Friday, March 28, 2014

Capricious Northwest Weather

Blue Mountains from the East (picture by Lynn D. Townsend)
My wife and I traveled to Southeast Idaho this week to visit friends (well, friends of mine). Since I'd taken the snow tires off the car and put on "summer" tires (not all-season radials) I was a little worried about weather even this late in the year. The Pacific Northwest can have capricious weather, and has especially this year.

The drive down the weather was beautiful.  The sky was blue, the roads were bare and dry, I set the cruise control at 5 mph over the speed limit (65 in Oregon, 75 in Idaho) and cruised.  While we were in the Pocatello area, the weather got worse and I was keeping a wary eye on the forecast for the Blue Mountains.  This was the highest (in altitude) part of the journey.  There is also a very steep, winding downhill grade from the west side of the Blue Mountains into the Columbia Basin near Pendleton, Oregon.  If it's snowy and slick, it is one of the most white-knuckle places you can drive that I know of.

The weather forecast for yesterday (Thursday) in the Blue Mountains was rain and snow mixed.  But temperatures were supposed to be above freezing so I was hoping for more rain than snow.  On high-performance Goodyear Eagle summer tires.

When we left Pocatallo it was snowing but the road was just wet.  I went a little slower than my customary 5 mph over the 75 mph speed limit and got passed by a cop.  Between Pocatello and La Grande, Oregon (just to the east of the Blue Mountains), we had snow, rain, sleet, and sunshine with bare roads.  We stopped at Starbucks in La Grande (big surprise) because my wife wanted some caffeine (and to be honest, so did I).  We got back in Interstate 84 and almost immediately, as if someone had turned on a faucet, it started raining steadily.  But soon it turned to hard rain and we even went through a mercifully short bit of hail.  There were puddles on the road because of the hard rain and the car would hydroplane.  I clicked of the cruise control and drove "as fast as I dared" which was usually under the speed limit.

Then, as if someone shut off a faucet, it quit.  We were under blue skies with a smattering of clouds and the road was damp but dry where everyone had driven.  I told my wife that if that was the worst of it, that wasn't so bad.

But we came over a hill and could see more weather ahead of us.  "Looks like a mist," my wife said.  "Looks like snow," I said, being more experienced with winter weather.  And it was snow.  The temperature as indicated by my car's thermometer plummeted quickly.  At first the road was just wet.  Then slush started creeping in from the sides.  Soon the temperature hit 33F (0.5C) and slush covered most of the road except for two bare ruts in the right lane where people were driving.  Everyone lined up in that lane even though it was only moving at about 30 mph (50 kph).

This went on for miles, and once I swear there was hail mixed in with the snow (or the snow got really hard).  We passed over the summit of the blue mountains at 4,193 feet (1,278 m).  Going down things improved, the road became clearer and I dared to cross the slush between lanes and start passing people going about 55 mph (90 kph).

Just as we got to the beginning of the down grade, I noticed a bunch of vehicles clogging the road ahead following a snowplow and seeming reluctant to pass it.  The road was bare and wet with some slush at this point and the snow almost stopped.  We could see into the Columbia Basin where it was sunny.  The temperature began to rise and people started passing the plow.

Not long after we were down on the straight, flat road heading into Pendleton and the temperature was almost 60F (16C).  And I thought about what they used to tell me when I lived in Idaho: if you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it'll change.  Or in this case, travel 10 miles out of the Blue Mountains.

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