Quake Lake

by Dominic Shaw

Where do houses go when they die?

“Offering” by Loone


On August 17th, 1959, the Montana sky likely shone bright.  The moon was full and large over the rugged landscape.  The moonbeams would have been brilliant, unmarred and unhindered by light pollution or smog; the campsites inside Yellowstone National Park, as well as those that surround the park, were packed.  

The season was past its peak, but reports describe the campgrounds and cabin-filled neighborhoods of the Madison River Canyon as full of life, full of families, full of slumbering people from across the country who had come to brave the August cold and see the great landscapes of the West.  

Just like the annual snowmelt causes Hebgen Lake to swell and expand, so too did the summer months cause hordes of visitors to pool into every valley and riverbed in the Madison River area.  As with every year, the tourists were expected.  But August 17th couldn’t have been expected; it was a snap shot of the true character of southwest Montana, a reminder of the raging behemoth just a few miles under the soil, a super volcano as temperamental and dangerous as humanity’s most destructive forces.  But these pressures are easy to forget when they lurk so many miles beneath the soil.  The visitors must have forgotten them, or perhaps the swelling heat beneath the Earth’s crust was unknown to them, a surprise as sudden as the twinkling in a woman’s eye and just as debilitating.  

But this night served as a reminder.

Mountains fell and rocks roared as they rolled into campgrounds.  The earth shook as landslides pushed the once crisp canyon air at speeds of one hundred miles per hour.  In this tight space the air whipped hard, hard enough to rip tent spikes out of the ground and throw some of the poor campers off their feet.  The noise of the gusts and the crumbling earth was deafening.

Fault lines collided and scraped, one against the other in the most ancient form of dance.  The Hebgen lakebed, which had sat calmly for years on the Madison, dropped—sending a torrent of water across the artificial dam.  The water tore pieces of cement off the structure as it roared over.  Cabins, too, were pulled up and away from their foundations by the waves. But the flood’s own destroying angel passed over some edifices and left them for a later destruction; some cabins were left behind, some tents submerged, and some roads never driven on again.

Rocks, dirt, and debris had imploded from the mountainsides a few miles down the valley from Hebgen dam, re-plugging the waters that had jumped up and over the first barrier.  This landslide may have saved the communities below, but it trapped those Madison homes and it trapped twenty-eight people’s weary bones.  The new, nature-made dam birthed a new lake that swallowed those relics of life and leisure.

It took days for the rescue workers to count the casualties; it took days for the report on the severity of the earthquake to come in: a 7.5 on the Richter scale, earth-shattering.  Still, it would be another couple of months before the Forest Service could track the scarp lines and understand how drastically this moment changed the environment, creating small hillocks and little ravines, ripping the roots of trees from their mother earth.  In all these years since, after all the miles walked to measure the fault lines and the progress of new vegetation growth, we still might not understand those effects.

Maybe it’s that determination to understand the damages and their cause that led to a visitor’s center being built on the edge of this newly-created Quake Lake.  But more likely, it was our morbid fascination with watching things fall apart.  Maybe we want to stand on the edge of destruction.  That explanation comes a lot closer to explaining why people who are driving through the area will often stop to view the skeletons of old cabins buried in the lake, to see the dreams that the flood couldn’t sweep away, only bury.


Everyone I’ve ever loved is full of ghosts.  Every time they leave they make another one.

“Offering” by Loone


Nearly 57 years later, she and I stood on the shores of Quake lake.  It was cold dark water, too dark to see the old structures left behind, but not dark enough to hide the memory of those twenty-eight souls left beneath the waves.  We rehearsed the stories and tried to spook each other with the violence that lay just beyond the shores.  She and I didn’t sleep in that valley; we had learned from the mistakes of those who came before.  Instead, we drove back to Utah, back home.  We drove back to safety—or the closest thing to it.

Leaving the valley, however, didn’t leave our night untouched by the quick finger of fate.  Our two warm bodies weren’t huddled under thick blankets next to wood fires in a cold Montana cabin; instead, we curled up like the Pompeii lovers across a couch and ottoman combination in a house on the edge of a cul-de-sac in Murray, Utah.  The cold mountain wind didn’t whip over our thick fabric tent; instead, we swam in cool basement air.  We didn’t face the elements, but lazily indulged in each other’s natures.

We pressed our bodies together tight, too tight, like tectonic plates building pressure as denim and skin rubbed together.  Friction.  Heat.  It kept building as we touched each other’s bodies. Tighter. Hotter.

Until the tension broke.  The words that would change our landscape came pouring out.

Rolling over, onto me, and straddling my abdomen, she said, “Maybe we should get married the winter after I get back.”  My body trembled beneath hers. She leaned down and kissed me on the lips before the aftershock struck.  

My side of the fault line pushed back.  “Do you promise?” I asked.

She did with her smile. I just laughed.

It took rescue workers a few days to count casualties in Montana; it took me and her roughly the same amount of time.  After three days she boarded a plane and moved to Portugal for longer than I knew how to deal with; it was then that we were able to at least measure the distance.  5,113 miles put a number on the damages—it became the length of the scarp lines placed between us, splitting our communication over time zones and continents.  Still, a few months had to pass before we really knew what to make of our situation.  Months of talking long-distance, months of letters helped us to survey our own new territory that was searing uncertainty hidden miles beneath a crusted-over promise—uncertainty that came boiling up with nights spent hiding stomachaches beneath the sheets, waiting for sleep to come, and days spent replaying our fading memories.  

It’s hard to keep a promise across continental lines; December never came.  I don’t know if I understand what that means, but I keep asking myself.  I keep wondering as if looking at the crevice that now divides mine and her lives will offer me some kind of peace.  



Dominic Shaw is an undergraduate, studying English at Brigham Young University.  He will graduate in April of 2018.  This is his second essay to be featured in Inscape.  The use of place and nature in his essay relates closely to his career interests; he will begin a J.D. program with an emphasis in environmental law in fall 2018.