hand on the steering wheel. His fingers closed around the film without stopping the vehicle.
The two cars spun around and began, once again, to drive toward the volcano on the road to Cougar. But now, the ash cloud had sunk to the ground, reducing visibility to only a few feet in front of them. The two men put on their headlights and windshield wipers as their cars crawled forward.
Rogers saw a yellow Caterpillar earthmover that he thought he remembered from the Y-shaped intersection. He turned left. Behind him, Valenzuela’s Pinto disappeared in the cloud of ash his car tires kicked up, two glowing headlights the only sign that he was still following. Valenzuela opened the window. Orange cinders drifted down like snowflakes.
In the distance, Rogers spotted a yellow outline. It was the Caterpillar—for a second time. They’d driven in a circle.
Rogers stopped the car and got out to talk to Valenzuela. “If we go out into this again,” he said as sulfur-scented ash rained down on them and the ground steamed around his shoes, “we are only going to get lost and maybe into something more serious.”
Valenzuela parked next to Rogers and waited for the road to clear. The world outside his car was dark as night, the springtime Sunday morning completely swallowed by volcanic ash. He stared at the blackness through the windshield as the radio continued to play cheerful music, oblivious to the destruction around him. He thought, I can’t be about to die on my first day of work.
Then, on the western horizon, a spot of daylight broke through the black cloud. As Valenzuela watched, the gap in the ash began to grow. The impenetrable black curtain thinned, illuminating their surroundings. The men soon realized that they were in a clear-cut. Before them, the volcano continued to vomit black clouds of ash.
It occurred to Rogers that he had a front row seat to a once-in-a-lifetime event. He couldn’t leave now. Valenzuela agreed. As the ash cloud billowed into the sky, Rogers took photos with his recovered film and Valenzuela made lettuce, tomato, and cheese sandwiches. Their meal was gritty with volcanic ash.
After two hours, Valenzuela said, “You know I work for the Forest Service, and they are really going to want me to report for duty.”
“Yeah. You got to show up,” Rogers agreed.
Eventually, after an interminable wait, the ash cloud lifted. Miraculously, they could see that the road from Goat Mountain to Cougar was intact. But there was still one more thing that Rogers wanted to do.
After they had driven several miles, Rogers pulled over. He instructed Valenzuela to stand in front of the ash plume, then lay down on the ground with this camera pointed up, snapping a picture with the mushroom cloud in the background. It was the perfect angle for a “volcano hero” photo. Valenzuela did the same for him. Then they went their separate ways.
In the days after the eruption, Rogers called the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Department to report the orange tent. He didn’t leave his name, but kept expecting to hear that the person staying there was dead or injured. He didn’t know that in the hours following the eruption, the Red Cross had received more than 3,400 tips in 48 hours. The local community was too overwhelmed to sort through all the information being offered.
Two weeks after the eruption, Rogers visited a U-Develop Darkroom in Longview. As he paid for some prints of the volcano, he noticed a small photograph of Mount St. Helens tacked to the register. “I know where that photograph was taken,” he told the woman behind the counter.
She burst into tears.
Through her sobs, the story came out: this was the last photo taken by Robert Landsburg, a freelance photographer who had spent several weeks working near Mount St. Helens. Landsburg had left the photograph now tacked to the register the day before the eruption, and had not been heard from since.
“We think he might have been in the same spot the morning the volcano erupted, but we don’t know where it is,” she cried.
“Did he have a green station wagon?” Rogers asked.
“Oh, God, how did you know?”
Rogers went home to call Valenzuela. In the weeks following the eruption, Valenzuela let him know that he had flown a helicopter looking for the man in the orange tent, but there was nothing. Not even the station wagon was visible.
Rogers hung up and called emergency services. They dispatched another helicopter to the area. Landsburg’s station wagon was found four miles from the volcano, catapulted down an embankment and blown into four large pieces. A trail of auto debris led to the scene where Robert Landsburg had come to rest.
It had taken 17 days for rescue workers to find the body. He’d been less than a mile from Rogers and Valenzuela that fateful morning. In the moments before the explosion reached him, Landsburg had rewound the film in his camera and put it back in its case. Then, he put the film in his backpack with his wallet and lay on top of the bag, shielding it from the blast.
One year later, Rogers was still obsessed with the volcano. In the weeks leading up to his anniversary climb, Rogers had become a regular in Cougar. The town had less than a hundred permanent residents, and had dwindled further since the eruption. Tourists were now banned, and a pass was required to enter the Red Zone surrounding the volcano.
Rogers had rented a trailer in town to get a pass for the Red Zone, and the officers that manned the checkpoint had gotten used to his visits.
“Keeping pretty busy?” he asked a sheriff’s deputy as he ran errands in Cougar one day.
“Yeah, between the mountain and the tourists, I keep pretty busy,” the man answered.
“Is it still pretty dangerous up on the mountain?” Rogers asked innocently.
“Yeah. We saw one idiot up there the other day. We’ve seen him before in his blue sleeping bag.”
Rogers abruptly looked down. It wasn’t good that the local police were on to him; Valenzuela had said that the Forest Service had given him the nickname “the man in gray” for his all-gray outfits.
But what did it matter? He had no intention of getting caught. “I wonder what makes people take chances like that?” Rogers asked, looking up again.
“Because he’s managed to get away with it, so far,” the sheriff answered.
That was true. Rogers never got caught.
His excursions always followed the same pattern: as darkness fell, he first drove the Simca as far as he dared toward the mountain before switching to the Honda motorcycle. After traveling partway up the mountain, he would continue on foot, often sleeping on the ground during the day to maximize his time in the forbidden zone. One night, he even stood on the edge of the crater and felt it tremble as rocks tumbled into the space that had once held the mountain’s summit.
The morning of his 18 May 1981 anniversary climb was foggy and filled with rain. Rogers didn’t mind. The downpour and cloudy skies limited visibility, which was perfect for trespassing. This was a rare opportunity for a daytime climb.
Instead of his usual route, Rogers skipped Cougar and instead headed for the Spirit Lake Highway. He had a theory that the new network of logging roads, replacing the ones destroyed on 18 May, could bring him closer to the crater. He was right.
Within three miles of the volcano, Rogers spotted a large boulder. He parked beneath its shadow, hoping that this would hide the Simca from airplanes and helicopters. Then, he began to walk.
Before 18 May, the mountain had been cone-shaped. Now, it looked beheaded. The blast had gone sideways, to the north, leaving behind a massive hole that was ringed on three sides by daunting crater walls. The fourth side, which Rogers was now facing, was open; a flow of volcanic debris that trailed down to a newly formed pumice plain like an apron. That was what he was going to climb.
Rogers’ feet sunk up to his calves in the damp ash as he made his way up the volcano. As he stumbled past the breach, groundwater trapped beneath the ash rumbled and spewed hot water. Occasionally, the wind shifted and Rogers was engulfed in hot steam.
Straight ahead was the steaming lava dome, a 425-foot-tall pile of steaming rock ejected from the volcano’s core. Boulders the size of houses nestled around its base. Already, Mount St. Helens was rebuilding itself.
Rogers climbed to the top, tasting sulfur each time he breathed. Around him, he could hear the crack of rocks falling to the crater floor, their contents hidden by the dense fog. Rain poured down.
He was completely alone on the volcano, but Robert Rogers did not feel lonely. Later that night, the rain had stopped and Rogers once again looked down from the crater’s rim. A full moon shone from a deep notch in the southeast rim, illuminating the fog that had gathered inside the deep crater. On either side of him, the snowless rim undulated like the Yellow Brick Road. A column of steam rose and cartwheeled across the inky black sky before falling to join the fog bank below.
This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, Rogers thought.
Even with a massive hole in its heart, the thing that had nearly killed him, the thing he had just conquered—Mount St. Helens—was still beautiful.
In the years that followed, Francisco Valenzuela continued to work for the Forest Service. As recreation coordinator, his job gained extra importance as he spearheaded rebuilding the area’s destroyed trail system. He then returned to the Southwest, where he continues to advocate for greater access to American public lands for the
Latinx Latine community. In 2019, he was awarded the American Recreation Coalition’s Legends Award for his work. He married and named his daughter Tephra, after the scientific name for volcanic ash.
Ty and Marianna Kearney later learned that they were witnesses to Gerry Martin’s last words. The volunteer radio operator had died when the blast reached his campervan as he attempted to flee, his recordings preserved on their tape. The couple later authored a book about their experience, called One Road Out, which included paintings by Marianna.
Robert Landsburg’s final photographs—developed from the film he protected by throwing his body over it—were published in the 1981 Mount St. Helens edition of National Geographic. The haunting images of hurling rock and streaks of static are some of the closest to an erupting volcano ever taken.
Robert Rogers continued to trespass on Mount St. Helens, taking photos that scientists now consider invaluable for their modern understanding of the volcano. In total, he made more than 40 expeditions into the crater.
His adventures came to an abrupt end in 1986. While watching a pickup volleyball game, he stepped backward to avoid an out-of-bounds ball and collapsed to the ground. Rogers had trespassed for so many years, searching the West Coast’s forbidden locations with a restless hunger that could never be satiated. Now, his leg was full of torn ligaments. The irony of surviving so many climbs only to be felled by such a pedestrian activity as watching a volleyball game was not lost on him.
With Mount St. Helens now lost to him, Rogers slowly discovered that he could stand still. He met and married his wife, Janelle, a Harvard-educated natural resources specialist who considered him the smartest person she’d ever met. Rogers continued to show slides of his volcano photos, even after his obsessions had long since moved on to new subjects. But he never forgot the eruption, and unaware that his fellow survivor Valenzuela had done the same, he insisted that his daughter’s middle name be Tephra. After a lifetime of chasing the thrill of trespassing, Rogers was finally happy to follow the rules.
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Damn Interesting indeed!
What a truly great story. I remember watching the eruption on TV as a kid.
I was living in Lewiston, Idaho when Mount St. Helens erupted, and will always remember the eerie, end-of-the-world feeling when the skies darkened that day with falling ash, as our little town was blanketed. Lewiston is about 350 miles east of Mount St. Helens…I can’t imagine having been as close as these men were close to the actual eruption. Frightening and truly amazing.
My brother-in-law and his wife lived in Yakima at the time of the eruption, 85 miles away. Their streets filled with ash, the air was breathable only through respirator masks. Nine months later, their daughter was born, middle name Helena.
My uncle was fishing on the Toutle river during the eruption with two friends. One was never seen again. I have a vial of fine ash my grandmother saved off his belongings after he was rescued.
For another volcano article, consider this one: https://www.thoughtco.com/mount-tambora-1773768
Tambora exploded in 1815 and was the largest in 10,000 years. The explosion was heard for thousands of miles, and the ash spread over the world, causing “The Year Without a Summer” and global famine.
I was walking up a hill in Vancouver, WA. I watched it explode. I was 12 years old.
A&E Minute By Minute has a great documentary on the eruption, featuring almost every nearby survivor, including Rogers. Worth a watch.