Our Armageddon

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On May 18, 1980, my wife Ciel and I were camped at Hampton Lakes, in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in central Washington. It was Ciel’s first true camping trip ever. We had tried a couple of overnighters in the parks on Puget Sound close to home to see if she would enjoy the pastime, and since her enthusiasm ran high, we had set out for the eastern part of the state, away from crowds. What happened over the next few days was so extraordinary that immediately upon reaching home I set down my impressions:

FIRST LIGHT

Cooler day than Saturday or Friday. Planned to fish in the morning at a little pond near our campsite, eat lunch, break camp, fish Teal Lake and Winchester Wasteway during the afternoon, then camp at Ellensburg, Teanaway, or Cle Elum on Sunday night. Heard a very loud explosion, like dynamite or a cannon, followed by a second and then a third echolike bang. Thought someone was blasting on the other side of the ridge around the lake. Wondered, Why on Sunday? Why in a refuge area? What would the blasting be? An oil exploration study? Then thought it might be Army maneuvers. Again wondered, Why in a refuge?

MIDMORNING

Left the pond to walk back to our campsite at about 10:00 A.M. Noticed, casually, some building cloudiness to the west. As we strolled, we kept looking over our shoulders at the darkening sky. We were perplexed. It wasn’t supposed to rain the entire weekend. By the time we got back to camp, the clouds were large, boiling balls of dark gray lumps moving toward us quickly. Horizon to the south was red; to the north it was chalky white. I cooked lunch on the truck tailgate under a blue tarp. Ciel kept saying, “Come out and look at this.” Took a series of photographs. Lightning flashing horizontally from cloud to cloud. Sat in the tent eating as the sky grew blacker and blacker.

FORENOON

The twittering cliff swallows nesting across the water from us were getting quiet. Everything getting quiet. Eerie darkness coming on rapidly. Counted the seconds between lightning and thunder and got six. Storm only about a mile away. Decided to break camp quickly before rain and thunder started in earnest. Tornadoes crossed our mind—and even nuclear holocaust. Seattle gone, and this was fallout coming? Only a brief notion.

MIDDAY

Broke camp very hastily. Had to check the area by flashlight to see if all was packed. As we got in truck, Ciel mentioned bugs against her face. I vaguely said perhaps darkness brought on a mayfly hatch. Had noticed them on the tarp when cooking lunch. When I turned on the headlights, I saw that rain was beginning to mist down. Did not register that I didn’t need windshield wipers.

Stopped at the restroom above the lake. Needed a flashlight—almost pitch-black now. As we returned to the truck, I too felt bugs against my face. Rubbed my face and felt grittiness. A sinking feeling in my stomach. Once again, with increased conviction, we thought of nuclear fallout. Hurried into the truck and turned on the radio to find out what was happening. Nothing but static and buzzing, which reinforced the idea of Seattle being nuked. When we drove up out of the canyon, the radio started to clear of static and we heard a newscaster say, “blew her top off.” In that moment, realized the whole thing. Mount St. Helens had blown, and this was downwind ash fall.

RUBBED MY FACE AND FELT GRITTINESS. A SINKING FEELING IN MY STOMACH. ONCE AGAIN, WITH INCREASED CONVICTION, WE THOUGHT OF NUCLEAR FALLOUT.

Started to drive out. Stopped again, momentarily, at Teal Lake to watch the spectacle. It was almost totally black to the west, with a thin line of bright light to north and south, but overpowering effect of darkness and unknown made us take off again. Considered waiting it out at the restaurant in tiny Royal City. Even briefly drove in that direction—to the west toward the ash fall—but swiftly diminishing visibility forced us to reverse our course and take off for larger Othello. Much of the time I drove by observing the broken yellow line on the left side as Ciel watched the road edge on the right.

Almost no one else on the road. One or two vehicles billowed by in clouds of ash, further obscuring visibility. Drove into town and somehow made all the correct turns to reach a motel and sanctuary.

I let Ciel out while I parked. She registered for what was briefly the last room. (Doubling and tripling up of girls on a baseball team later freed up additional space for arriving refugees.) Filled five- gallon water jug. Walked through dust (about a three-inch accumulation) to store next door and bought food and other staples. This was about 1:30 or 2:00 P.M. It was still pitch-dark. It stayed that way until the next morning. We used wet bandannas for dust masks and walked through the still-falling ash to the Porterhouse Restaurant for supper (BBQ spareribs). Spent evening listening to news and rumors about police roadblocks, the effect of pumice ash on cars, the water situation, etc. Decided that north was the way to go, Canada if necessary. Called home unsuccessfully many times. Finally got through to son Doug at about 3:00 A.M.