A harrowing homecoming trip

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It was May 18, 1980, when I received a phone call from my husband,  a captain merchant mariner who had been at sea for four months and was returning to his home port in Seattle. He liked me to meet his ship at the dock whenever he returned and we celebrated his homecoming with a mini-vacation of some sort. He advised that his ETA in Seattle would be in three days and suggested I drive up. I told him of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.  It had been fuming for several months of which he was aware but he didn’t realize the magnitude of this event.

The conversation went something like this:

Me:  I won’t be able to drive up, honey, because the Toutle River bridge washed out and the freeway is closed.

Hubby:  Well, that’s okay, then just fly up and we’ll spend a couple of days around Seattle and fly home.

Me:  But all flights between Portland and Seattle have been canceled because of the amount of ash in the air and the danger of engines clogging.

Hubby:  (with notable agitation evident now).  So why don’t you take the train?

Me:  Uh, well, the trains aren’t running either because of possible damage to the tracks caused by  pile-up of ash and debris.

……Silence on his end…….

Me:  Let’s wait a day or two and I’ll stay on top of the situation and we’ll talk again.

During the next couple of days the highway department and all agencies involved were urgently working to inspect and open the interstate again. In the meantime, my son-in-law said: “If he wants you in Seattle, we’ll get you there.” He prepared the car in any way he could, putting protection over the grill, putting several gallons of water in the trunk in case the radiator needed flushing, or whatever, and purchased face masks for each of us.

By the third day, the freeway was partially opened, and after talking again with hubby, we set out in the morning on an unbelievable experience. The ash was so thick and swirling in the air it was like driving through dense fog. It seeped through the glass around the windows so we wore masks inside the car to aid our breathing. The landscape was eerie, silent and ugly. Everywhere and everything was gray. The trees were no longer green, but covered in gray ash as well as the surroundings, including the air and the highway we were traveling. We could not see the hood of our car, or a tail light of anyone in front of us, nor could they see us. I remember the fear that at any moment we could collide, because we were just feeling our way along not really seeing where we were or who was nearby.

We finally came upon three semi-truck/trailer rigs positioned side-by-side in all three lanes to control traffic speed and the swirling ash. They drove at 10 mph nearly the entire distance to Tacoma or beyond. If not for those Good Samaritans, this monumental event could have been even more disastrous. Passing the Toutle River washout was a heartbreaking sight. The bridge itself was a part of the freeway, and there was no longer a river there. It was completely obliterated by a log-jam of trees totally stripped of their leaves and piled against the bottom of the bridge.  Nothing familiar remained, and only chaos and an ashen moonscape wherever you looked. 

It was a harrowing trip of driving by my son-in-law and nail-biting back-seat advice by my daughter and me, a trip of nearly 8 hours which would normally take 2-1/2 or 3. We arrived at the dock in time that evening to meet my husband, and he was shocked to see the car covered in ash and what I imagine were “deer-in-the-headlights” expressions on our faces.  We overnighted in a hotel and started back to Vancouver the following day with my husband at the wheel.  He was astounded at the conditions on the road and the devastation along the way and was humbled at what we had been through to get to him. He said if he had realized what a catastrophic event it was and the danger involved in the trip he would never have expected me to be there. But I was just as anxious to see him!