For most of the 1979-1980 school year, my parents lived apart. My father had started a new job in Bellevue, Washington, and my mother remained in Richland, Washington, with my younger sister and brother who were in school there. My sister was in her sophomore year of high school, and my brother was in eighth grade. (If I’m calculating correctly—I was not living with them any more; I was married and had recently moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to start my new job.)
My father traveled back to Richland many weekends that year. He would leave Bellevue after work on Friday and drive to Richland, a distance of about 200 miles. On Sunday he returned to his Bellevue apartment. My dad was always an early riser, and was often on the road around 5:00am.
May 18, 1980, was one of the mornings Dad was up and out of the Richland house early. He was across the Cascades mountain pass before 8:32am, when Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano had been venting steam for a couple of months, and a bulge had developed on the north side of the mountain. Despite these warning signs, no one could predict when it would blow, and the eruption on May 18 was a surprise.
All the highways through the Cascades were closed, as ash rained down on Washington State. If he hadn’t been on the road so early, my father would have been stuck on the eastern side of the pass, unable to get back to Bellevue.
The mushroom cloud of ash was forty miles wide and fifteen miles high. The prevailing winds blew the ash toward Richland that morning at sixty miles an hour. The debris had crossed Washington and reached Idaho by noon.
In Richland, the ash came down so thick my brother could collect it from the lawn. He kept a baby food jar full of ash for many years. I wonder if he still has it.
The May 1980 eruption was far from the first display of power from Mt. St. Helens. I learned in researching this post that the 1840s were also an active period for the volcano. In late 1842, settlers and missionaries witnessed what they called a “great eruption” of Mt. St. Helens, though it was much smaller than the 1980 event. And artists in the area sketched later eruptions in 1845 and 1847. Had I known this when I wrote Lead Me Home, I might well have included mention of the mountain in my novel.
What natural disasters have you or your family experienced?