Where Were You

Here in Mt St Helens country we have another event on the list of asking, “What were you doing when… 1) You heard about JFK, 2) When man landed on the moon, 3) Etc., etc.”

Most residents have a good story to tell, and this is the place we ask them to share.

Getting On the Right Side of “Lady Loowit”

By Noel Johnson

Sometime in the late 70’s, my wife Nancy and I, decided to drive up to Spirit Lake, near the base of Mt. St. Helens.
It was a beautiful sunny day. We marveled at the stunning beauty of the landscape. There were young and old trees of many different varieties, lush ferns and wild flowers of all kinds. As we parked our car and walked to the edge of the lake, we saw Mt. St. Helens reflected in the water. It felt like you could almost reach out and touch her. We both felt a sense of eeriness at the stillness of the lake and the grandeur of the old growth forest.

There were scores of small Noble Fir trees growing all over the area. It was such a temptation to pull up a couple to plant back at our property on the river. However, we resisted, believing they would remain there to grow for generations. We spent a few hours enjoying the wilderness experience before returning home with pleasant memories.

A few years later, on May 18, 1980, we were spending the weekend in our travel trailer on the banks of the North Fork Lewis river. Just after 8:30 am, Ruth Joch, our neighbor, came rushing over to tell us Mt. St. Helens blew up and it was on TV. Since I hadn’t been fishing yet I decided I better go quickly before things got worse. Ruth urged Nancy to come over and watch the news on TV. I drove the six miles or so up to my favorite fishing hole across from the Cedar Creek Hatchery. I was getting bites from small trout, enjoying just being there, when I looked up and noticed a plume rising over the hill – that prevented me from seeing the top of Mt. Helens. I didn’t think too much of it at first because the mountain had sent up some small ash plumes before. I kept fishing and watching the plume as it grew larger and larger.

Finally I realized this was something big and I better get back to the trailer as Nancy might be worried. Nancy met me in the driveway, excited and concerned. She told me we needed to get out of there because it was a full blown eruption and we could be in danger. As we were rushing to pack up and leave, our son David drove up. He wanted to sit on our bank and watch the eruption. We warned him it could be dangerous and we left for Portland. I realize now, that if the mountain had blown out on the south side, the pyroclastic flow may have rushed down the Lewis river, instead of the Toutle, and I probably wouldn’t be here to write this today. Looking back, we wish we had dug up a few of those beautiful trees as they were all buried by tons of ash. Today we live on the property where our trailer was and we call it “The Owlsperch.”

My Mt. St. Helens Nightmare

By Roberta Dickerson/Murray

On the day the mountain blew, Sunday, May 18th I was in Richland, Washington visiting my husband while he was there temporarily working on some power line clearance. My daughter was away to camp and the youngest child, Tyler was with me.

As I watched a strange sky develop out of the blue, I realized something big was happening. It looked like the worst storm in all of history was heading right for us.
I ran inside and turned on the news to find out that Mt. St. Helens had erupted and the ash cloud was heading our way and to prepare ourselves. I decided that I needed to try to get back to our home in Wenatchee because I assumed my daughter Tessa would be brought back from camp which was close to Mt. St. Helens and in the path of its destruction. If she returned and we weren’t there she would be alone and frightened. I think my reaction was a normal mother’s response.

So, the decision was made and we loaded up to try to make it back. We decided to take the back way so we as not to encounter people in a panic trying to escape from the eruption.I loaded Tyler and our luggage in my 1967 Camero convertible where the back window was missing, out being repaired. I pushed in Americas cassette into the stereo to the song “Horse With No Name,” and set out to what was to become the worst day of my life. In plotting my course to avoid the ash cloud, I actually put us in the worst place of ash fall in the whole world. I could not have chosen a more dangerous route.
It was getting darker and darker by the minute and that intense cloud was racing toward us. Why was it getting so dark. The news had not said anything to us about it getting so dark. I really need to hurry so I can outrun this thing. I stepped down on the gas and accelerated to go as fast as I could safely navigate. I was in the middle of a desert with a very straight road road and I was cooking, pushed on by adrenaline. I was now about half way between Richland and Ritzville with nothing for miles in any direction. A look in my rear view mirror showed other people who had the same idea and were following my lead trying to outrun this monster.

Darkness descended upon us with a fury. Wind whipped ash filled the air and was coming into the car from the back window . The America cassette playing over and over while I am instructing Tyler to get on the floor of the back and cover his head with his arms..(Been through the desert on a horse with no name. Somehow I just can’t remember the game!). All the while light was disappearing and I couldn’t tell where the road was …I dared not stop because I knew there were cars behind me. Then the light was totally gone now and gross darkness descended upon us.

What could I do? If I stopped, with zero visibility, would I be rear ended? “Should I keep going? I can’t see the road. Even the headlights no longer penetrated the darkness. What if I am ready to drive over a cliff?
I can not go any farther! Panic and fear is strongly tasting in my throat.
Tyler and I are saying our goodbyes to each other and everything is now moving in slow motion.”
That really does happen when your end is near. I had always wondered about that. The fear was gone and a peace and hush permeated the air. In slow motion I stopped the car …(In the desert you can’t remember your name for there ain’t no one to give you no pain). Tyler jumps into my arms and we embrace each other as we wait for death to swallow us.

What seemed like an eternity passed while we spoke of the goodness of our lives, when there came a knocking on the window by some invisible hand. You could not even see that far for the blackness we were in the midst of.

I threw open the door to look right into the face of a Washington State Patrolman. He and four other patrol cars were rescuing the stranded motorists and themselves had gotten stuck. We gathered together in a group and the decision was made to try to make it to a little cafe just up the road. They figured about one mile.

The WSP officers lead the way with one officer walking along the side of a patrol car with a flashlight searching for the road while he gives driving instructions. They had us touch our cars bumpers to bumpers and inch by inch we made our way to the cafe.

When we got there, we found about fifty other people were trapped also. When the WSP came in with us, the officers were swarmed by the crowd as if they were the calvary to the rescue. The lawmen calmed everyone down and took control by getting everyone to take stock of what we needed in case we were going to be there for a long time. The cafe owners had given up charging people for the food and coffee and was just as scared and trapped as we all were.

We came to the conclusion that if worse got worse, we could all survive on what we had for a week, if we rationed ourselves. During the stock taking there was a sort of comradery that appeared unlike any other I had ever experienced. Not knowing when or if ever we would see our families again, we bonded as a new type of family….a family of survivors ready to dig in and re-populate the world if necessary. To boldly take our place and do it better this time around if we were given that task.

We made it through the night with all alive and accounted for. Daylight could be seen this morning and plans were under way to try to figure out how to get us all back to Richland. It was decided to go back using the same formation as the day before because although it was light outside we now had over a foot of ash covering the now moonscape. Slowly, bumper to bumper, with the Washington State Patrolman taking turns guiding, we made our way back to civilization. There was great relief at being reunited with our families, but somehow we also shared a disappointment at not being able to share a genesis. There was no way to share this feeling with others who were not there in the blackness at mid-day . How can you tell of overcoming sheer terror, to embrace what has to be done for mankind to survive?

Back safely to Richland but Tessa would still be coming home to an empty house. As a mother, I have to go home, but now all the roads are barricaded, and noboby gets to go through. I will tell you how I became a “Smokey the Bandit,” in Part II. Also a sequel to come, the following week I was trapped by the second eruption. Tune in for the next version of “Roberta and Her Nightmares.” In the meantime, will you share with us, “Where were you when the Mountain blew?”

The Catbird Seat

By Barry Murray

Barry Murray is Webmaster for the Mt St Helens magazines.
The eruption of Mt. St. Helens changed my life forever. That’s a fact. No dispute. Forever!

You see, I have been a photographer for years, and years, and years. I took the photo on the cover of this webazine back in 1953. At the time I was a 14-year old camper at the YMCA Camp Meehan, which also happened to be my introduction to Mt. St. Helens, and the Mt. Margaret backcountry, as the Chicago Mine cabin, shown here a summer or two later when three of us got lost for a week.

In 1953 I climbed the 9,000 foot snowcap. We YMCA campers didn’t have fancy equipment, being the ropes were plain old manila, we screwed caulks into our leather-soled boots, and used hand-made alpenstocks instead of ice axes.

We had a great guide, though. He had story upon story about the mountain. My favorite was the climbers who had packed a ballon-tire bicycle to the top to ride around the then shallow bowl of the crater, which has to be the earliest ‘mountain biking’ outing on record.
Our guide also defended us later that afternoon when buying soft drinks all around from a crusty old fart named Harry Truman who didn’t care for children in any form.I was to have numerous run-ins with Truman in years to come. When spending Spring Break skiing across a frozen Spirit Lake to traverse the backcounty over Grizzly Pass, we left a car parked in what HE felt was his space ( it wasn’t), and the only reason it wasn’t hauled off was that the closest two truck operator was also on Harry’s Hit List. So, anyhow, Rest In Peace you old crank.

Speaking of RIP, I also would like to take this space to dedicate something to Bob Keisvieter, one of the 55 souls who departed this earth that fateful Sunday. As Dave Johnston, Bob also was a geologist. But, he was not visiting the site in a professional capacity for the USGS, so there is no official monument. It happened as Bob had an enormous curiosity about how this planet was put together, and a girlfriend with a cabin at Spirit Lake. He especially liked volcanos.I know this from spending 3 months with Bob in wilderness Alaska on a prospecting trip the Spring of 1968. Here is his picture ( my form of a memorial) of Bob trying to navigate on snowshoes, something he never really mastered. Here is ‘to you,’ Bob!

And, back to my story of how my life was totally changed by the eruption.

It happened that Sunday morning (wasn’t Pearl Harbor attacked on a Sunday, also) that I was getting some tail dragger time flying out of Evergreen Air Park in Vancouver. They had a “Alaskan Bush” style plane that rented fairly cheap by the hour, and a grass strip to practice landings. So there I was in a 1942 Stinson with no radio ( or other fancy instruments for that matter) chugging along at 65 knots, at 2,000 feet, over Battle Ground, about 25 miles from the mountain as Stinsons fly, when I noticed a thundercloud appear on the horizon. Huh?

Then the cloud started growing, getting bigger, and changed color as the top of the mountain disappeared.

Yes, though it took me a minute to work out what had happened, I really was one of the few who actually witnessed the mountain erupt. And, lived to talk about it,with regrets. How is it… I still ask… that I didn’t have a camera along? The shot of my life! Gone.

This is why I always carry a camera slung over a shoulder, even if only going to the supermarket for coffee. Drat.