30 years ago today I was in a bike race in Cheney, Washington. 2/3rds of the way through, on a hill through the brown velvet hills, I got a flat. As I bent over the thing, cursing that I hadn’t brought a patch kit, a hippy rode by. “Weird sky,” he said in that self-consciously mystical voice they all use. I was so upset at breaking down that I just ignored him, no idea what the hell he was talking about. Probably talking to his crack pipe, if there had been crack at the time. The sky was a little dark, so what? The pick-up van came by and I got in, surly among the losers who just decided it was too hard
I got back to the campus of Eastern Washington University several hours later. By that time the sky was quite dark. None of us had any idea why. I locked up my bike in the back of the truck and went into the union building to grab my brother.
“The volcano blew up!” he exclaimed when I found him. “They’re closing the roads.”“Crap!” I said, let’s try to get out of here. By the time we got back out to the truck, my bike was covered with the most unappealing taupe-colored slick, greasy…stuff I’d ever seen. The car was covered in it, the parking lot, the other cars. We jumped in and I started the car out and roared out of there. By the time we were 150 feet down the road, the ash, which is what had settled over everything, began to billow into the cab through the vents until it was almost impenetrable. I turned the car around and we went back to the lot.
They put all of us who were at the race and there at the college for other reasons up in empty dorms. The next day, despite the fact that we were still not supposed to leave, my brother and I got in the car, which was heaped with this silicate snow, locked down the vents and wrapped our faces. We spent several hours creeping along the back roads making the 20-mile drive home to Spokane. It was a hot summer day but dim with ash. The fake snow over everything, billowing up with the slightest breeze, turned the area into the most otherworldly thing we’d ever seen. We saw a cop car at one point and turned down a country lane, avoiding it.
Our parents were relieved but we were shocked. All of Spokane was covered – everywhere – with this grey-brown crap. The ash was sticky and abrasive due to the silica in it. It was impossible to get off cars and driveways and roads. They weren’t sure how dangerous it was so it was weeks before we could hose it off our houses and driveways and sidewalks. For months afterward the enduring picture I had of downtown Spokane was of a secretary standing at a cross walk with a surgical mask over her face, the ever-present dust making a halo of every streetlamp, streetlight and headlight. For years after, just using a leaf rake on your yard would turn up a layer of feathery ash.
And we had to replace the engine on the truck. Driving it just 20 miles had scared the pistons too much for them to ever work right again.