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Mt. St. Helens, Part 1: Played golf, bought a toilet, and survived a volcano

Jennifer Piper

Cover of guest log, Mt. St. Helens, Packwood

The guest log from my grandparents' cabin


May 18, 1980. Mt. St. Helens had been sending up ash for weeks, and scientists warned that a big blast was coming soon.

Heeding the warnings, my grandparents, Jack and Maggie Crabb, were getting ready to head home from their "cabin" (really a mobile home) in Packwood, Washington, 35 miles from the volcano's summit.

What happened next left my family with the most fascinating guest book log ever. 

8:30 Sunday morning, May 18th, ready to load car and leave for home. Maggie said "it is getting dark out." It looked like big, black clouds and the sun disappeared. The rumbling started like thunder and continued getting louder and continuous.

Jack continues: "It then sounded like hard rain, at first we thought maybe small hail but "Lo & Behold" it was volcano ash, very coarse and coming down thick. That is what had blotted out the sun and made it pitch black outside. Very eerie, no cars or people anywhere to be seen and no radio reception at all."
"Very eerie, no cars or people anywhere to be seen and no radio reception at all." #mtsthelens

High Valley Country Club, in Packwood, Washington, lies about 16 miles as the crow flies from the summit of Mt. Rainier and 35 miles from Mt. St. Helens, in the heart of the Cascades.

High Valley is not a country club country club. There are some nice cabins there, but at the time it was mostly a middle-class summer vacation spot, with a small percentage of year-round residents.

There was a golf course and a couple of small swimming pools with vinyl curtains in the changing areas. After swimming, my sisters and I would pad into the clubhouse with our towels around our shoulders and buy Popsicles out of an old trunk freezer. No fancy restaurant there. No restaurant at all.

The Blue Spruce Saloon, Packwood, Washington

My daughter and husband in Packwood's Blue Spruce Saloon, 2014

My grandparents both grew up in the city but felt most at home closer to nature. When my dad was twelve, he came home from school one day in north Seattle and his parents said to him, "Jimmie, we bought a cow. We're moving to a farm."

Their "farm" was a piece of land on a small lake outside of the small town of Arlington, Washington. Arlington is already pretty far out there, but this beautiful piece of land, which they worked hard to turn into a small family farm, was miles out of town along narrow roads lined with skyscraping evergreens.

These miles of road remained unpaved into the 21st century. They still may be unpaved for all I know.

So, that is the home my grandparents would leave for much of every summer to get away from it all.

This page from the guest book starts with an entry from April 1st of 1980, describing what they found when they arrived at High Valley for their first visit of the season. The mountain was already spewing ash, their gutters were bent from the heavy winter snow, and the weather couldn't decide if it wanted to be winter or spring. Jack and Maggie played golf and went dancing at the Blue Spruce Saloon in Packwood. 

Guest log page showing entries from April 1, 1980 and May 18, 1980

 (Hey, kiddos, "pooped" means EXHAUSTED in this context!)

Writing in the guest log was often the last thing we did after packing up and before hitting the road. My husband and I pored over the May 18th entry and we think my grandpa was writing in the log on the morning of May 18th describing their latest visit, when the mountain blew.

(Because who would write first about golf and a cracked toilet tank when the BIGGEST NATURAL DISASTER THEY WOULD EVER EXPERIENCE just happened??? ... "Played some golf, bought a nice new toilet, and by the way, Mt. St. Helens!")

We think they dealt with what they needed to deal with and then a couple hours later came back to write in the book about what was going on.

It is now 10:30 a.m. and still black out. Volcano ash is still coming down, but now very fine. It seems as though we are the only 2 people in the world.

By 11:00 the loud rumbling had stopped. At 11:40 the fine ash was still coming down very thick and they were still in complete darkness. At 12:20 p.m. Jack noted that it had started to get a little lighter outside. By 1:45, my grandparents had evidently either gotten some radio reception or talked to neighbors or emergency personnel:

"All passes and roads to home are closed. Bad driving out. We will stay over."

I remember at one point they walked over to the clubhouse and talked to some people. They were able to call my dad from there to let us know they were okay.

That evening my grandparents braved the slippery, ash-covered roads to drive four miles to town. 

10:45 p.m. Fine ash still falling. We just came back from Packwood. Got groceries and had some beer. Bad driving if any traffic. Will see what tomorrow brings.

They don't say where they stopped for the beer, but my guess is The Blue Spruce.

Next in the series: Mt. St. Helens, Part 2: The Day After.



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1 comment

  • Fascinating. Mirrors our experience that day in Spokane, 200 miles away.

    Ken Harvey

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