The Little Taurus that Could…and then Couldn’t


I will begin with the end. It is the Forth of July. Dustin and I and all the animals are marooned in a motel in Billings, MT. Bessie, our ’97 Ford Taurus, is not with us. Today’s post is about how that came to happen.

Our day began in Yellowstone at 4:30 am. We were awoken by the combined efforts of our animals climbing on us, our air mattress deflating, and Yellowstone’s bird population. I cannot prove a connection between the events.

Unable to get back to sleep, we took the dogs for an early morning jaunt around the campground. We caught a lovely sunrise over lake Yellowstone. We were on the road by 7:30, a personal best for the trip thus far.

The second day in the park exceeded the first. On our way to the north east exit we saw the Yellowstone river, boiling mud ponds, and a canyon. What really made the day special, however, was the wildlife. At the mud ponds a jack rabbit nearly ran in to me in his haste to avoid another bunch of hikers. Moments later my attention was drawn to movement on the hill above. Five coyote pups were engaged in a wrestling match of epic cuteness. Dustin got to see one of the pups catch a field mouse of some sort. Back in the car we found the road ahead blocked by traffic. As we rounded the bend we saw a real honest to goodness Grizzly bear digging up foliage less than twenty feet from the car. Jacques stared at it with a look of bafflement, while Makia growled and barked. Further on, another group of onlookers revealed a black bear. In the final stretch of the park an enormous herd of bison lined the river banks for miles.

I have been to Yellowstone once before, with my family when I was ten. Then as now we exited via the north east exit. I remembered that there were lots of pretty mountains and that I was overjoyed to see snow in September. In retrospect that should have been a warning.

Our car had thus far handled welIl over the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous. Dustin had driven all morning. I was driving now and he decided to take a quick nap.

The hills got bigger. There were less and less downhill stretches, until finally there were none at all. I noticed the heat gauge rising, when it got to three quarters toward the red I knew I better stop. Except there was  nowhere to pull off. I slowed to a crawl and put my hazard lights on. I woke Dustin. Just as the gauge reached the top I found a pull off.

A moment later steam started billowing out of the car. We had pushed Bessie too hard. We opened the engine to discover that a good portion of our coolant had overflowed. We didn’t have more. Dustin contemplated advice not taken from a friend in Seattle about always carrying spare.

Before the trip I signed us up for AAA, but roadside assistance is of little use if you can’t contact the dispatcher and neither of us had cell service. Meanwhile it was now approaching noon. The day was turning out to be a hot one. We took the dogs out of the car but the cats were a more difficult matter. We put then on their leashes and opened the car doors. They refused the water we offered.

After half an hour or so we flagged down a passing motorist. He didn’t have any coolant but he did have a big jug of water that we added to our reservoir. He looked at his GPS to determine whether it would be better to go back out push on. The closest town was several hills behind us, so we determined to press on.

We inched along, heat blasting, eyes on the gauge. After several miles we came upon the Store at the Top of the World. We did it! We purchased coolant and water and were setting about adding them to the car when an elderly couple pulled up to make sure we were okay. We told them we had what we needed now and thought we would be okay for the trip down. That’s when they broke it to us. The top wasn’t for several miles of steep switchbacks. The next town, Red Lodge, was 36 miles on. We decided to keep going. At this point it would have been hours out of or way to try a different route.


Up and up the road went. We crept along. The engine heat was holding steady. I have rarely seen such amazing views. There were no trees at this altitude. The steep slopes were covered in grasses and wildflowers peaked with jagged rocks. The melting snow created streams and pools of cold clear water. Every time we thought we must be at the top the road kept climbing.

We finally reached the summit at 11,000 feet. Bessie had done it. The wind at the top was astounding. We got out of the car and ran with dogs. I’m glad we didn’t realize what we were getting ourselves into or we never would have attempted it with our car so burdened. The view from the top inspired awe and elation.

The way down was steeper than the way up. Before we had been worried about over heating, now we hoped our brakes would make it. The road had no shoulder and a thousand foot drop off the side. Fortunately the trip down was uneventful.

At the bottom we reached the town of Red Lodge. Like most of the little towns in Montana it looked like the movie set of a wild west film. I’m sure they perpetuate the look for the benefit of tourists, but if all the towns assume the same look does that make it authentic as well?

We ate lunch in Red Lodge and continued on toward Billings. The car seemed fine; note that the road was flat again.

We reached Billings a little before 6:00 pm. We were tired, having been up so long, but thought we might be able to go another hour or two. No sooner had we made the decision to keep going, when I noticed the heat gauge climbing again. We took the next exit and pulled in to a gas station. Dustin opened the hood to help the engine cool and saw to his dismay a thin stream of coolant shooting in to the air. We had leak.

This time we did call AAA. By now the heat outside was a hundred and five degrees. The dogs looked miserable, but the cats looked even worse and they still wouldn’t drink. It would be an hour before the tow truck arrived. We had to get them out of the car.

We leashed all the animals, both the cats and dogs, and brought them to the shade. The cats were terrified. I held them by their harnesses to keep them from trying to bolt, while Dustin assembled the crates. The situation felt a bit less precarious once the cats were in their crates.

The wind started blowing hard and the air was filled with dust. I kid you not, a tumbleweed actually blew across the road. The sky was filled with smoke from a wild fire that had started a few hours prior.
We waited.

The tow truck arrived about 7:00 pm. They loaded the car and trailer and drove us to a shop the driver knew would be open on Thursday. Nothing would be open Wednesday owing to the holiday.

We were given a lift to the hotel by Lyman, a friend of our friend Olivia who used to live in Billings. It was 9:00 pm when we arrived.

This morning we are resting. There is nothing to do but wait until we get a prognosis on the car. Looks like we will be celebrating the Fourth from the hotel. Our friends Matt and Lindsay gave us some paper lanterns to celebrate with, but given that the state is already on fire it seems imprudent to send candles into the air. That’s fine, the last few days we have been steeped in America up to our eyeballs. How better to celebrate the country than to see so much of it? Happy Fourth of July from Billings, Montana!


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