Friday, June 25, 2021. We’ve devoted today’s NYSD to a special Guest Diary — a Social Diary as a matter of fact — “By DUNCAN.” Duncan is Stephen Duncan who lives somewhere in the Indianapolis area. Turns out we know each other because he was one of NYSD’s first readers. The enthusiasm in his letters to us were very encouraging to me and JH. He was so interested in what we were doing in little ol’ New York, he was evidently inspired to start his own blog.
Steve lives in what we Easterners call Middle America. He also has had residences in Florida. He was a businessman for a good part of his life and although I’m not certain, I think he’s retired. What is notable about him is his energy. And natural enthusiasm. He gets around. He moves – here, there and everywhere. He was planning to come to New York this summer but plans changed as he was going Westward.
And that’s where these two segments begin (part II coming tomorrow). I was fascinated immediately because of the “experience” that created this true (just last week) story of Steve traveling with his friend Boomer to an off-road racing event in Montana. What started out as a harmless visit to friends, turned into … a drama. This drama applies to all and any of us under the inevitable circumstances …
DEATH ON HIGHWAY 43
There is an old line from an old black and white Frankenstein movie:
“IT’S ALIVE; IT’S ALIVE!!”
Thinking of my last road trip, I’m pleased to say, “I’m alive, I’m alive.”
Boomer and I have decided to change our plans slightly. We left Indianapolis in my beloved 1998 Plymouth Voyager Mini Van that I purchased for $900.00 in North Fort Myers in December of 2017. Boomer wanted to watch the Ultra-4 racing in Big Sky Country. I, of course, have never been to Big Sky Country.
The plan was to drive to Billings, Montana, and get a hotel/motel room. Then drive the 37 miles north to the boondocks where the Ultra-4 races are going to take place. Spend Thursday, Friday, Saturday watching the races. Then head for the house. Simple enough, right?
We were making good time with both of us driving. Boomer decided to call his relatives in Salmon, Idaho, thinking we could squeeze in a side trip before the races began in Billings.
Boomer asked if I was game for a side trip to Idaho.
“How far is Salmon from Billings?” I asked.
“An additional six hours.”
“What time will we be pulling into Salmon, Idaho?” I asked.
“If we keep driving, we can be there about midnight.”
We decided to grab a bite to eat at the Billings, Montana Popeye Louisiana Kitchen Restaurant. I only know the chain as Popeyes fast-food drive-thru. We’d just eat in the car as we travel west. But the gal on the intercom taking our order didn’t tell us it would be a 45-minute wait. We were stuck in line and could not move. When we finally received our food and drove off, even the order in the sack was wrong. We couldn’t afford to wait an additional 45 minutes to correct the order, so we ate what we had. Avoid at all costs the Popeye at 750 Southgate Drive, Billings, Montana.
Boomer’s mother has a brother who lives on a mountain in Idaho, near the town of Salmon. Uncle Russell lives on Williams Lake in a log cabin.
Boomer was talking to Russell on his cell phone. Russell invited Boomer to visit him.
“I have my friend Duncan with me. Can he come, too?” Boomer asked.
“Oh sure. Don’t forget your chain saw, your dog, and a thermos!”
Apparently, that’s the slogan for these “outdoorsmen’s types.”
“Boomer, where will we sleep?” I asked.
“In a cabin.”
“What kind of ‘a cabin’ is this?”
“What do you mean?”
(What I wanted to know was how “rustic” this cabin will be? I could hear faint banjo strings of Deliverance in my head.)
“Is this place big enough for us to each have a bed?” I asked.
“Hell, you will have your room. It’s a log cabin.”
I will be honest; I held my breath. I am not an outdoorsman type.
So, we add six hours to our drive that day. We will now arrive at William’s Lake, Salmon, Idaho, at about one in the morning, thanks to the prolonged service at the Popeye in Billings.
Keep in mind Billings is in the middle of Montana. Billings is at the bottom of the state. So, I looked at maps on my cell phone to get an idea of where we are and where Boomer has decided we are going. It’s going to be a very long day on the road.
Day becomes evening, and evening becomes night. The road was a two-lane county road, with no guard rails, in the mountains of Montana.
I am sitting in the passenger seat. Boomer is driving. I pushed my seat back as far as it would go. I decided to take a few minutes of shut-eye. It’s pitch black and there’s nothing to look at besides the black curtain of night.
I believe I fell asleep. Then, suddenly, I hear, what sounds like …
“OH, NO!!! NO!!”
I then hear that awful sound of a vehicle crash as metal and flying glass become part of the ambient noise. I open my eyes and see nothing but a white airbag in front of me. We come to an immediate and sudden stop.
THE THUD SOUND!! Everything then becomes stone silent.
“DUNCAN, ARE YOU OKAY???!!!”
I look over at Boomer. His driver airbag has deployed, too.
“WE HIT A MOOSE. IT WAS STANDING RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.”
I’m speechless. What am I supposed to say? What am I to do?
Boomer attempts to get out of the van, but the driver’s side door has been pushed back into the frame. I look at the back seat driver’s side slider door. The whole window is missing. Boomer pushes hard on the door and squeezes out of the van. My passenger door has no problem opening. I exit the van and slowly walk to the front of the van.
There is steam coming from the engine. The driver’s side headlight is out and smashed. The front windshield is broken on the driver’s side but still holding in the frame.
We have just hit a moose on a very dark on a two-lane road (Highway 43) in the middle of nowhere, Montana. As I stand on the highway, I look out at the dark landscape. Not a single light anywhere. There must be clouds because there is no light at all. Not even moonlight. The only light we have is the one headlight on the van that is still working.
The only thing we can do now is to call for help (911).
“Boomer, my call won’t go through. I’m trying to dial 911.”
“Duncan, my cell phone isn’t working either.”
“How many bars of signal strength do you have on your phone?”
Boomer: “I don’t have any!”
I checked my signal strength. None.
So, here we are, standing in the middle of the road and I’m not sure where we are. We have just hit a moose that is now lying dead in the ditch. I noticed a lot of blood under the front of the van.
Boomer looked at the red liquid and bent down to touch it and smell it, “That’s transmission fluid, Duncan.”
It’s crystal clear to me this event is not a good thing. It took less than two minutes to process. We are in the middle of nowhere; we don’t have cell phone service. The $900 van is toast; a total loss. There is no way I am putting any more money into this 22-year-old van. In my mind, I know I need to kiss this vehicle goodby. So what do we do now?
The only thing we can do is walk to someplace at 11:30 at night. But which way? There are no lights anywhere out here, no security lights, no houses. No houses, no people. We are in the middle of Moose, Elk, Deer, Brown and Black Bear, Bobcat, Mountain Lion, and Fox country, and who knows what else? I’m not walking down an empty dark road, with all manner of snakes everywhere.
My hands began to shake. My body was starting to shake, too. I felt the emotional trauma of a wreck and the feeling of complete isolation overtaking my common sense. I was either scared for my safety, or I was cold or experiencing trauma. Maybe all three at the same time. We got back in the van and decided to stay put. Waiting for someone to drive by.
“Turn on the flashers so someone, anyone, driving by will see us.”
Zero vehicles were coming or going on this stretch of road.
We sat there and talked about what to do. There is no plan B. We are at the mercy of a vehicle driving by and seeing us and stopping.
About 12:30 (an hour later), I think, we noticed headlights behind us. We watched the headlight getting closer and closer. Boomer and I both got out of the vehicle and felt we needed to be seen by this driver, whoever it was. As the vehicle got closer, it seemed it took forever for the lights to reach our location. It is a long-deserted road.
The vehicle came to a stop about ten car lengths from the back of the van. Someone got out of his pickup truck and walked toward us. Was he here to harm us, steal from us, shoot us and take our money? Friend or foe?
Finally, in his headlights, I could see his face. He was young, in his 20s, and he said he was a Triple-A (AAA) service provider. He was dispatched to service someone else. We were not the customers he was looking for.
We explained our accident to the young man, who said, “I can give you a lift to the next town four or five miles away called Wisdom. They have a twenty-four-hour Wifi signal there. Can your phone do Wifi?”
Boomer decided to go with the young man to the next town. Boomer climbed into the AAA pickup truck. I chose to stay in the van. I watched as the tail lights of the white pickup truck slowly disappeared into the dark of night. I was alone in the dark on highway 43.
An hour had slipped by, and not a single vehicle had passed. It was now close to 1:30 in the morning. I was afraid to fall asleep in case someone came by. I also thought it wouldn’t be a good idea for someone to find me sleeping in the van. I had the fear that someone, finding me asleep, would shoot me and take whatever they wanted. I heard sounds in the night that frightened me even with my flawed hearing. I was scared and cold and tired. A chilling breeze was coming in from the broken back window.
About two in the morning, I noticed a tiny light heading in my direction. I assumed it was Boomer coming back to wait in the van with me. The vehicle came to a stop; four men jumped out of the truck. All the men were wearing dirty hunting clothes. All had beards and facial hair; they looked unkempt. Their shoes were muddy. The guy who was driving the truck walked toward me. I was standing in front of the van.
“What happened to you?” He asked.
“Screw this nice shit; where is the moose?” A man behind the driver said.
I was instantly scared to death. I pointed to the ditch where the animal lay. The other three men went looking with flashlights and found the moose in the ditch about 30 yards behind the van.
“Yeah, here it is; bring the truck closer.” One of the men shouted.
The driver walked back to his truck and moved the truck closer to the dead moose. The driver and the three other men lifted the moose and shoved it in the back of their truck. I stood by the van, my body shaking in terror. They put a tarp over the animal then jumped down from the bed of the truck.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” Shouted one man.
The driver started to get in the truck, but he hesitated. He turned and aggressively walked toward me and pushed me aside. He wreaked of the stench of the dead animal. He opened the tailgate of the van. He pointed a small flashlight at our luggage.
“What’s in the luggage?” He demanded.
“Clothes,” I said quickly.
He pulled his hunting knife off his belt and ripped the soft leather bags open. He dumped the bags on the floor of the van; some of the contents spilled onto the road. My medicine and my bathroom bag with toothpaste and combs and shampoo went everywhere. He dumped my camera bag.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” Came a voice from the truck.
“You got cash?”
I quickly reached for my wallet, and he pulled his revolver.
“Don’t be moving so fast, asshole,” he commanded.
I gently pulled my wallet out of my back pocket when he grabbed it out of my hands. He opened the wallet and pulled the money and receipts out of my wallet. He took the money. The gas and restaurant receipts went flying in the wind.
GIVE ME YOUR CELL PHONE!! He spoke loudly.
I pulled the phone out of my belt holster and passed it to him; he snatched the phone like a hungry dog grabbing at rare meat.
“Don’t plan on seeing your buddy anytime soon. We’ve taken care of him. Him, he won’t be back.” He laughed and put his revolver back in his holster, and walked to his truck. He grabbed the door handle of his truck and looked back at me.
“Nice doing business with you.”
The men drove off. I was left standing alone on the road behind the van. My personal belongings were all over the floor of the van and on the road. I picked up what I could find in the dark.
I was emotionally out of control. I struggled to hold my own body weight on my legs. I had to sit down. I closed the tailgate as best I could. I moved to the passenger seat. I was spent. I leaned back in the front seat. How can this be happening to me?
There was a tap – tap – tap – on the passenger window. I looked to my right, and there was a flashlight outside my window. Have they come back?
“Are you okay?” A voice asked.
I felt frozen in time. Afraid to move, I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I opened the door slowly, and the body with the flashlight moved away from me.
“I wasn’t sure if you were dead or asleep.”
I noticed his uniform. The man with the flashlight was a County Sheriff. I stumbled and almost lost my balance.
“Have you been drinking?” The officer asked.
“No, I guess I fell asleep.”
He asked, “What happened here?”
“I was robbed!” I said.
The officer moved back from me a little.
“We hit a moose,” I blurted out.
“Really? Where is the moose?” The officer asked.
I pointed to where the animal used to be. We walked 30 yards behind the van; the officer was pointing his flashlight in the ditch. The dead animal was still lying in the ditch. I was stunned. I reached for my phone to take a picture. My phone was still in my holster. I quickly touched my back pocket, and my wallet was still in my pocket.
I must have fallen asleep and had a terrible dream.
“May I see your driver’s license?”
My fingers were trembling, and it was difficult for me to get my driver’s license out of my wallet.
“You wouldn’t happen to have registration on this vehicle, would you?”
(Meaning this piece of crap vehicle isn’t legal, is it?)
“Yes, Sir, I have it in the glove box. Do you want me to get it?
“Yes, please. Do you happen to have insurance on this vehicle?”
“I keep the insurance information and the registration together.”
The police officer went to his car and was out of sight for a few minutes.
“I don’t have radio or cell phone service here; I will process the information tomorrow. What is your email address?”
Then the officer said, “There is a tow truck on the way. I will stay here till he arrives.”
The tow truck arrived about 45 minutes later.
As the tow truck arrived, Boomer appeared with the AAA guy. Boomer watched as the van was loaded onto the tow truck. Boomer and I then climbed into the tow truck’s cab as we headed to the salvage lot in Anaconda, Montana.
It was now 3:30 in the morning and time to find a place to bed down for the night. We asked our tow truck driver if he could drop us off at a hotel or motel.
Coming tomorrow: That story and the search for a rental car.