The Marine View Driver: Cattle Cars, or How to Drive While in Montana

In which the author ponders nocturnal bovine encounters, the nature of memory, and other ruminations.

by Mike Smith

I think I’ve said before that I’ve owned 18 different cars in my life. I may be off a few since I rely on my own memory. So I may have said I’ve owned 18. I may have said I’ve owned 16. I may have actually owned 17. Or 19.

Complicated, isn’t it?

In any event, over this period of time I’ve owned a couple of different Dodge Darts. Maybe three.

dartsI’m pretty sure I remember one of our Darts had a bad engine. (I ruined it by working on it myself; of that I am certain, as it doesn’t take a brain to do that.) Since I’ve always have a hard time letting go of my cars, this Dart was sitting in front of our house when Sandy’s mom came to visit.

She has always been very generous and compassionate to us. I think she secretly thinks her daughter married a loser and is always there with an understanding heart about our car situations. She even has said on several occasions that we always seem to have car trouble. Of course my theory about that is that since we are too cheap and frugal to purchase a new car, we always buy “well loved” cars… or at least “long loved” cars.

I guess you could say we always “Buy American,” because we always buy used.

How well-loved and cared-for our cars have been is not always evident. It’s a bit iffy. Nonetheless, we actually bought another used Dart (well, Valiant, really) for $200.00! We needed the engine and this one ran. We actually drove the car as it was for a year or so before we used the engine out of it. Ugly but convenient would be the operative description.

Yes, it made a couple of Montana trips.

The miled-mannered cars in our stable were usually given the shock treatment of taking our family to Montana in both winter and summer to visit said Mom (Grandma).

LookoutPassYou (and I) may (or may not) recall from past columns that from our house to Reed Point, MT (Population 129 131! The Svensens had twins!) is a drive of 800+ miles. Added to that distance are five mountain passes. This drive would be a tall order for any car, but ours usually had already laid down most of their good highway driving way before we bought them.

As a general rule though, highway driving is good for your car. I say as a general rule because highway driving to Montana in summer and winter is another category of “good.”

Generally the word good can be followed by…-riddance, -luck, -gravy, across country again?!! And such like. But we love Montana and our family there. So we made the trip often and with little complaint. I was always a bit anxious about making the round trip without mishap, but it happened often enough to feel blessed.

Driving across the country in deserts, mountains, and their attendant storms is dicey and a bit scary. I always considered it an adventure, which is about as close as I’ll ever get to being an adventurer.

Now, driving in Montana is a trick unto itself.

One of the characteristics of Montana ranches is the lack of fencing in many locations. They have what is called open range ranching. (Much of the land is State- or Federal-owned and the cows keep the grasses trimmed which prevents prairie fires. So it’s a nice arrangement.)

It’s not that there is no fencing at all, but it is often unrealistic to put a fence around a 2500-acre ranch, as in our case.  And once you leave the Interstate you are often driving on seldom-used gravel roads.

Needless to say (needless in an I’m-going-to-say-it-anyway sort of way), there are no street lights. Many times the Big Sky of Montana provides some moonlight, even an occasional Borealis, but not always. For the most part, the off-highway roads are very dark. You have headlights, of course, but they are actually not very effective when light has nothing to reflect off of.

Photo wiki commons,

Photo wiki commons,

Except, of course, the eyes of large mammals called cows… which reminds me of a unique skill I’ve acquired from my Montana drives.

I can tell there is a cow in the road even on the darkest of nights.

Cows have reflective eyes. Many times we have narrowly missed hitting an animal that has wandered across the road by noting the small yellowish lights that peer back at us. Those are neither distant headlights, nor fireflies. They are eyes, sometimes backed up by a bear, elk, deer, or other one-ton-plus wild critter. But out where we are, usually a cow.

Cow eyes are a God-given safety feature for the animal, and an accident deterrent for us. Of course cow sides are not reflective and many folks out our way have T-boned a cow. (You might want to check with your butcher about the origins of his T-bones.)

Cows are resilient. Cows are also very heavy. They can do great damage to a car or pick-up truck. So be vigilant if you ever start driving around in central to eastern Montana.

But developing the ability to pick out the reflections of animals of any size by their eyes makes for some interesting driving. I will say that when you drive out in the country enough you start observing many little tiny eye-lights in the bushes along the dark roads of Montana. It is interesting what your eyes can become attuned to.

Cow eyes are pretty obvious as they are about six inches apart. Plus, cows are not very smart. They tend to stand in the middle of the road and look at you coming at them. You can’t really miss them. But as I said, occasionally the cow ignores the car and gets clobbered.

If you encounter a cow on the road in front of you, put yourself in “cow mode.” Go real slow, honk if you think that will help, and wait for the herd to move across the road. Cows are social creatures; there is never just one.

I’m not sure how good their memories are, though.

I’m not sure about mine, either. Have I mentioned that almost every car we’ve ever owned has made at least one trip to Montana and back? Our Chevy Celebrity only made it one way as we picked it up there and drove it to Seattle… or have I already told you about that? I think I can probably remember every trip, as each one had some sort of memorable event. Even if it was just a place in the middle of nowhere that had great coffee. As I recall.

Driving is a great adventure no matter where you go. I’ve logged many, many miles behind the steering wheel of a great variety of cars. I can’t tell you which car was best because it is the trip that is exhilarating, not the machine.  However, when it comes to machines, cars are my favorites. And for true excitement, you can’t miss with a cross-country trip to Montana in the winter, or the summer, in a car of unknown reliability.

Kind of like my memory.


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