TNB Night Owl – Powder River Pass

1965 Chevy Impala, photo by Greg Gjerdingen

This is a story of first love and dangerous curves.

When I was nineteen, I took a cross-country roadtrip, from the Northwest to the Northeast, with my sixteen year old brother riding shotgun. My first love was along for the ride as well. She was a showroom-stock 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport two-door hardtop, with the 300 horsepower 327 cubic inch Turbo Fire V8 engine and Powerglide automatic transmission. Her body was nearly perfect with hardly a blemish and absolutely no rust anywhere to be found.

The worst thing about her was her paint, which was slightly faded and oxidized, probably due to a lack of regular waxing and the desert environment she came from. Red on the outside, the like-new interior was black with chrome trim, bucket seats in the front, the shifter in a console on the transmission hump, and a big back seat. Oh, and vent windows (remember those?) and factory-installed air conditioning.

She was used, but I didn’t mind that she had a history before I found her. I thought she was gorgeous, although she was not exactly what I had wanted or had been looking for. In the foolishness of youth, I’d wanted three things in my first car: a convertible top, a four-speed manual transmission, and mag wheels. (If you’re thinking hot-rodded date-bait muscle car, you’re on the money).

But love overcomes many things, and I’d fallen in love with this Impala, a model who had been very popular in her time. (Interesting trivia: Chevrolet sold more than one million 1965 Impalas, setting an industry annual sales record which has never been beaten).

As I recall, we hit the road in late April or early May but don’t quote me, as that was a long time ago. The day we drove through Wyoming was mild, with partly cloudy to overcast skies. The scenery was spectacular, especially when the sun shone between the clouds, brightening parts of the landscape and leaving the rest in cloud shade that reminded me of blues and purples. The mountains were snow-capped, and the prairie in between was still brown. Spring greenery had not yet arrived.

From Worland, we drove east on U.S. Highway 16, headed toward Buffalo. To get there, we had to cross the Bighorn Mountains and route 16 took us through the Powder River Pass (44°8′59″N, 107°4′46″W).

The weather was good as we approached the Bighorn National Forest in the mid-afternoon and began climbing the slope towards the mountain pass. Equipped with a CB radio, we always listened to what the truckers had to say about road conditions and the ‘smokies’ ahead. Sometimes we talked to them. As we went higher up into the mountains, the clear, mild weather became foggy, then rainy. Radio transmissions became garbled and harder to understand. There were reports of trouble ahead, but what kind of trouble wasn’t clear. We saw fewer and fewer cars and trucks. The higher we climbed, the worse it got.

For what seemed like a long while, we didn’t hear anybody on the CB, and didn’t see anyone on the road. Out of the fog came a tractor-trailer. The driver got on the radio when he saw us, and started telling us about bad weather ahead. I tried to thank him and get more details but, between the weather and the mountains, understandable transmissions quickly became futile. I gave up with one last call to him, “Goodbye, trucker”, and being a young fool, continued on my merry way.

Shortly after, the rain became snow and not long after that the snow began sticking to the road. I reduced our speed. We reached the summit where a sign informed us: ‘Powder River Pass, Elevation 9,666 Feet’. Okay, I don’t actually remember what the sign said, but the internet says the pass is at 9,666 feet. Who am I to argue?

Now passed the summit, we headed down the other side of the mountain range. Route 16 was a nice, wide road, but there were plenty of curves on the way down just as there had been on the way up. This was not an ideal time to find out what the trucker had been trying to tell me. It had rained on the eastern slope, just as it had on the western side that we had just ascended. By now though, it was late afternoon, the temperatures had dropped, and the wet road had frozen and become a bit slippery. Sleet and snow had fallen on top of the icy road, just to make things more interesting.

As the road wound around the mountains, much of the time there was a steep upward slope on the drivers side, and a steep drop off on the passenger side. It wasn’t a sheer cliff, but it was very steep and often a long way down. Guardrails provided some reassurance, but they weren’t everywhere I wished them to be. I did my best to keep my wheels in the tracks of the vehicles that had blazed this icy road ahead of us. In places where the road was very slippery, the car would slide out of those tracks, and the tires would throw snow and sleet up under the chassis. I would fight the steering wheel to get her back on track. It was nerve-racking for me, and I could tell my brother was very uncomfortable with the view just outside his window.

Of course, the road isn’t all downhill all the way from the summit to the bottom. In spots we would drive briefly up a slope before heading back down slope. At those times, it was necessary to apply some gas to get up the slope. Upon heading downhill once again, I’d take my foot off the gas pedal and try to go as slow as possible down the mountain.

There came one of these times when I took my foot off the pedal, but the engine did not slow down. Temperatures had continued to drop as we drove along, and all the slush that the tires had kicked up into the engine compartment had apparently frozen the accelerator cable in place – we were now accelerating downhill on an icy road with a breathtaking drop-off on one side.

As we continued to pick up speed, and I struggled to keep the wheels in the tracks, various thoughts ran through my head. Pressing the brakes didn’t seem like a good idea as I did not want to totally lose control on this icy road. I really can’t remember if I tried it. If I did, it didn’t provide desirable results so I had to think of something else.

Somewhere in there, the idea came to me to shift the transmission to neutral. To my surprise, the shifter would not budge. Slush had frozen up around the gear-shift linkage. The transmission was stuck in ‘D’ for Drive. Now what am I going to do? The car continued to accelerate downhill. By this time, I really didn’t have any extra time or mental capacity to devote to anything beyond trying to keep the car on the road.

We came to the next curve and it was impossible to keep from sliding out of the tracks. If you’re an experienced winter driver, you know that when that happens, the snow will pull the tires even further out of the tracks. The car quickly swerved off the road and onto the shoulder. I could not do a thing about it. Within seconds the passenger side of the car was sliding and scraping against the guardrail. My beautiful, perfect car was being mangled. As horrifying as that thought was, I could see the guardrail ahead did not go on forever but the steep drop off did.

Something had to be done. The accelerator cable was still stuck and the engine was still racing. The transmission was still stuck in Drive. The car geek in my head knew turning off a motor at high RPM was not healthy for it and I was loathe to do so, but self-preservation won me over. I turned off the ignition.

The friction of the guardrail and deeper snow on the shoulder of the road slowed us down and I was able to brake to a complete stop. Now the priority was to see just how bad the damage was. To my amazement, the damage was minimal. The lip of each wheel well had a slight indentation and the stainless trim around each wheel well would have to be replaced, but other than that she was still perfect.

We hadn’t seen another vehicle since the trucker we talked to. The transmission gear-linkage and accelerator were still frozen, so we weren’t going anywhere and I had no idea how near or far it was to the next town, Buffalo. It was going to be dark soon and I was starting to worry that no one would come along: we would be stuck on the side of this mountain in freezing weather all night.

As if on cue, an old man in a pickup truck came slowly down the road in the same tracks I’d been trying to stay in. I flagged him down and he gave me a ride into town so I could get a tow truck. Stupidly, I left my brother there to guard the car and all our stuff. As if there were going to be many thieves out on the mountain in this weather. The entire time I was gone I fretted about him being up there alone, and worried that I may not be able to get anyone to go back up to get him that night.

Fortunately, there was a service garage open. The guy didn’t seem to percieve the need to hurry, but he did get me back up there before dark and towed us back to town. I don’t remember what it cost, but it was worth it.

The service garage cleared the offending snow and ice out of the aforementioned linkages and we were free to go… but we didn’t leave town. After a long day of driving and the stress of the previous hours, we were exhausted. It was getting late and I don’t think we bothered with dinner. There was a vacancy at a motel on the edge of town that looked like it had been there since the forties. It wasn’t run down or anything, it was actually nice, but definitely vintage, complete with a period neon sign. Speaking of which, this tune really helps convey the setting: Wayne Hancock, “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs”.

Inside, our room had real tongue and groove knotty pine paneling (vertical orientation, not horizontal) which had darkened with age and cigarette smoke. It was decorated in a western style, with reproduction prints of cowboy scenes in frames on the walls. There were some cool western-themed lamps, but I was so tired I can’t remember exactly what they looked like. We were asleep in minutes.

The next morning at daybreak we were on our way again. In the following years I held on tight to that car, meaning for our relationship to last forever. But like most first loves, things didn’t work out. It broke my heart, but life happens. To my lasting regret, eventually the time came when I had to let her go.

Question of the night: What adventures have you had?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.