After our initial four days in South Dakota, during which the rain did not abate, we got tired of waiting. It had started to dry up in Montana and I-90 westbound had reopened—the only heavy spot on the radar was, no surprise, right where we were located—so we packed up the trailer in Rapid City and got back on the road.
We wound up staying over in Spearfish for a night at one of the loveliest spots we’ve camped at thus far; I got my one run in for the trip (the only day the weather has cooperated), and SVV, motorcycle enthusiast, got to visit Sturgis.
The white fluffy puppy looks like more of a bad ass than the biker does.
We decided Medora wasn’t worth a special trip if we weren’t going to get to the national park, so we drove through North Dakota anyway looking for a campground around Marmarth. We arrived to one eerie ghost town and quickly realized there was no campground to be found here.
My granddad has told me “Go West, young (wo)man” since I was old enough to remember. So (further) westward we drove.
One of the most valuable tips I’ve learned from our month of road tripping around is that gas stations in many Western states are few and far between. Never let your gas drop below a fourth of a tank for your own safety. (You can see where this is leading.) Early on in the trip, there was a point where we went nearly 70 miles on a major Interstate quickly approaching empty before we finally found a station where we could stop. This problem is further accentuated by us driving a truck towing a trailer, as we only get between eight miles per gallon (in the mountains) to 14 (on a really, really good day).
That day between North Dakota and Montana was not a really, really good day. It wasn’t even a regular ol’ good day either.
As we crossed the border and left Baker, Montana, there was no sign letting us know the next town wouldn’t be for 80 miles. No flashing warning that there would also be no gas station for 80 miles. We were above a quarter of a tank when leaving Baker, and not knowing the area—and being on a semi-major highway—we only assumed we’d be able to get gas further down the line.
We were mistaken.
Nearing Miles City, the road got steeper. And steeper. I watched in fear as the gas gauge crept methodically toward E. SVV, on the other hand, remained calm, cool and collected—never show fear, I’m pretty sure is his inner mantra—as I, being the opposite, started to freak out internally.
Then The Hill of Doom lay before us. Simultaneously, we finally saw a sign saying we were just 15 miles outside of Miles City.
“All I have to do is make it up this hill, and then we can coast the rest of the way!” SVV exclaimed, the glass half full.
My empty half told me this was never going to happen. Sometimes I really hate being right. (Rarely…but sometimes.)
Halfway up the hill, we started puttering. Then our up-until-this-point-sturdy engine let out a chug, one last attempt, before we rolled to the stop. SVV managed to get us over into the grass, which was a good thing, as the highway was just a two-lane road with no shoulder. Now would be a good time to mention that, for those 80 miles, we had no cell phone reception. Neither of us: not on my Droid, not on his dinosaur flip phone. We also had seen very few cars on the route, and the nearest house was a half a mile up in the grassy hills. I was not looking forward to hiking through those fields of bugs (and who knows what other kind of critters), praying someone would be home and begging for mercy.
As the truck let out that one final putter, we lurched forward before coming to a halt. At that very second—I kid you not—one hopeful little bar of service popped up onto my Droid. I grabbed the phone and punched in the AAA emergency line, which for some reason directed me to Florida. Once everything was sorted out and I was connected to Montana AAA, the friendly woman on the other line said, “It could be anywhere up to an hour, though I estimate he’ll be quicker.” An hour was much better than we hoped for, all the way out in the boondocks. “But I can call the police, too, and see if anyone is in the area who can bring you gas sooner!”
Five minutes later, the AAA dispatcher called me back: “No police needed. A man from a local towing service will be there in five to 10 minutes.” In reality, it took him 20, but that was still so much faster than we expected. In total, we were stranded for 30 minutes, not a second more. Pretty remarkable when you think about it. Our savior, the man from the towing company, brought us enough gas to get us into town—we just had to pay for the gas; that’s the beauty of AAA, no additional costs—and followed us to the closest gas station, where we filled up to full.
It was inevitable really. Driving as far as we are over the course of this trip—which is looking to be 5,000 miles in six weeks—did we actually think we’d return to California without a hitch? No, no, we did not. Not as long as I’m riding shotgun, at least. I’ve run out of gas exactly twice in my life: once in my hometown of Tullahoma, where you’re never farther than walking distance from a gas station, and the other time in Knoxville, where I happened to be on the bustling Strip when I came to a standstill. Secretly, I’ve always wanted to have an excuse to use my AAA roadside assistance; after all, I’ve paid $118 a month for four years for a reason. (To clarify, as some people are confused: Yes, the roadside assistance fee is just $60 a year. I pay $118 a month for my full insurance plan. My point is that I’ve never ever ever required anything from AAA in the four years I’ve had a policy with them, not for a ding, not for a flat tire, not for a fender-bender. *knock on wood*)
Once in Miles City, we found a lovely campground to stay in for the night, did our laundry, then packed up and headed onward for Billings the next day. But not before exploring “downtown Miles City”—if by exploring you mean hitting up the two famous attractions: the Main Street Grind and the Miles City Saddlery.
One of my absolute favorite fellow travel writers, Matt, serves as the Outdoors Expert for Discover America and, thus, he has been fielding request after request from me about my trip through the West. (Poor guy.) So when he emailed and said, “by the way, are you going to Miles City, Montana?” I figured if I wasn’t already, I’d better plan a stop there. I asked him what was so special about the place. He responded, “two words: saddle shop.” Confused as to why I would want to go to a saddle shop, I did as the man said anyway. And I got what he meant the second I walked into the Saddlery.
What lay before us were walls and walls and even more walls of old saddles, some dating back from before 1909, when the business was opened. The whole place smelled of worn-in leather. I’m pretty sure Dolly Parton had shopped at the Saddlery during her heyday. If not, they most likely invaded her closet to stock the racks of clothing.
We spent close to an hour there perusing Western wear and, yes, even Ariat boots (hurry to enter to win your own pair!), of which there were many options, and while I wanted to outfit myself in a full-on cowgirl get-up, I thought it more appropriate for my niece, who is turning three this weekend and who, like it or not, will be clad in pink cowgirl attire for the occasion.