Sunday, March 19, 2017

Disasters on the Road

Lessons We Learn the Hard Way

As I recently watched television coverage of California's damaged Oroville Dam, I remembered my father making a detour on a camping trip in 1968 to show me this new "wonder".  Dad proudly noted it was the world's highest earthen dam.

I was 9 or 10 and remember thinking it just looked like a big (and kind of scary) pile of rocks.  In my mind dams were concrete and looked like the Hoover Dam.

Anyway, the recent dam failure made me recall some other "disasters" in my life. After all they come to shape us.

My first distinct (and very minor) "disaster" memory was my high chair wiggling and rocking in Oakland while my mom attempted to feed me. She just laughed and said something (which I'm guessing was "don't worry, its just a little earthquake").

I asked her about it years later and she said that while she remembered it, she was incredulous that I could.

But I did.

Disasters, whether man or nature caused, instill something profound in us.  And, for me, they have been frequently connected with travel.

At age 5 we went to Seattle's Century 21 World's Fair.  It was such a hopeful time and that fair made us feel like anything was possible.  There was a Space Needle and a monorail!  Sadly, the US long ago quit paying dues to the governing body that sanctions International Exhibitions, hence the US is now ineligible to host a World's Fair.

Anyway, when we left Seattle we aimed our red Plymouth station wagon towards Vancouver BC and I fell head over heals in love with (IMHO) North America's most beautiful city.

While there we visited a lush hilltop park named for Queen Elizabeth. Built above a reclaimed quarry, it was a peaceful place to relax. Mom and I soon found a bench in front of a row of parked cars where we sat to admire the view.

For some reason mom suddenly jerked my arm.  And, just as we stepped away from the bench, the car that had been directly behind us roared across the sidewalk, tore the bench from its concrete anchors and launched over the cliff.

Meanwhile my dad reverted immediately into "police officer mode" and leapt over the cliff. He landed and commenced running faster than I could imagine. He was the first one to where the car had hit a tree.

The driver had turned around to fasten his kids seat belts in the back seat and, instead of putting his foot on the brake, he had hit the gas. Everyone in the car was a bit bloodied, but those seat belts probably saved some lives.

Mom never could say what made her suddenly say "Lets Go!"

Lesson #1: My Dad was awesome.
Lesson #2: Mom's are telepathic.
Lesson #3: Fasten your seat belts.
Lesson #4: Trust your intuition.

Queen Elizabeth Quarry Park Vancouver
(The hillside the car traversed - it was parked in front of where the dome is today)

A few years later we visited relatives in Wichita. I loved Wichita. And, upon finding out I wanted to become an architect, I was hustled off to view some WPA mural's in Wichita's post office and listen to my dad's cousin describe furniture he rebuilt for Frank Lloyd Wright's Henry J. Allen Home (which was still in private ownership at the time).

As we drove around Wichita that day the sky suddenly went black. Our relative's quickly diverted us to a nearby tornado shelter.

Lesson #5: When nature goes off the rails, trust the locals.

Fast forward to college graduation.  After graduating mid-year in December from the University of Idaho in Moscow I returned to Seattle to set the architectural world on fire. Yeah, I was young.

And, the following May I returned to Moscow for my commencement. The next morning we climbed into my '61 T-bird and began to drive some verdant wheat fields on the way back to Seattle.

Instead we drove right into an eerie "storm" which we eventually realized was ash from Mount Saint Helen's.

As the ash got so dense that we had to turn on my windshield wipers, a local sheriff's deputy directed us off of the highway and we began an unscheduled stop in Royal City, Washington to wait for the ash choked the roads to become safe enough to once again drive on.  

I learned something important that day. The volcano erupted at 8:32 AM. It caused a 5.1 measurement on the Richter scale, triggering the largest landslide in recorded history and sent 540,000,000 tons of ash 12 miles into the sky with the force of multiple Hiroshima bombs.

Yet, it took 4 hours for emergency service notifications to reach people driving directly into it.

Lesson #6: When disaster strikes expect chaos.

Mount Saint Helens Erupting May 18, 1980

So we took up residence in the basement of a church while the thick grey dust settled in around us. And, through it all some wonderful residents of Royal City fed us, brought us cards and board games and lovingly cared for a whole bunch of complete strangers.

Lesson #7: We're all in it together; disasters frequently bring out our best.

I still own that T-Bird and I still find a few wispy remnants of grey ash whenever I have to open up its concealed spaces.

 A Dusty Bird

After a couple of years I left Seattle for Anchorage Alaska. And, over the next 5 years in the 49th state, I experienced a bunch of earthquakes. Two were 7.0. And, although our office shook, light poles swayed and power flickered there was no significant damage. We just waited them out and went home for dinner.

The ho-hum nature of those quakes was a tribute to how well Anchorage had re-engineered itself after the disastrous 1964 Good Friday quake. 

Lesson #8: Preparing for disasters is a good thing

From Alaska I moved on to San Jose California. And I arrived just in time for the Loma Prieta earthquake. This quake ended a World Series, dropped sections of the Bay Bridge and devastated Los Gatos (our new little hometown at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains).

Multi-bazillion dollar clapboard Victorian homes "walked" off foundations and downtown LG was a wreck. It claimed our favorite Italian restaurant and left us gas and water leaks everywhere. The aftershocks rattled for days, each awakening my young daughter.

Lesson #9: Disasters expose every flaw in design and construction.

In the years that have followed my work has periodically required me to go places right after bomb blasts, hurricane's and tsunami's.  I just go and try to help do what needs to be done.

Lesson #10: It is better to experience life than to just stay at home.

Having said that, my years of travel have also made me realize how important it is to be realistic about destination choices.

While I never think twice about going to places like San Francisco and New Orleans (where epic natural disasters are inevitable), I would now rule out visiting places run by tyrants (i.e. Russia, the Philippines and Turkey).  And, with heartache, I acknowledge much of the world now puts the US in that category as well.

Roadboy's Travels © 2017

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