Bonus: Ash launches a once-in-a-lifetime trip

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Inside a Sears store at Spokane, Wash., on June 21, 1980, a sign advertising vacuum cleaners offers proof that Mount St. Helens ash had reached Eastern Washington. (Clay Eals)
By Clay Eals

Seemingly everyone in the Pacific Northwest (of a certain age) has a Mount St. Helens story. Mine stems not from the initial eruption on May 18, 1980, but rather from the third eruption on June 12.

I was living in Eugene, working as a reporter for the Portland-based newspaper, The Oregonian. I also was neck-deep in last-minute prep for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a cross-country bicycle trip with a friend (Mark Tyrrell) that was to begin the morning of Saturday, June 14, 1980, from Twin Harbors State Park south of the Washington coastal town of Westport. Our destination was Boston.

Late the night of June 13, I took off in my Ford Fiesta with a companion, heading north. But because of massive amounts of ash spewed by the June 12 eruption, officials had warned motorists away from Interstate 5. So we veered over to Highway 101, thinking that the coastal highway would allow us to avoid the ash. Not so.

Not only did the coastal route take a lot longer (a nearly all-night drive), but it also delivered its fair share of volcanic particles. This I learned upon reaching Westport, where I found that the frame and fenders of my bicycle, which had dangled from a rack on my hatchback, were coated with ash.

It was a slippery substance I never had experienced before. It wasn’t a dry powder. It wasn’t a liquid. It was something in between, and it clung to the surfaces on which it alighted. You couldn’t blow or brush it all off. You couldn’t wipe it all off with a rag and water. It was as stubborn as the iconic Harry Truman, who had clung to his Mount St. Helens Lodge and died in the initial eruption.

Somehow, last-minute persistence prevailed, and I was able to get much of the ash off my bike. Aided by family and friends, our opening ceremony (dipping our tires in the Pacific and scooping up a film canister of ocean water) transpired without a hitch, and we were off. But ash trailed us for the next week across Washington state.

Outside a Sprouse-Reitz store in Shelton, Wash., on June 15, 1980, a sign advertises masks to protect people from breathing ash. (Clay Eals)

As advised, we bought masks at stores along the way and wore them at times. We also saw ash eastbound along Highway 2 in Eastern Washington and scooped up another film canister’s worth. When we arrived in Spokane and stopped in at a Sears store, I photographed a fascinating, handmade marketing sign for vacuum cleaners that served as evidence the ash had traveled far (see photo at top).

Pedaling east through Idaho and beyond, we encountered no more ash, but we retained the memory. Our once-in-a-lifetime trip had become inextricably tied to Mount St. Helens.

And 71 days and 4,500 miles later, we made it to Boston!

Helmeted, masked and weary from an all-night drive prior to the start of our cross-country bicycle trip, I recline on Presto-Logs for a brief rest during our first day’s ride at a supermarket in Montesano, Wash. (Mark Tyrrell)

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