I thought I would do something a little different in this post. This is one of the chapters from a current work in progress, tentatively titled The Homestead Memoirs. Let me set the scene for you: Springtime 1980. I was just 22; Mike was 21. Times were tough, but it was all a grand adventure... deep in the wild mountains of north Idaho...
One of our most memorable camping trips occurred during the spring and early summer that Mike worked as a tree thinner. Our first child, Christopher, was just over 2 years old at the time. We were camping near Mike's jobsites for weeks at a time in our VW van-plus-lean-to-tent. There were a few jobs in remote corners of our home turf in Boundary County: out by Deer Creek, near Solomon Lake, or high on the backside of Queen Mountain. Then there came a bigger job way up in the remote mountain area near the little town of Fernwood, Idaho, about 150 miles from home.
We found a nice spot to set up camp, way up one of the Forest Service roads, within walking distance to the unit Mike would be thinning, and right between two little babbling brooks. Really, they babbled - I'd never heard anything quite like it before! There was a freshwater spring not too far away where we could collect drinking water.
A sweet little meadow area for Christopher to play in, with old logs and stumps for climbing, also afforded a place where I could rig up a clothesline. I cooked over the campfire, or, on rainy days, on top of our little homemade sheepherder's stove. While Mike was working in the woods, our days were spent exploring, following deer trails and old roads, gathering firewood, writing letters, playing little kid games, and cooking meals.
Making bread and washing cloth diapers were the biggest challenges during longterm camping like this. For one thing, I didn't have an oven, but I didn't let that stop me! I learned to do ovenless baking on the stove-top, coming up with such varieties as English muffins, sesame buns, biscuits, and tortillas. Even cookies could be made on the top of the stove for a sweet treat. So that was easy enough.
On the other hand, washing diapers by hand, was an arduous task. First, I had to get the campfire burning. Once it was crackling nicely, I filled the washtub from the brook. When the water was good and hot, in went the laundry soap and diapers. I'd swish them around with a stick, lift and dunk a few times for good measure, and repeat until clean. Then each diaper was lifted back into the diaper bucket, which I had managed to clean and sanitize sometime in there. The dirty water went to a handy copse of birch, well away from the brook, of course. The wash tub was refilled with fresh water, reheated, and reloaded with the now-clean diapers ready for rinsing. Once rinsed, each diaper was wrung out by hand, then finally hung out to dry. I had to remember to clear the lines before the regular afternoon thundershowers soaked everything again - or not; sometimes an extra rainwater rinse is a nice thing. The whole process usually took a big chunk of a day; the good thing was, there were enough cloth diapers to last almost a week.
We had planned and expected to stay at this camp for the better part of summer while Mike worked in the woods and we saved up our money. But Mother Nature had other plans. Our idyllic life came to an abrupt end after only 10 days - on May 18, 1980.
Mike had gone off to work as usual, carrying his chainsaw and a jug of drinking water. He'd be back for lunch. Christopher and I went about our morning chores and playtime, the usual routine. He went down for his nap right after lunch, and Mike went back up the road for an afternoon session of thinning. The regular afternoon thunderclouds seemed to be gathering earlier than usual, with an especially ominous darkness to them. It just kept getting darker and darker, like evening had come way too early. This must be a doozy of a thunderstorm heading our way, and yet, I hadn't heard any rumbling off in the distance. I began to move firewood into the tent to keep it dry, and went to fetch more drinking water, a chore that is not much fun in the rain.
Little Christopher was quite confused when he awoke to near-darkness. The birds were confused as well, singing their evening chorus and roosting for the night... all in mid-afternoon! Mike showed up, taking off from work early. Before long, it was too dark to see anything at all, not even our own hands in front of our faces! What was happening? We had no radio; cell phones were a long way from being invented yet. It was obvious to us now that this was not a thunderstorm at all, not any kind of weather phenomenon. Could it possibly be that the Cold War had turned hot? There was no way to know what the heck was going on...
In the pitch black, we huddled in bed inside the VW. Shining our flashlights out the window only revealed huge grey flakes falling, dulling all sound. We all, especially Mike, began to have trouble breathing. I kept our little boy quietly entertained with little games, reading stories, nursing... all the while wondering if we were going to survive this. The false night kept on and on for hours, with not a sound. We could well understand all those end-of-the-world stories.
Just before sunset, the darkness lifted just a little, just enough to tell there was still a sun in the sky somewhere. And to show us a ghostly world of grey. Mike dampened a bandana to tie around his nose and mouth, and hiked a couple miles up the road to where he had earlier noticed someone else camping. Maybe they had a radio. He returned with the news that Mount Saint Helens had exploded and we were directly in the line of the heaviest ashfall.
The best thing for us to do, according to the news stories, was to wait it out, wait until rain came to dampen the fine volcanic ash that was several inches deep and would damage the engine if we tried to drive. The ash was everywhere, covering every single thing outdoors, and the only color in the world was grey.
Every day, the afternoon winds picked up, but there was no moisture to it. Our little brook had completely dried up! Every slight movement stirred up clouds of fine silica, damaging to lungs and eyes... and engines. So we remained encamped up a lonely mountain road. At least, here, we were already set up for longterm camping. But how long might it be before we got rain again? It was the beginning of the dry season in north Idaho... this could last all summer.
Mike continued to have trouble breathing, at night especially, his throat constricting and lungs aching. This was in part due to the sulfur content of the ash - he's allergic to sulfur. Christopher was also affected by the ash with a severe stomach ache and vomiting. Everything, both inside our meager shelter and out, became coated with ash.
In the early mornings, before the dampness of nighttime had dried, we could get outside to explore our ghostly world a little. There were animal tracks everywhere: deer, elk, grouse and smaller birds, chipmunks, rabbits, mice... each left a trail of their nighttime activities and, fascinated, we followed their tracks as they went about their business and looked for a place to drink. That's how we found another spring, one that was barely running, but running none the less, producing only a small drip, drip, drip. It was an arduous chore to fill our water jugs, but we were extremely grateful for it.
The only firewood we had was what I had brought inside before the ash fell. Everything outside was thoroughly covered with the fine powder and we didn't want to bring any more of that inside if we could help it. Fortunately, the small sheepherder's stove didn't take much. The hardest thing was keeping a two-year-old entertained inside the tent and van all day. Our little morning walks helped some.
On the second day, all the dandelions that had been in bud, suddenly burst into bloom and we giggled at the sight of yellow polka dots on the grey background!
During the afternoon of the third day, clouds began to blow in. Would they bring us the anxiously awaited rain? We wanted to be ready, just in case, so we began to shake the ash off and pack away the extraneous bits and pieces of our belongings. And then... rain! Hastily, we broke down the rest of our camp, throwing everything into the van. Mike cut part of our foam mattress to fashion a thick air filter to help protect the VW engine, and tied it in place with duct tape.
We said farewell to our little campsite, wished the wild animals well, and slowly made our way down the slippery mountain road. When rain falls onto silica ash, it creates a very slick surface, and that's what we were driving on.
As we crawled into each little town - Fernwood, Santa, St Maries - we saw that, even in civilization, folks were pretty much laying low, as we had been, due to the ashfall. But as we made our way northward towards home, there was less and less of it to deal with, and relief swept through us.
Once we finally reached our home back on the farm, we scoffed at those around us who complained about the ash from Mount Saint Helens. They had no idea! A slight dusting on the windowsills was all that could be seen. The world never looked so green!