Thursday, March 13, 2014

Driving (Me) Crazy

No matter where you live, if there is one thing that bonds us together as Americans, it’s commuting.  No one likes it.  If you’re in a metro area, your commute could be anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes or more, daily.  It can be worse this time of year – snow, cold, bitter conditions make it feel longer.  It’s all a tremendous waste of time, energy, money, you name it. 

Even here in rural Seaside, commuting can have its issues.  Sure, my commute to work is about a mile, and I usually walk in the summer (10-12 minutes, depending on “traffic”).  But going elsewhere can be a pain.  Because both the spousal unit and I have unusual eye issues, we wind up driving to Portland for eye care.   Actually, we do most of our medical visits there (it’s a long story).  There is medical here…even a hospital…but…well, it’s a long story, and not this one.  We make maybe 10-15 trips a year to Portland for various medical issues (and for the car, as the dealer is there, and…some other stuff…again, long story).  That’s a 2-hour journey – it’s about 70-85 miles, depending on where in metro PDX we go, but there’s no super highway to take to get there.  In fact, there’s only ONE road – US26, a two-lane highway that goes through the Coastal Mountain range and into the Willamette Valley where Portland and the ‘burbs are (it eventually goes to 4-lanes once you get into the metro area).  Hence, doing 55 MPH is a pipe-dream for the length of the journey.

Compare this to where you live.  For my friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this is like driving to Lansing for medical care.  But not via the highway – take US23 to M36 west, then take M52 north and M43 west.  Then add a few hills.  BIG hills.

And, of course, back here in Oregon, mountain snow can be a concern this time of year.  That wasn’t the case Tuesday, but we did have problems of another sort that you in your metro area will never encounter.

We left Seaside at 9am for an 11:20 eye doctor appointment.  We like to leave early just in case there is a slow traffic once we reach Portland (fairly normal for the morning commute).  Normally we leave at about 8:30, but the appointment was scheduled later than normal, so we figured we could leave a half-hour later and still get there in plenty of time.

About a half-hour into our journey, on a clear, mostly sunny day (a bit of fog is all), we saw a temporary road sign that said, “Wreck Ahead.”  We were about two miles shy of the Quartz Creek Bridge, a notoriously dangerous spot on the road, as cold mornings will leave a thin sheet of ice on the roadway. A few hundred yards later we slowed to a crawl and then stopped behind a line of cars.  It was impossible to see how long the line was because this was well up into the mountain range and we were twisting and turning so the most we could see was maybe 20 cars…but we assumed a longer line (it was much, much longer), and we had no idea where exactly the wreck was.

Soon, an ambulance came by and then a sheriffs’ car, a fire truck, another ambulance, and state police.  We sat…and waited…and waited…and waited.  At 10:00am, we saw a couple of cars turning around, heading back the way we came.  Then a few more.  Finally we saw a guy who “seemed to know” and we asked what the deal was.  He said there was a wreck (no, really?) and that the highway was closed. 

“For how long?” we asked. 
“They said two to four hours, at least.”

Nuts.  OK, that’s not exactly what we said, but we turned around and headed for a way around the accident.

Now, where you live, when the highway shuts down because of an accident, you can turn on the radio and hear the traffic ‘copter tell you to take an alternate route.  This means you take an earlier exit, get on a side road, drive a few miles (maybe hit a couple of traffic lights), and then get back on the highway and on your way.

Here’s what we had to do:  backtrack about four miles to an intersection where we took THE ONLY OTHER ROAD north for about 11 miles to catch THE ONLY OTHER ROAD going east for about 14 miles so that we could take THE ONLY OTHER ROAD going south for about 17 miles so that we could get back on US 26 and head to Portland.

And when I say “road” I mean a former lumber road that somehow got paved (mostly) and somehow got designated a state highway instead of “goat trail.”  No shoulders, switchback city, crossing and re-crossing the Nehalem River about 30 times, and did I mention no shoulders?  And no guard rail, either.

If you look at the second map you’ll see the roads we took to get around the closure; the first map being our normal route (The "X" is the accident - duh).  And please note that ALL the roads ARE shown.  There ARE NO OTHER ROADS.  Those empty spaces on the map where you think roads should be (and would be where you live) are filled with things we call “trees,” “rivers,” and “mountains.”

This delightful excursion took a little more than an hour (slowed further by driving through the towns of Jewell, Mist, and Vernonia…and when I say “town” I mean it in the same way I refer to the “road” – as in, “that’s what they call it, but…not really”).  We made it to the doctor’s office only about a half-hour late, and as luck would have it, they were behind, so we wound up getting there at about the “right” time. 

And it was a nice day for a drive.


UPDATE:  On the way home we wound up in a gridlock traffic jam coming from lunch to the highway to get back to Seaside.  We travelled four miles in 40 minutes up OR 217 to the exit ramp before finally merging into US 26 and (mostly) regular traffic.  So we got the “best” of both worlds.  Thank goodness it was a nice day.

UPDATE 2:  Once we got home (finally) we checked online to see what the wreck was all about.  Yup, it was a bad one – it happened at 9am, about a half-hour before we got there – 11 cars and a tanker trailer, one truck caught fire, three injured, one critical.  They re-opened the highway about four hours later.

UPDATE 3:  Late last night the cause of the accident was still under investigation, but they had learned that (a) a truck crossed the center line and started the chain reaction, and (b) alcohol may have been involved.  At 9am in the morning?  Kee-ripes.

UPDATE 4:  I did mention that we normally leave a half-hour earlier, didn’t I?  That would have meant that we would have reached the Quartz Creek Bridge at about…9am.


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