Story #32: Mud balls falling from the sky

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By Marji Ruzicka

I grew up in Glenoma, about 20 miles north of the mountain. There are basically two hills between our house on Highway 12 and the mountain. I remember a number of times that spring where there would be smaller eruptions, and we would have to come in from playing outside because of the ash falling down on us.

The day of a big earthquake, I remember looking out the back window in the kitchen and watching the ground move like a wave. This memory is especially vivid because our Saint Bernard was also under the kitchen table with me. He must’ve known about the earthquake beforehand because he came running inside and cowered under the kitchen table. I had never seen him do that before.

On May 18, our neighbor knocked on our door and told my parents to come outside because “something was happening.” My dad and our neighbor were on the front porch, watching the cloud come over the hill. I remember walking outside, and thinking, “Oh look, the mountain is blowing again,” and getting on my bike.

It started as a dark black cloud and got really thick, almost mud-like. A few minutes later, mud balls started falling from the sky. It was almost like hail but made of mud. Shortly after that, the sheriff came by with a loudspeaker, and we had about 10 minutes to evacuate the area. We were too close to the mountain to hear the eruption. It was very quiet. So my parents had 10 minutes to evacuate a family of six. I’m sure that was stressful for my mom.

We started out to go to my aunt’s house near Seattle, but we saw the sky getting darker once we got to Morton, so my parents decided to go to Rochester, where my grandparents lived. There wasn’t any ash at all once we got west of Interstate 5. We drove to Rochester, with four kids and a giant, slobbering Saint Bernard in the back of a pickup truck. Once we got to Rochester, I watched the mountain erupt for hours from Grandma’s upstairs bedroom.

A couple of days later, my parents wanted to go back to the house to get more clothes and supplies. Highway 12 was closed at Mary’s Corner, but they let my parents to go through to get stuff from the house. It hadn’t rained yet, the roads were very dusty, and it was hard to see while driving. Once it started raining, the ash turned into sticky mud, and it was very slippery on the roads. My dad said they were using the state snowplows to clear the mud off the roads. The lumber mill where my dad worked was closed for a week or more, but my dad was able to go back early to help them retrofit all the equipment with new or special air filters and masks.

The next week, we were headed to Vancouver for my aunt’s wedding, and the mountain had erupted again but blew west and south this time. On the way down Interstate 5, there was gritty ash all over the roads and in Clark County. They’d had to close the freeway at times because of the blowing ash. Semi-trucks blocked the road and controlled traffic. They lined up three across and held traffic behind to let the dust settle before rolling slowly ahead to clear the road a bit to let some cars through.

There was so much ash in the Toutle River that there was concern that the bridge supports on Interstate 5 would be damaged by silt and debris. There are still giant hills of ash near the freeway that were dredged out of the river. I don’t remember exactly where it was on the freeway, but it was near a bridge, and we had been stopped long enough that we could run up and down the freeway between the cars. I remember thinking that was a lot of fun, even when we had to put on the masks so we weren’t breathing volcanic ash.

I think we were in Vancouver for about a week before we could go home, and there are still dust masks in our kitchen cupboard from that time. We found out that volcanic ash really has an effect on gardens. My dad harvested beets the size of his head that summer and more green beans and carrots than we could possibly eat.

The ash was different depending on where you were. We had ash with very fine, flour-like consistency, but just a few miles away it was gritty like sand. There was so much ash in the trees that it continued to fall out of the trees in the wind for a long time after that year. My dad said it was worse than the dust storms in the Midwest (his family is from Nebraska) because the dust was so fine that it stayed in the trees and air for a long time.

I also remember the garter snakes were huge that year. There was a snake nest in a juniper bush outside the front door, and the snakes would drape themselves across the front porch to sun in the afternoon. They would hang off the edges on both sides of the porch, so they had to be about six feet long or more. I still can’t stand the smell of juniper to this day.

I had no idea of the gravity of the situation at the time. I just thought it was really cool and secretly a little glad when school was canceled for the year because I didn’t have my homework finished for Monday.

We took many trips to “the mountain” that summer and in the following years. It’s been amazing to watch the transformation from total devastation everywhere to some places where you can’t even tell anything happened. I have lived in Clark County for 25 years and think about the experience every time I see “the mountain” in the distance.

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Now & then here and now…

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