February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Woke up, had breakfast in restaurant, and loaded up truck for the getaway. Decided to drive back roads to avoid roadblocks. Rumors of fines for being on highways or for going faster than 10 mph in town. Filled gas tank and bought a spare air filter. Drove east a few miles, then turned north toward Warden. Nobody driving on the roads at all. We took pictures in middle of nowhere, us grinning and looking like dust-covered Okies. Passed a stalled camper in the middle of a rural intersection with a woman inside. She said her husband was seeking help and we should go on. She looked very frightened. Passed a police car parked in a gas station with the hood up, being worked on. We picked up a panic-stricken Mexican boy who was walking zigzag, staggering with fear, up the middle of the ash-covered road. The ash accumulation was about four inches here. We dropped him off at the overpass near Moses Lake, over I-90. Could see cars covered with ash abandoned on the shoulder of I-90.
Started north on small country road across the wheat fields. When we looked for our map, we couldn’t find it. Panic! Must have slipped out when we stopped for the frightened boy. Reversed direction. Drove at high speed (too high for ash conditions) back to Warden. Still no map. (The next day we found it in the back of the truck, where I had laid it when I helped the boy into the truck.)
Decided to try to go north using my memory as our guide. Dumb. Ash got deeper and deeper as we traveled. Finally stalled out. Just before we did, I mumbled, “I’m losing air”—meaning the carburetor. Ciel thought I meant I was losing air. For the first and only time, she showed how frightened she was. I heard this tiny trembling voice say, “I’m scared.” Stopped, reassured her, and got out of the truck to check under the hood for the problem. Found the engine compartment packed with fine white ash. Changed the air filter and swept out the ash as best I could with our camp broom. Decided to abort the escape for now and backtrack to Moses Lake before we got into serious trouble.
We made it to a trucker’s café off of I-90, near Moses Lake. Startled other refugees with our filthy appearance. We were despondent, disoriented, discouraged, dirty, and somewhat hopeless. All around us were other stranded people—sick, staring, talking quietly or excitedly, all of them nervous. Our heads were pounding, eyes burning, throats raw. On off chance I called the Hallmark Inn in Moses Lake and—miracle!—they had a room. I blew the remaining dust out of the engine compartment using the air hose at the trucker’s station, and we took off for the motel. We settled in at the Hallmark in relative comfort.
Ate in the motel: tournedos rossini and shrimp tempura. Watched news till bedtime —early. During the night we slept fitfully, got up often, and looked out on the ash.
Woke up early. TV said Seahawk football players were driving over Stevens Pass to Wenatchee to run river in rafts in spite of the ash-fall conditions in eastern Washington. This settled it. We were going out, and Wenatchee was the way to go.
We loaded the truck again. When we got on 1-90 heading west, the air was clear. The road landscape was all-white, covered with two-to-three inches of ash, cars in every position along the side, abandoned. No humanity the entire way to Route 281 turnoff. Increasing feeling of elation as we drove along through sand-dune area. Began to realize we were going to make it! Turned north on 281 to Quincy. Heard later that I-90 was closed completely about 30 minutes after we left it due to rising wind and blowing ash.
Did a lot of hollering and shouting as we dropped down into the Columbia River canyon, the Rock Island area, and on into Wenatchee. Quite a few cars and trucks now, none quite as white as ours though. By around 1:00 P.M. we were seated in dusty triumph at a picnic stop just west of Leavenworth, eating crackers and cheese, drinking wine from our special camping stemmed glasses, and toasting our successful escape from the white desolation. We had made it.