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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Car, and Jeeps, and Trucks, Oh My!

Walking The Same Ground

4

Cars, and Jeeps, and Trucks,, Oh My!”


Tucked away in old barns, sheds, and on vacant lots of Custer County was once the making of a vehicle museum. I was privileged to have seen a few of them: Jack Geroux’s 1947 Ford pickup, and Sue Canda’s 1955 (or 56) Packard. Art Dickens’ Model B Ford pickup, and Walt Comstock’s 1939 Chevy pickup. Ruth Lange’s 1948 jeep, used when Ruth was the county social worker, only had about 18,000 miles on it when she quit driving it.

Archie Hoppers 1959 Ford pickup with 49,000 original miles now sits in Steve Short’s garage (where Bill and Inez Falkenberg lived on Fourth Street). When Dot and Earl Cress sold the ranch (I think about 1971), Earl bought a new Mercedes. The last time I visited Earl, before he died, the odometer on the Mercedes read in the vicinity of four hundred thousand miles.

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And then there was Father Dan Jones’ 1940 Chevy pickup nicknamed “Zeke.” Father Dan is a traditional Catholic priest, a good friend, and one of my old fishing buddies. However Dan’s fishing vocabulary is open to interpretation. For example, if Dan says to me, “Oh, to get to that lake isn’t really a bad trip.”—the translation is—”Oh, to get to that lake might be humanly possible.”

It was mid August and Dan and I were going fishing. To get to Dan’s chosen lake we had to drive to the top of Hermit road, hike down to Rito Alto Lake, up and over another ridge, and down into the lake. Hermit Road was (and is) definitely a 4-wheel drive road, but nobody had told that to Mr. Two-Wheel-Drive Zeke.

We loaded our gear into Zeke and headed out at 5:00 a.m., bouncing our way to the top of Hermit. There was a beautiful sunrise. We saw lots of wildlife, caught lots of fish, and got back to the truck at around 7:30 in the evening.

As we were passing Horseshoe Lake, Dan stopped the truck and said, “I think the fish are breaking on Horseshoe.” Dan headed down while I took a nap in the truck.

Dan returned, and as dusk settled on the mountains, we were on our way again. Barely below timberline, Zeke had a flat tire. By the time we got the spare on, it was almost dark. We started down the road again, but soon discovered that the tire was too big and rubbed the fender around every switch back.

Understanding Zeke’s idiosyncrasies, Dan always carried a large hammer with him and Zeke. He knocked the running board loose and hammered the fender out so that the tire would clear.

As we slid into the truck again, in the dark, Dan informed me that Zeke’s lights didn’t work. All the way down the mountain, I leaned out of the window with a flashlight to help Dan stay on the road. When I finally got home, Barb was beginning to plan my funeral.

Later, I learned that Lucile Piquette, who lived next door to Dan, had watched from her window as our flashlight had bounced down Hermit Road.

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When Ed Moose died in about 1976, Ralph Hey and I bought an old 1936 Dodge from his estate. It had been parked in a dirt-floor shed for several years, and vines had grown up through the bumper. When the movie Comes a Horseman was filmed in the Valley, the movie people put a few parts in it, a siren on top, a star on the door, and the old Dodge saw its 30 seconds of fame as the sheriff’s car.

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To keep up with the local news, Fred Vahldick and his bride, (as he always called her) Mary, drove the county roads of the valley stopping to talk with people along the way. Fred always had a few questions for me, and I enjoyed his cryptic humor. Mary often just smiled. When the court house started using yearly renewal stickers on license plates, Fred couldn’t see the sense in covering up the old years. So each year, he added his renewal sticker in a straight line along the bottom of his license plate. When the bottom of the plate was full, he started up the side.

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How many times had I followed John Comstock’s old green pickup on Highway 69 from Texas Creek to Westcliffe? There were not many dotted yellow lines, So I would settle back, impatiently, into the 35 mph pace that John faithfully maintained.

One day it dawned on me, why was I in such a hurry? At sixty mph, slowing down for Hillside and curves, I could get from Texas Creek to Westcliffe in about 30 minutes. At thirty-five mph, with no slow downs, it would take me about forty five minutes. What great important task could I possibly accomplish in fifteen minutes.

Hurry gets to be a way of life, doesn’t it? Thank you, John, for slowing me down that day, and helping me to see more in the journey than just the destination.

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We all knew that grey jeep with the spare tire sticking out of the back at a 45 degree angle. It belonged to Harry Vandenberg (Harry Van). Although he didn’t go fast enough to really hurt anyone, we all automatically moved over a little to the right when we saw him coming. It was just standard precautionary procedure.

The drivers license examiner used to come to Westcliffe once a month to renew licenses, and Harry and I were there the same day. They had just gone from the wall chart to the little box to use for the vision test.

The examiner told Harry to look into the box and read the smallest line he could see. After staring into the box, while turning his head this way and that, for what seemed like a couple of minutes, Harry looked up at the examiner and said, “Look into this box and read what?” The examiner gave him his license anyway and said, “Alright Harry, stay in the county and don’t drive at night,”

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Once, on a backroad trip to the Sand Dunes on Medano Pass, I was only as far as the Kreager Reservoir, on Wolf Springs Ranch, when I heard a loud thud and a hissing sound as steam poured out from under the hood of my old jeep and it ground to a halt. Many days of rough roads had loosened the bolts holding my radiator in place. Finally, the bolts fell out, and my radiator dropped into the fan blade.

The blade cut a circular gouge in the radiator making it clear that my trip to the Dunes was over. When I got back to “Highway” 69, which was still a dirt road and would not be paved for another ten or twelve years, I began walking and trying to hitch a ride back to Westcliffe.

Traffic was what you might call “very light.” In three hours, only two vehicles came along. The first one did not even slow down. The second one stopped and I piled into the truck with the three others already occupying the front seat, which was the only seat.

They dropped me off at Bud Benson’s Phillips 66, and as soon as Bud was free, he and I headed back to the Medano to get my jeep. Considering some of the vehicles that I drove, Bud would become accustomed to such adventures.

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One sunny August Saturday, after Bud had installed a new radiator in my jeep, Dave Bristol and I headed to Lost Lake for a day of fishing. Considering its location, the lake was well-named. To get to Lost Lake, we drove toward Gardner, took a short cut through a couple of creek beds, and then drove four or five miles up the Huerfano River on a four-wheel-drive road (this road has now been cut off). There was no trail to the lake and the topographical map showed what looked like about 1500 ft. of elevation gain in a half a mile.

It was a beautiful day, and we caught several nice fish. But, as they say, “the day wasn’t over yet.” We got back to the jeep and fired it up. Within the first fifty yards, we noticed a little black smoke coming from under the hood. Now usually, a “little” black smoke coming from a vehicle is an omen predicting a lot of black smoke later. Where was Bud Benson when I needed him?

Even though we were fishermen and not mechanics, we were five miles into the wilderness. So, we got out of the jeep, turned it off, popped the hood, and prepared to make a diagnosis.

Even a fisherman had no problem identifying the source of the problem. My ribbed radiator hose had a wire sticking through, which had poked a hole in the oil filter, through which oil was spewing onto the hot manifold. Burning engine oil equals black smoke, so we turned the engine off. As long as the engine was not running, oil was not surging through the filter, and there was no black smoke. Of course considering where we were, most of you can see the problem with this solution right away.

There was not a cell phone in sight, nor had we ever heard of such a thing.

So, we formed a plan, got back into the jeep, and turned the key. We drove to the top of the next hill, turned the engine off, and coasted (actually ricocheted from rock to rock) down the hill until we stopped. We turned the engine back on, drove to the top of the next hill, and repeated the process.

We made it out of the mountains and headed for Red Wing. At that time Red Wing had a filling station / store / post office. We bought all the oil they had (eleven quarts), and headed for Westcliffe.

As I drove toward the Custer County line, I had to keep my head out of the window in order to see around the billowing black smoke that was rolling over the front windshield. Every few miles we stopped, jumped out, poured in a couple of quarts of oil, hopped back in, and took off again. We pulled into Bud’s station in a cloud of smoke. Bud did not seem overly surprised.

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I close with a story from Jean Rusk. One morning, Jean was parked on the South side of Main Street, and Francis Kettle was parked directly across Main on the North side (I’m sure that those who knew Francis can already see where this story is going). When Francis backed out, she ran into the rear end of Jean’s car. She immediately got out of the car and said, “Oh Jean, I’m so glad I hit somebody I know.”

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English author, G.K. Chesterton, has said, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” If our days unfold only in ways that we plan, they tend to melt into the mundane and are easily forgotten. It is the unexpected surprises that we remember. They form the adventures that shape our stories and give color and texture to our lives.


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