Back on the chain gang

Last Thursday night I went out to the coast for a weekend with some friends. A dude’s weekend, if you will. Beer, dice, hiking, bacon, that sort of thing. I drove my “fun car,” because the 90 miles between my home in Portland and the Oregon Coast can be as undulating and unbusy as you want them to be. It’s generally a two-and-a-half-hour trip, but it can also be twice as long or more and hundreds of miles if you go up and down the Coast Range and don’t really care how you get there. On Thursday, I just wanted to get there, but I didn’t care how I’d get home on Sunday. I had my camera and all day to do it. This story was totally going to be about a Sunday drive in my sweet blue Volvo.

Instead I drove home Saturday, on ice, in chains. It was decidedly less fun, and it still took all day.

The culprit in these parts is freezing rain, which essentially glazes the entire world as it falls. It seals your doors shut, it breaks your trees. And your back, probably, when you fall on it. It’s beautiful and it sucks all at once, but it doesn’t happen regularly. For those few days each winter, though, the studded tire set are heroes, out and about and all that. I’ve got link-type chains, but it’s never been worth it to put them on. It’s easier to just wait for the thaw, which can arrive in a few hours. Sometimes.

On Friday, we watched the forecast from the sunny, clear coast: Snow showers in Portland starting Saturday morning and turning to ice by evening. Snow and ice, too, in the low, wet mountains of the Coast Range between here and there. Reluctantly, we headed home Saturday morning to beat the weather. Reluctantly too, I abandoned the story of my rad Volvo.

We’d all driven separately, and we each left the moment we were packed and ready, every man for himself. I was second-to-last out the door, at about 10:30 that morning.

This is when that two-and-a-half-hour trip became seven.

Just a few miles into the trip, rain froze on my windshield turning it to privacy glass before my eyes. Not far ahead, an accident blocked the entire highway resulting in an hour delay, so I chained up where I sat. Once underway, I listened to the sound of chains plunk-plunking along at 20 mph through the Van Duzer Forest and up to the 750-foot pass on Highway 18, completely slick beneath half an inch of ice.

I considered stopping to set up some photos. I wanted… something. Maybe a few spiffy out-the-window shots, camera held close to the road. Maybe some of the car parked off the road with the, I don’t know, the drama of a clear-cut hillside behind it or something. But I just pressed on. Why stop if I didn’t have to? Why drive on ice with one hand and shoot photos over the door with the other if I didn’t have to?

Summiting the mountains, I eventually traded freezing rain for snow as I descended into the Willamette Valley’s farms and wineries. It felt like progress, and then I arrived at quaint little Newberg’s eastern edge and the perfect, snowy lot of American Classics & Hot Rods.

I’ve been past this dealership before, but never stopped. So I stopped. If I wasn’t going to get photos of my planned adventure, then a sleepy classic car dealership under an inch of snow was easily the next best thing. I parked and wandered around for a bit, my tracks the only ones in the lot. Snow really does have a way of making a place more beautiful, or beautiful in a different way, and the transformative effect on these great old cars was gratifying. At least until car after car after van after truck began taking the ess turn beside the dealership too aggressively, fishtailing into the tall curb on the outside of the turn with a WHACK that made me cringe every time. Alignments for everyone!

Conditions weren’t exactly improving, then, but I had photos in hand and lifted spirits, so it was time to get back at it. Right until I broke a chain two miles out the other side of town. At least I hadn’t smacked a curb.

I tell you, there’s nothing quite like the whump-whump-whump of metal on metal as those errant links beat the hell out of your wheelwell before you can get stopped. I limped back to Newberg on one chained tire, another hazard among many. I found a new set of chains and installed them, because chains don’t just install themselves on frozen, filthy tires twice in one day, do they?

The last 35 miles up the valley still took me an hour and a half. But, thankfully, they were uneventful miles. And I did make it home in time for dinner, which lacked beer and dice but not bacon, so there’s that.