Thursday, March 17, 2011

Observations from Sunday

While were were in Redmond, a fierce windstorm blew into the Willamette Valley. Our first warning came from an IM I got while we were exploring a lava tube cave: one of our friends wanted to know if our house had power.

It was about 3:30 PM. Mark drove. We gassed up the car and began the trek from Redmond, through Sisters, and along Highway 126, the McKenzie Highway, to Springfield and Eugene.

As we approached the Hoodoo Ski area, the driving rain turned to a blizzard. The snow was wet, and we were glad that we had opted not to ski that day, as Saturday's snow had been wet and sticky. This snow would be worse (or better, if one didn't want to wind up skiing too quickly).

As we descended the western slopes of the Cascade Mountain range, the snow turned back to rain. But the tops of the trees were swaying, and every now and then a gust would rush up against the car.

We were about ninety minutes from home. We passed the new Ranger Station, and began to see LTD Bus stop signs. But the farther into the Willamette valley we got, the more we started to notice small branches on the highway. The small branches turned into larger branches. At one point the highway was covered with a dirty white, mashed pulp of pine -- which smelled nice.

We approached Blue River. "Whoo!" Mark said, "Don't touch the car, I think I drove over a power line!"

"What?" I'd been too busy looking at the trees on the side of road.

Then we passed three road flares underneath a line sagging from a leaning power pole. A little farther, a line of brake-lights stopped us. Mark pulled up and stopped the car.

On my side, I watched smoke rising from the chimney of a rural home. Its owner was prominently puttering about his front yard not looking suspiciously at the line of cars.  Mark rolled down his window, and we smelled woodsmoke from the widely spaced houses and cabins lining the highway.

Someone was out of their vehicle and speaking to a red SUV idling in front of us. Words like, "blocked" and "two hours" were all I heard of the snatches of conversation. The SUV made a hard turn and went the other way.

By this time it was around 5:15. We waited for the blockage to clear. Headlights in the distance turned out to be ODOT cars or the occasional fellow traveler turning around. Through the rain streaming down the windshield, I saw a damaged filbert orchard. Snapped limbs littered the field and here and there trees were blown over, their roots pulled out of the water-saturated soil.

Going back up the mountains, a small white car approached; it stopped every few cars. When it reached us, the driver said, "There's been a landslide, it will be a four or five hour wait before they clear the road." Then she drove off (it turned out there were only downed trees and power lines, but it did take about five or so hours to clear the road).  At this point I pulled out my secret stash of chocolate and passed it around.

There was poor to no cell phone coverage where we were. We decided to look for a restaurant. And a place to pee. Mark pulled the car around and we drove back to Blue River. He was able to get some ODOT alerts on his phone, but they were vague, saying only that there was storm damage and that maintenance would cause three hour delays.

I called my Mom -- my folks had been in Redmond also and had been on the road home a little before us. Luckily, the route they took had been clogged and limb-strewn but clear for them to get through (though not without worries over possible punctured tires). We decided not to try to get more ODOT information via Mom-net, and told her we'd call her back later.

Then we tried to find a place to eat. As we left Blue River, I noticed a homeowner had lit two tiki torches outside her home. Then I noticed folks hanging out on their front porches watching the rain and traffic. It wasn't night yet, but the afternoon was grey and I noticed no one appeared to have lights on in their houses.

"I think the power's out," I said. The later it got, the more more apparent it became that all the country stores and taverns, the Pepsi and Coke machines standing outside gas stations were dark.

Mark pointed out blinking LEDs in junction boxes high atop power poles. "I've never noticed them blinking before," he said. We guessed they would help maintenance folks pinpoint a systemic power failure. We drove past the 365 Christmas store -- closed. We drove past a hotel -- closed. The last store for 50 miles -- dark.

At last we gave up and turned back to see if the highway was clear. We drove past a tavern and supply store; it was open -- or at least there were people inside -- but only because someone illuminated the check-out counter with the headlights from their jeep.

We had to detour through Blue River again; ODOT had closed the section of highway were we'd drove over power lines.

The way to Eugene was still blocked.

By now it was 7:15-ish. We had a discussion; it was too late to try to drive back up to the probably-by-now icy pass and then try to sneak past any downed trees my folks had avoided. In the dark. The McKenzie River corridor appeared to be without power, but we had enough snacks so we wouldn't starve. We had enough gas in the tank to not worry too much about running out. Mark knew of a place further up the river that might be open. So we went back up the valley.

Our fourth pass through Blue River, Mark stopped to talk with the flagger, but all she knew was that there was road maintenance. As we continued east, other drivers behaved oddly aggressive, and we surmised they were tired, hungry, and irritated at the blocked road.

Mark drove us into the deepening darkness and rain. Everywhere along the road were empty and shadowy gas stations and cabins with woodsmoke streaming from their chimneys.

At last, we turned down a short, debris-strewn drive. A short dip and rise in the road later and white twinkly lights shone in the rain. A lodge appeared and we parked near the front. When I got out to see if they had any vacancies, the thrum of generators told me where their power came from.

Around 8:00 PM, we secured a room. After I found a place to stand where my cell phone worked, I let my folks know where we were. After a scanty meal of over-priced canned tuna and crackers and other food scavenged from our car, we played in their hot springs, then went to bed.

Around 9:45 the generator's thrum cut out, and the power stayed on. The hush of the McKenzie River lulled us to sleep.

What I get out of all of this is
  • Wow; I'm thankful this was just a downed power line and some trees and not a tsunami or a nuclear melt-down;
  • We were only twenty miles or so from a major metropolitan area, and still a storm isolated us from good information, food, and shelter;
  • Other folks made interesting choices because they were stressed;
  • With no information, people made guesses and then passed mis-information along to other drivers who then trusted the information and source;
  • I'm glad Mark knew about the lodge; 
  • I'm glad we had the means to pay for our lodgings;
  • I'm glad we were able to fill up the gas tank in Eastern Oregon; and,
  • I'm thankful that the biggest impact this adventure had was to give me some source material for story-crafting
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