Tuesday, January 4, 2011


The day before New Year's Eve (New Year's Eve Eve?) I had a job drilling on a property along Skyline Boulevard. For those of you who don't know Portland, Skyline runs along the crest of the West Hills. These are the West Hills that Everclear refers to in the song "I Will Buy You A New Life", the ones with the shiny new car, the garden, and the handsome man with the athletic thighs?

These hills are, as the song implies, home to many of Portland's wealthy in the tradition that places the homes and lives of the rich and graceful physically as well as emotionally and socially above those below them in the insomnia of the American Dream.At some point when navigating the West Hills I recall a novel I read in my youth which described a fictional city as resembling the layers of "...an Italian wedding cake, richly emblematic of the crumbs inside..." and describing how each social stratum would use the layer below as the receptacle for its garbage until it reached the bottom where "...it is believed that, there being no one lower upon whom to throw it, it is eaten."

That has nothing whatever to do with this post.

While the elevation of most of the Portland area is about 50 to 70 feet above sea level (MSL), the crest of the Hills is anywhere from 600 to 1,000 feet above MSL. This makes Skyline its own little climate, and you tend to find snow, or ice, there when the rest of Portland is getting our traditional rain. Which makes getting your burger-and-fries at the Skyline Restaurant kinda chancy when the wind is from the east. You have gotta know your tire chains from a handsaw to get up to our work site, which was just north of the aforesaid iconic Portland diner.

So the Hills are really more than "hills"; their correct name is the Tualatin Mountains and I should really do a post about them because the geology of the Hills is kind of fascinating. They're a huge fold in the nap of Portland's carpet, an immense hump of folded and faulted basalt mantled by yellow-brown silt blown up from the Portland basin to the east. Much of the Hills is dominated by Forest Park, which is just what it says it is - a park that is a forest. Very pretty in a dank, Northwest woods sort of way.

But. Every winter we get two, or three, or four, periods when our winds that typically bring the warm rain off the Pacific shift and come from the east. This pushes cold, cold air down off the interior of the continent, and we freeze over. Which is what we're enjoying at the moment. These east wind iceboxes usually last a couple of days or a week or two before the jet stream unspools and brings the rain back.

And when Portland catches a cold, the West Hills freeze right through.So when the drillers and I arrived Thursday morning, we found that since they had not sufficiently winterized the drill rig the rig pump - soil drilling can be done using air to lift the soil and rock cuttings out of the hole, or with a sort of giant screw (called an auger) but is often done using a mixture of water and a thick bentonite slurry, called "mud rotary" - was frozen.


I suggested that we might use their propane torch to thaw the pump and was told that the propane place didn't open until eight (why we hadn't stopped by the day before was left unexplained). But the drillers were undiscouraged, and showing that American ingenuity that we've been famed for since Valley Forge, proceeded to melt the frozen mud within the pump using flaming bits of cardboard stuffed inside.And off we went.

Is this a great country, or what?

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