Mt. St. Helens: A Note on Mediated Experiences

I live approximately 40 miles south of Mount St. Helens here in southern Washington, which as I type these words is venting steam and prepping for a minor eruption. I know this, of course, because I live 40 miles south of the mountain.

Right?

Wrong. I know this because I’m in my suburban home with the television on and internet connection flowing. From my couch I can see the steam leaping into the air as a helicopter cam pivots around the mountain, broadcasting the image via satellite uplink to New York, where it is then rebroadcasted (again, via satellite) and ultimately downloaded into my television and laptop screens.

This is the point where I realize that the mountain is, quite literally, within physical eyeshot of where we live; after all, I frequently see its humped profile on clear fall days like today when I’m skittering around metro Portland’s freeways. So when I step out on the porch anticipating seeing the televised steamplume reappear in the sky above me, imagine my surprise and the sheer stupidity I feel when all I can see are rows upon rows of track housing, and all I can hear is the constant pulse of freeway traffic on I-205, barely 100 yards from my living room. There is no steam, no mountain, and no helicopter in my thin sliver of sky.

And probably strangest of all is my initial reaction in all of this isn’t to jump in the car and drive the quarter-mile or so that it would take to get a better view. No. My compulsion is to re-mediate the experience, to stay put on the couch as I half-watch the TV and pound out this post, taking a break only to answer the phone. It’s my wife, calling from downtown Portland on her lunch break. She’s in a restaurant where word of the steam eruption has spread, asking me if I can see anything from our supposedly-better vantage point here in Vancouver. And when I tell her that my primary view is just what I can see on TV, she’s a bit disappointed, but not entirely surprised. So when I tell her all I can see is exactly the same thing that she could probably see on the TV there in the restaurant, it’s time to get back to eating because after that it’ll be soon to get back to work.

And that’s how the conversation ends.

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