Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. High Plains Blizzard: Discontent on a Montana Highway

 

Move across the Great Plains in November and you are chancing sudden, serious winter weather. My parents did this twice in the 1970s with four young children. As we recall, the family dog was flown instead of sharing in the road trip both times. This was before hotels and motels catered to people with animals.

November 1977 found the Brown family convoying west from Fort Knox, KY, to Fort Lewis, WA. Dad had been reassigned from an Army hospital, commanded by a colonel, to an Army medical center, commanded by a one-star brigadier general. This was very good, as it meant he was moving into position to be promoted, as a clinician rather than administrator, from lieutenant colonel to colonel. What was not so good was the weather.

Our two-vehicle convoy’s make-up had been driven by family size and the oil crisis. When we had driven east, we rolled in Detroit steel. Then the oil crisis hit, and it was time to consider new vehicles. Dad got himself a Mercedes 240D. “D” is for diesel, the superior fuel economy and fuel price per mile choice at the time. Mom wanted something other than a station wagon around 1975, so she got Bessie the Bus, a VW with a bus shift lever linked to the four-on-the-floor transmission by a long wire. The engine was around 65-70 bhp.

Why a VW bus and not a station wagon? Discontent. You see, the seating arrangement in a VW bus led to matriarchal contentment and sibling survival. Four children could be arranged thusly:

[Mom][___][[Kid]

[Kid][empty]

[Kid][___][Kid]

As you can see, no one is in danger of touching, as in “Mom…she’s touching me!” “Am not!” No one can accidentally intrude on a sibling’s space, disturbing domestic tranquility. So, the blue-check gingham curtained bus could roll along with a modicum of peace, love, and harmony.

Now we were climbing out of Cheyenne or Laramie, WY, on Interstate 80, up into the hills and high plains. I believe we were planning to make Utah, possible Boise, ID, where we had family friends. Then it started blowing and snowing hard. The lead vehicle was the Mercedes, driven by Dad. Apparently, I was riding shotgun at the time, keeping an ever-closer eye on Bessie the Bus, whose blue-and-white paint scheme was tough to track in the snow flurries. Mom and the three girls were in the entirely manual and very high profile, while relatively light, VW bus. I get the rest of the story from them.

Mom had a death grip on the steering wheel, throwing all 5’11” into keeping it on what she thought was the road. Waiting out the storm on the side of the road was no option. You would either freeze, die of carbon monoxide poisoning, or get creamed by a semi. As we crept along, Mom focused on the Mercedes’ taillights.

Leeanna, the youngest of us, was the one without a filter. We passed a moving van bearing the markings of the company moving our stuff. Seeing it blown over on its side, Leeanna asked “is that our stuff?” A bit later, as things went from bad to worse, Leeanna asked: “are we going to die?” Mom is a pretty cool customer, but she couldn’t hide the reality of the situation. Finally, she flashed the high beams until I saw the signal and Dad pulled over to stop.

As I opened the passenger door and stepped out to run back to the VW, a wind gust snatched the glasses off my face. Thankfully they dropped near my feet, I snatched them up, and struggled back to the VW. The message was short and clear: “we must get off at the very next town.” That message was soon reinforced by a state patrol officer blocking the interstate and waving all traffic onto the Rawlins, WY, exit with flares.

Mom did her mom thing again, immediately on exit, decreeing that we would get two rooms first. Dad was all about completing the mission and wanted to refuel first. Mom was right. We got the last two motel rooms in town. Everyone behind us was put up for two days in gyms and halls. Mind you, Dad was right to want to refuel before hunkering down, as everyone and their dog and cat would be headed to the two or three gas stations in town when the storm lifted and the roads were cleared. He did so, even having to dig out of a snowbank in the process.

After the sky and road cleared, the rest of the trip was uneventful. The winter of our discontent did not end in glorious summer, but in the evergreen beauty of late 1970s western Washington, where moss grew thickly in the lane expansion joints of Interstate 5, and where we had a different glorious view of our mountain, Mount Rainier every day. Some days it even looked like Mount Doom!

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  1. RightAngles Member

    I was half expecting to see the Donner Pass on the map.

    • #1
    • February 3, 2020, at 10:40 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  2. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    So what happened to your stuff? Was it all smooshed to pieces after the moving van toppled over?

    Or was it, fortunately for your family, someone else’s moving van?

    • #2
    • February 3, 2020, at 11:47 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    So what happened to your stuff? Was it all smooshed to pieces after the moving van toppled over?

    Or was it, fortunately for your family, someone else’s moving van?

    It was not our stuff. Our movers and our stuff arrived safely at Fort Lewis.

    • #3
    • February 4, 2020, at 12:01 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    So what happened to your stuff? Was it all smooshed to pieces after the moving van toppled over?

    Or was it, fortunately for your family, someone else’s moving van?

    It was not our stuff. Our movers and our stuff arrived safely at Fort Lewis.

    Yeah! for you guys.

    • #4
    • February 4, 2020, at 12:09 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Bob Thompson Member

    Yes, Wyoming is bad in winter, Colorado too. 

    I have a cousin who was riding as a passenger in his pickup pulling a trailer with the wife driving when the wind blew them off the road. He is in a wheelchair for life. That was in Wyoming.

    In March 1983 I was driving my family, wife and 3 children, from Kansas City to ski in the Colorado Rockies when we ran into a fog bank in Limon, Co. I had slowed downed because visibility was really impaired but the driver of the 18-wheeler I guess thought he could see okay since his perch was above the fog in which we were immersed in our car. The truck crushed the rear of our car (totaled). Wife’s whiplash was the only injury-don’t know if she ever got completely over that-but she’s still with me. The children were fine in the backseat. My family has truly been blessed. Yours too it seems.

    Be careful driving on the highways in winter.

     

     

    • #5
    • February 4, 2020, at 7:31 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  6. KentForrester Moderator

    Cliff, your trip sounds harrowing.

    I know the area well. I was stationed in Fort Lewis for nine months, 15 years before you arrived, in 1961-62. I was there because I was called back into the Army (out of college, the University of Oregon) because of the Berlin Crisis. The Crisis blew over, but the Army kept us in long after it blew over, doing nothing. I’m a civilian at heart, so I grouched for nine months, anxious to return to college and my courting of Marie.

    The base is now called Lewis-McChord.

    My kids and grandkids live in the area around Fort Lewis, in Olympia and Tacoma. 

    • #6
    • February 4, 2020, at 7:37 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  7. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clifford A. Brown: The engine was around 65-70 bhp.

    Only from the factory floor, at sea level, could this claim be verified as “truthful”….

    The roll off in output on those 60’s & 70’s air cooled Beetle engines was nefariously quick, especially with the duty cycles American road are famous for inflicting on post WWII European exports.

    I never understood the left’s love affair with this final gasping product from Germany’s renown experiment with National Socialism.

    • #7
    • February 4, 2020, at 8:17 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  8. JoelB Member

    When our kids were young we purchased a used van-pool van that had been modified to have a center aisle. The best thing about it was that everyone could have his own seat separated from annoying siblings. It had individual AC nozzles and reading lights in the ceiling. This is not as much of a novelty now, but as the first vehicle we had with these amenities, it was dubbed the “airplane van”.

    • #8
    • February 4, 2020, at 8:26 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  9. PHCheese Member

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown: The engine was around 65-70 bhp.

    Only from the factory floor, at sea level, could this claim be verified as “truthful”….

    The roll off in output on those 60’s & 70’s air cooled Beetle engines was nefariously quick, especially with the duty cycles American road are famous for inflicting on post WWII European exports.

    I never understood the left’s love affair with this final gasping product from Germany’s renown experiment with National Socialism.

    You were lucky to get 60,000 miles on those engines. Of course you could replace it in about two hours. It could be lifted out by one reasonable strong guy or a hell of a strong woman.

    • #9
    • February 4, 2020, at 8:36 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  10. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher
    GLDIII Temporarily Essential Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    JoelB (View Comment):

    When our kids were young we purchased a used van-pool van that had been modified to have a center aisle. The best thing about it was that everyone could have his own seat separated from annoying siblings. It had individual AC nozzles and reading lights in the ceiling. This is not as much of a novelty now, but as the first vehicle we had with these amenities, it was dubbed the “airplane van”.

    This was dad’s solution to the family of 7 transportation problem, a 1971 Chevy Beauville.

    Stone reliable, logged more than 300K and was last put to service for the youngest’s child’s aspirational musician rock band mobility solution. He finished it off circa 1998. It was the last standard Chevy we had any respect for after the later purchased tribulations with a Vega, a Monza, and an Old Cutlass Diesels (broke the crank in half after 50K). The earlier purchased 60’s Corvettes and Cameros all performed well and lived long lives. My middle brother still has dad’s 1969 Convertible Pace car he full restored, as well as his own restored 1969 Camero RS hardtop.

    • #10
    • February 4, 2020, at 9:00 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Cliff, your trip sounds harrowing.

    I know the area well. I was stationed in Fort Lewis for nine months, 15 years before you arrived, in 1961-62. I was there because I was called back into the Army (out of college, the University of Oregon) because of the Berlin Crisis. The Crisis blew over, but the Army kept us in long after it blew over, doing nothing. I’m a civilian at heart, so I grouched for nine months, anxious to return to college and my courting of Marie.

    The base is now called Lewis-McChord.

    My kids and grandkids live in the area around Fort Lewis, in Olympia and Tacoma.

    Some wags offered that JBLM should have been renamed McLewis.

    • #11
    • February 4, 2020, at 9:30 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Clifford A. Brown: As you can see, no one is in danger of touching, as in “Mom…she’s touching me!” “Am not!” No one can accidentally intrude on a sibling’s space, disturbing domestic tranquility. So, the blue-check gingham curtained bus could roll along with a modicum of peace, love, and harmony.

    My favorite part. It brought back memories. Only we didn’t have a VW bus for survival. Great post!

    • #12
    • February 4, 2020, at 1:18 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  13. Tree Rat Member

    I remember other-than-fondly a vacation trip, four kids in the back seat of a DeSoto sedan. My argument for a window adjacent position was the threat of a vomitous occasion from motion sickness.

    • #13
    • February 4, 2020, at 3:26 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Fritz Member

    A young couple, close friends back in our hippie dippy days, made several cross country trips in their VW bus.

    Each journey had involved multiple stops for repairs, and on one long stopover back on the East Coast, installation of a replacement engine and an overhaul of the clutch. My friend did all the work himself (!).

    He later told me that on their next jaunt, he’d overheard folks ask her if she was travelling with her husband, and she’d smiled and said, “No, I’m travelling with my mechanic.”

    Heh.

    • #14
    • February 4, 2020, at 4:30 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  15. Locke On Member

    In my starving grad student days in Michigan, I owned a ’71 VW van with what we called the ‘psychic shifter’ — you just had to know where the gear was and go there, ’cause Lord knows the linkage wasn’t providing any clues. The last vehicle that I did significant work on, from oil change to tune-ups and even rebuilding the distributor. Then one winter day we hit a patch of glaze ice in a heavy cross wind and got blown off the road into a ditch. That wiped out the already rather imaginary heating system, and by the following spring the sliding door rusted off its track due to all the Michigan salt on the roads and that was the end. RIP ‘Grendel’, its moniker.

    • #15
    • February 4, 2020, at 5:43 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  16. JoelB Member

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown: The engine was around 65-70 bhp.

    Only from the factory floor, at sea level, could this claim be verified as “truthful”….

    The roll off in output on those 60’s & 70’s air cooled Beetle engines was nefariously quick, especially with the duty cycles American road are famous for inflicting on post WWII European exports.

    I never understood the left’s love affair with this final gasping product from Germany’s renown experiment with National Socialism.

    @gldiii The answer is in the question.

    BTW One of my favorite VW ads had a picture of a Beetle and the caption “0-60, Yes!”

    • #16
    • February 4, 2020, at 5:58 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  17. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    GLDIII Temporarily Essential (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown: The engine was around 65-70 bhp.

    Only from the factory floor, at sea level, could this claim be verified as “truthful”….

    The roll off in output on those 60’s & 70’s air cooled Beetle engines was nefariously quick, especially with the duty cycles American road are famous for inflicting on post WWII European exports.

    I never understood the left’s love affair with this final gasping product from Germany’s renown experiment with National Socialism.

    You were lucky to get 60,000 miles on those engines. Of course you could replace it in about two hours. It could be lifted out by one reasonable strong guy or a hell of a strong woman.

    I replaced two VW engines in my life, both with a devoted boyfriend.

    The first experience involved being in his super large garage, at a point when it was like 5 below zero. We had one of those “Replacing VW engines for Dummies” guides.

    There was a hassle with a nut and bolt. (I mean, a skin being pulled off your gloved fingers type of struggle.) We worked at it for some very very long time. In reality this was probably less than 15 minutes, but when it is 5 below zero and you are lying on a cement floor, it seems a lot longer.
    We finally got that damn nut off the engine. We managed a high five and felt like we’d be soon back inside a cozy residence. We had managed all this without suffering any noticeable gangrene from the cold, at least so far.

    So we triumphantly turned to the “Dummies” manual to see what we needed to do next.

    Our hearts sank when we read in the manual, “Now that you have succeeded in getting rid of nut A, look behind the engine to discover nut B. Simply repeat what you just did, and you’ll be almost done.”

    I don’t remember how we accomplished the engine removal, but it was done. I vowed to never again attempt such a task unless it was summer time.

    • #17
    • February 4, 2020, at 6:13 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  18. Mike Rapkoch Moderator

    I grew up in Montana and my wife in Wyoming. Driving in the winter in those states made a man out of both of us (don’t tell my wife I said this)-: We’re still manly, though the winters of the last 10 years or so have taken their toll and we don’t travel much anymore, particularly in the winter.

    A bit of advice. If you’re passing through Montana–at anytime of the year–stay off US Hwy 2 in Northern Montana. It’s a death trap. Second most dangerous highway in the country.

    • #18
    • February 4, 2020, at 10:06 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  19. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clifford A. Brown: Move across the Great Plains in November and you are chancing sudden, serious winter weather.

    I’d say November-April, myself. Good post, Clifford.

    • #19
    • February 5, 2020, at 1:15 PM PST
    • 3 likes