Story #14: Without warning, visibility straight to zero

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By Ken Giesbers

In 1980, I was living in a suburb of southwest Seattle. I had scheduled a week of vacation, to drive to Montana with my girlfriend of six months to meet her parents. I changed the oil in my car, checked the tire pressure and fluids and was ready to go late Friday afternoon, May 16.

We drove through the night, arriving at 2 a.m. at Gina’s childhood home in Alberton, Montana. This small town is 30 miles west of Missoula, and right along Interstate 90. The next day we slept in, then visited with her parents, never leaving the house. On Sunday, her dad drove the three of us around the area in his pickup truck so that I could see the splendors of western Montana.

As we were returning to their home, I noticed that the sky appeared to be getting dark. I checked my watch and saw that it was only 4 p.m. I was puzzled because I thought we were at latitude comparable to Seattle. I looked more closely and noticed that the sky was dark only higher up, but still light below the dark layer. Then the lower layer turned yellow, not a sunshine yellow, but more of a filtered light color, as if we were about to experience early sunset. It was weird. I asked my hosts, “Is the sky always this color in Montana?” My girlfriend replied, “Yeah, you’re in Montana now, Big Sky Country!”

But we were are in for a surprise. Within a couple of minutes, the light faded and very fine ash began to fall on the windshield. We had no idea what it was, but were nearly back to their home. When we pulled into the driveway, Gina’s mom greeted us with the news: “Mount St. Helens erupted this morning!”

Overnight, a quarter inch of fine ash fell on everything. Travel was strongly discouraged. Any ash that got stirred up eliminated visibility and was said to be very corrosive on motor vehicle engines. Soon, I-90 was closed to all traffic. We were planning to return to Seattle on Wednesday but instead were stuck indefinitely.

I had a vivid dream that night, which caused me to wake up in a sweat. In my dream, I was at home changing the oil in my car. I remembered putting the oil fill cap upside down on my car’s air cleaner while changing the oil (just like I always did), but could not remember replacing the oil fill cap. Certainly, I would have seen an oil pressure dashboard indicator on the long drive here if I hadn’t, right? The dream disturbed me so badly that the next morning I went outside and very carefully lifted the hood of my car just slightly, watching tiny little beads of ash skitter off the hood, raising a small cloud. I peeked under and saw the oil fill cap on top of the air cleaner, just as I had dreamed.

Later in the day, Gina’s dad helped me clear the ash from the hood of my car, then replace the oil fill cap. He arranged for a nearby garage to replace my oil and filter, just in case.

Meanwhile, we learned that I-90 had been opened up at 2 a.m. for truckers to haul their loads but then was closed again by 4 a.m. due to very poor visibility. We formulated a plan.

On Thursday, May 22, we left Alberton at 2 a.m., drove the wrong way (east toward Butte) while the freeway was still open, then headed south on I-15 into Idaho, eventually connecting with I-80N (now I-84) in southern Idaho. Somewhere along the way, we left all trace of ash behind us. We drove west to Portland, then north on I-5 toward Seattle, thinking that we were now safe from ash. But one more surprise was in store for us.

The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful blue-sky day as we drove north on I-5, passing the little town of Castle Rock. Traffic was light. We were finally free of the ash and road closures. And then, WHAM! As we approached the Toutle River bridge, visibility went straight to zero, without warning. Fortunately, I had been in the middle lane of three, and there had been no vehicles close to me in any lane. I gripped the steering wheel tightly and wondered if I should apply the brakes. Was I approaching a vehicle that was stopped ahead of me? Or would I create a hazard for someone coming behind me? I slowed moderately, on full alert for any brake lights that might suddenly appear.

A few painfully lengthy seconds later, we broke out of the ash cloud and into sunlight just as quickly as we had entered. We made it back to Seattle safely, after a very long and exhausting day. My car survived the ash clouds, with no noticeable effect.

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