Joe Gavinski, the city attorney, was out ballooning with friends shortly before 9 a.m. on May 18 when one of them observed the advancing clouds -- giant, thick balls of cotton sticking together. All over town, people rushed for cameras and marveled as they snapped pictures.

Everyone thought the clouds were beautiful. Suddenly, as they hung overhead, they turned purple, then ashy and black. The sky darkened.Lightning crackled. By noon, the town was enveloped in darkness. Street lights flashed on, but the atmosphere then became so black it was not possible to see the lights.

People hurried home, stunned but intrigued by the strange changes, and some of them got drowsy and went to bed. One young night-shift worker at the local forzen-potato factory has become legendary for his addled response to the ash. Awakening to find it dark, he jumped into his clothes and sped to work, thinking he had overslept. When he got there, he noticed two strange things -- he did not know any of the other workers, and they were all leaving as fast as they could.

It was then that he learned what the rest of Moses Lake had just been told over the radio: Mount St. Helens, 150 miles west in the Cascade Range on the other side of the state from this small agricultural town, had erupted at 8:30 a.m. Volcanic ash was spewing out and being hurtled on the easterly winds toward Moses Lake and the plains of eastern Washington.

Residents rushed outside with jars to scoop it up. "People were thrilled to see something happening here that you wouldn't expect to see in anyone's lifetime," Gavinski recalled.

The balloonists gathered at his house for beer. They got T-shirts and magic markers and designed new decals, marking the event. Gavinski moved back and forth from the party to City Hall downtown -- what he learned there made him increasingly worried.

Ash was getting into the oil systems of police cars and clogging engines. One after another, the patrol cars broke down until all six marked vechicles were dead. Two ambulances broke down, and the telephone lines became jammed. Cars began to stall on the town's main highway and nearby interstate. About 1,500 people, including two high school bands driving home from the Lilac Festival in Spokane, were stranded.

"It was kind of frightening to go to bed that evening . . . Gavinski said. "My first hope was that when we woke up, there would be light, at least."

Moses Lake, a farming and factory community of 11,000 on the plains of eastern Washington state, was one of the worst-hit towns in the country by the Mount St. Helens explosion. The damage -- $29.5 million to crops alone -- has yet to be projected for area businessmen and homeowners. The story of Moses Lake is a chronicle that began as a lark and turned into a nightmare.

When they talk about the next morning, the people of Moses Lake compare it to watching an eerie morning-after scene in a science fiction movie. It was silent and still -- no sounds of birds, traffic, or even the wind.

A gray haze of ash was suspended in the air. A two-to-three-inch layer of fine, chalky grit lay on lawns, rooftops, around the weeping willows and the $100,000 natural wood houses lining Moses Lake.

An estimated two million tons fell, inundating the trailer park in the middle of town, contractor Bert McAtte's backyard tennis court, swimming pools, parks, schoolyards, and the fields of winter and spring wheat, feed corn and dry peas that farmer Dale Walker had planted.

Schools closed, never to reopen in the remaining three weeks of the term. Most businesses were shut down, with only a pharmacy, some grocery stores, the hospital and the city government still functioning.

The roads were impassable and people stayed at home.

Ash blanketed the runway of the old Larson Air Force Base outside town, closed in the mid-1960s and reopened as an industrial park where Japan Air Lines trains pilots on 747s.

It was as if a huge practical joke had been played on Moses Lake, as if someone had hooked the nozzle to the wrong end of some gigantic vacuum cleaner in the sky and let it spit out sandy gray powder that clung to carpets and clothes and made people itch and sneeze.

Roofs sagged under the weight of the ash and one collapsed. Asthmatics and persons suffering from emphysema found their conditions worsened, but doctors told residents the ash was neither toxic nor dangerously harmful to otherwise healthy bodies.

A week and a day after the May 18 eruption, the ash claimed a Moses Lake casualty. Gene Van Dyke, 58, the owner of the TraveLodge Motel on the main highway running through town, was shoveling the ash out of the motel's swimming pool when he had a heart attack and died.

Almost the entire alfalfa crop was wiped out. Instead of cutting it, many farmers plowed it under. Dust settled on the ground, shutting out sunlight and air, stunting the growth of corn, causing rot to develop around the base of the spring wheat shoots, farmers said.

Farm machinery broke down. Walker considers himself lucky because none of his tractors or other machinery has been disabled. But he figures the maintenance to keep things in shape will add $15,000 to his annual farm costs.

Tourist business was hurt, most everyone agrees. Vacancy signs adorn the motels, and the recreational vehicle campsite has rows and rows of empty spaces along the lake. Ash covers the 120-mile Moses Lake shoreline, the piers and docks, and a thick layer on the dunes nearby has been hardened by the rains.

"A lot of people heard that it's terrible over here and are not coming," said bookstore owner Faye Maslen.

Beyond the economic impact, the Mount St. Helens holocaust, as one newspaper called it, took a psychological toll. In Moses Lake, Portland and Seattle -- which hasn't even been hit with significant amounts of ash -- the volcano has challenged the ideal of the good life in the Pacific Northwest.

It is a pristine region of recent immigrants from the pollution, congestion, crime, hassles and uncertainties of life in the old cities and towns of the Northeast and Midwest. More than almost anything else here, residents value the natural beauty and space of the mountains, coasts and plains, the certainty of bearable summers and mild winters, and they cherish their clean air.

There is no certainty any more in Moses Lake. No certainty among farmers that the crops will survive and mature for harvest. No certainty that the modest but growing tourist industry will prosper. No certainty that businesses and neighbors will not pack up and leave. And the scariest question of all -- no certainty that Mount St. Helens will not erupt and blow ash all over Moses Lake again.

In shock and bewilderment over what to do about the ash, Joe Gavinski got on the phone the morning of the second day, seeking help from the offices of the governor, state legislators, congressmen and U.S. senators.

Right away he and other city officials found they had yet another big problem: getting those in a position to help to comprehend Moses Lake's plight.

"You could describe it. You could plead with people but you couldn't make them understand," Gavinski recalled.

The remedy coming out of all those offices was that residents should put pantyhose over the air filters of their cars and everything would run smoothly.

"When we decided that there was no help coming from anybody, I decided we got to clean it up. Go out and get whatever equipment you need, pay whatever you have to pay," he said. "We did not know how we were going to pay for it, but we knew we had to remove it."

Experimenting, they found that if they wet down the fine, powdery ash, it turned into gooey globs that could be shoveled away. So they got on the phone, calling everybody they knew with heavy equipment -- contractors, nearby towns, farmers. They wet the ash on roads with water trucks and irrigation equipment. They removed it with snowplows. The total removal is expected to cost them more than $2 million.The city has borrowed much of that from the Seattle-based Rainier Bank, hoping to be reimbursed in part later with federal disaster relief funds.

The first big breakthrough in the cleanup came on Tuesday, the third day after the eruption. After elaborate planning, city officials organized a convoy of 500 cars and trucks with state trooper escorts to get those who had been stranded out of town.

Before they moved north, four snowplows from a nearby town headed south, sweeping the highway until it reached the convoy. Water trucks were at the head of the line of cars and trucks. They moved first, wetting down ash left on the road. After the convoy traveled 12 miles, it stopped briefly so that air filters of cars and trucks could be cleaned or changed, and then moved on.

"Our expertise grew by the hour," Gavinski said.

City police, grounded by the wreckage of their cruisers on the first day, rode bicycles one day, then were loaned Hondas by a local shop. A few days later, the city purchased surplus police cars from a city 80 miles south.

Eight dump sites were set up around the city and residents began clearing their lawns as best they could. Slowly, a pulse began to return to the town, although it would be 10 days before roads and streets around the city would be cleared.

As the days wore on the initial shock felt by most residents when the ash fell was replaced by depression as the impact became clear. For some, depression turned into anger. Husbands and wives lashed out at one another and police found themselves getting more calls to settle domestic quarrels. Cooped up at home, some residents began to drink more than usual.

Doug Sly, a reporter who covered the episode for the local Columbia Basic Daily Herald, remembers looking into shopping carts at the Safeway and seeing a half-gallon of milk and two cases of beer.

As taverns in Moses Lake began to reopen, they filled up. There were brawls, bringing more work to the already beleagured police force.

The city issued an order of rolling back from 2 a.m. to 6 p.m., the last hour beer and alcohol could be sold. Similar restrictions remained in effect for a week and a half.

By this time, defections from Moses Lake had begun to occur. A music store on the main shopping street shut down but city leaders felt that if that was the extent of it, they could survive.

Then, a weekend ago a rumor blazed through the city that Japan Airlines pilot training school was going, too.

The key tenant in the local industrial park, the airline pays about $300,000 a year in landing fees and hangar rental costs.

"Without them, we'd be lost," said Leon Bodie, the president of the industrial park authority.

When Japan Air Lines told city officals they would make a $50,000 donation for the cleanup, the town feared that they would hand over the contribution, then announce their departure.

City officials, their wives and air lines officals gathered for a solemn ceremony to recieve the contribution. The air was filled with tension.

When an airlines vice president announced that Japan stay, there were audible sighs. Bodie spoke, his voice breaking. He said he and the mayor lived in the flight path of the 747s and they loved to hear the roar of the engines.

Moses Lake Mayor Robert Hill then presented airline officials with a small, ornamental ceramic pagoda that had sparkling seqins pasted on it. He said it had been made in Moses Lake -- out of volcanic ash.

No one knows how many families have picked up and left the city, though there has been a trickle. City leaders tend to dismiss the flight, saying that only those without property or decent jobs are leaving. But that is not always the case.

Walker's 25-year-old brother packed up his wife and baby and took them to Montana, leaving begind his 250-acre fields.

Kitty Kinney and her husband Joe are getting out, too, as soon as they can swap their 32-acre farm for a house in town they intend to rent out.

"It's so depressing here. It's so sad," Kitty Kinney says.

The Rev. Gerrit VanBrandwilk of the First Presbyterian Church in Moses Lake has counseled more than two dozen others who considered leaving.

VanBrandwilk, who espouses a stern Calvanist theology that once flourished on the American frontier, has a message that cannot be comforting for these pilgrams to the good life in the Pacific Northwest.

"To live means to live with danger," he said he told them. "Christ, through his resurrection, took the danger out of death. He didn't take the danger out of life,"

Moses Lake puts on a brave face these days, confronting the outsider with a kind of droll humor.

The sign in front of the TraveLodge Motel carries this message: "Welcome Moon Dust Cheap." The marquee in front of the Chamber of Commerce asks: "anyone for an Ash Bash?"

Big heaps of ash, like filthy snow drifts, are piled alongside roads and at dump sites. Residue is still in gardens, fields and on lawns. Residents mop, dust, clean, bathe -- but when it is hot and the ash is dry, the fine, gray powder keeps returning and they must keep cleaning. When it rains, it turns into a slippery paste.

Many occupy themselves building elaborate hoses and other contraptions and hooking them to car engines. Cars and motorcycles in Moses Lake these days appear to be headed off to snorkel in the lake.

Others in the great entrepreneurial tradition of this country have sought ways to make money from the ash. A farmer has built an attachment for tractors, claiming it can gather crops and shake the ash off them. He calls it the "Shaker" and he sells it for $2,300. He has had several buyers.

Richard Kelly, a college junior, his father, who is in the building materials business, and his mother, a dental hygienist, have gambled $10,000 to set up a mail order ash novelties business that they hope will bring them a small fortune.

Kelly said his family and partners have put 40 tons of ash in a warehouse in Moses Lake. They have taken out this ad in major newspapers around the country and hope to sell the stuff in little jars from Los Angeles to New York City. They're also hoping to interest ceramic shops around the country in its use.

Their piece de resistance is little Mount St. Helens made out of ash. There will be a crater inside the montain and incense at the bottom of it, so that burning incense will give the effect of the mountain erupting.

"You got to make do with what you have," young Kelly said.