Lessons in an Old Jeep


Perhaps I suffered a case of insanity when I dreamed up the idea of taking a 1981 CJ5 with no top roughly 500 miles to the Black Hills, or maybe it was winter induced delirium, but at the start of the last week in August, I took to the road, loaded with camping gear, gas and a healthy dose of excitement.

Under a sunny sky, I worked my way south, sticking to the two-lane roads because of lighter traffic and the slower speed limit. As I crossed the Missouri River Valley the clouds crowded the sky and I stopped to visit a friend, eat lunch and wait out the five percent chance of rain the forecast called for.

Further south, the sky cleared, and it looked like I’d have little else to worry about for the rest of the trip. I downloaded another Ann Charles Deadwood Mystery novel, set my foot on the bottom of the door frame, and cruised on.

I stopped at the State line, where a reactionary federal legislature in 1889 split Dakota Territory into North and South with the intention of perpetually ensuring that the north side of the Union would maintain dominance in the Senate. It also marked a milestone for The 5 in that this was the first time it left the state since I owned it. 

The bit of run-on and the subsequent hard start concerned me a little, but the old 258 engine ran fine, allaying my fears.

Such behavior is not uncommon for a carburetor. For those not familiar with them, carburetors are quirky thanks to thermal dynamics and several other factors.

So, when it started spitting and sputtering a few miles later, I knew something wasn’t right, but it was early in the afternoon and the simplicity of the engine would make it easy to fix.

The lack of an Engine Control Module, however, made diagnosing the problem a little more difficult. So, I called Buck to help me troubleshoot the problem.

Since ethanol draws more moisture than straight gasoline, I figured the last station I’d filled up at had a contaminated batch which really messes with the jets in a carburetor. So, I changed out the fuel filter, dumped a bottle of injector cleaner/octane booster in the gas tank and topped it off with 91 octane.

The plan was to keep going, and if it acted up again within six miles of town, I’d go back and try something else. I didn’t care if I spent my whole vacation figuring this out. Failure to get this vehicle back home under its own power was not an option.

As the miles fell behind without incident, confidence in my repair grew. 

Also growing was a dark cloud in the southwestern sky. It flattened out like a diskus which could have indicated something as mild as a change in temperature or as serious as a thunderstorm.

I didn’t care which end of the meteorological spectrum it fell on. I had four wheels and a running engine. I planned on making it to Rapid City before that storm hit.

So, I gave that cloud a one-finger-salute and cruised on.

Three miles outside Faith, South Dakota, the spitting and sputtering started again, leaving me to coax it three miles to the station narrowly missing a t-bone with a grain hauling semi truck.

I called Buck again to draw on his 20+ years of experience with CJ’s. By the end of the conversation, we concluded that the pickup tube likely broke off in the gas tank leaving me with the use of five gallons of gas at a time.

Fortunately, I’d packed a five gallon jerry can. Though the situation was not ideal, I could work with it. Thanks to modern technology, I could plan out my route and gas-station hop my way to Rapid City without overreaching a range of 60 miles. 

After a break at Faith for a slice of tough pizza and hydration boost, I hit the road again, planning to gas up 30 miles down the road.

By now, this storm took up half the sky and promised lots of rain and lightning, but based on a check of the radar and timing predictions on my weather app, I still stood a good chance of making it to Rapid City without getting wet.

But the next gas station was closed, and true to its out-of-the way location in a spot made a ghost town by the Dust Bowl, it had no pay-at-the-pump setup. After a few choice words for Google, a check of the map and some quick math, I figured I could make it to the next station, but that distance would likely cut into my jerry can reserves.

That’s when I got the first weather alert warning of damaging winds of 80 mph and quarter size hail.

The clouds now covered all but the eastern quarter of the horizon, made more black by the coming of sunset. As I drove on toward Union Center, a split formed over the I 90 corridor like a beacon marking my distant port. They’d chosen a valley to lay that interstate through, and it almost seemed that the land feature formed a main channel in a river of air current while the hills to the north and south of it made eddies from which these storms grew.

I pushed The 5 to her top speeds of 70. My immediate concern was reducing my time loss thereby rescuing myself from a certain drenching. Hence, the fact of the storm bearing down on me failed to sink in.

Except for that beacon of golden red light, the sky was completely black when I pulled into the next station, scanned my card and set the nozzle.

That’s when the tornado warning blared on my phone, and I had to decide what to do.

The station store windows were as black as the sky beyond the awning. So taking shelter there was not an option. Next door, an elderly gentleman came outside to secure his lawn ornaments, and the thought crossed my mind to ask him if I could wait out the store there, but that seemed like the stuff from which horror movies stem, and I dismissed that idea.

Waiting it out under the pump awning would work so long as the damn thing stayed anchored. Images of destroyed gas stations after Hurricane Ike popped into my head, and I figured at least out away from town, the chance of getting killed by flying debris was lower.

Betting on one last option, I pulled up the radar again and traced my route against the path of the storm. According to it, the cell would pass a few miles north of the road I’d take down to Interstate 90. There was still a chance I could make it to Rapid without getting soaked.

But just in case, and because the temperature was dropping quickly, I opted to pull on my rain gear.

As I suited up and secured all loose items in my two dry bags, I thought through the possible hazards of this new obstacle in that usual hazard mitigation mindset that sometimes out-runs emotion. I was going to make it to Custer State Park tonight, one way or the other, fear be damned!

With everything tucked away against rain, I strapped in, cranked the engine and patted the dash.

“Okay, old girl, this might get interesting.”

As I pulled out of town and out of the flood of ambient light, I realized that glow above Rapid and Interstate 90 was gone, and in the twilight filtered through an angry sky, I saw an inverted wall snaking across the sky. They weren’t kidding about high winds.

But an open-top jeep has little surface area, and though it might push me around a little, it was nothing compared to getting hit broadside by a 60 mph gust in a canoe on the Missouri River. Still, my gut started calling me an idiot.

Not even a mile later, the wind picked up from calm to full-bore high speed, striking The 5 on the side and nearly pushing us into the oncoming lane. 

It’s not unusual for a storm to pass nearby and blow everything into the next county without ever dropping a single bit of rain, but when I saw the wall of rain stunting the glow of headlights from oncoming traffic, I knew I’d bet wrong.

When paddling a canoe or hiking, you have plenty of time to observe and contemplate the world around you, especially the sky above. The years spent indoors away from the elements left my weather reading skills rusty, but the memory of a microburst years ago in the Missouri Breaks brought most of the key points to the forefront of my mind.

It was time to make a stand.

I’d made a bad call in leaving Union Center. Now, turning back was not an option.The storm would overtake me before I made it back to town.

I pulled over, as far off the road as the shoulderless two-lane allowed, grabbed my phone and keys, pausing a moment to debate the point of hanging on to the keys to a vehicle that would soon be undrivable, and bailed out. 

The stiff wind nearly knocked me off my feet as I came around The 5, prepared to weather the storm and the possible tornado in the ditch. Then I realized The 5 rocked so hard it likely would end up on its side if the wind didn’t take it to Mexico.

Taking it deeper into the ditch might save it from a bad outcome, but if I jumped back in, I risked being carried away with it. 

Remembering my promise to Buck that I’d get The 5 home in one piece, I decided to climb back in and move it down into the ditch. 

Rain drops pelted me as I positioned The 5 cross-slope, nose pointed at the road, so the wind coming off the open field to the north pushed it against the road grade. I wished her luck and crossed the ditch to shelter on the leeward side of a berm.

There I sat with my back to the wind, expecting it to pick up any second, my ears keen to the sound of an intensifying howl which heralded the arrival of a tornado. Lightning provided flash bulb glimpses of The 5 silhouetted against a wall of gray.

“Well this sucks.” There was no one to complain to but myself and myself was the cause of my misery. “At least it isn’t 40 below.”

Then the hail started.

It might have only been the size of peas, but when they’re fired at you at 20 mph, they hurt! Only the padding of my hoodie saved me from a back full of welts.

“You can quit anytime now!” I yelled at the sky. “I gotta pee!” 

Not that Mother Nature gave a damn about my discomfort. Still, complaining out loud and loudly made me feel better.

With water distorting the control of my phone, I sent Buck a photo of The 5 in a rolling flash of lightning and a text telling him everything was so far so good.

Not long after that, the wind let up a fraction, signaling that the worst of the storm had passed.

Things looked better. I could drive in light rain as long as the wind didn’t compound the problem. I’d just have to wipe down the inside of the windshield periodically to maintain visibility.  

First, I had to get The 5 back on the highway. The rain not only made the cured-out, late summer grass slick, it softened the first inch or two of clay soil making 4 wheel drive a requirement.

Standing up, I felt a rush of cold water down my legs which drew a string of cuss words from me.

“Frackin’ rain pants! Barely used and you still leak!”

Since my butt was already wet, answering the call of nature was less problematic even with the increased traffic on the highway.

The rain settled down to a drizzle by the time I climbed behind the wheel again and switched on the lights. I hadn’t used the 4 wheel drive before and the stick resisted shifting.

A truck pulled up on the highway with the window rolled down.

“Need help getting out?” the driver asked.

“I don’t think so,” I called back over the drone of a passing car. “I just need to get it into 4 spin.”

“Want me to make sure you get out?”

“Sure! Just let me give it a try first.”

Once in 4 high, I cranked the motor, gave it gas and eased out the clutch.

The rear wheels spun, gaining me no ground. Then, I remembered the locking hubs and jumped back out. 

The faint glow of the headlights gave little guidance in the operation of AMC locking hubs. I knew if I didn’t get them locked completely I could permanently damage the axle or the transfer case. After a moment of finagling, I realized the dials spun further than the modern designs I was used to.

That or the hubs were bad, which I doubted. With a shrug, I got back behind the wheel, started the engine and tried it again. True to her Jeep heritage, The 5 crawled out easily. 

Back on pavement, the transfer case shifter refused to move forward easily. With another car’s headlights growing brighter in my mirrors, and the Good Samaritan waiting in front of me, I decided to find an approach to pull out on and play with the controls until I got the gears set.

As I did so, the truck pulled alongside again. “You good?”

“Yes! Thanks for stopping!”

The driver waved. “Good luck, young lady!”

After he drove away, I got back into 2 spin and unlocked the hubs. I had another hour worth of driving to reach Rapid. I already shivered from the wet and cold, but staying there much longer wouldn’t improve that situation much.

So. I fell in behind a string of cars, knowing the rain and road spray would slow me down thanks to reduced visibility. My jaw ached from clenching against chattering teeth, but Rapid City promised a Perkins or Denny’s with 24 hour breakfast and a spot out of the wind, and that was enough to make the cold worthwhile.

To Be Continued… 

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