Earthquakes, lightning storms and a close call with the cross

CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO Last year’s wildfires were another reminder of the force of nature in our changing world.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on Don Williams’ experience with earthquakes and other extreme-weather events.

In 1960, Jean and I were visiting her uncle, a retired journalist, who had spent his career in Minnesota, and now lived in Shoshone, Wyo. We were coming back home, and for the first time we visited the site of the Madison Valley earthquake site. It is quite a study in changing geology, to see for yourself, how this planet changes. Beautiful country, and well worth the time to visit. If you are a fly fisherman, the Madison River Valley will be your delight.

Just north, on the same Highway 287 is Twin Bridges, Mont., as well as Virginia City and  Nevada City, Mont. As most know, there are two Virginia Cities – one in Montana, one in Nevada. Virginia City, Nev., is famous for silver. Virginia City, Mont., is famous for gold. They are both recognized as ghost towns, as is Nevada City. 

The world’s largest collection of player pianos, music boxes, and calliopes are displayed in Nevada City, Mont. There is also a unique outdoor privy – it is in back of a hotel and it has a double wall that is a sky bridge, connecting the top of the privy to the second floor for those night calls.

I have experienced many electrical lightning storms, as Everett, Wash., is famous for. One of the three most spectacular was a three-hour storm in Twin Bridges, Mont. Jean, Matthew, and I were on a trip – we also visited the Madison earthquake site and Yellowstone. The night we spent at Twin Bridges it was difficult to sleep – the thunder was so severe it shook the motel!

Another storm was in the Tetons in Wyoming. Just unbelievable, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The third storm, in 1958, was with my folks at the old homestead in Montana. The house my dad was raised in was gone. The Kansas Cattle Company had a line shack that was accessible to visitors, sitting where the old family home was built in 1912 by my grandfather. It is rangeland, quite flat, exactly like you see in the western movies.

My folks had sleeping bags in the line shack, and Jean and I slept in the car. The nearest house was 16 miles to a county road. The lightning, thunder, and wind came up about 9 p.m. and it was lightning 360 degrees; no matter where you looked the sky was full of electricity. The winds blew and the rain pelted.

The next morning, we drove into Billings, 40 miles to the south. It had experienced a tornado! As I recall, it left a swath about six blocks wide and wheat stubble about 4-6 inches high. Many roofs were blown off, and many others showed significant damage. Lines and wires were down. 

A lesser lightning storm I have written about before occurred in Big Timber, Mont. in 1946. We were visiting my mother’s sister and family. We were staying at my grandmother’s at Gray Cliff – about an 11-mile drive. Lightning and a heavy rainstorm came up. We pulled off the road, as the wipers could not keep up. When the rain let up, we continued to Big Timber, and when you crossed the sidewalk into my aunt’s driveway, a lightning bolt hit the church steeple on the left side – came down and followed the ridge the full length of the church and down the other end. The church cross exploded debris all over the alley and church yard, and several pieces hit our car. Since it was still raining hard, we didn’t look at the debris – we ran to the house. Later that day, when we came out, my dad and I were picking up the debris out of the driveway and alley, and my dad said – “Look at that, kid.” There was a 30-penny nail driven through the side wall of the left front tire. That nail had come out of the church cross. 

If we look at ancient history, and our planet Earth, we find the San Juan Islands were created thousands of years ago by giant glaciers that had been formed during the Ice Age. Before that, Vancouver Island was formed by volcanic activity. Today, Vancouver Island is rock covered with lush green beautiful old-growth forests. The Willamette Valley was formed by the warming and melting of the Ice Age glacier that covered Idaho and Montana and blocked the Clark River, forming the Missoula Glacier dam, estimated to be 280-feet high, holding back glacier waters into Montana. When the Earth warmed and the dam broke, the water was released and exploded west. The scablands of Eastern Washington, the Columbia Gorge, and the Willamette Valley all show signs.

Recently, several dormant volcanoes have come to life. The one in Iceland is a good example – it has not erupted for something like 6,000 years. It is now flowing red-hot lava down its side.

Earthquake and volcanic activity occurs around us every day. Go on Google – in the Pacific NW, in a recent seven-day span, there were 11 earthquakes, 54 over 30 recent days, and 718 in the past year. As you see on the news, there are often quakes off the Oregon coast. This is our changing Earth.

Ice ages. Drought. Hard to believe that where we live today was once covered by an ocean.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we find ourselves not alone – other planets are also changing. Nothing to be frightened of. We have to accept that which we cannot control. But in many cases we can be prepared, with extra blankets, food, and water. Flashlights and batteries.

There are two books I would recommend for those who are interested in the forming of the Earth and the volcanic activity on the Ring of Fire. “Fire and Ice: The Cascade Volcanoes,” by Stephen Harris, and “Fire Mountains of the West,” also by Harris.

As a closing comment, if I were to go back to my 18th year of life, and look at and think about vocations, rather than choosing mechanical and industrial engineering, learning about vibration, lubrication, and such, I think I would choose the science of volcanology or geology. Jean often expressed her desires to join the U.S. Navy, be a WAVE, and study oceanography. But she stayed home, studied art at junior college and the University of Washington, and stayed with her ailing mother.

Part One: Shake, rattle and control: Scientists predict, people prep better than ever



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