While One Eye Watered Out Ash The Other Kept Me On Course–Mt. St. Helens

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Nehalem State Park

June 18, ‘80

In the morning, waking to the effects of a few too many ‘lemonades,” I crawled out of my tent to find what appeared to be snow on the ground. It didn’t take long to find out that it was really ash from Mt. St. Helens erupting for a second time. Mt. St. Helens first eruption, the big one, took place a month ago. The waitress who handed me my coffee said, “The guy on the radio called this one a ‘belch.’ “That must have been some belch,” I said because the mountain was better than eighty miles away. The townsfolk in Lincoln City appeared to have gotten over the shock of the erupting volcano because they were making jokes about the new eruption. The waitress admitted that the ash was a nuisance, but she also said, “It’s a great novelty idem. Why don’t you send some to your friends back home?” She even pointed out the gift shop across the street that sold little bags of the stuff, plastic bags with a seal authenticating the ash as Mt. St. Helen’s. Before I left town I did just that. I sent the ash to Mike and Val, my old roommates, and to the three custodians that I worked with back at CMU. That task accomplished, I got on my bike and headed north.

It wasn’t bad at first. The already overcast sky made it hard to see the ash floating down. After I stopped at MacDonald’s and had a ninety-nine cent breakfast, things got worse. I found myself biking directly into a head wind, and on my bike radio the weatherman predicted 35-45 mile per hour winds by late afternoon. I don’t think I experienced anything worse than 25-30 mile per hour winds—what a break! Anyway, when the winds started to blow, the bright white sky grew darker. The clouds were not darkening the sky the ash was. I was actually leaving bicycle tire tracks behind me. As it grew worse, the green from the trees even disappeared. And then it became difficult to see period. What I took to be low hanging clouds turned out to be concentrated ash falling to earth. Every once in a while a round-silhouetted sun could be seen barely. It was an erry sight, weird and erry. I hope I never see the sun look like that again.

Every time a truck passed, a cloud of ash kicked up in my face. Everything became invisible for five seconds. When two trucks passed me, it turned into a horrifying experience. I had my bandana wrapped around my mouth, but I was still eating ash. In fact, the ash was plugging up my nostrils. I was blinking my eyes continually to protect what little vision I had. For the most part, I was running on one eye vision. While one eye watered out the ash, the other eye kept me on course. When the good eye plugged up with ash, I would open the teary eye. Thank god for tear ducts. It got to a point where all I could do was look straight down at the shoulder of the road. I was eating, breathing, and blinking my way through the ash, trying to stay on course, and, I might add, I was not happy about it.

The radio weatherman issued a warning—“stay in doors. If you must go outside, wear a carpenter’s mask.” I wasn’t too shocked by that news, but, the more I thought about it, the more disturbed I got. I did not know if the ash was harming me or not; after all, I had never met a person who had survived an erupting volcano before. The first little town I came to, I went looking for a mask. They were all sold out. When I passed some road crew guys on the highway, I stopped and asked if I could get an extra mask from them, but no luck there, either. “Tillamook,” the guy said, “Tillamook will have what you need. It’s a big town.” “Yeah,” I thought, “it’s a big town, but it’s down the road fifteen miles. By the time I reach there, I will have pillows for lungs.” It was time to dig deep, and reach for my secrete weapon. Loudon Wainwright lll was singing in my head the words that he had sung on my stereo many times before, “My father, he thinks I am a good for nothing–and that I won’t amount to much. But he’s not aware of my secret weapon. I can count on myself in the clutch.” I put my head down and for the next fifteen miles pushed through the wind and ash.

It was 3:30 p.m. when I reached Tillamook, and found a paint store with a face mask, and after that I found a Safeway store. Sitting on the sidewalk, under a protective overhang, eating a piece of pita bread with its crust smeared in peanut butter and jelly, I tried, but failed, to keep the falling ash out of the gooey concoction. There, beside me, on the sidewalk next to where I was sitting, was an ash coated bubble bee. It was slowly crawling toward me, struggling under the weight of an ash caked body. If the bubble bee could make it across the sidewalk and up against the wall it might survive. As I ate my ashen sandwich and reflected on the plight of the bee, I tried to imagine what it must have been like at Mt. Vesuvius where thousands died, and the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried. All of a sudden volcanoes seemed a lot less romantic to me, if that’s the right expression. When I got up to leave it was extremely quiet and gray ash was everywhere. Except for a few scurrying humans that were heading home and the one dead bumblebee that lay at my feet, there were no signs of life anywhere–no birds, no insects, just me and the gray falling ash. It was only a month ago that Mt. St. Helens exploded, killing 77 people and smothering the surrounding wildlife, forests, and even a river. I couldn’t explain why, but, standing there, I felt glad to be alive.

When I left Tillamook, it was still tough pedaling. Before I left town, I bought a pair of swim goggles. Biking down the highway, decked out in my Mt. St. Helen’s survival gear, I felt like a frog on a bicycle. I didn’t care
, I felt safe. Looking out on a dead or dying world, however, did provoke some more unpleasant thoughts concerning manmade pollution. It would be so stupid to bring this kind of pollution down upon oneself, but nothing is impossible for mankind. Twenty miles later, when I finally took off my protective gear and took in a deep breath of fresh air, I was so thankful, I even thanked the Lord.

When the sun finally poked its head through the clouds I began to see the full character of the northern Oregon coastline. It was homey and quaint. I felt so good I even stopped and drank three drafts at a tavern. I was having such a good time bicycling I didn’t even want to look for a campsite, but common sense got the better of me, and when I arrived at Nehalem State Park, I decided to call it a day. A mile and a half off the highway and close to the ocean, I set up my tent in the hiker-biker section of the park, and much to my delight found myself alone on the beach (and still am). I was only forty miles from where I would head east at the Washington boarder. The place was so nice I decided to stay on for another day.

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2 Responses to “While One Eye Watered Out Ash The Other Kept Me On Course–Mt. St. Helens”

  1. wings Says:

    I remember Mt. St. Helens. We even had a bit of ash as far away as Kamloops BC. Amazing, eh? One of my main memories is a news story of a white haired older man who would not leave.
    And then all the images…it must have felt very strange to you. Smothering. Everything, but not you. Glad to read your Saturday offerings. Look for them, as you know. Smiling.
    Take care, Dave.

  2. subra Says:

    So near…still so far away.
    Thrilling Dave ? Or you felt just like that !

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