Thursday, January 12, 2017

It's Snowing and I Have No Chains?!?

Sometime early last fall, I warned my wife the upcoming winter months would be active and cold. She asked what led to my prediction. "We're just due for one," I replied. Rarely have I been this accurate in my forecast.

Evidently, Mother Nature heard me. Several times beginning prior to the winter solstice until this week, the Portland area has seen snow flurries. Sometimes it stuck, other times it just swirled around. Ominously. As if to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet." (She can be brutal, but her grammar sucks.)

A few weeks ago, she gave us a tease. A dusting, perhaps an inch or two in some places. Next came freezing rain, providing local traffic with an icy sheen to every roadway. Then she just blew cold wind at us and teased us with days of sunshine. Brittle cold sunshine. (Okay, for people from icier climates, please mute your chuckling. Portland is a very mild, if not extremely wet, climate zone. Our winter weather normally consists of temps between 35-45, with rain. "Sun breaks" are rare and welcome.) Our lows on a few occasions dipped well into the teens, with highs struggling to rise above freezing. Wind chills added to the misery, especially close to the Columbia Gorge, where sustained winds can average 30-40 mph with gusts over 50-60 mph. I nearly cleaned out my coat closet adding layers to my uniform, dress code be damned.

Maybe I was wrong, I thought one sunny day last week. It could very well be next year we'll see the "big 'un" my bones believed was coming. My phone's weather app stubbornly kept popping up a snowflake for Tuesday, January 10. It would disappear one hour, but return the next. I thought it was just another tease, but then those confounded East Winds came roaring in to confront a powerfully-wet cold front approaching from the Pacific.

It started as just another cold, wet day. On my first run, I saw rain, sleet and a few flakes. No big deal, not to worry. Our new buses have those really cool drop-down chains, and by the looks of things at my first layover, I might not even need them. When it's 37 degrees and raining, it's just another Northwest winter's day. As long as the windshield wipers were working, it was no problem.

Then I started back toward where I had begun the run. A few more flakes as I passed the transit center, nothing really sticking. About five minutes later, I started up a small hill and WHOOSH! It seemed as if I had driven a few states eastward into a full-fledged blizzard. Seemingly millions of huge white ice pillows began pounding against my windshield as if they were pissed and I was to blame.

No worries. Streets started to turn white, but I'd seen plenty of these flurries blow away faster than a desert monsoon. But it was no flurry. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the end of the line transit center to find a sea of white. No more lane markers, cars appearing out of nowhere in ghostly fashion, pedestrians dashing to their cars like raccoons to a tipped-over trashcan. It was dry, not slippery. Still no cause for extreme concern, only added caution.

After my 20-minute break, the storm had intensified. As I left the transit center, the back end slipped a little. Okay, I figured it was time to test the drop downs. I flipped the switch. Eerie silence, except for the normal sounds of a cruising Gillig. At a stop sign, I glanced down to see the indicator light hadn't come on. Strange, I thought, but not surprising. The chains had been subject to a heavy workout, the most usage this feature had seen since the new buses entered the fleet a year ago. I tried the switch again, mindful of traveling between 5-10 mph. Still nothing. Since I was still early into my run with the storm in infancy, I decided to inform Dispatch of this dilemma.

The dispatcher listened and replied with "Yes Deke, we know of the problem. For some reason, the drop-down chains have been disabled."

I had pulled over to speak when Dispatch called, and it was a good thing. I was stunned.

"Did you say," I asked after a moment of silence, "that the drop-downs are disabled?"

Lady Dispatch sounded sympathetic and nearly as incredulous as I was. "I'm afraid so, yes, that is correct. They are disabled on many buses."

I chewed on this for a few seconds. Why had this happened? Hadn't the powers-that-be been privy to the same weather forecasts I was?

"Okay," I replied. "It's getting pretty white out here. Am I on snow route on the other end?"

"Not at this time," she said. "We will, of course, inform you the moment that changes. Please continue your normal route. The other end is reporting just rain at this time, and the roads are clear down there."

I thanked her and headed the beast into a world that had radically changed since I came the opposite direction not 30 minutes before. Trees were holding a new white coat; they swayed in an angry dance, crashing into one another as if they could shake loose their new layers and make it the next conifer's problem. Yet as I cruised into the second third of the run past the transit center, all seemed normal again. Wet streets, only a dusting on the ground, mostly chunky rain on the windshield. Hey, I thought, this too could pass. No big deal.

At the other end it was just as advertised. Cold, windy and rainy. Typical Portland weather. I sighed a short-lived breath of relief. Then my follower arrived with a mixed coat of iced-over white.

"Freezing rain down the road a piece," he glumly reported. "Take it slow, you'll be okay. This will probably blow over."

Doubtful, I opened my local news channel's radar site. A large swath of blue was already covering the city, and a band of precipitation approached from far off the coast. The weatherman was waffling. "Either a few inches or more than that. We're not sure yet."

My groin tightened. What if we got a foot? I had no chains, and there wasn't a chaining crew in sight at either end. Having fought back spasms the past hour, I popped a few Ibuprofens and did some stretches. I tend to tense up a bit when Old Man Winter flexes his muscles, and I needed to have my body in fighting shape. Dealing with two people off their meds who tested my patience to the extreme added to my back's discomfort. My mood was shifting south in a hurry.

The next run was fine. Until I found the snowstorm had expanded its boundaries a few miles deeper. By the end I was 15 minutes late. I had charged up a hill sans chains that normally scares off the toughest 4x4's and felt pretty good. This storm was a monster, and as I returned to where it first started, there were already ruts in the road and it was snowing harder than I had seen in years. Still no chaining crews, and I had two more round trips to complete. Cutting my break short, I charged back into the howling whiteness. Still no snow on the other end, but it was sleeting. When I returned to the epicenter, there were five more inches to greet me, but the crews were feverishly chaining buses. Already late to leave by five minutes, several intending passengers demanded to know when I'd leave again.

"As soon as I'm ready," I replied as patiently as I could. Charging outside into the storm to avoid their whining, I checked my phone and tried to ease my back with stretches.

After a few puffs of nicotine, the storm chased me back to my invitingly warm office. Running on pure adrenaline, I picked up a few more folks who stood shivering and assured them I'd complete the entire route. Then I released the parking brake, threw the tranny into second gear and eased back onto the road.

When you drive in a snowstorm, it's amazing how passengers watch the road more than their phones. It's about the only time this happens. I felt under the microscope, but I drove confidently and avoided getting stuck. As I dropped each passenger off, they thanked me for "driving safely." I always try to do that, but it's nice they noticed. Nobody wants to get stuck and wait. People always need to get somewhere, even during a storm.

After my run ended, I had to re-route my deadhead to the garage down the same street I had serviced all day. Not knowing when the next bus would come, I stopped for a lone passenger. He'd been waiting about 20 minutes and was as snow-covered as the Abominable Snowman, so I invited him onboard. I picked up a few others who had been waiting even longer. It's hard passing people who are a degree or two above hypothermia when you're in a warm bus. It felt nice to do good deeds for my fellow citizens. Hell, I was going their way, so why not help them out? As I started off empty again, a lone fellow trudged through the foot-deep powder with his thumb out. Picked him up too, to his surprise, and took him as far as the garage, where he hoped to walk up to Powell and hook up with the last Line 9.

Finally, I pulled into the yard, safely stopped and shut down my bus. No hits, several runs, and no errors. Most of it without chains. I had merely been lucky. Many of my brothers and sisters, driving in parts of town harder hit than my route, had to wait hours for help. Supervisors were chugging through the wintry mess to help, dispatchers pointing them every which way. Once again, the worker bees prevailed, and as far as I can tell, no injuries were reported.

More than a sigh of relief escaped me (more like a Troutdale wind gust) as I set the brake. I shook my fist at the still-erupting sky and stuck out my tongue. Hmm... diesel-flavored snow isn't very tasty, but it was still satisfying to express my displeasure to the spitting sky.

To my relief, my beloved wife and son awaited in the parking lot. How she had made it to my garage amazed me, but I have great faith in her abilities. She's put up with me for decades, so she's no sissy. Our car is a new front-wheel drive that has performed admirably this winter. No chains or snow tires. Just great engineering and patient drivers. And comfy, even more importantly to my screaming lumbar muscles.

We made it home an hour later and crawled into bed. After four winters, I'm finally feeling comfortable driving a bus in all kinds of weather. It doesn't mean I'll never get stuck, but I'm learning new lessons each year in how to avoid trouble.

It ain't over yet, folks. But I promise to not moan about the heat this summer. We deserve a good thawing out!