Hills and Salt

I was wrong. I’ll just say that up front. I went into my first winter in Portland with the arrogance of a hearty Midwesterner, full of the belief that I could handle any weather conditions this mild-coastal region had in store. Rain? I got this; don my raincoat and boots, I’m all set. Fog? Cool! Drive slow and take pictures. Snow? No problem. I’ve driven in snow my whole life, and more than a few ice storms. I can do this.

I was convinced I had the “northern skillset” to manage it. I was foolish.

The Portland area has gotten in excess of eight inches of snow over the last two days. This kind of storm hasn’t hit this area since 2008. In Chicago, that number isn’t daunting in the least. Take out your shovel, clear a path to the street, and you’re on your way. But there are two elements here that you cannot factor in until you see this place in snow and ice. The first one is mountains.

My home is situated on the West Slope, which sounds very fancy, but really just means it’s on the western side of a hill that borders the city. That hill is actually the smallest mountain on the trailing edge of the Tualatin Mountain range. It’s not a large mountain compared to the others in the area, but it still is the same height as a 75-story building. Adding to the fun, some of the grades are sharp, and the curves are dangerous even in good weather. When the snow started on Thursday, I was in the city, and on the way home, I experienced firsthand the challenges of driving on steep, winding roads in the snow.

Listen up, everyone who laughed with me about the inability of Portlanders to drive in snow; it’s NOT like driving on flat, straight roads. It’s completely different. And if you don’t have chains or studded tires (a thing I never knew existed before), you feel about as stable as if you were wearing stiletto heels on ice.

Conditions were so bad by 5 p.m. that the transit service cancelled the #20 bus up our hill, so Tim had to walk home from the train station–yes, a mile, uphill in the snow. He decided, wisely, to work from home until this storm passed.

I cancelled my plans to go to a poetry reading (sad) and vowed to head out on Friday to take care of grocery shopping. After walking the dog up to the main road and seeing that there were cars moving along pretty briskly, I decided again that I could handle it.

Again, I was wrong. While I was able to get out of my parking spot just fine, I got to the first stop sign and was unable to get any further, as it was all uphill from there. And here is where we encounter the other element not factored in to the criticisms about Portland drivers; salt. More accurately, the lack of regular snowstorms has convinced the civic leaders that there is no need to invest in snow-removal equipment and supplies, so there are only 55 snowplows for the whole city.

This decision makes perfect sense when you consider the rarity of substantial snow in the region. Why make such an expensive capital purchase for something you will only use once a decade?

And while they maintain a certain amount of gravel and/or salt (there seems to be some dispute over what they actually use, but I’ve heard gravel is the main substance, as it’s less harmful to cars and the environment) available for preventing slippery conditions should our normal amount of precipitation turn to sheets of ice, there is not a commensurate amount of gravel/salt for the amount of snow we have received.

Too few snowplows and an insufficiency of salt. That means that most of the snow we got just simply sits on the road, packed down and subsequently frozen over in places where studded tires have trod.

And what’s the other factor no one considers in Chicago? Right. Hills. My lovely West Slope. The tiny little mountain that has brought me such joy.

Snow+Ice+Hills-Salt-Plows=extraordinarily dangerous driving.

Tomorrow we will begin our third day of being well and truly housebound. To be fair, I’ve trekked twice to the supermarket a half mile away, not a bad walk, even in the snow.

pines snow

I love the snow. It’s beautiful to watch as it whisks past our view over the valley, and the massive pines and firs are cloaked impressively. The drifts are spectacular, carved by the persistent wind. I love walking in the plow-and-snowblower-free quiet, just me and the dog, listening to the flakes hit my jacket.

Dog Snow

But I no longer feel invulnerable in snow. Not here. With the already treacherous roads and the lack of tools to manage snowfall, the conditions really are deadly in a way I’ve never experienced before.

I will never laugh at Portland drivers in snow again.

PS–today’s weather advisory, which forecast freezing rain, actually included the phrases “motorized travel is strongly discouraged” and “this cannot be understated: please do not go under trees. Tree limbs and even whole trees can fall with little notice and potentially kill you…” So I’m staying in today. The dog can poop on the deck.

15 thoughts on “Hills and Salt

  1. So, have you considered moving back to the midwest, now? lol. I’m from the midwest, too and think the idiot drivers out here in Portland are insane. They shut the whole region down when there is an INCH of snow on the ground. Bunch of babies. All that is needed is slower, not faster speed. Oh, and kitty liter in the trunk and blankets and food and water in the back seat, along with warm clothes and food. Planning that comes from living in the midwest.

    • I am never leaving. I’ll be buying a set of chains (already have the kitty litter, thank you very much!) , snowshoes, and Nordic skis. I’m going to make next winter my b*tch.

  2. Portland doesn’t salt their roads. It’s all gravel and sand.

    From http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/319863:
    “Road treatments include application of anti-icing and de-icing chemical, sanding, plowing, limited snow removal, and street closures. Rock salt is not used because of environmental concerns. It is corrosive to our bridges and harmful to fish and wildlife in our rivers and streams.”

    • A Wisconsin/Minnesota girl here, who stays home when it snows. While I can usually drive well enough in the snow, no one else can. I love watching those YouTube videos of people making the attempt and playing bumper cars on the roadways. Rock salt has not proven to be too harmful to the rivers and streams of the midwest, though. Funny that. And being so close to the ocean (at least up here near Seattle), there’s a ton of salt IN THE AIR that is corrosive to the bridges, etc. Using rock salt once or twice a year is a drop in the bucket, really. SIgh.

  3. Thank you for this. I’m a midwest/Great Plains transplant (Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota — cold, snowy, rugged country) and it took me a long time to achieve some empathy for what happens here in the snow. It’s capital NOT like snow Back East. I never owned AWD or snow chains before moving here and never felt like I needed them.

    This year’s snowmageddon was like 2008 in that it happened mid-day, so the problem of travel was exacerbated by everyone trying to get home at the same time. So it was a carpocalypse too. I had coworkers who sat it out Thursday and had uncomplicated commutes at 7pm.

    Also: the city of Portland has about 50 plows.

  4. Okay, I’m the source of the “2 plows” statistic. Got it from a co-worker who has lived here since birth, thought it was legit. Thanks for setting the record straight, everyone.

    But now for the big question: has anyone actually seen one out in action over the last 4 days?

  5. I enjoyed this post. As a 5th generation SW Portlander, I can tell you that we are always given a hard time about our snow driving. It does seem ridiculous to those with less understanding, that seemingly minor conditions can lead to such difficulties on the road. But you’re right, we do have a unique set of circumstances to deal with here in the Portland metro area. Many of us regularly drive in the snow on Mt. Hood and in Central Oregon and are very confident in those conditions, but Portland’s infrequent snow, more frequent ice and the hills can put the best drivers in a bind. We do have more snowplows, however. The following is from the Portland Department of Transportation website:
    A total of 55 trucks are fitted with snowplows and sand spreaders. These trucks are used every day for activities such as filing potholes, flushing streets, and carrying materials to and from work sites for paving. The City uses large dump trucks fitted with plows and sanders to clear streets, bridges, and overpasses of ice, snow, or slush. The full fleet includes 55 plows and sanders, 5 anti-icing trucks, 10 service trucks, 5 big-wheel loaders, 2 backhoes, 2 road graders, 2 emergency trucks, 2 street closure trucks, and 1 fuel truck.

  6. Thanks for your new appreciation of our area’s special difficulties in snow and ice. Often those who criticize our “inability” to function in extreme winter conditions have lived their lives cities which are primarily flat, with streets that are straight. I’m a 5th generation Portlander, and believe we need to give a generous “THANKS” to our city/county transportation efforts, as we depend on their ability to help us get around when the getting is not that easy. Nature has it’s way………….

  7. There is another major factor (really 2 combined) not mentioned here because this storm was unusually different than most Portland snowstorms. This time around, it was 25 degrees (less in some areas) when the snow started, and we got nice dry powder. For Portland, this was a rare treat for driving conditions, but what the Midwest and even Northeast is used to. What usually happens here is that big wet flakes start falling when it’s around 32-35 degrees. This means that even if it’s not already wet on the ground, the snow melts when it lands, falling temperatures cause it to freeze, and the remainder of the snow builds up on top of that. What results is a nice layer of slippery wet ice hidden under more slippery wet dense snow on top. Under those conditions, even flat, level surfaces are a treacherous nightmare, much less the hilly, curvy problems you mentioned. This time around we got pretty lucky.

  8. Funny to read this- we’ve dealt with a similar issue moving from Maine to Colorado. We heard all about the “warm, sunny winters”, the “powdery snow that disappears right away”. Our first winter was okay, but this winter has been challenging. The big difference is that they don’t plow much here, and yet we’ve still had plenty of snow, some ice, and it doesn’t just go away. No one here seems bothered by it but we’re having a rough time adjusting to the messy roads. I had never even visited before moving here but I did a lot of research and haven’t been surprised by too much, but the “solar snowplow” approach drives me crazy.

    • Out driving today, I was a bit frustrated with the amount of materiel still on the roads, impeding sidestreets etc. Solar snowplow indeed; we’re just waiting until it warms up and melts. In the meantime, some of us (not me, mind you) still can’t get out of our apartment complex.

  9. Completely agree with the above. Interesting that we’re getting a deluge before Christmas this time. Think we’ll get another dump or two? I’m excited to break out the Yak-Trax again 🙂

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