Every now and then something happens in life and you have to share the story because it’s just so insane. Warning: this one has so many parts to it that it will take ~10 minutes to read.
Back in January 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Portland for work. The travel for this trip was unlike any other that I’ve ever experienced…and I’ve been traveling since I was an infant.
The main elements of this post will be told in part through book titles. (Note that I haven’t actually read any of these books – this element will make sense later on in the post…)
And I will tell you up front that no one involved was physically hurt during this journey…
Part I: Another Place You’ve Never Been
One day at a team dinner in December of 2016, a bug was put into my ear about possibly assisting on a short-term project in Portland, OR. That bug then blossomed into a butterfly and in January 2017 I had fully fledged plans to travel there for a few days. My itinerary included arriving in the afternoon on a Sunday with my adventure buddy, Joe Aultman. We intended to catch the sights of the city all Sunday afternoon before heading over to the customer location.
I was stoked. I had never been to Portland and, having watched several seasons of Portlandia, this was on my list of places to see in America.
Part II: All My Puny Sorrows
The Saturday night before I was set to leave, a winter storm descended upon the area. Nearly all flights into Portland were cancelled. Locals were asked to stay off the roads. A drop in temperature was predicted for later in the day, which would bring with it freezing rain and treacherous road conditions.
Strike 1: I received a flight cancellation notice early in the morning, 3 hours before I was set to leave. In a panic, I spent the next hour frantically trying to find another way to get to Portland. I pleaded with the airlines and performed power searches on all travel sites. Life is harder when you don’t have uber status.
An hour into this frenzy, after an act of kindness by an airline representative and a crash course in Pacific Northwest public transit, I had a plan. I managed to get my flight rerouted to Seattle and would finish the journey by taking an Amtrak train into Portland. My first goal was to get there so I quickly said goodbye to my family and took off for the airport. I finalized the next several legs of my trip while in-transit.
Note that I was part of a 5-person team scheduled to be onsite Monday. Two people were already there – one person had gotten there the day before and the other took an airline that takes all sorts of silly chances in chaotic weather. The remaining three of us had cancelled flights that day.
Strike 2: I also called one of my besties who lives in Seattle to see if she could meet up before my train ride. Unfortunately, that was a bust.
When I was finally able to book my Amtrak train ticket on my flight to Seattle, I realized that my genius plan was not unique. Strike 3: almost all train tickets were booked. I finally got one of the remaining few tickets on the last train out of the city, but had to pay more for business class and incur a 6-hour delay in Seattle first.
(After three strikes you think I would quit. I was determined.)
Part III: The Fish Market
In a bizarre coincidence, my sister happened to be in Seattle spending a few days with her roommate’s family. She’s finishing up college so she pretty much never gets to go anywhere. It was her first time in Seattle. Seriously, what serendipity! I texted her and she and her roommate dropped their plans and promised to spend time with me in downtown Seattle.
After taking a train from the airport to downtown and walking around in the pouring rain (luckily, I remembered to pack my travel umbrella), I made it to the Amtrak train station. There, I dropped off my luggage and picked up my ticket. My sister and her roommate picked me up and we drove to Pike Place Market.
We had a blast and it was nice to smile and laugh after the unexpected and awful early morning. Although I’ve been to Seattle many times, I never get tired of Pike Place Market.
We had a nice seafood lunch together, walked around, shopped, pigged out on local delicacies, and watched the famous fish throw. It was a grand time and a much needed break in-between the madness.
We said our goodbyes and I thanked them profusely for giving me part of their day. Then they dropped me off at the train station.
Some of you will laugh, but until that point in time, I had never been on a long train trip in the United States. I’ve ridden local commuters and subways, but this was a very different experience. Modern-day transportation has come a long way.
I was sitting in a comfortable leather seat, connected to wifi, with luggage safely checked in, and even got to eat dinner!
Much later that night, my buddy Joe braved the dark and icy roads to pick me up from the train station in Portland, and with comedy in tow.
The laugh put a nice end on a roller coaster day.
Although our awesome Portland fun day plans were thwarted, we got to chat on the long ride to the hotel.
Part IV: Today Will Be Different
The winter storm did not relent the days that we were there. Although there were pauses in the rain and snow, by the time we got to our departure day, things were looking grim again. Luckily, things went well with the customer.
On our departure day it snowed…and snowed…and snowed. Since all of Portland was told to stay off of the roads, our customer team decided to work from home. We took our morning meetings via conference call from our respective hotel rooms. Our team had intentionally dwindled down to three people at that point in the week. By the time we were supposed to leave for the airport, none of our flights had been cancelled yet. We took that as a good sign.
Looking back, we knew it looked “bad” outside. So we did what three consultants who all live in the South would do – we decided to drive to the airport.
When I think about the culmination of decisions that we made that day, I now laugh. At the time though, I really thought we were going to die…multiple times. Consider ourselves taught.
We left for the airport early, giving ourselves over 3 hours before the first team member’s flight departure. (During normal traffic, drive time to the airport would have been less than an hour.) We had a rental car. What could possibly go wrong that already hadn’t that week?
Part V: Infectious Madness
Please remember as you laugh at (and possibly mock) our craziness in the below story that the three of us in the car are Southerners.
So let me set up the scene…
First of all, it was still snowing. This picture was taken from my hotel room that morning. Look at how much snow had already fallen.
Our first mistake was driving at all in the snow-covered highways (while it was still snowing), after the local news stations told everyone to stay off of the roads. We were also told to have chains on our tires…yeah, rental cars don’t come with those.
Also, I wasn’t driving. Just wanted to point that out, although I can’t escape the blame. I went along with the whole plan. That’s all I will say about that.
So we got into the car and our second mistake was not clearing off all of the snow from the vehicle. We had snow like…everywhere. And it was not an inch of snow…it was like 8 inches of snow. (Stop laughing!)
So we started driving…slowly…because we aren’t total nutjobs.
And it was scary. And note that during this little adventure that probably should have never happened, there were other cars on the road too. But the cars stuck on the side of the road outnumbered those driving on the road. I’m sure alarm bells went off in our heads when we saw them, but so much was happening at that time that madness acceptance was just something that we were doing. Also note that there were two conference calls that the driver was part of during this stupid adventure. There was also a smartphone game being played while driving…again, acceptance of madness.
About 30 minutes into our trip, this happened. Just wait for it…
Yes, I was randomly recording. I thought there was a good chance that we were going to die during that drive. So of course I decided to photo/video document what little of life we had left. This little beauty appeared during one of those moments. Several choice words were yelled right after I stopped recording.
We survived that incident. Looking back, that’s all that matters.
Part VI: And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer
(Note that if you’ve made it this far, the story actually gets worse. Impossible, right?)
During the first half of the drive to the airport, two of our three flights got cancelled. One of my teammates was able to rebook on a later flight successfully. I was not (of course). The third teammate had a flight that was still on time. We were earnestly trying to get to the airport to make his flight.
Me, being the navigator, take full responsibility for leading us straight into the next little nightmare on our journey. I was following Google Maps (probably clinging onto it with dear life) and it said to take a particular highway because it was faster. So mistake three was taking this route. Obviously, Google couldn’t possibly predict what was going to happen next.
As we ascended onto a rather large and steep overpass that was, yes, covered with ice and snow, fate decided to send us another lovely blow. Right at the peak of this overpass, we had to stop due to two semi trucks that were slowed to a crawl in front of us. Right in front of us.
Apparently, this incident started when one semi starting sliding sideways because he didn’t have chains on his tires. The other semi attempted to pass him on the left on this one lane overpass. Something caused him to stop.
Then as we realized what had happened, our world also stopped. To our utter horror, the second semi truck started sliding into the first. No, I was not recording at the time. We held our breath. It looked pretty dangerous.
Suddenly, within minutes, workers from the city of Portland descended upon the scene. They were called as soon as the first semi truck got stuck. Since we were the first car behind this craziness, we had a full view of everything that happened. It was awesome and awful and scary, and the event ended up being on the news, filmed from above by helicopters.
First, we (and I really mean a collective we – as in, all of us poor folks stuck on this overpass and all of the poor folks stuck in the line of backed up cars waiting to get on) waited for a tow truck to pull out the first truck. Note that the tow had to wait for the cars on the on-ramp to make way for them up the overpass. This whole wait took about 1.5 hours.
When the tow finally got there and attempted to move around the two stuck trucks, they got stuck in position number three. They ended up having to use the ramp fence for leverage to pull them out of the slide. So much for that fence – it’s now bent pretty weird. After all of that nonsense, they weren’t even able to pull out either of the trucks.
Almost another hour passed. We enjoyed watching people leave their cars on the on-ramp and attempt to walk up to the scene of the crime. We watched them take pictures of the entire debacle, fall on their butts slipping on the ice, and attempt to walk back to their cars without falling again.
Finally, as we neared hour three, actual movement began. By this point, the third teammate had missed his flight. The car was tense and quiet. I still had no booked flight and the second teammate’s flight later in the day was showing as being on time.
Finally, both trucks got towed. With proper supervision from the city of Portland, we took it slow and easy out of the overpass and back into civilization. We didn’t look back.
We made it unscathed to the airport and the second teammate rushed to their gate, just in time, and made it out of the city. (By this time we were all using our spiritual powers to ensure that one of us was getting home that night.) I went to the ticket counter and managed to get rebooked on a flight in the morning. The third teammate also rebooked for the morning.
Part VII: Good Clean Fun
By that time it was 4pm and the third teammate (my buddy Joe), and I were ready to take a break from the stress.
So we rented hotel rooms in city proper and made plans to trek out into the freezing cold in search of fun and food. Sunday do over, but with ice and snow!
This was the beautiful and eerily quiet city of Portland that night:
On the recommendation of our CEO, Edward Roske (who grew up in the area), we prioritized visiting the infamous Powell’s Books before it closed that night. If you have never been there before, it is AMAZEBALLS. This location’s building takes up an entire city block and they have multiple, glorious floors of reading goodness. They have like, everything, there. Unfortunately, the rare book section was closed but we absorbed the remaining wonders of the store in our short 45 minute romp, eating it all up like kids in a candy store.
(Yes, this is where I got all of my awesome book photos for this blog post, too.)
Then we had an amazing discussion over a Thai dinner. It was great food and great company. We caught some interesting sights on our trek to the next location, too.
For our last hurrah, we decided to stop over at the world famous donut shop, Voodoo Doughnut, that, surprisingly, stays open 24 hours…even during a winter storm.
Then we called it a night, knowing full well that we had to get up early to make our morning flights.
And finally, we both made it out the next morning. It was beautiful. The cadence of travel that we had taken for granted for so long had finally returned. No delays.
Part VIII: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life
The travel associated with consulting can be frustrating, trying, and painful…and it does make or break people in this industry. It’s a part of the lifestyle that is completely unpredictable and we learn to accept it. In just the first quarter of this year, I’ve experienced some of the worst travel ever in the 35+ years that I’ve been traveling. To get through it, I’ve learned to embrace the insanity, celebrate the good moments, and get up and start all over again the next day.
In the end, my first trip to Portland was insane, joyful, death-defying, and productive. Yet, looking back, I would do it all over again. I’d also go back to Portland – just not in winter.
Thanks to Joe and the other teammates for living in those moments with me and trekking forward. We now have this crazy story to tell…