We Model T'd to Yellowstone, page 2

We spaced the cots, divided the covers, and were soon asleep. But not for long. The cold air seeped up through the canvas and down through the covers. I tossed and turned and could hear Winnie doing the same. In the wee small hours of the morning there was no more sleep. We decided to pack up and cook our breakfast farther down the road. After disturbing our neighbors on both sides of the night, it perhaps was a healthy move.

The early start privileged us to witness the rising sun turn the apple orchards, the sagebrush hills and the heavens into a world of pink. The enchanting vision was worth the restless night, an on the straight and open roads of Eastern Washington, we whooped up the Model T to forty-five per. She shivered and rattled but didn’t quite reach the limit of her power. Near Spokane, we stopped for gas and casually mentioned our speed.

“Better not let the cops hear you say that,” the attendant cautioned. “The speed limit is thirty.”

No need for speed cops when we hit the Bitterroot Mountains. Recently when I mentioned our trip, the reply was that a Model T couldn’t climb the mountains with the condition of the roads at that time. As to the roads, I’ll string along, but I’m anguished that he sold our Motel T short.

Loose dirt, large stones, deep chuckholes, and steep grades made the Bitterroots a testing ground not only for the car but also for the driver. The Model T, as most folks know, offers a choice of two speeds forward—low or high. Unless, that is, one took descents in reverse gear as we sometimes did to save brakes. We climbed the Bitterroots in low, all the long crooked miles of them—the left foot savagely holding the clutch to the floor boards. The engine heated, the water boiled, the foot ached.

We hadn’t brought the bucket along only to carry camp water. At every stream we dipped water for the thirsty car. And for fear there might not be a convenient stream, we filled the bucket and carried water along.

We of the Model T generation know the ticklish business of peeking down into the streaming radiator to gauge the water level. Indeed, it was the near-fatal act. After one experience of a hot geyser in the face, you removed the cap at arm’s length and with head screwed in reverse.

At times it appeared that we had the whole range to ourselves, so few cars were traveling over the mountains. We stopped when we pleased, and where—in the middle of the road, if it struck our fancy to view some particularly lovely spot. No impatient driver behind tooted us on. No one passed. We blared the klaxon at every curve, and if perchance we met a car, he who was in the less dangerous position for backing made the pullout.

At one point we came upon a lone man and a team mending the road. We stopped to chat.

“Better take that switchback there a bit easy,” he cautioned. “It’s called hairpin curve. Yesterday a car didn’t get straightened up and fell back down on the road.”

Instinctively I measured the drop—a good six to eight feet. 'Twas comforting to know the man would be around to pick up the pieces and notify the family. The road was a horizontal V etched on the mountainside. Even our short Ford couldn't round the angle. Winnie, at the wheel, backed and filled to make it.

Farther along we came upon a touring car with a man and his family and all the household equipment that could be tucked in and tied on. Its dilapidation was so fully accomplished we concluded it was the first off Ford's assembly line. Furthermore, it was clutched fast in a mud hole.

Our offer of help was not entirely altruistic, for they blocked our path. The driver and we held consultation and decided a few pieces of timber under the wheels would give them traction. We filled the mud hole. The man got back in the car to "give it the gun" while Winnie and I applied our power at the rear, incidentally making effective mud‑guards. At the most critical moments the man kept killing the engine. It was altogether obvious he was an amateur at the wheel. I offered to drive, using the excuse that he’d have more strength for shoving than I, though I had my doubts on that score, too, for he was such a wizened little man it looked as though a whiff from the exhaust could blow him off the mountainside. He seemed tickled to relinquish the wheel. It was also obvious by now that the mountains had made him a nervous wreck.

We pulled out of the hole, and as the summit was near, I kept going and yelled to Winnie to bring the man up in our car. When we stopped to cool the engines at the peak, I whispered to Winnie, "Let's get ahead. Their brakes are half gone, and I don't want the responsibility of them on our hands. Can't understand a man risking his family like that."