18 January 2017

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.

13 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ed Sallia Dundee Oregon January 25, 2017 at 16:12
    I enjoyed reading Stefan's account as I know just what he is talking about. I too endured that storm and live just outside Newberg and stop by the same classic car lot regularly to enjoy the great old vehicles. I am surprised he did not mention the trip out of Newberg on 99W over Rex Hill. That is one of the great road challenges in the snow and ice because it is so steep. Glad you made it home Stefan.
  • 2
    R Foster Boothbay, ME January 25, 2017 at 17:25
    I hadn't heard about the dreaded "chains" since I left Boston as a young lad some 65 years ago. I can still remember them as an invention of the devil which would mangle fingers and always break before you got to your destination...usually at night.
  • 3
    john curtiss Connecticut January 25, 2017 at 17:34
    I bet the 55-57 Olds did not do well in the snow
  • 4
    Bruce CO January 25, 2017 at 18:13
    Nice write-up. I'll bet your insurance agent is cringing.
  • 5
    Jim Necci Amissville,VA January 25, 2017 at 18:25
    Hope the broken link did little damage. When I was growing up in Erie, PA back in the 50' and 60's a broken link beat the hell out your quarter panel.
  • 6
    Brakeservo New Mexico January 25, 2017 at 22:09
    As an ex-Oregonian I could tell stories of crossing the Siskiyous in a blinding snow storm in an open Cobra (yes, sanity finally prevailed and I spent the night in Ashland) and had to use the motel room's ice bucket to dig the snow out of the little sportscar's cockpit. ( To amazed onlookers I'd explain - aluminum doesn't rust.) Or the '49 Bentley with no working heater, defroster or windshield wipers I also drove through the same mountains in a similar storm but that paled in comparison to the drive across Wyoming in a full-blown blizzard in a 1952 Bentley with similarly non-working Lucas wipers and Smith's heater . . .
  • 7
    Bill Maloney Wilmette, IL January 25, 2017 at 22:10
    Some cool and unique shots, thanks for sharing.
  • 8
    David San Francisco, CA January 25, 2017 at 22:11
    Thanks for the great snow tale. You reminded me on the Sunday after Thanksgiving snow storm of 1973 centered on Toledo OH. I was driving an Opel Manta on I75 when four cars ahead pirouetted into the median on a banked turn. I jumped out of their tracks and made it on the high side! My usual 6 hours back to Purdue was 12 hours! A friend driving the same route in a Sunbeam Alpine was caught in a snow drift, he came a day or so later.
  • 9
    KDavin Pacific Northwest January 26, 2017 at 15:54
    We in the Portland area are still talking about the spanking we endured as a result of that snow fiasco! Too bad those cars had to be left out in the snow! Lovely images, however. As for the broken chain tales-we saw some guy with a busted chain just tearing along the street like he's late for a fire. The poor Japanese appliance he was driving just getting the front fender and wheelhouse battered beyond recognition. We all know Japanese cars are intended to be used up, worn out and replaced. Too bad he didn't throw a little respect at his ride! I guess it could have been a BMW or Benz and that would have been a real shame. Fortunately this winter stuff doesn't happen here too often!
  • 10
    Ray T Cleveland, OH January 27, 2017 at 15:02
    People that live in snow-free zones have no idea what you're talking about. They can drive relatively easy all year. Their biggest concern is overheating. Being born and bred in Northeast Ohio, when someone starts telling a story of driving up 271 in a total whiteout, they have my full attention. White knuckle "danger ride".
  • 11
    Mike Nashville January 27, 2017 at 07:37
    Great story and cool pics!
  • 12
    KEN SHELTON United States January 27, 2017 at 23:30
    2 weeks ago, 2 feet of snow in the front yard. Couldn't drive the subdivision rds with out 4 wheel drive. I just built a Grand Cherokee for Arizona. It was the only thing moving for blocks. That's when you pitch in and help your neighbors in Idaho. IDAHOROCKS.
  • 13
    Steve Lehl Salem Oregon January 30, 2017 at 12:21
    Great write up. I work in Newberg and drive a service van, quite an adventure to be sure. Have renamed my truck pistol as I learned to point and shoot while navigating portlands west hills. I was beautiful and wrong at the same time seeing the classics and hotrods in a snow covered parking lot. Seeing a v8 vega and a 58 Chev with snow covered scoops was surreal. Did drive my track T later that day tho, crazy ride! Steve lehl

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