By Laurie Lindblad
I was a sophomore at Washington State University, and finals week was approaching. We were camping on the Grand Ronde River in northeastern Oregon when the mountain blew, although we had no radio, so were unaware. (Some claim that we heard the explosion in the river canyon.)
We left camp that morning and drove through Lewiston, Idaho, where someone at a gas station told us that Mount St. Helens had erupted. We weren’t sure what that would mean to us, so we just headed up the Lewiston Grade toward Pullman. At the top of the grade, you can see across the plateau, and we saw black clouds rolling toward us from the southwest, so the eruption was now real.
By the time we got to campus, maybe 1:30 p.m., people were beginning to get spooked. The sky had completely darkened. Our dorm sponsor was out on the curb telling people to get inside. Some of the guys from the dorm near mine had loaded up their backpacks in a panic and were heading to Montana. I went inside, put a sheet of paper out my dorm window and started collecting falling ash, not realizing that I would have inches of it the next day and for months to come.
We had to wear “ash clothes” and ash masks to walk outside to the dining hall, all of which got dumped in the hallway when we got back to our dorms after each meal. Our ash clothes got more creative with each passing day, and it turned into more of a costume contest than a survival strategy.
Grocery stores Dissmore’s and Rosauers supermarkets ran out of two things very quickly: bread and beer. Volcano parties sprang up everywhere, and Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano” song made it on jukeboxes in Pullman and Moscow for the next year or two, which required group sing-alongs every time it played. And it was played a lot.
Within a day or two, when the school and town officials realized that the ash was not going away – and was, in fact, a hazard – students were given a choice: leave right away and take the grade they had earned to that point or stay and take their final exams, but the exam score would not penalize their grade. Staying was the fun option for some of us, as we still saw the ash as an adventure, not a health risk. It also gave some of us a pretty good GPA that spring.
May 18 is still recognized in our household each year, but perhaps in a more sobering light than during college years. My husband and I love the mountain and continue to watch her. We make periodic visits and have been evacuated from Johnston Ridge during an active period, found ourselves scrambling in Ape Cave when the mountain was being closed down, and camped along Yale Lake just observing because we couldn’t use our hiking permits due to high activity. The mountain continues to be both an adventure and an awe-inspiring experience for us.