By Keith Bilodeau
I was born on Sept. 10, 1964, in Ephrata, where I have lived my whole life.
On the morning of May 18, 1980, my brothers – Leslie Bilodeau, 26, Aaron Bilodeau,18 – and I, age 16, headed up to Sun Lakes to meet with a friend Todd Holden, 18, to do some fishing. We got up to the backside of Park Lake around 7:30 and started a normal day of fishing in the basin.
After 8:30, we heard what sounded like shotgun blast from over the ridge from the southeast, which was not uncommon to hear in the basin. We thought somebody was hunting birds or target practicing. Around 10:30, we noticed a cloud front coming toward us in the horizon from the west. It stretched completely across the sky. At first, we did not think much of it, other than a storm front coming at us. But as the “clouds” approached, it was obvious that this was no normal storm front. At some point, Leslie got in my brother’s 1976 Ford Mustang and turned on the AM radio.
In a short period of time, Les yelled out, “Hey, Mount St. Helens blew.” We had heard about Mount St. Helens a lot lately due to massive news coverage, but we never imagined, being 160 miles away, that it would ever have any impact on our life. Oh, were we so wrong.
We hung out and continued to fish as the sky drew darker. The fish started biting, in theory, on our part, because it was getting dark, and they started feeding again. We did not want to leave, but soon a slight drift of ash started bouncing off our faces, and Les said, “Reel them in. We gotta get out of here!” We packed up our stuff and headed out. Todd had his own rig, a little Toyota pickup, and we followed him out to Highway 17 and headed south toward Ephrata.
(Little did I know that my future wife was a mere 5 miles away working at Laurent’s Sun Village Resort. That would take another 15 years to happen.)
Soon it was very dark, and the visibility was near zero. Traffic was light, but whenever a vehicle drove past, it was complete zero visibility. Along Alkali Lake, Todd pulled over to help a stranded motorcycle rider. A biker himself, Todd was going to help this guy. We loaded the bike on the back of Todd’s Toyota and tied it down with some tie-downs that Todd had in his truck that were used for his bike during transport. And off we went again.
After an eternity of driving blind, we pulled into Soap Lake. We headed out to my Les’ farmhouse to drop him off. We had been listening to the radio and had a better idea of the magnitude of the event unfolding around us. When Les said goodbye, that was tough. He said, “Cover your mouth,” because nobody knew if the air was toxic. Remember reading about Pompeii? That is when I first felt very concerned and maybe a little scared.
So, Aaron, we continued to our house in Ephrata. Along the Soap Lake-Ephrata highway (State Route 28) we almost got into two head-on collisions due to people driving in the wrong lanes in almost zero visibility. We were very lucky. To this day, I am still thankful that we made it home. A lot of people never made it home that day.
When we got home, our mother was very relieved to say the least. She’d had three boys out there together, and she called the remaining three children. They were home safe. She had us go down to Safeway and pick up bread, milk and lunch meat. The shelves were already bare. My father worked construction and was up in Port Angeles. It was just my mom, brother and I. We simply hung low and watched the news unfold.
They closed the school for the year, so we got an extended summer vacation. But that wasn’t much of a vacation with all the ash everywhere. We worked, cleaning the outside of houses, spraying off the roof with garden hoses and washing all the windows and walls. We made really good money that summer for our age.
When we were out walking, it was deathly quiet. Not a sound, no wind in the trees, no birds, no traffic, no nothing. We even followed spider tracks in the ash until we found the dead spider, right in his track.