Reading 100 Years of the Chinook Observer: Trapped by Mount St. Helens

The Chinook Observer ran a composite of local photos on May 29, 1980, relating to the Mount St. Helens eruption.

Editor's note: The following is a story written by Jim Campiche ... Jim, son of Dr. and Mrs. John Campiche of Seaview, was on a business trip as a representative of a Seattle publishing firm at the time.

At noon on Sunday, May 18th, I was driving down Interstate 90 in Eastern Washington. The sun was shining and I was looking forward to a comfortable hotel with a swimming pool in Moses Lake where I had business the next day. The tape deck played loud music while I enjoyed the desert scenery.

The sky began to darken about one o'clock. To the south ... a thick dark blue cloud was forming. It looked like a huge snow cloud. Within ten minutes it covered half the sky, and as more area was quickly covered, ... I thought I was experiencing a desert dust storm. ...

It was a beautiful sight. The sky was a lovely deep blue-grey. A thin strip of bright sunlight on the eastern horizon illuminated the roadside objects eerily. ... This is going to be some storm, I thought excitedly. ... thin clouds of dust were rolling across the highway. Cars were pulling over to the shoulder, their emergency flashers blinking. ...

Soon the dust covered the lane lines and my windshield wipers became necessary. I slowed down to thirty-five. ... For weeks I'd meant to replace the windshield wiper on the driver's side - it now broke. ...

The windows were covered completely. I wrapped a handkerchief around my nose and mouth and got out of the car. ... It was like working in a snowstorm at night. The dust was an inch thick on the hood. I fiddled with the windshield wiper, unsuccessfully ... another car stopped to help me. The driver was a middle-aged man wearing a surgical mask. He loaned me a crescent wrench to remove the busted wiper and replace it with the one from the passenger side.

Which way are you going?' he asked. 'I'm heading west,' I said ... He gave me a serious look. 'Don't you know what is going on?' he asked. It was then I realized this wasn't a dust storm. ...

Visibility was five to ten feet. I drove at fifteen miles an hour for several miles, looking for a place to turn around. I passed thirty stalled cars, and nearly drove off the road several times. ... A caravan of automobiles had gathered under the street lamps at the Lind exit, forty miles east of Moses Lake. I was relieved to confer with some other motorists. The driver of a pick-up truck advised me to stay put, otherwise the ash would clog the air filter and stall my car. I took the advice and parked. It was three o'clock.

I sat in my automobile for eleven hours. The sun never reappeared. It was like a snow storm outside, without the cold. The radio announced the soot would fall past midnight. All airports were closed, roadblocks were up, Red Cross emergency centers were opening in every Eastern Washington town, as more and more motorists were stranded. Three inches of ash had fallen on Yakima. The cloud had covered Spokane, and was rolling across northern Idaho into Montana ...

A passing car woke me. I snapped on the headlights and the station wagon pulled up beside me. I will always be grateful to the family who picked me up-a man with a mustache, his pretty wife, two friendly children, and a big black poodle. ... We drove to Ritzville [12 miles away], five miles an hour, with towels over our faces. We stopped frequently to allow the air to settle inside the cab. The dark, dust-covered wheat fields looked like a lunar landscape. At 2:30 a.m. Monday morning, we entered Ritzville. Every motel in town was full. ...

The station wagon stalled and a policeman, wearing a huge gas mask, offered to drive us to the local grade school to spend the night. We drove silently through the eerie grayness of the ash-covered town. ...

We used an industrial vacuum cleaner to clean up our dusty clothes before we entered the building. ... We were offered milk and bread. I ate gratefully, then trudged off to bed. Wrestling mats were spread around the gymnasium floor. I rolled up my leather jacket for a pillow, and lay down ... The next morning I was relieved to perceive daylight out the windows. ...

The volcano was the only topic of conversation among us refugees. There was a shared feeling of isolation from the outside world ...

Feeling like the first explorer of a new frontier, I bid my rescuers farewell, and walked into town.

As much as a foot of soot covered the ground. Walking through the ash was just like walking through deep snow, except it was warm, light and dry. ...

My car was stranded ten miles from town, so my first concern was finding a tow truck ... Only one garage in town had towing facilities, and close to twenty requests for service had been placed before mine. ... I probably spent as much time in the Dodge garage as any other building in town. It was a friendly place to exchange volcano stories and keep up on the highway conditions, and it was fascinating to watch the workmen rehabilitating the stalled cars. The engines of these vehicles were literally covered with inches of ash, looking like a bunch of little sand dunes under the hood.

There was little to do but walk around, checking the motels for possible vacancies. ... Food was, in fact, one of the town's major concerns. With twice the normal population and all trade routes blocked by the fallout of ash, there was a definite danger of supplies running out. Many people, anticipating a shortage, had stocked up on extra provisions, leaving some shelves bare. Staples such as bread, milk, butter and eggs were completely unavailable. I bought a five-pound bag of raisins and planned on losing some weight: The Ritzville Diet.

Late that afternoon I located a motel vacancy and moved gratefully in. ... I fell asleep watching a news broadcast of the volcano's devastating effects. While I spent a quiet evening, the rest of Ritzville did not. Street crews worked all hours, hosing and shoveling the messy roads. ... it was like trying to fork up melted butter. ...

As each day passed, it became harder to sit still. Somebody said that being stranded was like serving a prison sentence in the Twilight Zone. ...

To pass some time, I helped some of my neighbors shovel their sidewalks ...

The unselfish kindness of Ritzville's citizens [was wonderful]. Even with their city in shambles, they remained cheerful and helpful. Each night at six they served free meals for the travelers at the local church. Their tolerance was praise-worthy - not once did I witness retaliatory behavior equal to the bad manners of some of the stranded. The Ritzvillians never dwelled on the negative. Instead, they vented their frustration in the hard work of cleaning their town. ...

After four days ... I was ready to leave. ... I purchased two new air filters, five quarts of oil, an oil filter, spark plugs, a socket wrench, a broom and a pair of panty hose. At the crack of dawn Thursday, carrying my supplies over my shoulder, I walked out of Ritzville ten miles to my car. Interstate 90 was a wasteland. Dust blew everywhere; sometimes I could not see. I felt like Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I walked so long I began to worry that I might have passed my car during one of the dust flurries. Not one car passed me.

My car sat right where I'd left it, covered in a foot of ash. Everything was safe inside ... I swept off the hood and looked inside-I actually could not see the engine, it was so covered with ash. Two hours later I had made all the necessary replacements, changed the oil and stretched pieces of nylon stocking over all the air intake valves. I mumbled a blessing and the car fired right up.

Soon I was moving slowly down the northbound lane. My car threw up so much dust that I couldn't see anything out the rear view mirror. The State Patrol stopped me outside Moses Lake for driving down the wrong lane of the freeway. It had taken me two and a half hours to travel forty miles. The policemen laughed and said I looked like the Abominable Snowman.

The city of Moses Lake was still digging out. I gassed up and pushed forward, moving north toward Ephrata. ... I stopped every half hour to shake out the air filter and change the nylons. In order to breathe properly, I wore a folded handkerchief over my nose and mouth. The landscape looked like steam was rising from it, due to the blowing ash. I kept expecting to see a dinosaur.

After three hours (and only one hundred miles) of driving, the air got cleaner and less ash covered the trees. I came around a corner and saw a large lake of cool clear water. I cheered.

When I drove into Wenatchee, people on the sidewalks turned and pointed at my ash-coated car. I drove to a drive-in and ordered three hamburgers. Curious people gathered around my table to ask questions. My clothes were covered with a cement-like grunge. I had a gruffy grey beard, and the dusty bandanna around my neck provoked a young boy to ask me, 'Are you a bandit?'

The wind was picking up, so I decided to spend the night in Wenatchee and drive home the following day. I felt very safe there-only slight traces of ash could be detected on the ground. I checked into a nice, clean hotel, shaved, and took a long shower. ...

I drove to a coin-operated carwash and sprayed and vacuumed the inside, outside, and underside of my poor, brave automobile. I picked up three newspapers and went back to my hotel room.

I turned on the TV to watch the six o'clock news. The President of the United States was in Spokane, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. They showed the mountain, and all the attempts being made to set things right again. Finally, there was a report from ... Ritzville! ... The reporter declared Ritzville the hardest hit by ash of any Eastern Washington town.

As I watched the newsman trudge through the thick ash on Main Street in Ritzville, I suddenly felt more uncomfortable, sadder somehow, than I had all week. I glanced down at my hands. They were shaking.

-May 22 and June 6, 1980

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