Challenge,  Fun Stuff

On This Day…

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.

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. 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.


  • Lisa Nixon Richard

    Hum, I was twelve and living in Eureka, Montana. I only remember that they canceled school for three days and life was boring!!! I think we only got about three inches of ash. The school held classes on Saturdays to make up the days. My dad let me skip the last Saturday for an O-mok-see. My best friend also skipped school. We thought we were so cool, riding our horses instead of stuck behind a desk. And that is all I remember from that time in history.

  • Chong Go

    Holy smokes! I can’t imagine driving through all that ash thinking it was from nuclear detonations… That must have been terrifying beyond belief.

    I lived a couple of hours north of you, but we barely got a couple of inches of ash, and didn’t have those Palouse winds. We used to live on the south side of Mt St Helens, at the edge of the national forest, so I’d been following its eruptions since March. When my grandmother called early that morning to tell us that it had erupted and said the ash went up to 7,000 feet, I just shrugged it off, and went fishing with my dad and sister. I wasn’t paying attention. She’d said the ash went up to 70,000 feet, but I misheard and told everyone it was only 7,000 feet. Oops.

    All day long, *nothing* was biting. Not bass, not perch, not even croppies. Finally we headed home and were almost there when we saw those insane, purple-black clouds coming from the west, and a solid line of cars coming up from Spokane, but all had their headlights on at 1 in the afternoon.

    My mom almost leapt out of the house as we pulled into our driveway, and barely 15 minutes later the ash started falling. I can’t imagine how worried she must have been sitting there alone, watching the news as Ritzville and other places were swallowed in ash, and desperately hoping we’d turn on the truck’s radio.

  • Kenny Norris

    Wow. You never really hear how far the damage from volcanos can go and how harsh it can be.

    Can see now why Pompeii, and the other neighbouring towns, were devistated like they were.

  • Carolyn Ivy Stein

    That is an incredible story and told so vividly that my heart was pounding. I need to know how you made me feel that way in 1,291 words.

    • Melissa Bitter

      “I need to know how you made me feel that way in 1,291 words.”

      -Dean’s a Master, and he has skillz. 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Towed it to a garage about two weeks later, had them flush everything out, save it. If I had tried to drive it again, I would have killed it. I was still driving the Firebird when I picked up Kris six years later in New Mexico.

  • Jason M

    I was only a little boy in Michigan, but my parents say that by Day 3 the ash had arrived in the Midwest. They say it was about an inch.

  • Jason Adams

    I was in Tucson when this happened. One of my dad’s fighter pilot buddies was on temporary assignment up in Montana, and got grounded for a few days because of all the atmospheric static. Weird times.

    • Sheila

      I was in Tucson as well, stationed at Davis-Monthan AFB and pregnant with my second son. I don’t remember us getting a lot of ash, because of the wind patterns, but there was some. I stayed inside as much as possible, and used a handkerchief over my nose and mouth when I had to go outside.

      It was a scary time, because we had no idea what was going to happen next, or what the long-term affects would be.

      • dwsmith

        Yup, all the wheat farmers on the Palouse weren’t sure if their farms were dead or not. Totally depended on the content of all that ash. Turned out the grass and wheat grew right up through the layer of packed ash. Amazingly lucky it turned out that way.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I was in the country for just a few months at that time, finishing my first year of high school with a dictionary tucked into my arm. We were following the news from New Jersey in the presence of our sponsors, who translated the highlights of the reports into Czech for us. There was a general sense of excitement (Wow! A real volcano!), along with “but that area isn’t densely inhabited… is it?” We had hoped it was “just woods.” We found out about the devastation of the little towns, and of the deaths, only later through a thorough report in National Geographic. By then, enough time had passed that we were able to read it for ourselves. The internet makes the intensity and the extent of human suffering a lot more immediate than the TV did back then. Great first-hand account, Dean.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    Great account, Dean! What a story! You’re right about not much being said about people down wind.

    My other favorite account of Mt. St. Helens blowing is from journalist John Hockenberry, who was a stringer for NPR and the only reporter they had on the ground at the time. He tried and tried to file his story, knew they were waiting on him…but he couldn’t find an office open, and the phone booth he came across wouldn’t fit his wheelchair. He couldn’t reach the phone. Missed his deadline. NPR were furious.

    That was how NPR found out their Pacific Northwest stringer was a wheelchair user.

    If you’re interested, it’s part of a terrific collection of essays he wrote called Moving Violations about traveling the world with his chair as a reporter to places like Gaza and Kurdistan.

  • Jo

    I was in Vancouver, WA. I don’t remember much. I was too young and the mountain blew the other way. My family has stories about it though, nothing like being in the plume zone, but we did have ash all over.