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Shutdown on Washington 14

bingen in snow

Bingen, Washington, in snow

This morning, back at home and blogging by the fireplace, thoughts return to that scene from last night, out of Dante – not the Inferno but the Icebox – and whatever may have happened to all those people . . .

What follows isn’t political, as such. It certainly is a matter of public affairs, and a reflect on how often people in positions of responsibility lose sight of the point of their work.

Friday was not a good day for travel across the width of the state of Oregon. Saturday looked better, and it wasn’t awful in its easternmost reaches, at least in early to midday; snow fell but the roads remained easily passable. On our journey, accompanied by a rescue dog headed from Nampa to Portland, trouble began with the ice rain, which started clunking down just past Arlington and was becoming inescapable by gasup at The Dalles.

Ahead, it apparently was much worse, at least account to Shell station gossip (which is usually pretty sound on such matters). US 84 had been shut down through much of the Gorge, from Cascade Locks to Troutdale on the east edge of Portland, because ice rain had led to a series of wrecks there. An alternative was to cross the Columbia and head west on Washington Highway 14; in fact, traffic between the Cascade Locks and Portland areas was being formally diverted there.

Sounded reasonable.

Westbound on 14, which is a narrow and sometimes twisty road but in many places more scenic than 84, was efficient – since we had light snow instead of the dread ice rain on the north side – and slowing only after we got through Bingen. Then, around the Carson area, maybe six or seven miles form the small city of Stevenson, we came to a stop. There were small advances, but in the two hours after reaching there about 4 p.m., we advanced little more than a mile. And then a complete stop. Darkness fell, and snow began falling heavily, piling two or three inches around the stopped vehicles.

People dealt with this in different ways. Some relaxed, turned their vehicles off and seemed to snooze. But for others the frustration level rose. Some tried driving on the mostly empty left-hand lane, only to be directed by a police officer to a parking lot (presumably to be ticketed later). Up and down the line, you could start to hear, after an hour or so had elapsed, loud voices. Turning to angry voices. Physical manifestation appeared not far away.

Your scribe tramped through the snow to ask the police officer what was happening. A half hour later, repeating the procedure. Little emerged from those efforts; a question elicited a strong rant against stupid and unprepared drivers, and he seemed little willing to say much else. He was connected with the regional law enforcement world by radio, however; he must have known more than he was saying.

After the stopped-vehicle coconut telegraph said that westbound on 14 was closed, period, presumably for the night, a third attempt at engagement followed. This time, the dialogue went about this way:

“There’s word back there that 14 west is closed, period. Is that the case?”

“Not closed, period,” he said. “It’ll be reopened when the accidents are cleared off. But every time traffic moves ahead, someone slides off or there’s a fender bender.”

“So you don’t know when it may be reopened. Could be hours.”

“It could be.”

“Could be morning.”

“That’s possible,” he said.

“Okay. Staying out here all night will be good for neither my health nor safety, nor that of the dog I’m carrying. You are a law enforcement officer sworn to protest health and safety as best you can. What is your best professional recommendation as what I should do?”

For a moment, that seemed to throw him; this wasn’t a challenge to his authority, but rather a request that he use it to help solve a problem. And after a moment’s pause, he did just that.

He asked for the preferred destination – which was, most directly, Portland – and said, “you can turn around, cross the Hood River bridge, and go west on 84 to Portland. They’ve reopened it. If I were in your shoes, that’s what I would do.”

After thanks and a nod, that is just what happened. The road doubling back toward Hood River had just been snow plowed (we followed a plow part of the way) and the traffic back was light. The rickety wire bridge was passable, and they waived the usual 75 cents toll. I-84 was snowpacked at Hood River through Cascade Locks, turning to slush and ice and finally plain rain after Multnomah Falls through to the Portland metro area, but ultimately passable.

What kept popping up, alongside the tight focus on a slow and cautious drive, was that scene of more than two miles of vehicles backed up near Carson. (A phrase from a character in the TV series Lost came to mind: “It’s gettin’ to Lord of the Flies time.”) And the question: Knowing what he did, why didn’t the police officer spread word through all those drivers, scores at least and maybe several hundred, that the way to go was back through Hood River? Why leave them to sit out in the cold and heavy snow? (And yes, there were pangs of guilt as we drove back; but how to communicate with them all?)

No doubt the cop was right that there were plenty of foolish drivers creating unnecessary problems up ahead. But why could he not have taken the next step: Actively trying to help those people stuck out in the deep freeze in the middle of the night, instead of waiting for someone to phrase the question in just the right way?

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