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The Backstory: A Montana Memoir

Updated on September 30, 2014
Our destination, Gibson Reservoir, MT.  We never made it.
Our destination, Gibson Reservoir, MT. We never made it. | Source

Anyone who grew up in Montana knows that the real state motto is “We get it done,” not “Oro y Plata” (“Gold and Silver”). Sparsely populated with more cows than people, residents have no choice but to become resourceful and self-reliant. Perhaps it is less true now, but as a kid every adult I knew, whether male or female, was a competent mechanic, plumber, electrician, and carpenter—not to mention a decent cook and gardener. We used materials we had at hand, and we got it—whatever “it” was—done. Not beautifully, perhaps, but always good enough.

My father, for example, dug and cemented our family basement by hand. “By hand,” I mean literally. Using nothing but a shovel and a pick, he enlarged a dirt crawl space under our house into a 24 by 24 by 9 foot basement complete with poured concrete walls and floor. At first he hauled dirt out with a bucket. Later, when he had more arm movement, he purchased a tiny conveyor belt that dumped dirt into a pile just outside the house. My job was to shovel this loosened dirt into his pick-up truck. When the pick-up was full, he’d haul the dirt away and we’d start the process all over again. It took about three to four years of nightly digging, but when he was done we had a beautiful basement—and not coincidentally—a place to put a furnace for central heat.

After the basement was done, my father took on insulating the rest of the house. My date and I were not allowed to leave for the junior prom until we helped my father drywall one of the bedrooms (we call drywall “sheet rock” in Montana). Nothing says “elegance” like a fine chalk layer over one’s tux, and this was perhaps my father’s way of sizing up my suitors. Ron, I’m sorry to say, did not pass the “sheet rock test.” I never saw him again. My girlfriends were also often pressed into taping duty (“mudding”) before we could go to the movies, which probably explains why they preferred meeting me there, instead of picking me up.

1962 Ford Falcon tank straps.  Given the important job they do, you'd think they would be wider!
1962 Ford Falcon tank straps. Given the important job they do, you'd think they would be wider! | Source
A Ford Falcon 1962 gas tank
A Ford Falcon 1962 gas tank | Source

Long before he entered his basement-digging craze, however, my father used to take the family on long, scenic drives. By long, think 80-90 miles, minimum. One particular weekend, we headed up to Gibson Reservoir in Lewis and Clark National Forest. It would have been about 70 miles sticking to main roads, but where’s the fun in that? So instead, my father took a nice, long detour past Nilan Reservoir and followed back roads north. “Roads” being a euphemism for cow trails, mind you. We were driving that era’s answer to the SUV, a 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon. Perfect for hauling a large family, you could also stow a little fishing gear in the capacious back end. Except, unlike today’s SUVs, it rode lower to the ground, and it certainly was not designed for driving over undeveloped, rugged roads. Furthermore, the Falcon’s gas tank was secured with two almost unbelievably thin metal straps, and its entire underside was prone to rust.

So it was that when we finally turned onto Mortimer Gulch Road and crossed over the bridge’s first cattle guard, those dainty, rusty little gas tank straps rattled free, dropped the tank, and punched a hole right into its bottom. 3 miles from the Reservoir and 70 miles from the nearest town, we sputtered to a dead and final stop.

show route and directions
A markerGibson Reservoir, MT -
Gibson Reservoir, Lewis & Clark National Forest, Montana 59422, USA
get directions

Our destination

B markerMortimer Gulch Road, MT -
Mortimer Gulch Road, Lewis & Clark National Forest, Augusta, MT 59410, USA
get directions

Just a few miles from the Reservoir, we broke down

C markerNilan Reservoir, MT -
Nilan Reservoir, Montana 59410, USA
get directions

We turned off the secondary roads and started taking cow trails north

D markerAugusta MT -
Augusta, MT 59410, USA
get directions

The closest town to our breakdown

E markerSimms, MT -
Simms, MT, USA
get directions

F markerGreat Falls MT -
Great Falls, MT, USA
get directions

Home!

Oh yes, we were in a pickle. Any campers in the area would have cleared out hours earlier hoping to get a good start on their work week. We were on Federal lands, so there were no nearby ranch homes (“nearby” being a relative term), and the last gas station was 70 miles back in Augusta. Cell phones hadn’t been invented. Nor the Ham Radio (jk, but it didn’t matter: we didn’t own one). We had no food or water that I can remember, and, being three at the time, I was all about being patient and staying calm. My father had just decided to try hitch hiking back to the gas station (possibly to escape my tantrums) when miracle of miracles, two campers rounded the bend.

They were lovely people, and like all Montanans, they knew something about cars. The driver had a 5 gallon can with a little gas in it and some spare plastic hose. Together he and my father duct taped the can to our Ford top; then they threaded the hose down the windshield, under the hood, and into the carburetor. Since the gas tank was still half-attached to the car, my mother had the idea of threading a 3-inch sapling under the car's chassis to prop it up. We used a couple of coat hangers to attach the tree to the car.

To keep the gas can from flying off the roof and the tree from dislodging underneath, we could only drive a few miles an hour. Thus, we limped into Augusta about 4 hours later, refilled the gas can, and traveled on to Simms, where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was a long-haul trucker with his own machinist's shop and--so cool when I was a kid--his own personal gas station. While Grandma heated up soup and biscuits for dinner, Grandpa and my father replaced the tank straps. They couldn't do anything about the gas tank, except to refill the can, however. Finally, in the wee hours of the next day we pulled up to our own home. It wasn't pretty, but, hey, we got it done.

Yet another Sunday drive.   Notice we are now driving a Chevy!
Yet another Sunday drive. Notice we are now driving a Chevy!

Tips for Driving in Montana

Montana experiences the widest range of temperatures of any of the lower 48 United States. It holds the record for both the highest temperature rise over 24 hours ever recorded in the lower 48 (-54 degrees Fahrenheit to 49 degrees Fahrenheit--that's 103 degrees total--in Loma, MT, January 15, 1972) and the greatest temperature drop in 24 hours (44 degrees Fahrenheit to -56 degrees Fahrenheit--100 degrees total--in Browning, MT, January 23rd and 24th, 1916). It isn't at all uncommon to go to bed in 100 degree heat one night and wake up to frost the next morning. Fortunately, we had nice balmy weather the day we broke down, but you may not be so lucky. When driving in Montana, be sure to prepare an emergency travel kit, as suggested in the link below. Thanks for reading!

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      hermana susana 2 years ago

      so I heard Dad talking to you about this on the phone ;-)--and wasn't there some nifty bit o' physics involved in the whole siphoning of the gas? and something about needing to use gravity to get the gas to the engine, i.e. the need to strap the gas can to the roof? and also, what was a bit about why the fortuitous saviors happened to have all that gear in their vehicle--they were stock car drivers? or mechanics? there was some totally random reason--besides being Montanans ;-)--that they had exactly what was needed to rig up this hail-Mary save. other than a tree branch, of course.

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      Maureen Nelson 2 years ago

      The Camper/Good Samaritan was a Smelterman like Dad, hermana susana. He had some car-related hobby--possibly stockcar racing--that Dad couldn't quite remember. What? You don't have a gas can and extra plastic hose in your rig? What's wrong with you girlfriend?

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