Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire: Escape From Mt St. Helens

On the 33rd anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St.Helens, I’d like to share this story with you.  I’ve marked and used a few borrowed images, so that you can better understand the events of that day.  

In 1980, my sister Constance and I took a birdwatching class. At least I tried watching them.  Before I could focus my binoculars, the birds were usually natural history.  Our last trip, to Eastern Washington, was to depart on Friday, May 16th.

“Let’s skip it,” said Con. “Stay home and I’ll buy you dinner.”

As our classmates loaded gear into four cars, I felt suddenly shy.  But surely I could survive a quiet weekend of birdwatching with a pleasant group of strangers, even if my sister wasn’t there to hold my hand.  “I’m going,” I said.   I jumped into the first car with room, and waved to Con as we drove off.  I was riding with Bob.  His other passenger, Betsy, was quick to smile and kept up a lively conversation.

But I missed Con that night, and lay awake in my sleeping bag listening to a lone coyote howling in the distance.  The next day I stayed only slightly more focused than my binoculars…until we found a Forest Service birdhouse, and peeked inside at a nest of cheeping baby birds.  Featherless birds aren’t easy to identify, but our leader, Peter, said they were bluebirds, and I believed him.  Some people think they know everything; Peter really did.  But you’d never know it unless you’d observed him carefully, as I had.

Saturday afternoon we hiked into a canyon and made camp.  After the others retired, Betsy and I sat by the fire singing and talking.  We rolled out our bags on the same patch of ground.  As I drifted off, I thought, “I made a friend.  I learned my lesson.  Now…I want to go home.”

When I awoke, the sun was shining, the bees were humming, and the birds–I know not which–were singing.  It was eight-ish, and camp was deserted.  “They left at six-thirty,” said Betsy, yawning. “I couldn’t make myself get up.”

It could’ve been a sense of foreboding that made us yearn for home, but I suspect it was caffeine withdrawal.  “Pray for rain,” I suggested.

As if on cue, we heard the loud crack of distant thunder.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  “Probably a sonic boom,” I said.  We went on to weigh the virtues of cinnamon rolls at the Phinney Ridge Cafe against all-you-can-eat hash browns at Beth’s Greasy Spoon.  But the sky was darkening.  The hum of insects and the twittering of birds trailed off.  The woods were eerily silent.

“You know, I think it really is going to rain,” I said.

The others, having reached the same conclusion, bustled back into camp.  Within ten minutes we’d packed up, donned rain gear, and were following Peter single file out of the canyon. The sky to the west had turned an ominous yellow-green, reminiscent of tornado weather back home.  But this storm wasn’t following the rules.  I could hear rain falling on my poncho, yet I wasn’t getting wet.  The sky rapidly changed to an ugly green-gray.  My eyes were stinging.  I looked more closely at the surface of my poncho.

“It’s dirt!  Peter, there’s dirt falling from the sky!   Oh, my God!  They’ve bombed Seattle!”

Peter whirled about and gripped my shoulders. “No!” he cried. “She did it!  She blew!  Mt. St. Helens blew!”


(USGS Photo)

Nothing could have been further from my mind than volcanic eruptions.  We joked about our class going out with a bang, while Peter studied his map and estimated we were between fifty-five and sixty-five miles from Mt. St. Helens, as the crow flies. The acrid darkness thickened.  We were no longer amused.  Ash was in our eyes and hair, and it was difficult not to breathe it into our lungs.  In Seattle, we’d chuckled at the “In Case of Volcanic Eruption” brochures; now we desperately tried to recall their advice.  This was my first volcano; I wanted to live to tell the tale.

“Use your canteen water to soak your bandanas, and cover your faces to filter the ash,” said Peter.  “Less than a mile to go, but we’ve got to keep moving.  Hold hands or hang onto a belt, so we don’t lose anyone.”

I gave Betsy my brimmed hat, because her eyes burned, with gritty ash particles grating between her eyeballs and her contacts.  We stumbled after Peter, unable to see our hands before our faces, but somehow he got us over the last barbed-wire fence to the trailhead.  There we encountered Bob’s personal tragedy–six inches of ash piled on the cars, including his brand-new Toyota.  He was frantic about what the ash would do to his engine and the paint job.  Peter reminded him that our first concern was to get out alive.

We followed Peter’s Volvo into Yakima, although we couldn’t see past the hood, even with headlights on.  Peter’s taillights were barely visible at a standstill; when we started moving, ash flew like talcum powder and windshield wipers just stirred up the mess.  The interior of Bob’s car was soon covered with a fine layer of pungent ash that over-powered the smell of new car, and defied closed windows, doors, and air vents.  There were close brushes with the ditch at the side of the road, and once with Peter’s bumper.  At last we came to the outskirts of Yakima.

(AP Photo)

The ash-laden streets were deserted, but The Buckboard Tavern had opened its doors to stranded motorists. Refugees gathered under a television mounted over the pool table.  Mt. St. Helens rated minute-by-minute coverage on the ever-rising statistics, flood damage, missing campers and scientists.  Stuck in our own little ash cloud, we hadn’t realized how fortunate we were.  News flash!  All roads in and out of Yakima were closed.

Glumly we stared out the windows.  It was nearly noon, but by the light of the streetlamps, it could’ve been a midnight snow scene. Another wave hit, and the air grew thicker.  Instead of coffee, they started serving beer.  Now and then the swinging doors would bang; all eyes would turn to the newcomer.  Once a cowboy entered, brushing ash off his coat. “I got a hundred head of cattle out there,” he told anyone who would listen, “and half a dozen newborn calves…”

I thought of the baby bluebirds.  Had they smothered in ash or survived the blast only to die of starvation?   What would they eat?  Who would feed them?

All the laws of nature, as we understood them, were suspended.  But the Real World intruded into our Twilight Zone.  Steve had to give a talk at the U, Russ had a job interview, Betsy said she’d used up all her volcano leave.  And, of course, we had to get Bob’s car to a doctor.  Bob threatened to make a dash for it, and the other drivers were inclined to join him.  Peter agreed to lead the way, if they promised to let him choose the moment.  It was several more hours before the ashfall let up a bit.  We ran for the cars to go home to whatever reality awaited us in Seattle on Monday morning.  As our caravan traveled west, the sky gradually changed from pitch black to gray to an unnatural white.  It was a weird moonscape, devoid of life and color.  When we got to the roadblock, the police waved us through.  We stopped at Snoqualmie Pass to pose for a photo with buckets and bags of ash collected from pockets, pants cuffs, and car hoods.

It was the weekend of the University Street Fair.  On the way home, we thought of the fortune to be made, if we could bottle and sell the ash we’d brought home, fresh out of the oven.  I even designed a tee shirt for a rather small target audience–birdwatchers caught in the ashfall.

Those entrepreneurial thoughts were forgotten when we topped the pass and saw the first rays of sunlight filtering through ash-dark clouds.  It was nearing sunset, but to me it was the second sunrise on a long and very strange day, such a beautiful sight, I wanted to cry.

Bob dropped me at Con’s, amidst heavy foot and car traffic in the U District. The smell of food and the sound of music filled the air.  Fairgoers in sundresses, cheeks burnt rosy by the sun, still meandered from booth to booth.  “Go home!” I wanted to shout.  “Go turn on your radio. The real world is black and acrid and people are huddled in the dark and dying on the mountainside.”

(USGS Photo)

My sister hadn’t heard the news, but there was still a hot shower, a borrowed bathrobe, and a candlelight dinner waiting for me.

I’m so glad I didn’t let insecurity prevent me from experiencing this life-changing event.  The fortunes made on T-shirts and bumpers stickers were made by others. If you could take everything I learned about birds and put it into the brain of a blue jay, it would have flown backwards.  Regrets?  Only one.  Bob broke my heart when he refused to pull over, so I could take our picture next to the “Use Your Ash Tray” road sign.

But here is what I carried away from it.  A tiny bottle of ash collected from my pants cuffs, that I still hang on my Christmas tree each year.

The realization that Mother Nature doesn’t always play by the rules, at least not our rules.  An appreciation for fine leadership–thank you, Peter, wherever you are.  Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the sun for rising and the birds for singing.  I’m grateful for the good fortune that kept me from becoming a statistic that day.  But I’m still haunted by that nest of baby bluebirds, more non-statistics, and it makes me wonder about the countless stories in this world that will never be told.

Copyright Naomi Baltuck, except where noted.

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