11.3 Monumental Lockout

Well, it finally happened.  I locked myself out of the car.

Fortunately, it happened near civilization, at the Devils Tower visitor center.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me.

Fortunately, the “road unit” ranger could.  This happens periodically and the park rangers deal with it.

Unfortunately, the road unit ranger was unavailable, in a meeting.  They were short-handed—other units had been called out for forest fire work.

Fortunately, the meeting would be over in about an hour.  I took the opportunity to hike around the tower.

Unfortunately, when the ranger arrived, he didn’t have the lockout toolkit.

Fortunately, he knew who had it.

Unfortunately, there would be a delay while his partner arrived.  I watched parties of climbers ascending the tower.

Fortunately, the other ranger arrived in fifteen minutes and had the tools.

Fortunately, they worked!

I was embarrassed by this episode.  I once was unsympathetic to such stories, but I will never make condescending remarks about these things again.  I felt like the Norwegian who had locked his keys in the car.  It took him nearly half a day to get his family out.

A half day had passed for me and now, through the help of park rangers and their preparation for this semi-rare event, I could continue my travels.

My minivan, with its two rooftop cargo carriers spends an extra few hours at the Devils Tower visitor center, a consequence of its absent-minded owner.

Nightscape Odyssey
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10.3 Now You’re Talkin’

Enough time had elapsed that my engine could cope with the short drive to the service station, even with a disabled cooling system.  It continued to hemorrhage green fluid however, even as I parked in the garage’s driveway.  I walked into the noisy shop, avoiding the hoses running across the floor that powered various air tools and welding equipment.  At a break in the sound level, I caught the attention of a mechanic, a young man in a jumpsuit, his hands wrapped around a troublesome oil filter.  He stopped his project and came over to hear me.

Knowing I am not fluent in the language of cars and their ailments (a specialized branch of linguistics similar to health-care and medicine), I did my best to explain my situation.

“Well my car is barely running and there’s green fluid everywhere.  It was working fine until I started out after lunch, and—“

He interrupted my auto-illiterate description of symptoms and sequence,  “Hold on a minute.  Is your car here?” 

“Yes, it’s out front.” 

“Ok, so what led up to this?  Did the car overheat?”  He walked with me out to the driveway.

“No, not that I know of.  Everything was fine when I stopped for lunch at the Irma; I’d been driving fine for miles before then.  I’ve been traveling over the last few weeks and today I came into town from the west, over Chief Joseph Pass— “

Now you’re talkin’!”  An apparent understanding of the situation interrupted my story.  “Let’s see what we have here.”

His reassuring manner and friendly encouragement accompanied us as we got to my car and inspected the confusing condition under the hood.  He rapidly diagnosed the broken radiator hose and showed me where it had burst. 

“So why would it burst after lunch instead of before?”  This didn’t make sense to me.

He explained that when I shut off the car, the cooling system stops circulating, and without a way for the heat to get out, the engine temperature builds up.  When restarted a short time later, the sudden excess load on the cooling system caused the hose to burst.  This sounded plausible to my uninformed logic, and I turned my attention to how it could be repaired.  Would I be back on the road today, or later this week?

I left it with him after he explained he would need to identify the part and see if they had a replacement.  I should check back in 20 or 30 minutes.  I looked around to see how I could kill half an hour, which I did at the neighboring hotel and gift shop, returning to find the car in its same spot!  Did anything happen?  I checked with the garage office (the convenience store) and was informed, “Oh yes, it’s all done.  The bill is thirty dollars, here’s the key.”

I was stunned.  Full and immediate recovery from an automotive disaster for the cost-equivalent of a tank of gas?  I found the mechanic and tipped him in appreciation for interrupting his work to attend to my cause.  Because of the hospitality and kindness of the people in Cody Wyoming, I’m on my way to the next town, Greybull.  And from there to the Bighorns, and if I get to stay in the Bighorns tonight, it will be because of the western courtesy given to strangers in distress.

Nightscape Odyssey

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10 Traversing Wyoming

10.1  Chief Joseph’s Revenge

It had been a very satisfying night at the top of Beartooth Pass.  I had enjoyed the company of nearby curious campers, seen stars reflected in clear calm water, and I had even made some exposures of the deep sky.  The new day came sooner than I wanted and the other occupants of the makeshift campground behind the “Top of the World” store made their early starts as I struggled to stay asleep amid the noise of their departures.  When I finally climbed out of the tent onto the rock-strewn alpine tundra, I no longer had any company.  The half-dozen brave RVs that had bedded down here among the rocks with me were gone.  I packed up my stuff and followed suit.

The drive back down the pass was pleasant, the weather nice, traffic light.  My backtracking had not gone very far before I encountered the branch off this scenic route to Yellowstone onto the road across Wyoming.  On the map it looked easy enough, but I was aware that it went over a pass by the name of Chief Joseph, the famous Nez Perce leader.  The road was well designed, well paved, and I drove many casual miles before any hints of elevation gain.  The road was so well conditioned, that it took me a bit by surprise when it seemed that my trusty old minivan was making a little more effort to keep the pace.  The straight stretches of road became shorter, the curves more frequent, then suddenly they became continuous and steep, walls of rock preventing a view to the road ahead.  Traffic backed up behind me as my engine gasped for air and my hands clenched the wheel.   The shoulders on the road had vanished, replaced by tight guardrails on one side and a narrow rock-adorned gully on the other.  Scenic pullouts were impossible, there were no wide spots in this road.

Perhaps because of the limited view and my previous oblivion to what I was about to drive over, I had no sense of how far or how long it would be until I reached the top.  Each new set of curves and climbs seemed like it should be the last, but it was always immediately followed by another turn, and another set of switchbacks.  I could do nothing but keep climbing and try to enter that mental state of zen driving, mountain road style.

Eventually of course I did reach the top.  It was not an obvious single point in the road, because I continued to climb, but now there were occasional downhill curves to complement the uphill ones.  The uphills became less frequent, and now I was clearly on the other side.  Ah, the other side.  The other side, and riding the brake!  I switched into lower gears to avoid overheating the brakes and the poor minivan whined with the rpm.  Maybe I should use the brakes a little more and give the engine and transmission a rest. 

I was relieved when the road pitch evened out and I could see it entering the great basin ahead.  The blood returned to my knuckles as I commanded my fingers to release their death-grip on the wheel.  I coasted a little to celebrate the successful maneuver through Chief Joseph Pass.  I’m not sure I would agree that he “will fight no more forever”.

The morning had been spent in intense concentration on driving.  The road was again wide and smooth and easy.  The town of Cody was just ahead and I looked forward to stopping for lunch, perhaps at the famous, but aging Irma Hotel, a stopping place I remembered from family road trips.  I rolled into town, passing familiar landmarks:  the Plains Museum, which I knew included a section containing more guns than even a couple of 12-year old boys could take in, the rock shop, now closed, where my son had spent his allowance on prize specimens.  And the Irma, Wild Bill’s business interest in the early days of Cody.

I located a parking place across the street and eagerly found my way into the restaurant.  The food was unremarkable, and the service awful, but I’m not particular, this is just a refueling stop.  Besides, the furnishings are always intriguing- huge stuffed wild animal heads guarding over the massive cherrywood bar and the other artifacts on display from an earlier rustic era.  I take the moment to examine my roadmap and make some notes.  Eventually I run out of reasons to stay, the bill is paid, and I prepare myself for returning to what looks like a long dry road ahead.

I start up the car.  It runs rough for a moment and then dies.  I start it again, dance with the gas pedal, put it in gear to enter the traffic on main street, and the engine kills again.  What’s going on?  Ok, I’ll take all possible load off of it.  I turn off the AC, the fan, the radio.  This time I manage to get into the lane and start driving, but something is seriously wrong.  The engine threatens to die unless I pump the gas pedal.  The car lurches down the street and it’s obvious I’m not going to get very far, but I managed to turn off of Main Street onto a side street and into a parking lot.  I got out and discovered a blood trail behind the car, showing in a wide wet stripe on the road exactly how I had gotten to this point.  Under the hood it was a mess, with fluorescent green coolant everywhere.

I looked around.  I was in a bank parking lot.  (I think “how convenient, I was hoping to find a cash machine anyway.”)  There is another bank nearby, and across the street, a building marked “Law Enforcement Center”.  I’m not quite sure what this means, but it sounds like it might be a police station, and maybe someone there could help me figure out how to get my car repaired on a Sunday afternoon in a small town in the middle of Wyoming.

Nightscape Odyssey

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