By John Conkie
I bought my 1975 MGB new in my last year of college. After graduation I was stationed as an Army officer at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Originally from the East Coast, I quickly fell in love with the natural beauty and outdoor activities of the Pacific Northwest. And my MG took me on many great adventures.
In March 1980, Mount St. Helens began showing volcanic activity. This captured my attention, and in May, as the minor ash and steam eruptions increased, I decided I needed to go see them for myself. On Saturday, May 17, 1980, I packed my camping equipment in my trusty MG and weaved my way through logging towns via logging roads.
In the late afternoon I came to a roadblock that established an exclusion zone around the mountain. The zone was a 10-mile radius encircling the entire mountain. Fortunately, the logging landing near the roadblock allowed an unobstructed view of the northeast side of the mountain. There were several other people doing the same thing I was, waiting to get a picture of a steam or ash eruption.
After spending some time talking with my fellow adventurers, I took my backpack and camping gear and headed off down a trail to find a place to camp for the night. I woke up with the rising sun hitting my tent around 6am on May 18. I had an unobstructed view of the mountain just by rolling over and looking out of the tent opening. Mount St. Helens was glowing pink with the reflection of the morning sunrise. I took a picture, rolled over, and dozed off.
The next thing I knew, I was startled awake by what I thought was a very low airplane. It was 8:32am. I looked out of the tent, and that’s when I saw the initial stages of Mount St. Helens erupting. I quickly fumbled for my camera. I thought to myself, “I need to get a picture before this stops.” I snapped one picture and then realized not only was the eruption not stopping, but it was coming straight toward me!
(Note: The famous sequence of pictures taken that morning showing the eruption was taken from the logging landing by one of the people I had spoken to the night before. More about this at the end.)
As quickly as I could, I threw on my clothes and shoes, grabbed my backpack, and ran back up the road toward my car, leaving the tent behind. When I looked back, I noticed the eruption appeared to be slowing, but then looking about a quarter mile to the west I saw the cloud of ash had already raced past me up a ridgeline.
When I finally reached the landing, everyone I had spoken to the previous night had gone. Small pebbles were falling from the sky and the static electricity in the air was causing lightning strikes. I was hoping to get inside the car for whatever protection it might provide me.
The MG started immediately (thanks Lucas electronics!) and I drove faster than usual down a twisty logging road. Coming around a sharp turn, I fishtailed on the loose gravel. I overcorrected and was careening toward a drop off. With both feet on the brakes, I came to a stop on a soft downhill slope. I made several attempts to back up but could not get any traction in the soft gravel. I got out and attempted to push, but the car was angled such that I couldn’t budge it. Going forward wasn’t an option either. As I stood there wondering what to do next, it began to rain mud balls of ash.
The logical thing to do was to get back inside because I thought even a soft-top MG was a safer option. The mud and ash soon obscured the windshield, and it became pitch black inside. I attempted to try the radio but only got static. After sitting awhile in the dark, I opened the door and discovered about six inches of ash had accumulated. I said a quick prayer and made the decision that I was not going to die sitting in the car, and that if this was the end I was going to die trying to escape. I knew that from where I was the closest town was 22 miles down the logging road. I tied a wetted handkerchief over my nose and mouth, grabbed my backpack, and started off. It was pitch black and my flashlight was useless as the beam could not penetrate the falling ash. I said to myself, if I just put one foot in front of the other and watched that I did not veer off the road I could slowly make progress. It was 9:30am.
After walking slowly for an hour, I was able to start making out shapes. The ash fall was not as heavy, and I could begin to see where I was going. (I later realized the direction I was traveling took me out of the ash cloud that was blowing east on the prevailing wind.) I walked 18 miles on that long dark day before I was picked up by a US Forest Service truck. I spent the night in Randle, Washington, with others who were stranded by car breakdowns and the closing of Route 12 caused by the thick, fluffy ash covering the landscape. The good residents of Randle fed and housed all the stranded travelers in their homes for the night.
The next day I attempted to convince the US Forest Service to help me retrieve my car, but they just laughed at the request. With the help of another stranded traveler with a broken-down car, we were able to find someone to drive us west to get out of the ash-filled air. A fellow with an old pickup took us to Tacoma, which was clear of ash, as he was attempting to get to Yakima via I-90.
I communicated with the US Forest Service daily to get permission to retrieve my car but was routinely told it was too dangerous. Finally, one month later I received the phone call to come pick up my car. I arranged for a tow truck to haul the car from the logging road to a gas station in Randle. And from there I hired another tow to a mechanic/body shop in Tacoma. Because I had not driven the car through any significant ash, I wanted to have it drained of all fluids before restarting and driving again. Besides the obvious damage caused by the ash everywhere, the car had been vandalized.
As I was at the gas station in Randle, a car came by on the road, screeched to a stop, did a U-turn, and drove into the gas station. A woman jumped out and asked if I owned the car. When I said yes, she gave me a big hug and said she was there with me the night before the eruption. She and the others left as soon as the eruption started, but they all worried about me because I had hiked off to camp. They all thought I had died!
As I mentioned earlier, the photographer who took the famous sequence of pictures showing the eruption was interviewed by the Seattle Times soon after the event. In the article he said, “We all got out safely except for the guy with the red MG. We don’t know what happened to him.” I was able to contact him and let him know I, too, was safe.
Soon after my experience I left the military, returned to college, and embarked on a very rewarding career in the paper industry, which I’m retired from—all spent entirely in the beautiful state of Washington.
I have never suffered any negative impact either physically or emotionally from my experiences that day. If anything, it only enhanced my desire to get out and enjoy all the easily accessible outdoor activities afforded by living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
I have so many great memories of skiing, mountain climbing, sailing, backpacking, and hiking enjoyed with friends and my beautiful family—including visiting Mount St. Helens with my wife Stacie last summer.
That day 43 years ago did not shape my life but allowed me to have a once in a lifetime experience. I’m grateful to have lived through it.