I was on the phone from Forest Grove, Oregon telling Mom and Dad in Billings about a job bringing me back to Montana. After I had told them that I saw it as a job while I look for a career, and heard Dad’s advice, I said, “I can’t get all my stuff into Red Ronnie Renault. I tried to rent of a small van, but the rental trucks are piling up in Montana, so there’s a surcharge.” The extra fee made it too costly for me. Still, I was relieved Dad didn’t offer to help. I could abandon the beat-up desk I’d bought for fifteen dollars and painted orange. Even so, it might require two car trips.
I just mentioned Red Ronnie. That was my French import sports coupe – a 1972 Renault R-15; front wheel drive at a time when few models were, it was also low slung and handled great on curves. Under the hood was an energetic high compression four cylinder engine. The hatch back provided limited but useable cargo space. And it was red. Dad had never seen it. To him Renault meant a little R-10, the model he drove.
“Well Dad, I’m pretty sure those tight turns on Lolo Pass were made for the R-15.” That was the car’s point of view in the debate. It had told me so while driving back roads between Forest Grove and the coast.
Dad’s point of view confused me. Lolo is the route stretching US 12 the rest of the way west, from Missoula through Walla Walla and on to the Pacific at Aberdeen, Washington. It is that completion through the Bitterroot Mountains that allows me to claim that I grew up along 12. Dad grew up on old US12 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Without fail, when he traveled from Billings to Helena or Missoula, he chose to go the extra back road miles, up Zimmerman Trail to the top of the rimrocks and north to 12 west at Lavina. He always preferred US12 across Montana through tiny communities that even in their long ago heydays were one-horse towns.
Now that I’m trying to tell Highway 12 stories from memory and imagination, I’ve come to believe there is a connection in his affection for that route that comes from his growing up on Third Street/US12. Across Montana he preferred 12. In Washington, he liked to drive what is now 12 past the Boise Cascade pulp mill on the Columbia River. Dad would inhale deeply as we rode along the river at Wallula Gap. Then he’d breathe out and announce to moaning disagreement from the back seat, “Smells like home.”
Is this my Dad? Is he really saying, “Do not use Highway 12?”
The Renault 15 much preferred mountain driving over city traffic. Getting through Portland might be enough to convince me to avoid Spokane. All I could say to Dad was, “Maybe you’re right. I’ll see how it goes, Dad.”
“Just be careful, Son.” Parents tend to say that a lot, don’t they.
I started packing. I shook my head and said to the boxes, “It’s gonna take two trips at least. And that’s with “Elliott Packing” (a story for another day; a tightly packed story filling every space). The orange desk wouldn’t fit, but I had built the orange bookcase such that it could be disassembled. The planks would ride shotgun with the seat reclined.
With the car stuffed full, I departed with load one. Forest Grove is a hundred miles from our US12 theme highway. I wouldn’t encounter any hint of it as I drove through the Columbia Gorge on the Oregon side. My choice for mountain crossing, 12 or I-90, could be delayed until Umatilla. From there I could cross the mighty river to the Tri-Cities and drive through the Columbia Basin desert or I could stay on the Oregon side for a few more miles to Wallula Junction and US12, The Highway of My Life. I mumbled to the load around me, “Shall I follow Dad’s recommendation? Or, will I go where Red Ronnie Renault is hip to rally?”
Red Ronnie swerved a little as I checked mirrors for a lane change. Something in the load squeaked an answer to my question, “Wawa wawa.”
At the junction in Umatilla the sign said left to Kennewick and Spokane. I murmured, “Why Kennewick and not Pasco? Pasco’s more my kind of town.” There was a semi waiting in the left turn lane anyway, so I barreled straight ahead. “I can still head for Spokane from Wallula junction,” I grunted. The load squeaked again.
At Wallula, of course, the signs let me know that US730 would become US12 East by going straight; or turn left to US12 West for connections to Spokane. But, gosh, my destination was east. Well, my criminal experience to that point was negligible, but I determined to go straight anyway. Onward to Walla Walla, my home town, and thence to Lolo, the avoidable mountain road. Of course we all know which I chose; we read the title.
With gas tank refilled and a quick tour through the old neighborhood, Red Ronnie was ready to roll on into the night. I wasn’t. After supper at a fast food joint on East Isaacs Street (Business 12 in Walla Walla) I camped at the little state park near Waitsburg, honoring family picnic traditions or some such. Starting very early the next morning I traversed the hillside wheat fields of home and made my way up the Clearwater River into the mountains. The Renault glided through the US12 curves. A few times, because the load was heavy and the grade was steep, I’d downshift as I eased into the curve, and punch up the RPMs as I pulled through. Among the big trees of the dense forest with sudden openings to grand vistas, slowing to go up and around was pure joy. Yeah, the car and I enjoyed the drive, so I stuck with US12 and MacDonald Pass to Helena. Along the Little Blackfoot River and up the west side, waving at the rest area where we’d had the camping trailer wreck a few years earlier, then through forest from the continental divide down into the valley, the sporty Renault didn’t let me down. I didn’t know then what the top of the divide on US12 would mean to me a few years later.
Twenty-six miles from US12 I came to Boulder and a small apartment complex where I filled out forms in case I qualified for rent subsidy. I refused to pay the damage deposit before a plumbing problem was resolved. I stayed for a week learning about my new job, sleeping on the floor, and making do. Even though I’d worked at Boulder River School & Hospital before, with only a year away to finish college (finally), I still had to endure pre-service training for two weeks. Friday’s class wrapped up early and I set out for Oregon and the other load. I heard Dad’s advice in my head, and figured, “Why not? I may as well see if he’s right about which route is better for the other load.”
I stuck with US12 over MacDonald Pass and I-90 that’s also US10 & 12 to Missoula. From there I stayed on the Interstate this time. It was getting dark when I began to notice that I was leaving the Big Sky as I neared Lookout Pass and Idaho. Clouds hovered close and rain had begun to fall somewhere west of St. Regis. Then came the warning signs: “ROAD WORK NEXT 10 MILES” “EXPECT DELAYS” “FLAGMAN AHEAD”.
I pulled off the highway at Saltese, where the construction zone began. I exited because I saw, in the distance ahead, a white pickup truck with a flashing yellow light and sign with large letters, “PILOT CAR |FOLLOW ME.” I was too tired for this in the chilly drizzle. I managed to get a room, which must have been the last available, in a dumpy old motel. The room had large draped picture windows and a wall furnace that sort of worked now and then. Looking around, I realized that this room had once been a gas station office. Beyond the big window was an open roofed area where the pumps used to be.
Hunger had me out looking around the tiny town. I found the saloon, got a beer and sandwich, and marveled at the array of punchboards propped on the bar. Above the back bar was a display of the prizes the punchboards could bring, except that winners opted for cash if no suspicious strangers where present. This was at a time when gambling was so completely illegal in Montana and the Attorney General so rigid that he busted church basement bingo and charity raffles. The Saltese Bar seemed unaffected, however, if a bit anachronistic in its gambling style. I thought, “This town belongs on old US12, not I-90.”
In the morning, under a bright blue big sky, I followed the pilot car through the mud, more alert even without breakfast—I’d find that and coffee at Wallace on the Idaho side. Coming out of the work zone I considered, “That wasn’t so bad, but there wasn’t any construction over Lolo.” Two signs, “Welcome to Idaho” and “End Road Work” greeted me along with the sudden appearance of low clouds and mist. “Huh. So long, Big Sky. We leave you at the state line.”
Just after a fuel stop at Post Falls I picked up a hitchhiker and was immediately taught something about not answering questions. He jumped in, dropped the backpack at his feet, and immediately asked, “How far ya goin’?”
Without thinking, I answered, “Portland. Where’re you headed?”
“Oregon coast works for me just fine,” he said, adding a grin and a wink.
I learned that one should avoid the straight answer to this question. Leave an option to dump a rider, lie if necessary. He wasn’t unpleasant or threatening, just fidgety with a constant stream of nonsense talk. I guessed he was either bi-polar manic or amped on uppers. He offered nothing, no suggestion of a stop to get us a sandwich. Nothing. So I drove. Oh, we may have stopped at a rest area once. Red Ronnie could go 450 miles on a tank of high-test, so I drove; listening to the radio while he blathered. Eventually he began to doze now and then—maybe the drugs were wearing off. That gave me a little relief. In the evening, along US26 in the suburbs west of Portland I let him go, filled the empty gas tank, and took back roads to Forest Grove.
At the house I loaded my remaining stuff worth keeping into Red Ronnie and napped for five or six hours on the bed I’d be leaving behind. The return trip had to be accomplished in one day, definitely via Lolo Pass. On short sleep and an early start, the mountain drive was good for keeping me alert. After I followed all the US12 signs through Missoula I was on cruise control, not the car, only the driver. The Renault didn’t have that feature.
I was so close, driving tired, but so near my destination. What is it about the stretch of highway between Garrison and Avon? Is it out to get me? I had just passed the rest area where Dad and I endured the camper collision when I hit a small fallen rock and popped a tire. Tires conspire, too. They prefer to go flat when the spare is buried under a couple cubic yards of baggage. So, I unloaded onto the grassy shoulder, figured out the jack, was greatly relieved that the spare had good pressure, reloaded and drove wide awake, fully alert the last seventy miles.
I was hauling the last of my belongings up the stairs to my second floor apartment when I abruptly discovered that I needed to find a place to live with a different landlord.
I considered alternatives. Should I find an apartment in Helena, or possibly East Helena out near Highway 12? I did better; after a couple weeks of scouting around I found ‘Sullie’, landlord from my previous sojourn in Boulder. He had a studio in his triplex that came with a bed and odd furnishings, so I didn’t have to live at his Valley Apts.
Red Ronnie Renault, the sport coupe, did not care for the triplex. It often refused to start in pleasant weather. I reckon it wanted to get back out on Highway 12, not short hops to work, Streib’s Grocery or the Owl Bar.
Comments/critiques on these stories are welcome. I’ve been working with the assumption that these tidbits are not up to a personal standard for publishing them in a book. I read them and get editing help from the writing group and one member says there should be a book. I say this to encourage honest feedback.