Challenge,  News

Mt. Saint Helens

Forty Years Ago Today…

I’m going to repost a blog here that I did one year ago about my time going through the ash of the Mt. Saint Helens’ explosion. Interesting that 40 years later, without all the ash clogging everything, I am going through another “Stay In” order because you might die if you don’t.

But unlike 40 years ago when it was just some millions of people downwind that were hit, this one has the entire world locked down. And most people understand this is very real, and a few idiots do not. What was fun about the idiots back in the ash fall of 1980, they got in their cars and after about a mile of breaking the law by being out, their car engines were ruined. Cops in my area just waited for them to break down and then went and arrested them and tossed them in jail.

Back then, the explosion and the ash ended up not killing anyone besides those who were close to the mountain. Today we have over 80,000 dead just here in the US. We can’t see this virus like we could the ash. And that’s too bad. We might have fewer idiots like that woman I watched and avoided yesterday if we could see it.

So anyhow, here is my post from one year ago today. I think it is more relevant now than ever.

It Was A Sunday…


My girlfriend at the time was another second year law student and we were living together in this nifty apartment in Moscow, Idaho full of books, a couple of comfortable couches, a great waterbed, two study desks, and a old funky kitchen to die for. It even had a claw-foot bathtub.

We had been in Boise to visit friends and to see my niece graduate. We were done with the semester and were both looking forward to a few classes in the summer. I was going to also work at the golf course part time and do some research for one of the professors.

A beautiful May day, fairly warm, and we were making the six hour drive north from Boise with the eight-track tape deck going in my white Firebird. No radio was on.

We reached Lewiston, about 30 minutes south of Moscow and stopped for some McDonalds. No one said a thing to us.

On the way up the hill toward the Palouse and Moscow, I noticed that it looked like it was snowing. And clouds had come in.

Dark, nasty clouds.

Now I also drove school bus in Moscow part time and had for years, so a little storm didn’t bother me, but a snow storm on what had been a beautiful day in May? In fact, I still had the air-conditioner on. So when we reached the top of the hill above Lewiston and the storm seemed to be getting worse and the flakes falling faster. I did the logical thing. I rolled down the window.

Ash filled the inside of the car almost as fast as I could get the window back up.

So my girlfriend turned off the tape deck and we turned on the radio to see what was happening. First thing we heard was the emergency broadcast system. You know, the thing invented to warn us of nuclear attacks?

First time I had ever heard that outside of a test.

Yeah, if that doesn’t get your heart racing as you are driving into an ash cloud, nothing will.

Then someone came on and started saying how all the roads were closed, listing each road.

One of which we were on.

I tested to see if the road was slick. It wasn’t. I honestly had no idea why they were closing roads.

At that point they did not say what had happened, and since we were only 15 miles from Moscow at that point, I kept going. (We had no where else to go, honestly.)

The ash on the road was almost three inches thick by this point and it was falling like a gentle snowstorm. No wind.

Then coming at us was a military truck. It went by going about forty, which is what I had slowed down to and I instantly found myself in a gray-out. Swirling clouds of gray ash.

I managed to get the car stopped on what I hoped was the road and all we could do was sit there and hope no one plowed into us from behind. Now I understood why all the roads were closed.

It took a good fifteen minutes for the ash cloud to settle and move off enough for me to see the shape of the road again. Everything was covered in the same gray and the ash was still coming down.

I managed to limp us slowly into Moscow, which was a gray, dead town. We were the only car moving. We went through road blocks as we entered, but no one was outside their vehicles beside one guy in a gas mask.

Now that was scary as well.

Finally, we got into our apartment, taking our clothes off as we entered to not get the ash inside and turned on the television to learn that Mt. St. Helens had blown and we were in the ash cloud path. No one had any idea how much poison in the ash there was or what breathing it would do.

Everyone was to stay inside, put wet towels along the windows and under the doors until further notice.

Yup, we both thought for the rest of the night we were going to die for being out in the stuff.

By the next day at noon, the ash had stopped falling and the sun had come out on the completely gray world. The experts on the television had figured out that the ash would kill cars by clogging the intakes and radiators, and that it wasn’t good to breathe because it was basically like breathing ground-up glass, but the good news was that it wasn’t poison that anyone could figure out.

So we would eventually die of lung cancer and my Firebird was more than likely dead from all the ash.

And we had no food.

We had been gone for over a week and had left the day after our last final. Never occurred to us before we left to stock up for the apocalypse. On the radio it said that one grocery store was open, so we got our backpacks, put scarves over our mouths like robbers, and headed down the street, walking carefully and very slowly to not kick up too much ash from the five or so inches that covered everything.

Twilight Zone.


Dead silent.

People staring out their windows at us. Took us about two hours to walk one way and we were completely covered in gray ash. Five hours to get groceries and a number of showers each to get all the ash off of us. When wet, the ash turned to a hard gray mud.

The next day the owner of the bar I worked at called me and said he was opening and would pay me double-time if I tended bar. He would do some cooking. None of the other bartenders or wait staff or cooks lived close enough to walk in. And police were impounding any car that moved. No exception.

So I had nothing better to do, so we walked to the bar and we drank and ate and served other stupid fools who went out into the ash because they needed a drink more than they needed their health.

People along the way had tried to shovel the light ash, which didn’t work, so they were wetting it down and hosing off sidewalks. That was draining all the water from the city supplies so the police started warning people to not do that or be arrested.

On the third day the wind blew. That was horrid.

Worse than the first ash fall.

All the ash from the trees and the houses just got back into the air and everything again shut down. You couldn’t open a door without ash swirling in. Everything that had been cleaned off was covered again.

Finally, on the fifth day, it rained and all the ash turned to mud. Hard, heavy mud.

Many, many, many roofs collapsed under the weight. Trees came down, cars were crushed. You just don’t fill a tree with ash and then turn it into heavy mud and not have repercussions.

And water was scarce, as was food, since nothing was moving in the region.

Yup, very little was written about those towns and cities downwind and how everyone survived. But it wasn’t a pretty month, that month of May and early June in 1980. Not pretty and not fun at all.

So now, 39 years later, this event is mostly forgotten. Sadly, a lot of people lost their lives in that explosion who were close to the mountain. And a lot of people lost a lot more in the ash cloud that covered everything downwind from the eruption from the mountain all the way into Montana.

Not something I ever want to go through again.


  • Robin Brande

    Wow. I’ve never read any of your previous posts about this, and I’ve never read anyone else’s account of the aftermath. Thank you, Dean, for the history lesson. History, and yet here we are again…

  • James Palmer

    Thanks for re-posting, Dean. I have only the vaguest recollection of the eruption, not living anywhere near the affected area and being six at the time. It is important to remember these events and record them for those who don’t, or can’t.

  • Dave Raines

    My wife’s father was a geologist for the US Geological Survey. A hydrologist, but for a few days, he acted as their spokesperson in press conferences and so forth–until a vulcanologist could make it into Portland. Or Seattle, whichever was open at the time. Must have been amazing and freaky to live through, and your post captures it well.

    • Lindalee Volmert

      If it didn’t get destroyed when burglars trashed our old house
      (because of pandemic haven’t been able to get back and clean everything up), I still have a vial of ash from St. Helens that a friend sent me. It will have more meaning now.

  • Chong Go

    That must have been a terrifying 30+ minutes, thinking that the ash was because a nuclear war had started.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, that and not knowing the ash we had just been in wasn’t poison and we were going to die. Took them to the next morning to figure that out.

  • Lorri Moulton

    We were in Spokane, WA and it was a mess. As the clouds of ash blew in, the air seemed to have a slight orange glow. My mom had told me the sky gets a greenish tinge before a tornado (she was from Illinois) so I was trying to figure out if this was a tornado or what.

    My brother and I were in junior high and high school…and my parents had gone across town to help a friend move. They got home right before the ash hit and we were so happy to see them!

    Dean, I can’t even imagine being outside and walking through it! That’s so scary. I’m glad you survived it. We still see ash sometimes, when farmers plow up the fields.

  • Maree

    I remember asking for you to bring this post forward when we got our lockdown orders! It’s strange how the situations compare. For me personally very little has changed. But that sense that everything outside these walls is different… that feels the same.
    I was watching a documentary about the black death, and one of the historians said ‘imagine what it felt like, when you knew that the plague had reached the village across the valley, and you knew it was coming for your village next, and there was nothing you could do.’ That’s what this feels like. (obviously I’m doing everything I can do to stay safe, but I can’t prevent it spreading to my community)