Trapped beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud
by Rachel Dickinson

On a simple trip to write about Ireland, Rachel Dickinson becomes part of the lead story on every newscast: all the planes grounded in northern Europe because of a giant eruption in Iceland.

When I was supposed to board a plane to go back home I was sitting in a five–star hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The view from my window was of Belfast Lough, a long, deep, narrow channel running from the Irish Sea to the city of Belfast. And if I sat there and squinted just a little and ignored the big ferries and occasional tanker that slowly moved past I could believe I was looking at one of the Finger Lakes, the region I'm from in New York State. And it made me instantly and intensely homesick. But I was trapped beneath the volcanic ash cloud.

volcanic ash cloud

I had been in Ireland for two weeks traveling around the country and blogging about my experiences. It was oddly grueling. I'd wake in the morning and eat a hearty Irish breakfast with a map spread out on the table beside my plate of sausage, bacon, eggs, blood pudding, fried bread, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms, and I'd plan the day's drive.

I think nothing of jumping into the car and heading out when I'm home. But there's something about driving on the left that required every bit of concentration. Could have been the roads as wide as my dining room table. Could have been the trucks and buses bearing down on me, or the sheep casually crossing in front of my Ford Focus. Could have been the scenic drives that hugged the cliffs on one side and the sheer drop to the sea on the other. Or maybe it was the roundabouts. Or the unfamiliar road signs. I don't know. But driving did take almost all of my white–knuckle concentration, which is kind of a shame because although I did things like drive around part of the Ring of Kerry, I didn't see any of the landscape. Whole swaths of Ireland remain a green blur to me.

Still, I was determined to find a story, whether it was talking to a rheumy–eyed drunk in a pub about Bob Dylan or the doorman at one of the hotels where I stayed. The doorman had just returned from a trip to New York City—his first—and was ga–ga over everything he had seen. At one point he asked a cop where he might find the Empire State Building and the cop grabbed his arm and pulled him into the street stopping traffic as he did. Then he pointed up to the top of the building in front of them. "How Irish of me," the doorman said.

So everyone had a story. The drunk in the bar. The doorman. The maid from Lithuania. The taxi driver from West Belfast. And I spent my days in a kind of reporter–mode and it was goddamn exhausting. And at night I'd go into my room and try to craft a little story to post. And I'd drink from the bottle of Merlot purchased from the liquor store and eat bread and cheese for dinner bought at the grocery store and I'd begin to feel sorry for myself in this beautiful country of greenness and melodic voices. Then I'd crawl between the 800 thread–count sheets on my perfect bed hoping I'd sleep. I knew I couldn't whine about it lest I get slapped.

And each day was the same. Eat breakfast. Look for the story. Plot the trip. Take a white–knuckle drive. Go to another fabulous hotel. Then eat from the grocery store because I couldn't bear to eat out because they don't really get the table–for–one thing in Ireland. No one eats alone. So I started really looking forward to going home. To driving on the right. To talking—or not talking—to people I knew.

Scratch that journey home
I was in Dublin when the volcano in Iceland—the one with the name no one can pronounce—blew. At first it was an interesting story in the paper. I had been to Iceland several times—had been on the edge of the glacier that covered the volcano—so I loved reading about it. Within a day, though, it was clear that there was going to be a problem. The ash cloud blew high into the atmosphere and began to blow east. All the experts said that flying through volcanic ash was a very bad thing because these tiny jagged pieces of volcano could wreck havoc on a jet engine that was designed to suck in air and not pulverized rock.

Iceland volcano
iStock photo from Icer0ck

Then Ireland and the northern part of Britain closed its airspace. And what had been a geologic curiosity became an international celebrity. A celebrity behaving badly, like when Mel Gibson and Michael Richards went off the rails. This was the Lindsay Lohan of volcanoes. It spewed and belched and spit and there was no end in sight. An Icelandic volcanologist said in classic Icelandic dead–pan delivery—oh, this could erupt for years—and the incredulous British broadcaster sputtered and said, "Did you say years?" Indeed, turns out the last time she blew in the early 19th century, she smoked, fumed, and spewed for two years.

Businessmen—three deep—crowded the reception desk at The Merrion hotel in Dublin. I heard one ask for a helicopter, and the clerk patiently explained in a voice usually reserved for dealing with a toddler that if the airspace was closed it also meant that helicopters couldn't fly.

I had parked my car at the Dublin airport and taken the airport bus into the city because I couldn't imagine driving and parking in Dublin. I took a cab back to my car because I couldn't figure out if the shuttle buses would be running to the outlying parking lots from the deserted terminal. When we got to the airport, planes littered the runway, still and shiny in the early morning sun, and all was quiet. Eerily quiet. I could hear birds singing and spotted them perched on top of the chain–link fence surrounding the still runways. Birds singing. Advertising real estate they had a lock on for just a moment.

volcanic cloud

I drove to Belfast, checked into my hotel and turned on the television. I finally found a news station on Irish television (I guess I should say British television because I was now in their territory—only figured that out when the speed limit signs suddenly went from 100 to 60 and after slowing way down when no one else did I eventually decided we went from kilometers per hour to miles per hour—details).

I saw dramatic footage of the volcano and now, day two of the closed airspace, it was becoming clear that there was no end in sight. Graphics of a huge volcanic ash cloud expanding and contracting and shifting like an amoeba under a microscope were put on the screen. One by one European countries succumbed to the no fly zone. It was kind of like watching a re–enactment of Napoleon's march across the continent a couple of centuries before.

Stuck in Europe, for how long?
Day three. Blue, blue sky. Looked for traces of the volcanic ash cloud that I heard was up there, somewhere. Stories of trapped Britons choked the newspapers and airways. People needing to get to London for various transplants—kidney, heart, lung—played well to the British crowd. Parents missing weddings of kids in Thailand. Soccer teams missing games on the continent. Stories of British and Irish people trapped all around the globe and wanting desperately to get back home.

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