Why I drove 7 hours through the mountains to a rest stop

I recently finished building my first high power rocket, and mentioned in my last post the difficulties involved in finding a launch site, especially at this time of year. I’d need to find a local rocketry organization that has a launch site (i.e. either owns the land or has permission to use it) and secures the FAA waiver for the appropriate date, and then – weather permitting – I could launch. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done.

There are only a handful of organizations in the PNW, and most of them don’t hold any launch events in the winter. I did come across one group, Gorge Rocket Club (located in northwest Oregon) with a promising launch calendar even in winter months, and there was a recent weekend with a scheduled launch. I decided to go for it.

The FAA waiver allowed a launch window of just a few hours starting at 9:00am, and the location was in Goldendale, WA, which is a 4 hour drive from my home. This meant hitting the road at 5:00am when it was still dark outside for a nighttime drive east into the mountains. No problem so far. Just need to load up on coffee and a couple of podcasts.

Snow covered mountain road with pine trees on both sides
Snowy mountain roads in Snoqualmie Pass

The drive out there would have been a bit more scenic if it weren’t in the early hours before sunrise. Due to a combination of darkness and fog, I couldn’t really see much of anything. On the way back, I did see some of the scenery; Snoqualmie Pass in particular is beautiful.

But as I drove through the pass and dawn started to break east of the mountains, I noticed the roads getting increasingly icy, and snow was beginning to fall. That’s not a great sign for a scheduled rocket launch. The further I drove, the more heavily it snowed.

Finally, as I approached Yakima about three and a half hours into this drive, I got the not-totally-unexpected news that the launch was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and no visibility. It was total whiteout conditions.

Isolated rest stop with snow on ground
Not the most desirable location in Washington

I pulled over at a rest stop to make sure it was really cancelled, and took the opportunity to make use of the facilities while I was there. Then I began the three and a half hour drive back through the mountains to Seattle (this time with some better views).

I took a picture of a sign before I left the rest stop, though. The image basically sums up my day:

I didn’t literally fall, but I definitely slipped on some metaphorical level and landed on my ass. Also, my head physically separated from my shoulders when I heard the cancellation news.

But this is all part of the fun of launching rockets. I’ve read others’ stories about their first launches where something was cancelled, or the FAA waiver never went through, or the rocket launched but then suffered some catastrophic failure. C’est la vie. It was a pretty low key scenic drive.

I may get a chance to launch again in the same area in the next few weeks, though, and if so I’ll certainly take advantage of the opportunity. Fingers crossed!

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