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When The Snow Wouldn’t Melt

May 18, 2017

It felt like the end of the world. It turned dark and streetlamps started to come on although it was only 9:00am on a Sunday morning. It looked like snow at first. That fine grained snow that doesn’t really form flakes. If snow could drizzle, that’s what it was like. But, it wasn’t snow. It’s doesn’t snow in Eastern Washington in May. It covered everything; cars, lawns, houses and acres and acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa. And it kept coming down for hours and hours. When it finally stopped it was about 6 inches deep.

When the clouds finally cleared, it was kind of pretty in a way. Like a new blanket of slightly grey snow that stretched as the eye could see. Miles and miles of it. But, this snow wasn’t going to melt. And to the farmers who were worried about their crops it looked like the end of the world.

May 18, 1980 I was getting ready to go to church. I was 15 and my brother had just turned 17. We liked church. Most times we got ourselves there. My parents weren’t active church goers at the time. It was left to us if we wanted to attend. The only rule was,

If you can’t get up for church on Sunday morning, you can’t go to the dances on Saturday night.

We loved those dances. This day, was a Sunday that started like many others. But 37 years later, I still remember where I was and what I was doing that morning. I was standing on my front porch in Lacey, WA, a small town south of Seattle, looking South at the growing ash cloud from the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. The eruption which started with an earthquake at 8:32AM lasted about nine hours and threw 3.3 billion cubic yards of ash into the atmosphere.

The prevailing wind pattern in Washington is from West to East. Lacey, located about 70 miles north of Saint Helens didn’t get hit by the ash at first. We had a spectacular view of it as the angry volcano continued to throw ash 15,000 feet into the atmosphere. The ash pushed off to the East and fell heavily on the Palouse farm country of Eastern Washington and Oregon and Western Idaho. We actually got a dusting of ash when the cloud made it all they way around the globe. 

It was through news coverage that we saw the impact on the farming communities in the Eastern part of the state. My grandparents lived in Tekoa, WA on the Idaho border. The ash was inches deep in their yard, on their sidewalks, on their cars and their houses. Ash is probably a bad name for it. It wasn’t ash that you’d get from a fire. Instead it was what you would get if you burned rocks or sand. Scraping it off your car immediately ruined the paint. Driving in it was outlawed for several days and even after the travel restriction was lifted, you risked heating it up and turning the ash to glass inside your engine.

After the initial blast, the real question became, “What do you do with it?” It was literally everywhere. And when it got wet, it became even heavier, as it soaked up and held any water. Folks cleared it off their roofs and their cars and then they started clearing their walks and their lawns. They piled it wherever there was space. All the while the farmers anxiously watched their fields for any signs of life. Eventually, the hardy plants started to push up through the blanket of ash. Some farmers lost crops but many of them had bumper crops. The ash “blanket” had trapped heat and moisture under the soil and turned the fields into incubators. The plants that survived came roaring back. Much to the relief of those whose livelihood depended on those crops.

Two years later, in 1982, I went to live with my grandfather for the summer and worked on a friend’s farm. On the surface the land had nearly fully recovered. But, as we would start harvesting a field of wheat, the point at which the trucks turned off the road into the field would quickly become a trough of ash as the thin veneer of new growth was run into the ground.

During my summer in farm country, I attended a play put on by the local high school kids. I don’t remember the subject of the play, but it was set in Italy. At one point the actor playing the tour guide said,

On your left you can see Mount Vesuvius, Europe’s only active volcano. It last erupted in 79 A.D. wiping out the city of Pompeii. Aren’t volcanos interesting?

Everyone in the theater agreed on the answer: No. Not at all.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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