As I drove to work this morning, rain was falling from the sky. It reminded me of this exact day, 30 years ago, when something completely different fell from the sky.
It was a beautiful spring Sunday morning in Yakima, Washington, just like any other Sunday morning. I was happy, because on Sunday mornings, we got to eat cold cereal. When you're 9 years old, that's a Really Big Deal. I ate two bowls of cornflakes, and then quickly dressed for church.
As I sat in church, I watched how it got progressively darker and darker outside. Soon, it was as dark as bedtime. The Bishop stood up, and announced that Mount St. Helens, in eastern Washington, had erupted. Ash was starting to fall on us.
I remember someone finding newspapers for us to put over our heads as we ran to our cars. Kind gentlemen were covering others back and forth from the church to their vehicles, using rain umbrellas. And then, we started driving home.
The tenseness of the situation was palpable. We lived 15 minutes away, and the drive was long and scary. The ash was falling so thickly that you could only see a few feet in front of the headlights. Every time another car passed us, the ash would 'puff' up and make it impossible to see for about 30 seconds. The window wipers ran at full speed, pushing off a layer of ash at every swipe. My mom had a handkerchief over her nose and mouth, and was leaning out the open window to give my dad directions to stay on the road (she could barely see the white line). It was midnight in the middle of the day. It was so thickly dark that the light from the streetlamps could only be seen directly under them. The only darkness I have been in since that time that can compare is being deep inside of a cave, with lights off. You can almost touch the darkness.
We finally made it home, relieved to be safe. I remember curling up in a sleeping bag in front of the television, watching the news reports of the eruption. The devastation was immense-- I felt so sorry for those who lived along the Toutle River, which had turned into a giant boiling mudflow. People lost their lives.
The ash kept falling. And falling. And falling.
The next morning, the world was grey. Dusty, stinky grey. If you've ever been to Yellowstone, you know what strong sulfur smells like. Yellowstone is nothing in comparison to the rotten egg smell that permeated everything. It was so strong smelling outside you almost gagged. The few stores that were opened quickly sold out of protective face masks.
We had over 4 inches of ash in our yard, covering everything. I remember taking empty jam jars out of our storage room, standing by the door, taking in a HUGE breath, and running outside as fast as possible to scoop up some ash, and running back in before having to breathe again. We dumped the ash out on the table, and studied it. It was gritty, like sand, but was very, very dusty. It left dust on everything it touched. And it was still warm.
I wish I still had one of those jars of ash. I kept one for years, but then got rid of it. After all, I could go outside and dig a bit, and have all the ash I ever wanted. It was in such plentiful supply that it never occurred to me as a child that we'd "run out".
There was so much ash in our neighborhood that my dad was able to get his empty lot next to us completely filled up with the smelly, grey stuff. Cheapest fill dirt ever. They were thrilled to have somewhere to put it!
And the best part? We got two weeks off school-- and didn't have to make it up!
I wish I had been a little older at the time so I could remember more. A 9 year old's perspective is a little skewed. I do remember my parents talking about how people had problems with cars, furnaces, ash getting into their wooden shingles, attics, ruining everything it got into. Those with lung problems, including asthma, had a miserable time with the ash.
The next year, my family took a road trip to Mount St. Helens. The mountain was littered with giant-sized toothpicks, laid out flat, side by side. Trees were instantly burned and blasted down to the ground. I have, to this day, never seen such extreme devastation.
When I ponder the significant events of my life so far, living through a volcanic eruption is definitely on the list. There's nothing like the raw power of Mother Nature to humble you and let you know that humans are definitely not in charge on this planet.
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