The St. Christopher medal I keep on my keychain reads, “Protect us wherever we may roam, and guide us always safely home.”
I needed the patron saint of travelers more than ever last month on our trip to Anaconda, Montana.
Leading up to our two-week adventure out west, I put about $1,000 into preventative maintenance on my 13-year-old pickup in preparation for pulling a 5,000-pound camper trailer across two time zones.
That money fixed a small leak in the transmission pan; replaced both front ball joints, which were original and a little wobbly; changed the oil and topped off all fluids; and put on a new fan clutch to try to keep the engine a little cooler on this long, arduous trip.
That’s not to mention a new water pump that went on last November, which included an engine and radiator flush and new coolant.
Despite all those preparations and expenditures, I still almost found myself on the side of a Montana highway with an overheating truck.
Drove almost nonstop for 32 hours
Lynn, Maggie and I left Kingsport at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 16, and drove almost nonstop for 32 hours to Wall, S.D., where we arrived Sunday night.
On Monday, we left the camper at an R.V. Park in Wall and had a wonderful time visiting the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore.
At no point during these first three days of our Montana adventure did the water temperature on my truck get anywhere near too hot.
The huge, ominous monster cloud
That changed on Tuesday, June 18.
We loaded up and pulled out of Wall bright and early, and the first thing we saw after crossing into Montana was this huge, ominous monster cloud. It looked like we were driving into the mouth of a demon.
Apparently that was an omen because that’s when the trouble started. The terrain got a little tougher. It was was one 10-mile-long, 6-degree incline after another. Up and down, up and down, up and down.
That’s exactly what the water temperature gauge on my pickup started doing. Up. Down. Up. Down. I was crawling uphill at 30 mph trying to keep my RPMs under 2,500, which was the only thing keeping the needle off the “HOT” line the entire way up.
It never boiled over, but the “hot light” on the gauge did come on one time for just a split second.
What should I have done differently?
Imagine my delight, coming to terms with the realistic possibility of being stranded with a ruined pickup and a brand new camper trailer on the side of I-90 in Montana 1,800 miles from home. My AAA policy includes a free tow up to 500 miles, which would only have gotten us back to Sioux Falls.
Then it would cool down to about 75 percent hot on the way downhill. Because we were going so slow, it took two days to to get from Wall to Anaconda — which gave me plenty of time to think about what I should have done differently in my pre-trip preparations.
Back in my racing days, there was a product we put in the radiator to keep our motors cooler called Water Wetter.
Lynn and I met my parents in Anaconda late Wednesday morning where my Aunt Mildred has a nifty little ranch and cabin on a trout stream with an RV-ready camper spot that includes water, septic and electric.
It’s what the local drag racers use
At the first opportunity, I went to the auto parts store looking for Water Wetter, which they didn’t have in stock. But the guy behind the counter told me that local drag racers use a similar product called Engine Ice, which I purchased and placed in my radiator immediately.
Fast Forward to Thursday, June 27. We’ve had an amazing week of touring Yellowstone and Southwest Montana with my parents and Aunt Mildred. My dad was our tour guide, and every day he topped himself by taking us on a new adventure.
That entire section of Southwest Montana is like one humongous national park. There’s something amazing to see around every corner.
I posted a virtual tour of our good week in Montana in the online version of this column (www.timesnews.net) with a few dozen of my favorite photos and a description of the locations we visited.
I also posted a video online that I took of our bumpy ride down US 20 in Iowa between Waterloo and Sioux Falls. This trip featured some of the worst roads I have encountered in my 50 years on this planet, but that’s a story for another time.
Still facing a long, scary trip back to Kingsport
Although we were having the time of our lives touring Montana, all that week I knew Lynn and I were still facing a long, scary trip back to Kingsport.
During that week my dad and I had taken the pickup to town every morning to get coffee and take Maggie for a walk in the park.
The water gauge needle stayed about a millimeter on the cool side of the halfway line the entire week.
Of course, that wasn’t pulling a huge camper trailer uphill. I kept saying to myself, “St. Christopher, I’m counting on you to get me home, buddy. Don’t let me down.”
Fortunately the Engine Ice was true to its name.
The weather was HOT, HOT, HOT all the way home, and we had gale force winds in our face all the way through Montana and South Dakota. It seemed like it was uphill and against the wind all the way out west, and it was uphill and against the wind all the way back.
Don’t transport nitroglycerin through there
We skipped super-bumpy US 20 through Iowa and took I-29 south to I-80, where I found an even worse highway. Watch that video of U.S. 20 and then consider that I-29 through Council Bluffs is about 10 times worse.
I brought an emergency five gallon gas jug because, at 7 to 8 mpg, it just seemed smart to have a little extra gas.
That jug was bungee-strapped down tight and it still got knocked over by the potholes in I-29 and spilled all over the lawn chairs in my truck bed. It was like the road had been bombed by a squadron of B-29s. Crater after crater after crater — and it was dark so I couldn’t see them coming.
If I hadn’t put on those new ball joints, there’s no doubt in my mind the truck would have broke down right then and there. It’s a good road for mixing paint, but I wouldn’t want to transport nitroglycerin through there.
St. Christopher came through for us
St. Christopher must have put in a good word for us with his boss, because all the way home the water gauge needle never surpassed the halfway point.
It just goes to show, you can never be too prepared for a long journey.
After I spent $1,000 on preventative truck maintenance, it was a $10 bottle of Engine Ice that got us out of hot water — literally.
Jeff Bobo covers Hawkins County for the Times News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.