The strangest Christmas: My experiences in the great Northwest snowstorm of 2008. [Part II]

This is Part II of my article on the Pacific Northwest blizzard of 2008. Part I is here.

On Monday morning, December 22, 2008, I woke up in my chilly hotel room at the Red Lion at the airport and tried to figure out how to get back to my apartment in Beaverton, only 15 miles as the crow flies. But in a city crippled by snow with roads closed and mass transit shut down, this was a tall order. Unlike other cities, Portland does not have a lot of infrastructure to deal with snow events, like snowplows, sanding crews etc. Large-scale snow events are uncommon enough there that the city government can’t justify the expense, so even 6 inches of snow can shut down the city. In 2008 Portland got nearly 2 feet.

With little else to try, I called my friend Mike and asked if he might try to give me a ride out. He did not have a 4WD vehicle, but said he’d make an attempt. I checked out of the hotel, then waited nervously in the lobby for more than an hour before he showed up. His small economy car had nothing other than tire chains. Hopefully that would be enough.

The West Hills separate Portland from its suburbs, and going through them in the snow was harrowing. Highway 26, normally choked with traffic, was deserted except for cars that were abandoned on the side of the road. Snow covering them made them look like huge white bubbles in foam. We slipped, slid, fishtailed and jack-knifed numerous times. Ironically during this white-knuckled ride I got a call on my cell phone from a title officer asking about something involving the big deal I’d closed on Friday. I told her, “I can’t answer your question right now” and hung up.

portland snow yard

Some parts of Portland got up to 2 feet of snow in December 2008. This is the yard of my parents’ house.

After an hour-long, death-defying ride through the side streets of Portland, which had now become ice rinks and snow canyons, Mike’s little car pulled up in front of my apartment complex. I was very glad to be back. Even though I wasn’t going on vacation there was no question of me trying to go to work–I just couldn’t get there. Thus began a very lonely vigil. Luckily my apartment still had power, but even with the heat cranked all the way it was still utterly freezing. I couldn’t go out for groceries, so I decided to make whatever food I could out of the stores I’d been saving up in the freezer.

This did have a flip side. I was all out of cheap wine, having polished off the last bottle of Two Buck Chuck before what I thought would be my trip. The snowstorm gave me an excuse to break into my “library wines.” That night, Monday, I drank a 2006 Rosina from Maysara Winery. This is normally a summer wine, but it was very odd drinking it in the depth of a very cold winter.

portland snow 2008 roof

Sheets of snow falling off the tops of houses, like this, were a constant danger during the 2008 storm.

After shivering through the night I decided it was just too cold and miserable in my small apartment. I decided to move to my parents’ empty house. I had a Jeep with 4WD and figured the ride would be easy even though I didn’t have chains. I was wrong. To get the car started I had to chip a mantle of two-inch-thick ice out from all around the hood and front of the car. (I still have the same car today and you can still see the scratches in the paint from when I did this). Even with four wheel drive, the half-mile trek across suburban streets–which had not been plowed or groomed in the slightest–was a very wild ride. As soon as the front end of my Jeep buried itself in the snowdrift in front of my parents’ house with a very final-feeling jolt, I thought, “Okay, I’m not going to be able to go anywhere for a long time.”

I spent the next three days at my parents’ house, alone for almost all the time. The snow covered everything and would sometimes slide off the solarium roof in a mini-avalanche. Fearing power would go out, I sought to keep a pile of firewood ready next to the wood stove to keep warm–but the process of chopping the wood in the snowy yard was like something out of the 18th century. But overall I managed to keep the place heated, pipes unfrozen and roofs from caving in. In the (up until then) 19 years I’d lived in Oregon I’d never seen so much snow.

The silence and solitude of being snowbound was strangely cathartic. During those few days I got a lot of writing done, finishing a large portion of my book Giamotti in Winter. As a way to console me for being alone over Christmas my father said I could have (almost) anything in his own library of wines. I believe I drank an Owen Roe one night, and possibly another Maysara pinot noir a different night.

This song by Alejandro Lerner and Dominic Miller is the “soundtrack” of the December 2008 snow event for me.

My strongest memory of that time–indeed, the entire storm–was sitting alone in the kitchen of my parents’ house, slowly nursing a glass of wine and thinking about the nature of time, which was the theme of my story The Antimeridian. I was listening to an album by Dominic Miller–no, I don’t always listen to metal–and I remember staring into my wine glass during one of the songs, feeling like I was the only person in the universe. The song was called “Mi Fe” by Latin vocalist Alejandro Lerner. The intense feelings of solitude and disconnection I felt that day surfaced later in the “apocalypse” chapter of Giamotti in Winter, and in the “encapsulated universe” scenarios of both The Antimeridian and The Valley of Forever. This was the real legacy, for me, of the 2008 storm.

The snow melted; the sun came out on Christmas Day. Portland recovered. My family came back and the world moved on. But those strange and silent days I spent snowbound are among the most curiously memorable of my life in the past ten years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my academic research, it’s that weather history really does matter. I will probably remember this storm for the rest of my life. It was more than 7 years ago, but it still feels like it was yesterday.

Excepting the header illustrations (which are created from public domain images), all photos in this article are by me and copyright (C) 2008 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved.
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5 Comments

  1. I went to school in Buffalo, NY, in the late 70’s, and this article brought back memories of the Blizzard of 1978 (which may have finally been topped just this last November). Like the storm you describe, Buffalo didn’t have just one crippling storm, but six weeks of heavy snow storms proceeding it. When THE storm hit, there was a good 100 inches already, most of it still sitting there since there had not been any warm weather to melt it down at all.

    My biggest complaint was my 3 roommates, who sat around and said, “I am so bored!” every 15 minutes. Literally every 15 minutes. I was ready to kill. They almost did kill themselves the day when they ventured out to walk a mile to buy pop and chips. On the way back, they had to bang on a stranger’s house for shelter when one of them couldn’t breathe and the tip of her nose was turning an odd color. (Ahh, fun times).

    I ended up holing myself up in my room with books and radio.

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