By Jeff Anderson
On Saturday, May 17, a group of choir students embarked on a journey from Wenatchee Valley College to Central Washington University in Ellensburg to participate in a choir festival. We anticipated hours of boring rehearsal and performance followed by an evening of fun, then heading back to our families the next day.
That’s the way it began, everyone packed six in a car for the hour-and-a-half drive to CWU. Everything was happening with boring predictability. We arrived at the dorms, got our rooms, went to a couple hours of rehearsal, ate dinner and went back to our rooms. Then started the common elements of a choir tour: the beer, the dance, the poker game, the laughing pranksters, the screaming victims, the relationships ended before they start, the feuds, the banging on the walls of people trying to sleep. I went to bed at 1:30 a.m. anticipating the events of the next day. That turned out to be a waste of time.
After a night of little sleep, I got up, took a shower and crammed into a car with eight friends to find a place for breakfast. At the dorm, there had been a lot of talk that Mount St. Helens had erupted. Somebody had heard it on a clock radio. But rumors are quick to come and go on choir tours, so everyone decided it was just another hoax.
However, during the drive we could see a bank of solid black creeping toward us from the horizon. We tried to figure out which direction the mountain was from us, but the consensus was that we were in for a bad thunderstorm. By the time we got to the restaurant, it was evident that this was no thunderstorm. Slowly, the bank crawled across the sky, getting blacker and blacker. Our final clue was when it started raining ash.
The next hour was a mixture of excitement, fun, worry and amazement. Nobody thought that anything like this would happen when St. Helens blew. I expected a few flakes of ash at the very most. Soon, however, the sky was as black as midnight from horizon to horizon. Ash filled the air in a thick fog and piled up on the streets and cars. Distant lights got hazier and hazier. Cars moved slowly down the highway in each other’s wakes of ash. People started running to the nearest building with coats over their faces and their kids slung over a shoulder.
I’ll probably never have a breakfast that’s more fun. It was obvious that nobody would be going home today. Accepting the situation, we had a ball with it. “Twilight Zone” and end-of-the-world jokes dominated the conversation, and we could hardly bring ourselves to concentrate on eating for all the excitement. By the time we were done, the waitresses were informing the customers that all the roads out of Ellensburg were being closed as wrecks began. The phones were temporarily dead, and a power outage was feared.
Driving back to the dorms was an adventure in itself. We drove slowly through limbo as the ash slid down along the windows. Someone turned on the radio to get some news, but the first station we found was broadcasting its regular Sunday program. The first words we heard were, “And the end of the world will come…” There was a second of stunned silence before we all burst into laughter.
When we arrived back at the dorms, we realized we’d all left the windows open in our rooms. I opened my door to find a fine pile of ash on everything.
Then everything started happening in quick succession. State Patrol officers were talking of moving the 400 students in the dorms down to the first three floors in case of a power outage. We were told if we must go outside, to do so only with wet towels over our heads and faces. Two buses were assigned to take us the one block to and from rehearsals, the concert, and the dining hall. But the scheduled rehearsals and performance were a joke. No audience. Few students even made it to the concert, and those who did certainly didn’t have their minds on the music.
Any contact with the outside world was an event. News spread through the floors of the building like wildfire. Crowds gathered around the TV set for any good news, but all the anchorman had to say was that St. Helens was still erupting. Radios were all tuned to the local stations. Phone lines were jammed for hours. If someone got a call through, the whole floor of people would crowd into that room with their phone numbers and messages for family. I finally got through on the 10th try.
The general atmosphere was tense. Some, like me, were getting a kick out of the whole experience. Some were on the phones crying. Some were stalking the halls like caged animals, and we were in only our first few hours of isolation. It soon was obvious that it might be days before we could go home. (At this writing, I had just gotten word that we would be there at least another full day.) Dirty underwear jokes became popular. We all had been issued tickets stamped “Volcano Emergency” so we could get food in the dining hall.
All the traffic that got caught on the roads was diverted here. The dorms filled up with families and older people who had been on the highway. Every hour, a few more came straggling in covered with grey. Two or three showers a day were necessary. Somehow, even if you didn’t go outside, the stuff got in. It was like some science-fiction creature coming in through the cracks in the walls and covering everything in grit.
When it was no longer so dark, people walked to the dining hall and the only open grocery store for supplies. The streets looked like a desert, with everyone’s faces and heads covered with towels and sheets. Some people were more clever, wearing goggles and ski masks. Our choir director ran around wearing a hospital mask.
The night was insane. Signs appeared in the lobby reading, “St. Helens, Kiss My Ash!” Some genius on our floor posted a sign advertising a toga party. Sure enough, our lobby filled with people in togas by 8 p.m. What a blast. Combine 400 kids in a building for who knows how long and see what develops. Everyone was bouncing from room to room to room, finding fun wherever they could. There were water fights, towel fights, singing, card playing, more pranks and some good old-fashioned talking. Meanwhile, we were all getting dirtier and smellier and covered in grit, and still Mount St. Helens poured out her heart to us.
By Monday morning, the fun had pretty well mellowed out. The whole situation had lost its initial excitement and the ash jokes and innovative ways to kill time had gotten fewer and further between. We all held our breath as we got up, only to find we were trapped there for at least another day. One expedition got permission to try driving first to Seattle and then over to Wenatchee, since that was the only road open. Sounded to me like a lot of bother for nothing.
The atmosphere was a lot different. I was still having a pretty good time, but most of the girls were ready to crawl home on their hands and knees. Each phone call that our director made to the State Patrol created a large female audience that cursed under its breath as he broke the bad news to them. The university was officially closed, but the administration opened up the pool and gym. That lightened a few spirits.
Four girls and I went to the nearest grocery store in the morning for munchies and stuff. I hadn’t brought a toothbrush, thinking this was going to be a one-night trip, so that was at the top of my list. The roads were wetted down, and men in gas masks were sweeping off the sidewalks, so it was pretty easy to walk to places. You still had to wear all those cursed towels. But it was worth it to get my teeth brushed and an issue of Mad magazine. The store was full of people stocking up on stuff. A man stocking shelves said they were getting cleaned out, and some of the shelves we saw were getting emptied fast.
No one knew if we would be stuck there for four days or four months. In the meantime, the ash was piling up and morale was sinking.
If nothing else, we were all going to come out of this with stronger legs. We were told not to use the elevator because of the possible power failure. Our rooms happened to be on the sixth and seventh floors of the building, and making the climb seemed to be getting harder instead of easier.
More news came from our director: St. Helens had erupted again in the afternoon, so the end was definitely not in sight. “Enough is enough, already!” I was not having much fun anymore, plus the traffic and eruption death tolls were coming in. I wondered if the expedition that was going to Seattle and on to Wenatchee had made it before the second big wave hit.
At least we were not so grimy anymore. Everyone was down to their last clean clothes. But the administration opened up one laundry room in the building. In it was one washer and one dryer, both in immediate, constant use. I spent an hour in there climbing over the knee-deep pile of clothes to do my own, but semi-clean clothes were nice for a change.
The longer we were trapped there, the higher the food bill would be for someone. No one had really decided who would pay for it all. But the food was really good. I could have really gotten used to it, but I hoped I wouldn’t get that chance.
The ground outside was getting to look like the moon. The dust was about that consistency and left the same kind of footprint. The cars and buildings were covered with it. On top of that, the wind was starting to blow pretty hard, making a trip to the dining hall like fighting through a dust storm. It was blowing off the trees and rooftops and landing smack-dab in our eyes.
Tempers were growing thin. Everyone was having to make an effort to be understanding to the same set of faces they had been looking at for three days. I guess it was the boredom and not knowing when it all would be over. It made us all really wonder what shape the U.S. hostages in Iran would be in by the time they get out.
Someone borrowed an electric guitar from a student, and a miniature rock band formed in one of the rooms. To some it was a diversion. To others, it was aggravating. We sure seemed to need some kind of lift, and I hoped we would find one. Even if we had been told that we couldn’t leave till next Monday at 10 a.m., I think everyone would have been happier than they were waiting and waiting and not knowing when it would end.
Late Monday afternoon, the outlook was hopeless. The sky was as grey as ever, and the ash was as deep as ever (about four inches). It was full of crude, natural-glass slivers, and people on our floor were developing bad cases of itching and hacking coughs. The ash filtered inside and nested in our hair, making it feel like a thick coat of hairspray.
Resigned to the fact that we’d be spending another night, the same process of floating from room to room to find some fun began. It was much quieter than the previous two. Mostly, we all sat around and talked and ate our munchies and wished we knew when we could go home.
Then somebody noticed it. Stars! You could actually see stars in the sky. Many people wanted to beeline home before the next eruption, but by then it was close to midnight, and everyone was dog-tired after the past three days. Suddenly, at 12:30 a.m., our director’s familiar bass voice boomed out, “Hey, let’s go home!” Within seconds, the halls filled with people. We had all gotten so used to the idea of having to stay for days in the dorms that it took awhile before we could believe we might see home that night. Our director had gotten the go-ahead from the State Patrol.
It was like someone had fired a starting gun. Everyone scrambled like rats all over the floor packing their stuff in record time and figuring out who was going to ride in whose car, who was missing and what the best route was. All the drivers got a quick lesson on how to clean an air filter. Some of the girls had started crying again, and the kids from other schools were amazed that we were going to try the trek home and were wishing us luck. Within a half hour of the announcement, we were gliding down the road to home.
We couldn’t have picked a better time to leave. The roads weren’t too bad, and whenever the ash limited our view of the road, we craned our necks to catch a glimpse of those reassuring stars. About half an hour out of Ellensburg, the windows began to steam up, so our driver turned on the defroster. Instantly, a thick cloud of ash poured out of the vents and sent us choking and grabbing for the nearest jacket to shield our faces.
The real job was to keep our driver awake. We’d all had a long three days, and it was now 1:30 in the morning. I was one of three sitting in the front seat, and I was bolt awake and ready to grab the wheel. With about a half hour left in the drive, Bob, the driver, was weaving all over the place and about to drop. Five minutes later, I was behind the wheel, worried but thankful that my life was in my own hands. As I brought us over the final hill at around 3 a.m., the lights of Wenatchee were a welcome sight. Driving into town, we had to laugh at the microscopically thin layer of ash on the cars. We were home.
Mom and Dad had no idea if I’d be home that day, the next day or for my 31st birthday. When I arrived, they came downstairs to meet me, and we sat around the dining room table exchanging stories till 4 a.m. Apparently the whole Pacific Northwest was focused on the same thing, worried about crops, the water supply and the change in climate. We rattled on and on until finally I took another shower before hitting that heavenly mattress.
I slept through to 12:30 Tuesday afternoon. My plan for the day was to get one of the “Mount St. Helens Survivor” T-shirts that were already appearing. The salesman told me they’d just put in another order and that the shirt I bought for $6 would cost $11 tomorrow.