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.
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.
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.