Mount Rushmore, Montana and Motoring Matters: the Little Engine that (Mostly) Could.

After my sunset in the Badlands, I drove on to the town of Keystone. That’s a few miles from Mt. Rushmore – you know, where the faces of four presidents are carved. On the way there I saw a lightning storm in the distance and then it got up close and almost personal. Unfortunately, the lightning was either very remote or it was close but behind clouds and trees, so no photography could be accomplished. Plus, honestly, it was raining pretty hard and I was kind of scared. California natives aren’t used to electrical storms on the Great Plains. All the more reason to stop in Keystone while the night was still young at 9:30 PM.

The next day, I saw Mount Rushmore for a short time, and marveled at the idea that anyone felt possessed to carve out such a high mountain with such large portraits. It’s wonderful, but crazy too. So was Macchu Picchu in its way, though at least people lived in that place. I met some nice folks from Missouri there and we chit chatted as we looked at the monument. It was a quick stop for me – I went on to Deadwood. There, I noticed how nice the town looked and how it had been beautifully restored. I found out later that the casino had agreed to fix things up in exchange for the town’s permission to make it a specially zoned gambling district. Some things about the Wild West haven’t changed, I guess.

I saw US Marshall “Wild Bill” Hickok’s grave at the cemetery, which is a bit of a hike up a hill. On my way downhill, I saw my car in the little parking lot being admired by all the other drivers. The red Audi has made quite a spectacle of itself here in the Midwest. Everyone here seems to choose their cars for practical reasons and to have such an evident piece of sport-driving apparatus is a novelty. After I got into the car, a man knocked on my window, smiled at me, and told me to be good and not speed, even though he knew it would be difficult for me in that little red car. I continued on, at the posted legal limit, to the town of Lead. I tried to have a look at the dark matter and neutrino investigation center they are building in Lead in the pits of the old Homestake Gold Mine, but to no avail. Despite my background with the physics lab and my Cal Berkeley alumna status, they were not giving tours. But they are only just beginning the science center and are still in construction, so I suppose it makes sense. I used the ladies’ room there and I noticed that the hallways were eerily like the labs I’ve worked in over the years, right down to the lettering font used on the nameplates. What is it about physicists?

I drove across the state line into Wyoming, and up toward the Bighorn National Forest. It was late and I was hurrying. I was about to go into the National Forest when instead, I met the local sheriff. Oh dear. During our little chat, I learned that in Wyoming once you’re speeding past ninety-something miles per hour, the price of the ticket is the same. You can be going, say, 103 or you can go 133 – it doesn’t matter. I think they ought to put that kind of information in their tourist maps. It seems relevant. The silver lining was the $10 discount for wearing my seatbelt. Ug. This ticketing was going too far. I decided, officially, to slow down. I put the cruise control on and tried to cover my shame.

Bighorn National Forest was very beautiful, and I went over the Powder River pass at 9666 feet. I got out of the car to stretch my legs and have a look and was surprised to realize it was only 42 degrees outside. Good thing I had a down jacket in the car. There was still a lot of snow up in the pass, and as it turned out a couple of nights later, they got 16 more inches of snow. Glad I missed that storm! As it was, I had great weather and drove across the National Forest and over the county roads until late, arriving in Billings, Montana, near midnight. I had originally planned to go to Cody instead, and then drive through the east gate to Yellowstone. However, Tourist Information informed me that the east gate and several other gates are closed until May 5th, even in fine weather, and it would have been another 100 miles driving for me to get to the north gate. I decided to get to Billings instead and make up my mind in the morning whether to go north to Canada or west to the open Yellowstone Gate. For some reason, there were not many beds available in Billings and I had to search for a hotel. After some while, I found one with a large waterslide park *inside* the hotel. I know you’ll be sorry to hear I did not try it out.

The next day, I chose Canada. I headed north for Great Falls and eventually Alberta, Canada. I went on Montana Route 3 north for about four hours or so, and didn’t see a lot of people along the way. In some places, there were not even very many cows. Imagine my surprise when I saw the sign “Welcome to Great Falls, Montana” at the same time as I saw my engine lights come on. The car was very upset and the temperature gauge was all the way to “H”. I pulled over, looked up the symbol in my owner’s manual and tried to cool off the car. To no avail – it just heated up again in a couple of blocks. The guys at the local Tire-Rama were very nice and tried to help, but they’d never seen my kind of car before. I called Audi down in Palo Alto, who sent me to the national Audi help line, who had me call Bozeman Audi (130 miles away) because they were the closest to my present location. I asked Bozeman Audi who could maybe help me at 5:10 in the afternoon on a Thursday in Great Falls. They said “oh, hm. Oh. We’ll call you right back!” Well, they did call me right back and sent me over to Bennett Motors, a Volkswagen dealership about six blocks away. The car just made it there before all the overheat lights came on again. It was literally three minutes before they were closing but I caught the service manager, Mark. Fortunately for me, this is the Midwest and people are nice here. Mark was very nice. He checked out the car, gave me a preliminary theory and called around to see if he could find someone with the part he’d probably need to replace. He also drove me to the hotel of my choosing and suggested the CM Russell art museum if I was looking for something to do while they fixed the car. Which they did! The water pump impeller was in little pieces and no longer getting coolant to the engine, so they replaced it and cleaned everything up. I bought pizza for the service department to say “thank you” for saving my bacon on a Friday and fitting my job into their schedule. I suspect this may have contributed to the car’s being finished by 3:00 instead of 5:00. And they washed it even though it was raining. The car has been driving for 900 miles since without a hitch. I have been driving this car up mountains, through all kinds of sharp curves, around potholes and the occasional squirrel, over existing roadkill, on dirt and gravel roads, past semi-trucks, through the Continental Divide and more high passes than I can count, into avalanche zones, on snow, and on long, long hauls. Sometimes I took it easy but most of the time I was intent on getting to my destination in whatever way I could. It has held up beautifully and come back for more. I am, overall, very pleased with it. It’s been comfortable, warm, kept the road noise out, and it’s been nimble, responsive and energetic every time I’ve needed it. That it got tired in Great Falls and needed a part is entirely forgivable. My car even managed to wait for a breakdown until the only city in 100 miles where she could get help. I feel very lucky that I didn’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere, though I did bring road flares and a blanket just in case. If this had been my old VW Beetle, I know I would have been left somewhere in elk country around midnight in the rain or snow (probably near a body dump site or a pack of wolves). I think somebody upstairs is looking after me. I even made it to the Russell museum (view one of his famous paintings, The Jerkline) in the late afternoon before leaving for Canada – what a treat.

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2 Responses to Mount Rushmore, Montana and Motoring Matters: the Little Engine that (Mostly) Could.

  1. I love it! I am so glad you had such a good time in my area… your “big sky” comments tickle me, we take SO MUCH for granted. Did you see Crazy Horse? (from the highway) Sounds like you are having a ball!

  2. I did not see Crazy Horse. I felt lucky to find Deadwood! But I love the Mid-west. The land is just so beautiful, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.

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