When you meet someone new in Montana, you don’t have to dig very deep before you start finding ways you are connected to each other. Take my experience last weekend, for example.

I didn’t notice the red outline of a battery glaring at me from the dashboard until I turned off the pavement of the county road a dozen miles from elk camp last Saturday afternoon. I had no idea how long it had been on.

I took some small solace from the owner’s manual: “If the red light outline of a battery is displayed when the engine is running, you may have a problem with your charging system.” My solace derived from the use of the word “may” which left room for the possibility that I might not have a problem.  As a rule of thumb, I try to operate on the glass is half-full theory, so I chose to continue on to camp rather than head back in the general direction of civilization to look for a mechanic.

It was good that the last 300 yards into camp was all downhill. My old red truck rolled silently those last yards, without a light left on the dash, deader than a doornail.

Vehicular challenges are not a new thing after spending five-plus decades out and about in the hills and woods since I got my first driver’s license, so my situation didn’t cause much of a stir with Walleye and Duckboy who were already in camp. We took turns looking things over under the hood. We jump-started it a couple of times just to prove to ourselves that the alternator was toast. Then we decided to put off dealing with it until after a day of hunting on Sunday. By then Sparky would have arrived, and we would figure out the logistics for extracting the truck from the deep woods.

However, “out of sight, out of mind” is not how things work when you have a dead truck waiting for you. Periodically on Sunday, when I was toiling my way up to where we thought the elk would be, and then on the long walk back down to the valley floor, that red truck displaced thoughts of elk. In fact, the truck became a mental blister that gnawed away at me.

Sparky was in camp when I came down off the mountain Sunday evening. That made it possible for Walleye and Duckboy to leave me there and head for home and their day jobs on  Monday morning. Sparky agreed to stay and work through the truck issue with me.

The first requirement was to get somewhere where our cell phones would work so that we could canvas the area for AAA-friendly tow truck drivers. And, as long as we were headed toward that much civilization, we decided we might as well go to the nearest town, which happened to be Phillipsburg.

We set up shop in the bar at the Sunshine Station right on the highway and scoured the phonebook for numbers. But it was the guy down the bar from us who eventually handed us a piece of paper from his wallet with a phone number scrawled on it.

“These guys take AAA. They’re in Anaconda,” he said.

Before long, I had arranged with A&A Technical Repair to send a tow truck to meet me on Monday morning right there at the Sunshine Station. I would then show the driver the way into camp and ride with the wrecker all the way back home to Missoula. Easy enough, I thought, though it looked like it might be a good long day.

With that accomplished, Sparky and I made the long drive back to camp and played cribbage into the late hours while the stove crackled and popped in the corner of the tent.

Monday morning we repeated the drive to town and Sparky dropped me off at the Sunshine Station, where the tow truck driver showed up right on time. I climbed into the cab and we headed back to our camp far up that road into the nearby mountains.

As it turned out, Monday was an absolutely sparking day in the mountains, and the trip to camp with tow truck driver Jess Riddle turned out to be a real treat.

I have a habit of asking a lot of questions sometimes while trying to figure out how a person like Jess ends up driving the tow truck I am riding in, and how that fits into the big picture of our lives here in Montana. Jess was not a bit put off by my prying. He was a friendly and articulate fellow who obviously enjoyed the exchange and shared many of my notions about the good fortune of living where we do in western Montana.

Pretty soon, we had established a pile of connections between us, including people, places, and things we love to do in the mountains, rivers and towns of western Montana. I learned that in addition to driving a tow truck, Jess was involved in another business that provides long-distance transport services for critical care patients, and he is also on the ski patrol at Discovery Ski Area. And, he helps out with his family’s ranching activities.

The time passed quickly as the tow truck jounced from pavement to gravel, from gravel to two-track, and down into our stream-bottom elk camp via a faint track.

Whatever doubts I had about a tow truck being able to access my rig and haul it up the steep, snow-covered hill to the forest road were erased by Jess.

“This will be a piece of cake,” he assured me.

I wasn’t even self-conscious as we headed back out of the forest, through a dozen miles of ranches, and finally back onto the pavement, even though I’m sure heads turned at a few of those ranches as we paraded by.

We chatted all the way, talking about everything from Montana history to who owned which ranches as we passed, to the secrets of fishing the Jefferson, Smith, and Clark Fork Rivers. We talked about conservation easements and cattle prices. And we talked about places we love to go and places we hope to see.

By late afternoon we were pulling in to downtown Missoula. My friends at Zip Auto just shook their heads when they saw me sitting in the passenger seat of the wrecker in front of the shop. It was clear they were thinking something along the lines of: “Well, what is it this time?”

A couple of hours later, I drove my truck home with no flashing battery light, which is as  close to as good as you can get with a vehicle that has 230,000 miles on it.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years marooned along the highways, byways, and backwoods of Montana alongside broken vehicles. And I have eventually made my way out of all of those extravaganzas, as complicated and inconvenient as they may have been. But this one was almost too easy.

Just another one of the benefits of living in Montana.







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