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.