Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Gorge Story

This is a picture of the Columbia River Gorge site taken a year or two after the incident occurred. Notice one sheet of cardboard is still hanging around. I am firmly convinced the devil lives here.

August of 2003 included one of the worst nights of my life. For the last year I had been working on developing a tire carrier intended to help tire store workers handle their multitudes of scrap and new tires more efficiently. I built and delivered some of these carriers to stores in the local area and had had fairly successful feedback. I decided that I needed two large boxes to ship each “RubRRak” out to the stores that would theoretically purchase my new invention. As usual, I had high hopes for my newest venture and in order to get a quantity discount on these cardboard behemoths, I ordered eight or nine thousand pounds of these custom boxes from a company in Portland.

One of the first RubRRaks we built. One man can easily move 35-40 tires with it.

A week after placing the order, I got a call that they were ready. I borrowed a buddy’s trailer, hooked it up to my little Toyota pickup and headed out. At the time, I was in the middle of trying to write a patent for this new “Rak.” Since I had no clue what I was doing in the legal world, I looked up a patent attorney in the phone book, called him and made arrangements to stop by and visit with him on my way to Portland. He said he would be home all morning so I said I would drop in around ten o’clock. He sounded like things were pretty low key and I got the impression it really didn’t matter when I showed up. I had a couple of hours after making the appointment to make the forty-minute trip to his place.

I hooked up the trailer and realized I was putting a two and five sixteenths inch trailer hitch on a two-inch ball that was attached to my pickup. I hunted around my disorganized holdings but couldn’t find a bigger ball. I knew this wasn’t good but I felt that since gravity was fairly dependable and there was a little weight pressing down on the tongue, I should be able to drive thirty or forty miles to town and purchase the right size ball before the trailer bounced off the ball and made its own way to town.

I headed for the big city, figuring I would make it to the high-priced lawyer right on time, even if I stopped and bought a ball first. Halfway to town, disaster struck. No, the trailer didn’t fall off. I happened upon a county construction crew that were busy resting on their shovels, alternately watching traffic back up and taking union-mandated naps. I immediately sensed that these people did not care in the least that I had an appointment, albeit a vague appointment, with a high-priced patent attorney.

Disgruntled motorists in front and behind me made U turns after waiting twenty or thirty minutes and left in search of an unobstructed road to town. I was stuck with a twenty-foot trailer balancing on my bumper and I knew I probably couldn’t get turned around without big problems so I stayed put and waited. It was a pleasant summer morning and even though I felt a little pressure to get moving, I felt all was right with the world.

Forty-five minutes later, I was starting to steam. I dialed the county engineer’s office and asked to speak to a guy, possibly the assistant engineer. Actually, Guy was the guy’s name and he was the assistant engineer. I related my plight and he feigned great concern. He can’t help but get complaints from the citizenry every couple of minutes with a road crew moving like these guys were. Another ten minutes found the great caravan of cars making forward progress.

I was late. There was no time to stop for a ball. I raced to my new advisors home and found him sitting outside on his porch swing in Bermuda shorts, sipping on a cool one while he was checking his stocks on his laptop. I was greatly relieved. He hadn’t missed any work waiting for me. I told him I was running late (it was eleven by now) because of the road crew. He said it was no problem.

I spent fifty minutes gleaning information from him and then finished. I didn’t want to go over an hour as he was charging two hundred and fifty dollars an hour. I pulled out my checkbook and was more than a little dismayed when he presented a bill for five hundred bucks. I gave the robber my goods and then hurried to my truck before he shoved another ransom note my way.

It was getting late, almost noon. I had two hundred and fifty miles ahead of me before Portland would materialize and I needed the right ball. I hurried to Walmart and ran in to their automotive section. Locating a guy with a blue coat on, I breathlessly hurried over and innocently asked: “Where’s your balls?”

He glared at me with an alarmed look on his face. “Are you looking for trailer accessories, sir?” he asked.  “Yes, I’m in a hurry!” I said with a bit of impatience. He gave me a slightly dirty look and directed me toward another gentleman behind a counter.

Feeling the pressure of the day getting away from me, I ran to the next Walmart specialist and asked “Do you have two and five sixteenths-inch balls?” I got another alarmed look. What is it with these Walmart guys? After he regained his composure, he showed me where the trailer accessories were located. Naturally, they were out of that size.

I jumped back in my truck and headed down the road. Once into Oregon, I drove through a small town, stopped at a NAPA, bought the right size ball and screwed it on. Safe at last! Or so I thought.

The temperature grew hotter as the day continued. A wreck on the freeway delayed me further and by the time I rolled into Portland and my destination which was Columbia Corrugated Box, it was close to closing time. I signed the paperwork and started directing the forklift driver on how to load the huge bundles of cardboard.

Columbia Corrugated Box where I picked up the load from Hades (definition of Hades:  a deep, gloomy part of Hades used as a dungeon of torment and suffering.


We stacked one large pallet on the back of the pickup and put five more pallets on the trailer. I intentionally broke one bundle and stacked portions of the bundle across the top of the load, attempting to level the top of the load. This turned out to be a major mistake.

I was, as my kids would put it, like way overloaded. All my tires were essentially flat with the massive weight they had just received. I borrowed an air hose and pumped them up, far past the recommended dosage. They were still looking a little saggy. The day was hot, over a hundred degrees. I had mixed up an optimum recipe for a blowout or two on the hot asphalt leading home.

The load
I’ve neglected to mention that one of the reasons I was trying to get loaded and out of town were my taillights. I didn’t have any. The borrowed trailer had a connection that had been ground off by dragging along the road at some point. Naturally, I knew I wouldn’t get home before dark but I at least wanted to get to the shores of Washington as I’m not fond of the artificially high-priced tickets that are issued in Oregon.

I hadn’t had lunch or dinner because of the time element. I grabbed a drink of water at the cardboard plant and then headed out with great trepidation. I crossed my fingers and managed to navigate out of the streets of Portland. Fifty miles later, arriving at Troutdale, I figured I better stop and see how the load was holding together. I pulled off and saw that the load had done some major shifting. I hurriedly pulled the straps tight and took off.

At Hood River I stopped and tightened things up again. I began to see that I would have been wiser to have left the last bundle together instead of breaking it apart and spreading it out across the top of the other bundles. The two hundred loose pieces, each larger than a sheet of plywood, were the culprits working loose and making me stop every fifty miles to resecure. I was not making great time because of the stops and my limited speed. The heavy load was causing the trailer and my little rice burner pickup to sway from side to side.

Even though I’m locally famous for my brisk, autobahn style driving, forty-five mph was as fast as I dared push it. At least I hadn’t had a blowout.

Another nagging problem that had cropped up was the inability to see traffic behind my first stack of cardboard. The bundle we had stacked on the back of the pickup was too wide. Vision was limited to brown cardboard in both my rear view mirrors. Looking back, I can see that many factors surrounding my pickup were starting to howl for a major calamity. They didn’t have to wait much longer.

Past The Dalles, I sensed it was time to stop and tighten straps. Traffic was hot, heavy and passing me like I was standing still, even though I was still swaying along like a drunken sailor with a shipload of cardboard at forty-five mph. The desire to stop was starting to pound in my head but there was no place to exit. A guardrail located right next to the lane I was in stretched before me for another mile. I crossed my fingers and hoped my growing premonition of disaster was false. It wasn’t.

Finally, I reached the end of the guardrail and pulled off onto the shoulder. I stepped out of the pickup and my senses were assaulted. A blast of hot gorge wind hit me from the direction I had just come from. A train was flying by on tracks located between my highway and the highway going the opposite direction. Cars and trucks were screaming by as I glanced back at my load. Since I had been traveling the same direction as the wind, my loosened up load had stayed on as there was no noticeable airspeed factor. However, as soon as I stopped, I had a forty-five mile an hour tailwind.

My last strap must have slipped off just as I looked back and VOILA!! My loose sheets of, as yet, compressed and flat boxes began peeling off the top of the trailer and flying everywhere. Even though it was over a hundred degrees, I was frozen in place. I had not yet accepted the fact that the Gorge wind was a permanent thing. I thought perhaps the train was creating the horrendous wind and as soon as it went by, all would be calm. I was wrong.

Semi trucks and passenger cars were slamming into large slabs of cardboard. Great tornados were suddenly visible behind each truck as the sheets twisted and flew in every conceivable direction. Some opened up into a form of the boxes they were meant to become and flew down the highway like box kites in a forty-five mph windstorm. Trucks and cars were dodging cardboard and other vehicles and careening down the highway. Screeching of tires replaced the sounds of the train.

As I scrambled back and crawled up on top the load, I waited for the massive pileup that was sure to occur. Cardboard was still peeling off the top like giant playing cards involved in a game of fifty-two Card Pickup. Fifty-two cards wouldn’t have been bad. As it was, more than one hundred and fifty five foot by eight foot double walled pieces had exited before I got on top of the load. I was grabbing straps and sheets like a mad dog and finally got the revolt stopped. I temporarily secured what was left and then surveyed the damage.

Unbelievably, no vehicles had wrecked. Vehicles were still sporadically hitting the boxes but at least the sheets had spread out and metallic carnage had not yet occurred. The wind was still whipping. I looked down the highway and could see some of the brown wind surfers had traveled over a half a mile. Some were lodged up against highway signs. Most had jumped the guardrail on the other side of the road and had landed in a rocky ravine between the highway and the tracks.

I counted 6 sheets suspended in the power lines overhead. They were flailing around like crazy. Gradually, they slid downwind, riding the wires like a trapeze artist. A few more lay in a suicidal-type prone position on the railroad tracks.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to die. I wanted to drive away and pretend like I had no connection to the massive mess of corrugated papyrus sheets.

However, they were mine. I had written a check for them a couple hours before. The first cop to happen upon the clutter would see the brand of cardboard and call the manufacturer. Since it was a custom size, my name would immediately become associated. Besides that, I had a lot of dough in the units flapping around that particular neighborhood. For these reasons, I stayed.

It was hot. Already I was sweating. I grabbed my phone and called my wife. It was eight pm and I had hoped to be home by ten. Our family was primed to go to a Mariner’s game in Seattle the next morning but I told her all bets were off. She asked when I would be home and I said if I was lucky, maybe around 6 the next morning. At that point, I had no idea what was in store concerning my future.

I walked across the road, climbed over the guardrail and marveled at the way the landscape had turned brown. Layers of corrugated materials stretched as far as the eye could see. Craggy, sharp boulders had covered the ravine minutes before. Now, paper products covered the rocks. Cardboard sheets hung like scarecrows from the barbwire fence next to the tracks.

I knew it was time to go to work. I ran down the road and peeled sheets off the guardrail and road markers for three quarters of a mile. Nobody stopped; they were all preoccupied with dodging my boxes. The initial shock was wearing off and reality was setting in. I was winded and worn out by the time I finished clearing the highway. I started walking back to my truck, in awe of the job ahead of me.

I got to my pickup and opened the door, intending to drive it a little farther off the road. The winds flung the door open and whipped open the file containing my patent papers. Papers flew in a whirlwind around the interior and then headed for the exterior. I slammed the door and managed to catch most of the papers that had blown out of the cab. Things had been pretty rough for me during the last half hour. I sensed they were going to get even rougher.

The wind was relentless, ruthless. I started my gathering process. Oblivious to the traffic screaming by, I began a process that lasted through the night. I walked across the highway, crawled over the guardrail and down the ravine, gathered two sheets and attempted to navigate my way back across the road. The wind whipped the boxes and it was all I could do to hold on to them. Many times the boxes flew up and hit me in the head, giving me a bloody nose at one point. I lay them on the side of the road where my pickup was parked and secured them to the ground with large rocks.

After fifteen minutes of this ritual, I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. This was extremely hard work! I was sweating like crazy and panting for air. Every step climbing that rocky slope and guardrail was beyond the limits for this chubby bald guy. Each time I drug the boxes over the guardrail, the slats and edges would catch on the guardrail bolts. The only way to disengage this connection was to position the cardboard in the wind and make it aerodynamically fly off the bolt. When that would happen, I would say: “Houston, we have liftoff.” More than once I thought the sheets were going to take me for a magic carpet ride.

Jaywalking the highway between speeding cars and trucks was nuts but necessary! If I wanted to keep from becoming road kill, timing was all-important. I was becoming dehydrated and exhausted. I found myself praying one minute and swearing the next. If I looked at the multitude of heavy sheets scattered downstream, I became severely depressed. I soon found that the only way I could continue was to concentrate on two boxes at a time. Absolutely no more! I could barely handle two. Following this ritual, I slowly worked my way north.

Days before, I had finished reading a book about deaths in the Grand Canyon. One of the main processes of death in the Canyon is dehydration, hallucination, then expiration even though the victims are often within spitting distance of the Colorado River. I was a hop, skip and a jump away from the Columbia River. Dehydrated, hallucinating, and mentally desiring expiration.

I was gathering where no man had gathered before. After an hour of this process, I found myself still teetering on the edge between reality and hallucinations. I still had many trips ahead of me. I had only just begun. I realized I had (appropriately) been absentmindedly singing the song “We’ve Only Just Begun” by Karen Carpenter. Remembering that she was dead, I knew there was a good chance I would be singing a duet with her, at her location, before the night was over.

At one point, I thought I would try to hoist three boxes up the valley and across the road. It was not to be. Several hours into the adventure and well after dark, it was as hot as ever. The jagged rocks stretching hundreds of feet into the air must have retained the day’s heat. I continued clawing my way up and down, back and forth. Eventually, to retrieve some of the wayward boxes, I had to navigate my way through a five-strand barbwire fence and climb up to the railroad tracks.

At last, I rounded up the last two boxes that had escaped. I carried them over and piled them up in one of the many stacks I had accumulated on the far side of the highway. I could hardly believe that the job was done! It was after midnight and I was done with the hard part, or so I thought.

I walked a half-mile back to the pickup, started it up and idled up to my first stash. I got out and began trying to lift a box up and secure it to the top of the load. This was a job for Superman! The wind was still screaming and my box and I were its primary targets. I would lift a box up and it would immediately begin madly gyrating and trying to take off. Things were just not working.

Just then, I noticed red and blue lights reflecting off my pickup in the dark. I looked up and sure enough, there was a Oregon State Police car, just behind my pickup and up on the shoulder of the highway. “Why would he stop here?” I wondered. Then I noticed a car had pulled over by the side of my pickup. The cop had stopped someone speeding! What were the chances that they would end up directly at the central point of my misery?

I watched as the cop got out of his car. He hadn’t even seen me. He was giving the car he had stopped his full attention.

“Hey!” I yelled. He jumped with surprise and fear. He recovered his composure after shining his flashlight down on me and seeing I was no threat. “Are you here for them, (I pointed at the car he’d stopped) or me?”

He gave a nervous laugh. I thought I saw him put his pistol back in the holster. He responded “I’m here for them.”

I yelled back and said “As soon as you get done with them, would you come down here with your gun and shoot me in the head, please?”

He laughed again with a little more enthusiasm and said he would. Little did he know that I was serious.

An Oregon ticket and a few minutes later the trooper came down and asked what was going on. I gave him a brief synopsis of the evening and told him he should probably call the power company to come and get the boxes off the power lines across the road.

He said he would and then congratulated me for being a good citizen and cleaning up my mess. I lied and said “No problem.” He asked me if I wanted a light. The cardboard panels seemed to glow in the moonlight so I declined his offer. I asked him if the wind ever stopped in these here parts. He said not usually. Again he thanked me for cleaning up and left me alone to fight the wind.

I soon could see that a different plan was needed if I was to get the boxes back on the trailer. I decided that I needed to drive to the far end of my piles, flip a U-turn and load the truck heading back against traffic and the wind. This would make my pickup and the front end of the trailer a windbreak. It provided the only possibility of my loading up with the wind howling. I motored up the highway and after passing the last pile; I turned off the road and made a sweeping turn to head back the other way. I went slow as I still had a very heavy load on the truck and trailer.
I began to organize and assemble my emotions so I could have a good cry. With the load on my pickup and trailer, the right rear portion of my pickup was drooping substantially. Since I hadn’t had a flat on this rig before, I had no idea where the jack and wrenches were. The spare was underneath the rear of the truck, which was inches from the ground. I had no light. I had no hope. So I did what anyone in my situation would do. I called 911.

I explained my predicament and asked the dispatcher to tell the cop I could use his light now. Could she send him back so he could shed some light on my dilemma? She put me on hold for a minute and then returned to tell me that he was on a call down in Hood River. I said I could use his help if he got back up where I was. It was then that I noticed the wind had died down.

I began fumbling around in the dark, trying to find components to assist me. I found the Toyota owner’s manual and used the dome light to read up as to where all the tools were supposed to be. I lay on the rocky ground between the pickup and trailer and dug basalt with my fingernails, trying to provide enough clearance to get the spare out. I could sense that this was not a five-minute job like your usual tire change. An hour later found me still working on it. However, I must say, I did an admirable job considering the situation.

The rock of my life is on the left. The rock of my strife is on the tailgate. Sometimes it's vice versa, depending on the day.

A combination of finding tools and operating them by Braille, knowing all the tricks of the trade by having been a tire man for twenty years, and hallucinating that I was going to be victorious in climbing Mt. Everest helped me finally get the tire changed. I was tightening the last lug night and feeling like I had just conquered the big hill when the cop showed up. I had managed to get the tire changed in just over an hour.

“I understand you need a light” he said. He must not have known that I didn't smoke.

“I’m past that point. I need a drink." I muttered. Then I remembered my religion and that I might be driving sometime soon. I decided to move past my inappropriate request.

"Have you got any water with you?” I asked.

He motioned to his car. “I’ve got a water bottle that I’ve been drinking out of. If you don’t care about that, you can have the water.”

I replied, “I don’t care if you’ve got AIDS and cancer, I’ve got to have a drink.” We made our way to his car and I quickly guzzled down his offering. A new lease on life!

I thanked the cop, he left, and I made my way back to the truck. I found the rock that had caused the damage and threw it in the back of the truck as a keepsake. I knew there was a chance my wife wouldn’t buy any of my story and I figured the rock was good hard evidence and could possibly even hold up in court.

Now, I had to finish making my U turn. I leaned down and felt around for other sharp rocks in the vicinity. I then backed up and pulled the trailer up on the highway. I could vaguely see that the boxes on the trailer had shifted with all the wacko maneuvering that had been going on. I made a big U turn across both lanes of traffic on the freeway and then stopped on the shoulder.

I did not want to get down in Paul Bunyon’s arrowhead garden again. I didn’t have another spare tire and I was pretty sure the cop wouldn’t come back again. I left my headlights off so the oncoming traffic wouldn’t freak out. I did leave the parking lamps on. At this time of night and in my state of mind, the last thing I needed was a head-on collision.

With my lights off, I gingerly pulled ahead on the shoulder to finish my U-turn and get the trailer straight behind the truck. The truck gave a sickening lurch upward and I realized I had just run over a big pile of boxes.

Walking over to the pile of cardboard, I picked the top sheet up, grateful that the wind had died down. Just then, the wind came back in full force and tore the cardboard out of my hands. I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I would have been surprised if the wind hadn’t come up. Even though the hurricane-force breeze continued to make it difficult to load the boxes, having the truck in front as a windbreak was very helpful. It took another hour and I had all the boxes, torn up but back in my possession, loaded.

I made another loop across the road and started down the highway for home. It was three in the morning. I had just completed seven hours in hell. I soon had the rig back up to forty-five mph. Gratitude for finally being back on the road was rudely interrupted by the sound of a pallet falling off the top of the trailer and skipping down the road. I had traveled less than a mile. I saw a few cartons taking off in the wind. I began the prayer/swear routine all over again. I didn’t know how much more I could take.

Easing to a stop, I jumped out and climbed onto the trailer. I was beat. As before, there was no one around to hold the boxes while I tied them down. However, at least this time I hadn’t lost a zillion of the buggers. I located, carried back and prepared to reload the eight or ten boxes that had taken flight. I finally got them up and secured, maneuvering them into place once again by using standard aerodynamic principles of wind vrs. cardboard that I was thoroughly familiar with by now.

All of a sudden, I remembered the wooden pallet that I had heard fall on the road. Traffic was flying by. If somebody hit that wooden pallet, another bad experience might materialize like a motorist involved in a rollover or an inventor involved in a suicide. I sprinted back a quarter of a mile and located the pallet in the road. Dragging it back used up the last reserve of energy I had. I threw it in the back of the truck, crawled in the cab, and headed for home.

Twenty miles down the road I found a mini-mart open. Running in, I bought three large bottles of Gatorade and a forty-four-ounce cup of ice. The attendant charged me for the ice. I didn’t mind. I would have gladly paid him a hundred dollars for the ice if he had required it. I walked out, tightened my load up once again and headed for home. The gallon and a half of Gatorade and the forty-four ounces of ice were gone within 5 minutes.

The cab of my pickup after I made it home

I arrived home at six a.m. sharp, just like I had told my wife I would as I watched one hundred and fifty giant cardboard sheets take flight in the Columbia Gorge.

We made it to the Mariners game that afternoon. She drove, I slept.

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Mary said...

Chelsea made me do it! That and curiousity. I've heard stories about you and Brian. LOL Hair-raising back in your Teenage years.

JoLynn said...

Ben, I am so sorry you had to go through all that, yet I can't help but laugh. You poor thing!

Lisa said...

I'm hooked. Keep the stories coming. Wait until I tell Kory about this. He will never get his homework done!

brentandkashann said...

I am glad to finally hear the whole story. I hope you learned your lesson Ben. You are insane.
My dad is going to love reading these!

Krista said...

Ben, I was laughing and crying for you at the same time. We, too, are hooked so keep these coming.