The Marine View Driver: Cruising With the Chevy Celebrity

In which the author learns that you really should look a gift horse in the mouth.

by Mike Smith

My in-laws wanted to give us a car they were no longer using—a 1987 Chevy Celebrity. The mileage was low and we thought we could use a car for our kids to drive. This was one occasion where we did not need this car. It seemed like a good deal—free—so we rented a car one way to Montana to retrieve it.

celebrityThe trip included a stay with the in-laws, which is always fun, for the Thanksgiving weekend. Oh, the heartbeat of America!

As you know, Seattle is known for its moderate weather, especially around Thanksgiving. We get the odd wind storm where warm winds blow in from the south and create havoc and occasional power outages, but for the most part, we expect a coldish rainy Thanksgiving in Seattle. The plan was to drive out toward the mountain pass we fondly call Snoqualmie.

Driving over Snoqualmie Pass is always a highlight of any road trip for me. I love the beautiful views and the smooth I-90 pavement. (You know what I’m talking about.) Plus, the altitude is just above 3,000 feet above sea level. Not bad!

Snoqualmie is, however, subjected to the warmish salty air that blows easterly from the Puget Sound (Des Moines) and the Pacific Ocean. So the snow comes heavy and wet, but late. This November was no different. There had been snow but as usual it had been put in its place by, I assume, many snow plows. The roads were dry and there had not really been that much snow… yet.

I was looking forward to the drive and in my excitement assured my wife, in a childish pretended wisdom sort of way, that the snow is coming soon. “We’d better be prepared,” quoth I.

You know the feeling.  You feign caution to assure your wife that you have everything in hand, while she assumes you have pre-planned for every contingency. Quietly you know you are rolling the world’s largest pair of dice. If things go well you can take absolutely zero credit for it, although you will. But if not… pffft! what could go wrong?

After all, Billings is only 806 miles from our home. The highway takes us over five mountain passes which rise above valleys that are 3,000 feet above sea level and never experience wet salty late snowfall-inducing air.

Witness the standard operating procedures of a long drive with the Marine View Driver:  No plan, no idea, just a destination and a rental car full of blind luck. So like Washington crossing the Delaware, I take my resolve and my beloved to Montana, in an unfamiliar car.

Thanksgiving was great—uneventful from the giddy-up.

On Saturday, though, we decide to bring the Celebrity out from behind the house in town and fire it up and do a pre-flight check, as it were.  The car had been parked out in the field behind the house… in 12-degree weather. It had snowed a few weeks earlier, and that snow was still on the ground.

But believe it or not, the car started right up. We let it warm up for about 15 minutes before Sandy’s dad decided to bring the car around to the front so we could pack up the food and other things Mom always sent home with us.

In rural Montana, most homes have a well for drinking water. Each well has a little steel or cast iron pipe that acts as a marker and as a vent for the well. The little vent pipe sticks up out of the ground—in automotive terms, as high as a transmission line for a Chevrolet Celebrity.

As Sandy’s dad was driving it out to the front he hit this vent and tore the transmission cooler hose off the car. It leaked transmission fluid all over the snow.

Transmission fluid is red, blood red. The field looked like a scene out of Fargo. There was a puddle of red fluid in the back yard with a stream of fluid going around the house to the front field.

It was bad, really bad.

This delayed our departure.

A good thing about being in Montana is that almost everyone—can’t think of an exception—is an ace mechanic. One of our good family friends owned a truck and implement repair company.

A mechanic for mechanics, what luck!

This guy was a master mechanic—you know, the kind of guy that could perform A-team type repairs with a pencil and an aspirin? He brought his medicine chest over and climbed under the car and in 20 minutes had patched the line.

In the snow.

In twelve-degree weather.

In a field.

You know that pencil plugged that line till we got rid of the car? Amazing!

It did take a while for Mr. T to get there to fix our car, but we finally made ready for our trip home. The first mountain pass is about 6,000 ft. Very windy and snowing. When driving in Montana snow, if the wind is not pushing you backward, the snow is dry and blows right off the road. Of course it takes some of your automotive paint with it, but it can be driven in.

Several trucks had to stop for the duration since their trailers were simply large eight-wheeled sails which tend to catch wind that is running perpendicular to your intended direction. One trailer was blown over. Our car must have been very sleek. Although occasionally we would notice that it was impossible to keep the speed limit due to head winds.

Pass number 2 was uneventful save for the eternity it took to make it to the top. It starts at Butte and gets higher from there. But it was dry and not windy. Whew.

The next pass is called Look-out Pass. Nothing more need be said other than a bit of history. At one time Look-out Pass held the highest wind speed and lowest recorded temperature in the lower 48. But on our trip, it was just covered with sanded snow with a 15 mph top speed. We arrived in Wallace, Idaho at about dark. For those in the lower 45, that is 4:30 pm.

So far, pretty good; Snoqualmie Pass is only about 30 miles from our house.

It was snowing hard and pretty cold. Traffic was thick as usual on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving. We were three miles from the summit in our front wheel drive Celebrity. It was quite a sled but still made pretty good progress in the snow and ice.

We were very near the summit when we had to start threading our way through numerous stopped, ditched, parked and otherwise stove-in cars and trucks. I felt pretty smug seeing 4x4s stopped for the weather. Fewer and fewer cars were as far up the pass as we were. The road was getting quite thick with snow.

A word about my earlier assumption regarding the number of snow plows working to keep the snow at bay. I estimated high. I counted One (1) Un, uno… less than two! And it was a road grader. It was heading east and we were heading west.

I don’t think anyone beats WSDOT for lack of preparedness for snow fall… which is ironic, since Snoqualmie Pass has been there since before statehood.

So there we were moving along fine till a friendly officer stopped us and said we could go no farther. I said, “Yes we can, see?” To which he replied, “Stop, and pull in on the side of the road.”

Oh, did I mention we happened to be at the location where there are no street lamps with the exception of a very large Policeman with a flashlight?

So we stopped, presumably for the night.

We pulled out our overnight bags… No, wait: we didn’t, as I hadn’t packed any. We grabbed our blankets… or tried to, but they were not in the car either. So, I lay down in the front seat. Sandy grabbed the back seat and I woke up every few minutes and started the car in order to warm us up. It was so dark we could not see anyone else even though we knew there were people in cars all around us as we at one time had had our headlights on.

Sometime early in the morning I heard traffic. There were cars speeding past us; even some without front-wheel drive. I sat up and started up the car and pulled into traffic as nonchalantly as possible.  Boy, was that easy.

Overnight that warm, wet Des Moines mixture of weather had descended and melted most of the snow.

I felt cheated. My car could have made it! I was so proud to finally have a front wheel drive car. What with my fresh new pencil in the transmission line, I was more than certain I would make it home just fine. Plus, until that time, my wife thought I was completely prepared for anything.

I used to wonder: “How near home is too near to be too tired to drive anymore?” I sort of found out. It depends on the weather.

We arrived home at 7:30 am. Almost 24 hours after we’d left Montana. We called in sick for work. We slept till around 2:30 in the afternoon—with blankets and everything.

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