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Creek Running North

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August 24, 2004

Ethylene glycol

When my dot-com died I decided to spend my meager accumulated savings traveling the Northern Rockies. Packed the truck, made arrangements to hunt fossils near Kemmerer and to sleep one night at Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone, obtained detailed maps of the Wind Rivers and Beartooth Absaroka, and then decided to add three more weeks to the trip to allow trips to Lolo Pass and Glacier and who knows, maybe Yellowknife.

I made it as far as Wells the first day, and spent the evening drinking local beer in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains. Flew east across the salt flats the next morning, trying to keep the rising sun behind the Stansbury range.

Come the afternoon and Parley’s Canyon grinding up towards Wyoming, and my trusty old truck was overheating. I stopped halfway up the grade to check the coolant — in sufficient supply, as it turned out. I nursed the pickup up the hill to Evanston and checked again. No shortage there.

Thirty-five miles per hour on deserted sagebrush roads brought me to Kemmerer: gateway to the Eocene Green River Formation and home, that day, to one operating gas station. The mechanic pops the hood, grabs a rag, opens the radiator cap, peers at the boiling green inside. “Well, it’s not the radiator. It’s probably your thermostat. I could order one for you from Rock Springs, get here in a day or two. Or I could disconnect the one you’ve got in there, and you replace it when you get where you’re going.”

Where I was going was up several hundred thousand cumulative feet of grade, but I decided to wait until the next day to decide. My truck ached down the road to a motel, where I fell into a fever sleep with bare wires exposed near the bedside and the television permanently tuned to JAG.

The next morning was better. I pulled a few dozen 50-million-year-old herrings from the rock and then pointed my truck in the direction of Little America, reasoning that a busy garage on the interstate would very likely 1) take all my money but b) fix my truck.

The Little America mechanic opened the hood, opened the radiator and peered inside. “Well, it’s not the radiator. It’s probably your thermostat.” He offered to order a new one from Rock Springs. It would take most of a day to arrive on the Greyhound. I got a room.

The next morning I went to pick up the truck, ready to head to Dubois and Fiddler Lake, and then on to Yellowstone. The clerk at the garage looked at me pityingly. “They put in the new thermostat, but it’s still heating up. He says he thinks it’s your head gasket.” I was sufficiently distracted by the flurry of winged dollar bills around my head that I forgot to ask how a cracked head gasket could overheat the engine without draining coolant.

“But we have an idea. We have this stuff that’s kind of like Fix-A-Flat for head gaskets. You pour it into a hot engine, rev for a while, and it seals any cracks that might be there. We can do that for $75.00.”

Then came the bad news.

“We’ll have to let the truck sit without starting it for two days after we put the stuff in.”

I went back to my room. There was very little chance I’d make my reservation at Fishing Bridge. I called to cancel it while I could still get my money back.

I should say that Little America is not without its amenities. There are bison burgers in the cafeteria. There’s a good strong signal from the Wyoming Public Radio station. There’s a swimming pool. Um, I think that’s it.

On the afternoon of the third day, the thunderstorms rolled in. Desperate to escape the manicured, fake New England confines of the motel, I walked out into the steppe beyond. Rusted, unidentifiable pieces of metal littered the ground, increasingly dotted by fat raindrops. There were openings in the sagebrush, paths trod by deer and pronghorn. I followed one until it ended, a mile into the desert. It was a cul-de-sac: a rounded, trampled spot with copious pronghorn scat.

The lightning got closer. I was the tallest thing for miles. My hair was wet. I headed back, stood on the motel lawn watching the storm approach from the south. Behind the dark gray band of rain, a patch of sun lit brilliant red cliffs: Flaming Gorge, forty or so miles away. A gasp arose from behind me, and I turned to agree.

It wasn’t the scenery that had prompted my neighbors to gasp. It was the pronghorn, two of them standing ten feet away from me, watching the lightning with me on the open lawn. They got nervous once I noticed them. They sidled away.

My room phone rang the next morning. It was the mechanic. “She’s working fine, come on and pick’er up.” I paid my various tabs and headed toward the road that would take me north to Yellowstone. Five miles along, the temperature gauge started to climb. Fast.

I spent the rest of that day driving, heater blasting to cool the engine, through rush hour traffic in Salt Lake. Across the Bonneville Salt Flats. Up steep grades and past desolate desert in Northern Nevada. In July. On a day that was already blisteringly hot. Night fell as I reached Reno, and I made it over Donner Pass without problem as the air cooled.

Two days later I got a phone call from my primary car physician in Berkeley, an hour after I’d dropped the truck off.

“It’s the radiator. I’m putting in a new one. Ninety bucks. Pick it up at four-thirty.”

I’ve been thinking about going back.

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life is full of coincedence. i blew a head gasket in the middle of the lamar valley - in minus eighteen degrees. i limped slowly out of the park to cooke city, where a delighted flatbed truck operator hauled the car (border collie inside!)over the mountain passes to billings (nearly $500 and nothing done to the car yet). three rental cars later, i made it home, only to fly back to billings for the car the following weekend. no pronghorn whatsoever! maybe you should try it again :)

Posted by: Anne at August 25, 2004 08:46 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs