When most of us think of September 2001, we remember the heroes who were first responders saving lives, and many who lost their own lives. For me, the day before 9/11 will forever cement into my memory my father as a hero.
A few days before, I set off from Dublin, Ohio, with my good friend, Dustin, in the passenger seat of the 1990 Chevrolet Suburban, dark blue and gold, with golden cloth interior, well loved after more than a decade of transporting me and Brad to and from school and soccer games. This had been my Mom’s primary car, but now that Brad and I had moved out and she wasn’t a full time chauffeur, she had downsized to a sedan, still a Chevrolet, though she and I have now been dedicated Honda Accord drivers for many years now. So, the ’90 Suburban was being retired to Montana, and Dustin and I had been “hired” to make the one-way trip by car. It should have taken 3 days at most.
On the morning of September 9, 2001, after driving north through Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, we headed west on I-90 through the northern Great Plains of Minnesota and then South Dakota. It would be nearly 20 years before the idea of an all-electric truck, as ugly as it might be, would even be a possibility, so we regularly stopped to fill the 30 gallon gas tank, to chug along at a measly 12 mpg. However, on this day, we suddenly found that we were running out of gas very early in the day, and we were in the middle of nowhere Minnesota, with no sign of a truck stop, we took the next exit and hoped the nearest small town would have a gas pump. As the truck sputtered to a stop, we rolled up to a one-pump gas station and auto shop just a few miles off the highway. I shifted to park, climbed down out of the driver’s seat, and found that there was no slot for a credit card, and the pump needed to be turned on by the attendant. But, it was Sunday, and approaching the door to the small office revealed that we were a long way from 24/365 services. I couldn’t tell you how long we waited, but September 2001 was hot, even as far north as we were. When another car pulled up, I was prepared to let them know the business was closed, but he was already aware, because it was his shop! He was on his way to church, and saw us stopped there, and he didn’t hesitate to open up and turn on the pump for us. I offered to pay a premium price, but “Minnesota nice” is real, and he charged the posted rate for a full tank of gas.
We thought that we had narrowly escaped a disaster and extended delay on this trip, and we were thrilled to be back on I-90, just a little more than one day’s drive to West Yellowstone, Montana. But, only a few hours later, the engine began to shake, the gas tank gauge was falling quickly, and then the radiator began to steam like Old Faithful. Dustin and I pulled over on I-90, just more than half-way across North Dakota. The traffic was light, as usual in this part of the country, long before the brief oil boom it experienced when the Parshall Oil Field was discovered, bringing hard working men and women north to seek their share of the fortune. In 2001, we only saw a few cars and trucks drive past while we waited for the radiator to cool off. We filled the radiator with the extra coolant my father had insisted we pack, and bottled water, in an effort to restart the engine, which did spring to life. But, our momentary relief soon faded, as the engine again overheated just 10 minutes down the road.
My Motorola Startac phone was not worth much in this part of the country, and I don’t think we were able to call anyone. A North Dakota State Highway Patrol officer pulled up to check on us, but when I explained that we needed a ride to town, he said he was going off duty and didn’t have time to be our Uber driver. He didn’t really say Uber, as it would be another 8 years before Uber started, and nobody had a phone smart enough to call an Uber anyway. But, he did help us call a tow truck, and then he took off, leaving us in the middle of nowhere, hoping a tow truck would find us. About an hour later, which was very quick given our remote location, a burly man and his rollback tow truck pulled up to rescue us. The nearest town was Pierre, pronounced ‘peer’ as if to try and claim the capital of South Dakota, on the east bank of the Missouri river, was a busy port town. It was about a 45 minute ride, with Dustin and I saddled up next to the driver in the cab, to the only Chevrolet dealership for hundreds of miles. Being Sunday, there was no hope of having the truck looked at today, so we dropped it off and walked to the nearest motel, where we could finally make some phone calls and figure out what to do next. We settled in, then hiked down the road to a biker bar for some dinner, where we watched a semi-truck burn on Highway 83 in the distance.
The next day, September 10, 2001, my father started off early in the day and drove 11 hours (I recall it being 1000 miles, but Google Maps says 755 miles at most), from West Yellowstone, Montana to Pierre, South Dakota, to rescue us. And then drove us to Cheyenne, Wyoming (bringing the mileage total over 1,000 for the day) where we peacefully slept in a hotel room, shared with my hero, who had come to rescue me. We had no idea that the world would change in the morning, as we brushed our teeth and watched the morning news, then continued watching on a small portable TV over breakfast in a Perkins, where we were the only people who seemed concerned about the events in New York City and Washington, D.C. We called my mom, back in Ohio, who assured us she was safe and everything would be okay, and we continued our drive to return safely to the peaceful sound of the Madison River flowing quickly out of Yellowstone, and the ravens planning their day. Despite the violence and uncertainty that the world was facing, I have never felt safer than when I was with my Dad in West Yellowstone, Montana.