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.
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.
So we would 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.
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. 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.