An Open Letter to ODOT

January 5, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 1:08 am   Category: Life

Dear Oregon Department of Transportation,

This weekend I took a group of scouts on a winter camping trip to Mt. Hood. We left on Friday morning at around 8am and arrived at Frog Lake at roughly 11am. The driving conditions were terrible as they always are in Oregon when it snows and freezes. The shoulders of the roads were littered with cars and semis that had slid or rolled off the road. When we arrived, we donned snow shoes and hiked in about a mile from the parking lot to the lake. It was a beautiful hike with some light snow and gospel conversation. The assistant scoutmaster and I discussed the implications of belonging to a Church run by imperfect prophets who make mistakes and often reflect the biases of their times and culture.

We picked a very nice spot by the frozen lake and spent the afternoon making shelters. We marked off areas for our igloos and started adding to the 3ft base of snow by piling up another three feet in those spots. Then the fun began as we tunneled in from the bottom and carved out the insides of our three snow piles to turn them into snow caves. At about 6pm, after hours of shoveling snow nearly non-stop, our shelters were ready, the sun was going down, the temperature was dropping rapidly, and we huddled around our stoves to heat our dinners. Hot chocolate, chili, Roman noodles, and an assortment of other just-add-water soups were held tightly as we crawled into our snow caves to enjoy some much needed warmth and calories.

By the time we finished eating, it was only 6:30 or 7 o’clock, but no one wanted to venture outside because it was so miserably cold. Five scouts tucked themselves into sleeping bags and started getting ready to sleep 4-6 hours before their usual bedtimes. The 4 hours of shoveling snow helped out here and in no time most of them were fast asleep. Except for one.

One of the scouts had been sick on and off for the last week and after eating, the exhaustion of too much digging caught up with him. He crawled into the palacial snow cave that was the leader’s shelter and said he was feeling terrible. Long story short, he needed to get off the mountain because he wasn’t going to make it through the night. He and I strapped back on our snow shoes and hiked back to the cars. Our first choice was to find a hotel on the mountain, but alas, it was New Year’s weekend and all the rooms had been booked for months. So, we headed down the treacherous roads toward Hood River to find a hotel where he could get warm and hopefully sleep through the night. Due to the icy roads, this trip was slow and dangerous. It took more than an hour to travel the 30 miles down the mountain.

We were just entering Hood River (within 1/2 mile of the city) at around 10:30pm when we were turned around and sent back due to the road being closed. At the time, we had no way of knowing what had caused the road closure, but it turned out to be this accident which tragically took the lives of three people. The guy on the road told us to go back about 4 miles and take the road over to Odell to get to Hood River. Unfortunately, he neglected to mention that after turning into Odell, we would find no signs to help us navigate that maze of a city and being from out of town, we got lost and ended up miles away in the wrong direction.

I hadn’t seen a gas station for a long time, we were getting close to being empty (which is bad in Oregon because you can’t pump your own gas (don’t ask) so after about 12:00 if you need gas you’re out of luck until the next morning). Our cell phones had not been any use to this point, but just as I was about to give up and come up with a plan to sleep in the car for the night (hoping to save enough gas to keep the car warm until morning), I got reception on my cell phone and got a call through to my wife. Chloe! She was able to help us get back to Odell and navigate that maze of a little town. Salvation.

During this trecherous journey, my scout had gotten warm enough to fall asleep in the passenger seat (thank goodness) while I was white-knuckling it over the slip and slide of black ice they call roads here in Oregon. Of course, this is not news to you because you are ODOT and you are intimitely aquainted with the deadly road conditions you preside over on a daily basis. We finally got into a bed at around 1am.

The next morning, we had to make our way back up the mountain because we needed to carry our gear out and also because the rest of the scouts would never get their stuff home without the truck we were in. We headed up highway 35 to meet up with the rest of the troop. Unfortunately, we soon ran into a line of cars as far as the eye could see and moved at a snails pace for over an hour. I am not sure of the exact cause of this delay, but it may have been the head-on crash mentioned in this news story. When we finally got up the mountain and hiked into camp, we arrived just in time to leave. The rest of the troop enjoyed some purportedly awesome sledding in the morning and after giving up on our return had packed our things onto sleds and were preparing to pull them back to their one remaining vehicle for a very cramped ride home. They were glad to see us. We strapped on our packs and turned around to retrace our steps on the mile hike out of camp.

So, ODOT, why do I tell you all of this? Because I am fed up with your ridiculous, nay, intolerable refusal to use salt on icy roads. I know, I know, it hurts the cars and destroys the environment. Tell that to the families of the dead. Your insane policy against salting the roads is killing people. Their bodies are piling up every weekend and their blood is on your hands. I love the environment too, but this refusal to use salt has a cost in human lives. I can only imagine how I would feel if instead of being inconvenienced this weekend, I had lost a loved one. Think about it an get some perspective. Next year when it snows, salt the roads.


  1. Wow, Jacob, Texas just got a whole lot better. The worst weather we have to deal with for camping is when it breaks 100.

    But we still ship in salt the one day every three years that we need it. C’mon, ODOT, you already destroyed the environment by putting that giant track of asphalt through it, a little salt isn’t going to make it any worse.

    Oh and not salting the roads is ridiculous, but not being able to pump your own gas is simply inconceivable. It is not 1945.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 5, 2009 @ 8:36 am

  2. I love Oregon (the land), but those are some backward ways! I am suprised to learn that you still cannot pump your own gas there!

    Great letter! I hope they read the whole thing and make some changes.

    Comment by Don — January 5, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  3. That is funny you both mention the gas pumping. It is really obnoxious, but it’s like a really bad smell–if you’re in it long enough you get used to it. There are lots of places online with people complaining about the gas pumping law, but here is a sample article about why Oregon and New Jersey are the only places in the country to prohibit you from pumping your own gas.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  4. Although I can see how the ODOT made your situation difficult, perhaps all of the blame doesn’t lie with them?

    Why take a sick kid on a physically demanding winter camp?

    Perhaps it would have been better to follow the scout motto a little more closely and be better prepared? Perhaps with a map, gps receiver, snow tires, chains, etc…

    That being said, glad everything worked out for you and the boy.

    Comment by jm — January 5, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  5. jm,

    Fair questions. However, you’ll notice that my real complaint has to do with all the dead people, not with the inconvenience to our scouting trip. The slew of fatal accidents in Oregon this winter is not related to our preparation (or lack thereof) when camping.

    As to why we took the sick kid, it was because he had been sick earlier in the week, but had been feeling better (come to think of it he didn’t tell us he’d been sick so as leaders we didn’t even have occasion to make a decision about it prior to the trip). As to not bringing a map, that is because I am a bad leader. As to having four wheel drive or chains, we had those.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  6. Jacob,

    After a quick re-reading, I see your point more clearly.

    When it comes to balancing the environment and the safety of the community, I think the environment should loose every time.

    Then again, the idiots who drive on icy roads like it’s summer time shouldn’t be surprised when they end up in the ditch!

    Comment by jm — January 5, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  7. Indeed.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  8. I just moved to Seattle from western NY; talk about major differences in snow removal! Rochester dumped so much salt before the storms even hit that some days I would glance outside in the morning and think it had snowed where in reality they had just salted in anticipation of the storm. Never had any trouble driving there, but I’ve paid a lot for car repairs caused by rust (with more yet to come, yippee!).

    What is the environmental damage from salt? I can’t agree with jm (#6) that “When it comes to balancing the environment and the safety of the community, I think the environment should loose every time,” because the community is not separate from the environment. I would want to know the type and extent of damage caused by salt before I brushed it off as innocuous.

    Also, have you considered hounding your politicians to use road salt alternatives, such as calcium chloride or beet juice? I don’t know much about them, just that they are alternatives, but since you’re getting it this issue….

    Comment by BrianJ — January 5, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  9. BrianJ,

    Thanks for the comparison to NY. It is stunning.

    As to the environmental impact, you can probably guess that this will be a hot debate with one side saying it is detrimental and the other side saying it is not too bad. My attempt at an end run around that argument is to point to all the many states (like NY) that use tons of salt every year and seem to be getting by.

    As to using alternatives to salt, Oregon uses mostly sand (very ineffective in my experience and causes plenty of damage to my car) and some chemical de-icers in places. One of the problems this year was that the chemicals are very ineffective if the temperature drops much below freezing so this year there were apparently places where they dropped that stuff and it did almost nothing. My wife tells me that Washington state finally buckled this year and decided next year they are using salt. I’m hoping Oregon follows their lead, but I don’t see myself hounding any politicians. Especially since I have already used up all my energy writing this post.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  10. Having lived in both Washington and Oregon for significant periods of time, I don’t really have many complaints about ODOT or WDOT (or whatever it is) not using salt. (I’m pretty sure they don’t have a choice anyway) My main complaint is the same as with jm, the idiots who drive like it’s summertime. They cause most of the accidents. That and the really old people who can barely drive in good weather.

    From a brief search on the internet, salt mostly wreaks havoc on the water systems, streams, lakes etc. I’m glad i’m not the one who has to make the call as to whether or not the environmental benefits outweigh the cost of lives.

    People should get certified to be able to drive in the snow and ice in my opinion.

    Comment by Ian M. Cook — January 5, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  11. People should get certified to be able to drive in the snow and ice in my opinion.

    Ha, that would be hilarious to see a bunch of people fail their “driving on ice” test at the DMV. I’ll sign your petition.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  12. Doesn’t sound like much fun. Have you sent this letter to the legislature they have hearings scheduled in January to cover the poor winter storm response by the ODOT? I am not sure if you can always salt your way out of icy conditions. It melts and washes away relatively easily. I have always lived in a snowy climate and very few areas outside of large population bases salt or treat the roads.

    I am assuming Jacob and you guys that think the DOT should have done more has voted to increase your taxes to cover this expense. I know most states are facing huge revenue shortfalls so I assume you are part of the solution and are voting to increase taxes and not borrowing from your kids future.

    On a side note as a parent of scouters I assume you also had 2 leaders left on the hill and that you were not alone in a hotel room with some one elses child. I have seen too many times that church scout leaders ignore these rules.

    Comment by Jerry — January 5, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  13. …very few areas outside of large population…

    You should see Portland. Not pretty when it snows.

    I assume you also had 2 leaders left on the hill and that you were not alone in a hotel room with some one elses child.

    There were two leaders left on the hill and I am a relative of the sick scout.

    As to the extra cost of ice (if there is any), I don’t know that it has ever come up in a measure such that I could vote for or against taxes to cover it. The ODOT sometimes brags about how they recycle the sand they throw down on the roads. They actually have a truck that goes around and picks up the sand after the snow is gone so they can use the same sand next year. So, I’m thinking… they could put down salt, skip the recycling part, and probably save some money.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 5, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

  14. The Oregon governor is trying to increase the gas tax now to help cover road maintenance. Perhaps they are not taking better care so they can push that new tax through with minimal complaining. Salt usually costs considerably more than sand.

    I have been on a number of hikes and about half the time the leaders ignore the basic safety rules. I have complained enough that people get mad when I start asking questions. I try follow basic care when I am with the scouts by keeping them coated with sunscreen and hydrated only to have my kids come home clearly not taken care of. My wife will no longer allow the kids to go on most outings without me.

    Comment by Jerry — January 5, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  15. I think that WA has been using salt for a while, it’s just King County (including Seattle) that has been holding out. It’s really beside the point though, because salt would have done little to help in this last storm—it was snow, not ice, that trapped many in their homes and shut down schools. You use plows to remove snow, salt to remove ice. So Seattle will need to purchase a ton of plows (the county has something like 25 total) if people really want the snow removed.

    Comment by BrianJ — January 5, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  16. I live in WA, and the current King county (Seattle) plows are not only few, but they have rubber blades, designed to leave behind 4-5 inches of snow when they pass! That freezes nicely into hilly skating rinks. And of course, most people cannot drive on snow or ice or rain here. Due to all the rain (6-8 inches expected on Wendesday), the roads are crowned, not level, higher in the middle. Add soem ice— it’s not good. This last storm had my son (with 4WD and chains) keeping a running tally of how many fools he pulled out of assorted ditches and berms. Thirteen in one day!

    My Oregon roads gripe is the lack of guardrails. There are some very trecherous switchbacks in the middle of the state, with signifcant drops and no guard rails in sight. What are you saving them for?

    Comment by deb — January 5, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

  17. Jerry, luckily, we have an excellent scoutmaster who takes good care of the scouts and is very by-the-book about the rules. I’d have to see numbers on the salt vs. sand cost to know how I feel about that aspect. In the Portland area we usually have less than a week of snow/ice, so I can’t imagine this adds up to much. Maybe it does though.

    BrianJ, good point about the plows. Where I live in Forest Grove we have no plows, so the snow just piled up, then turned into a huge layer of ice when people drove on it unplowed. My understanding is that this is one of the hot topics in the legislature meeting Jerry mentioned in #12.

    deb, “hilly skating rinks” sounds lovely. I don’t know why you are complaining about that–everyone loves to go ice skating. It sounds like you’ve done a fine job raising your son, though. As to the guardrails, I don’t know, but maybe it destroys the view? Wouldn’t put it count that out as a possibility.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 6, 2009 @ 9:09 am

  18. As an Oregon resident of nearly 40 years, my experience has taught me that the Government in Oregon would rather jettison us to the 18th century rather than compromise its environmental standards. Bring on the Salt!!

    On a side note I remember as a scout going to Mt. Hood to dig snow caves and we left early too. However, our early departure was do to a warming of the atmosphere, which produced tremendous amounts of rain. In short, we got soaked.

    Comment by Craig W. — January 6, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

  19. Jacob J,

    When I saw the title I thought you were going to write about the insanity of Oregon’s plan to install a GPS tracking device on every automobile in the state for the purpose of tracking mileage. But your complaint is better.

    I will try to stay off Oregon roads during the winter and hope the powers that be see some sense. Perhaps a lawsuit on behalf of an injured party would be in order.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 6, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  20. One time I went on an ice caving camping trip. It was really great, I worked really hard to build an ice cave, spilled top ramen all over it, and ended up sharing a different tiny ice cave with about 1o people.
    Later I started feeling really terrible and started to vomit (in the ice cave). Luckily we had about 5 mess kits that we rotated in and out of the little entrance to get rid of the barf.
    When I started to get delirious 2 of the guys with me literally dragged me out of the ice cave and a few miles back to the van. It was during this dragging that it started to come out both ends.
    As soon as I got down the mountain I was fine. My friends and I decided later that maybe I had altitude sickness.
    I love ice caving!

    Comment by Kristen J — January 6, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  21. Kristen, there’s an idea: a combination of top ramen, vomit, and diarrhea to combat icy roads!

    Comment by BrianJ — January 7, 2009 @ 12:55 am

  22. Kristen: Wow, uh, thanks for that thought to start my day!

    Comment by Matt W. — January 7, 2009 @ 7:13 am

  23. Happy new year everybody, and may the lord bless you all in this troublesome time of great tribulation.

    Comment by Hitoshimi dabalrgta — January 7, 2009 @ 7:15 am

  24. I don’t know Brian I think that would cost more than salt. It might make the environmentalists happy though because no one would ever want to go there in the winter. The land would be pristine.

    Matt, you know I’ve always got your back.

    Comment by Kristen J — January 7, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  25. Kristen,

    Please stay on topic for the post. Where the roads salted on your way down the mountain or not?!

    We were all sitting there looking at the sick scout after he crawled into our snow cave and one of the leaders said what we were all thinking: “Please don’t barf in our snow cave” after which he handed him his top roman bowl. Good times.

    By the way, your story is maybe the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 7, 2009 @ 8:01 am

  26. Thanks Jacob! I don’t know if the roads were salted or not, I was too busy barfing. Seriously I just wanted to those guys to hurl me into a snowbank and let me die. Luckily for Geoff’s sake they carried on.

    Comment by kristen j — January 11, 2009 @ 7:29 pm