Kris and I were supposed to have spent yesterday (Saturday) in Vancouver, Canada, talking to the very strong chapter of the Romance Writers organization based there. Basically a higher level Kris and Dean show. And both Kris and I had been looking forward to it, and the trip to beautiful Vancouver, just eight hours up the Pacific Coast from us. But alas, for the second time this year the weather conspired to stop us.
Remember the last failed trip was to Writers of the Future in August in LA. We ran into a record heat wave and before I realized I was having old heat problems, I was down and Kris was trying to get us back to the coast.
Now understand, we live on the Oregon Coast not only because of the beauty of the place, which is stunning, but because of the weather. If it gets above 75 in the summer it’s a record heat wave, which usually only lasts for a few hours and the locals talk about the horrid hot day for months. And it snows here and sticks about once every three years, and in 15 years here, Kris and I have only seen snow stick on the ground for a couple days once, and us locals call that the worst winter ever.
So in other words, we live with rain and moderate temperatures and that’s it. Sun comes out at one point or another most days, even when raining, and we don’t deal with extreme heat or extreme cold or snow.
So when we agreed to the trip to Vancouver, Canada, I figured we would be driving in the rain through Portland and Seattle. The freeway doesn’t get more than three or four hundred feet above sea level anywhere between here and Vancouver, Canada.
So, Friday, we left at a decent time around noon, had a nice lunch in the valley, and headed north, driving in both rain at times and sunshine, no issue. Outside temperature on our car gage hovered between 45-48. All fine.
We got past Tacoma around 6:30 and then sat in a dead-stopped traffic jam on the freeway south of Sea Tac airport for an hour and a half. (Why anyone lives in that traffic all the time is beyond me. A traffic jam here on the coast means it takes 15 minutes to get to the other side of town instead of ten.)
So a late dinner north of Everett and we were on the road again, headed toward Bellingham, Washington just short of ten at night. All fine. Outside temperature gage said 46 degrees. Slight rain at times. Nothing unusual.
Now understand I had been watching the weather and I knew that coming in Sunday was a cold snap that might actually have snow in Seattle and Portland on late Sunday and Monday. So Kris and I had decided that instead of staying in the hotel furnished for us by the fine folks in Vancouver and then driving on Sunday, we would head out after teaching on Saturday and get home. No big deal driving at night, since I normally stay up until five in the morning anyway, and less traffic in that Seattle mess at night as well.
So because of the weather coming we were planning on heading south on Saturday evening instead of Sunday day.
South of Bellingham as we drove along at near 70 mph, in light traffic, Kris pointed to the outside temperature gage. It had hit forty and was dropping. A couple miles later it said thirty-eight. Two miles later it read thirty-five and was warning of ice. At this point all the traffic around me and I had slowed to 60 mph, and I made some comment to Kris that if this turned to freezing rain, we were turning back.
Then it started to snow.
Remember, coast resident, snow tires never needed or used. I had just put new all weather tires on the car made for driving in rain. Also, we were in our van, not a great snow car. Now, I was born and raised in Idaho, drove school bus on one-lane dirt roads for years to pick kids up at the lodge of an abandoned ski area. I used to be a skier. I love snow, and can drive in it. Out of practice driving in snow after all the years on the coast, yes, but not afraid of it.
However, I am afraid of Seattle drivers. They are known around the Northwest as the worst drivers. They speed, they tailgate, and they have few driving skills for the most part. So the other drivers in snow I was worried about. And not having snow tires.
Luckily, the traffic was light as it started to snow. And the BC driver in front of me slowed down to a decent pace and I kept my distance behind him and all was fine. I made some comment about if this starts sticking to the road we might be in trouble, since we were headed into that small batch of hills south of Bellingham. Not really mountains by Northwest standards. They would put ski resorts in them if they were in the Midwest, but by western standards, they weren’t mountains, but the freeway went up a few hundred feet and wound through the trees and valleys before dropping back down into Bellingham.
The snow started sticking and I turned to Kris and said, “Well, we’re in for an adventure.”
At this point we are one hour south of Vancouver, Canada at normal speeds. On snow that hour was going to stretch to numbers of hours.
The temperature on our little exterior car gage went down to twenty-eight and stayed there, the snow got heavier and deeper until within another five miles, a very long five miles, we were in those hills and the snow on the freeway was a good six inches deep.
The very good driver from BC, Canada in front of me had slowed to about twenty-five, a perfect speed for the conditions and I stayed a safe distance behind him. We passed two cars off the road on the right, but there was no helping them. Then two idiots with Washington plates went past us, driving far too fast for the conditions and one was tailgating the other as is normal in Seattle. Kris said, “Wow, that’s stupid.”
I told Kris, “I hope they don’t block the freeway when they crash.”
About one mile later we passed them. They had spun out, crashed into each other and them smashed against the guard rail on the left side of the freeway. The guardrail was the only thing that had kept both cars from going over and down onto the southbound lanes of the freeway. Both cars were pretty smashed up and people were climbing out of both cars. We couldn’t have stopped even if we had wanted to. Luckily for us they didn’t block the freeway with their stupidity.
Then we started down the slight hill into Bellingham. I kept thinking as we got back to sea level that the snow would clear, but I was wrong. It just got heavier and the temperature stayed under thirty and the snow was almost white-out conditions. As we neared the main part of Bellingham I could see through the blowing snow a sight I didn’t want to see. The freeway was jammed up solid. Cars were scattered with flashers on, one truck had slid slightly sideways on a shallow incline and from the looks of it through the snow the line of stopped cars went into the distance up the freeway.
The freeway was blocked completely and closed.
Here is where we got lucky. At that point there was a Bellingham exit, the low one right near the bay. So after a slight hesitation from both the BC driver in front of me and me, we both decided to get off. I knew that if I didn’t get off the freeway and got stopped in that traffic jam there would be no starting again without snow tires. I did have chains, so more than likely I would have tried to chain us up, but that freeway ahead of us wasn’t moving and didn’t look like it was going to move at any time in the near future, so I slid us down the off-ramp without hitting anything.
We pulled into a closed gas station and I knocked the ice off our windshield wipers, then Kris and I decided that the next hour to Vancouver wasn’t going to be possible even if the freeway opened again, which considering the white-out blizzard we were in didn’t seem likely. We needed to turn back. I then did something stupid. I said I was getting us out of there. It was over freezing just fifteen miles south of where we were. So I managed to get a run at the on-ramp going south and got us back on the freeway. And at once I knew that was a mistake.
Through the snow ahead I could see the blinking yellow of a snow plow, but all it was doing was taking off the top layer, leaving a very, very slick layer of ice. There is a slight hill going south out of Bellingham and I wasn’t certain I could even make it up that. Luckily, another exit to Bellingham came along through the snow and I again managed to slide us down off the freeway without hitting anything.
Bellingham is a coastal town, not designed for snow, so with some more luck I slid us down another hill and into a nice hotel there, which luckily had a room because I was fairly convinced I couldn’t get out of that parking lot again. At 11:00 we camped in a nice, warm hotel room.
We were on the second floor and could see the freeway through the snow out our window and nothing was moving in either direction. So we watched the local Seattle news and they were going on about the massive problems in Bellingham and the small towns north to the boarder and how the cold had come in early and would be moving south.
That was it, we weren’t going farther north into that mess, so we called a few people and cancelled the trip, then tried to sleep. About five in the morning Kris heard a truck going by on the freeway, so I climbed into cloths and went out to check the conditions, thinking that just maybe it had cleared enough for us to continue. At first glance it looked like things had melted a little, but alas what had happened was that freezing rain had come down and coated all the snow with a nasty, hard crust of ice, then it had frozen even harder. I wasn’t sure we were even getting out of the parking lot.
So back to bed, but no chance of sleep, so we decided to just hit the road and try to make it back south before the freezing weather got too far south. Somehow I got us out of the parking lot and with a run at the now plowed but still slick onramp, I got us up on the freeway and headed south. A slow fifteen miles later we emerged from the snow zone and by the time we had breakfast near Tacoma, the sun was shinning and the temperature there was mid-forties.
I am used to the micro-climates we have here in the Pacific Northwest, but I had never seen one quite so stark before. Friends told us that it had snowed from one to seven inches in the Vancouver, Canada area as well. So even if we had turned north instead of south in the morning, I doubt we would have made it to the teaching through the sixty miles of driving in slick snow and ice conditions. Again, no snow tires.
Today (Sunday) it snowed in both the Seattle area and the Portland area, and it’s supposed to get worse tonight and tomorrow. I’m real, real glad I didn’t end up driving today, especially in the Seattle area.
Sorry once again that we didn’t make it to the workshop, but alas nothing we could do about the weather yet again.
Have I ever said how much I love living here on the coast? We deal with rain and hundred-plus mph winds every winter that no one calls hurricanes, but I like that a bunch more than traffic jams, idiot drivers, intense heat, and snow-covered freeways. To each his own I guess.
It was an adventure yet again. 400 miles of driving, turn around 400 miles home for no reason. That’s twice in one year, once into heat, the second into snow.
Neither an adventure I want to repeat.