Community On the Highway

This is one account of an intense storm & what a highway full of weekenders did to cope. In most neighborhoods, lines in the landscape tell you where you can flow. By this I mean where you can walk, ride, skateboard, climb, and generally move. Even without thinking about it, you probably stay within the boundaries set forth to keep you in line so to speak. This isn’t any conspiracy theory – society relies on some forms of herding in order to keep chaos at bay. Granted, it isn’t exactly proven that we’d all crash into each other if the lines disappeared; it’s simply what seems to be the assumption.

In fact, the opposite proves to be true in actual experience. On the drive back from Sun River one weekend last summer, my boyfriend and I stopped at Trillium Lake to snowshoe. On our back way out of the track-covered white woodland, we noticed that none of the lights in the Government Camp bathrooms were on, and we overheard people talking about a black out.

Exodus was in the air, as cars left the lot in greater numbers than usual and people walked a little fast toward their parked vehicles. We followed suit and ran quickly into a lightning storm with heavier rain than I’d seen in years of living in the Pacific Northwest. Traffic backed up near the base of the mountain, as the rain mercifully lessened. With nothing but time to kill, we quickly assessed our situation and found that we had many leftover snacks from our trip. The music on the radio was cheerful, but our cell phones wouldn’t work.

I started to notice something different as we looked over at the S.U.V. next to us and an Asian youth pointed at his phone and shrugged his shoulders, smiling at us in a distinct, “we’re in this together” sort of way. All along the road tree branches lay about like bits of fabric on the floor of a sewing studio. The line moved sooner than it could have, and we discovered the cause of the hold up as we passed slowly through the shared one lane not blocked by mac trucks. Trees had crashed down onto power lines crossing the highway, and the trucks were too tall to make it under the swaying branches.

Firemen and police pulled the broken bones of Cedars and Firs off the roadway in what looked like a low-level stupor while other men in reflective coats waved us through. Workers didn’t seem to know how to handle us and the emergency situation presented by the downed power lines. I quickly scanned the road in front of us for live wires and, not seeing any danger, gratefully pressed the gas pedal of my van.

Traffic picked up after we got through the eye of the needle, but there was something else. It was Sunday in Sandy, Oregon, a small community outside the Portland metro area, but nothing was open, not even gas stations. We experienced this as a dawning awareness, as most of the scene appeared normal, but gradually little things began to stand out. Places usually open on off days were dark. Pretty soon we realized that every building was dark.

That’s when we understood why traffic was still slow. All of the traffic lights in town were out. But what stood out, like the tracks criss-crossing the snowy landscape behind us, was that everyone driving back from the mountain and those going in the opposite direction took turns in a safe and respectful manner. The air was pregnant with the same emotion the kid in the S.U.V. had perhaps unwittingly conveyed to us.

We thought, “is this how people will behave in a real apocalypse?”*

*Note: News of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown had reached us over the weekend, and I was fielding texts from my brother, who lives further south, asking whether it was safe to go outside.