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Stovebolt Sagas

Oral history of Stovebolt Quests, Journeys, Treasures and Dragons

Did anyone say
“Road Trip?”

By Jim Sloate


          I first spotted my ‘53 Suburban in spring of 1973. On the title it is referred to as a Carryall/Suburban. I called it a Carryall for the longest time. A buddy of mine (Mark) owned it. I had just recently bought a ‘51 pickup from his brother Mike – also a good friend - for $50. I drove the pickup truck in stock trim for a while, but I always had plans to somehow get that Suburban.

          One day Mark needed some cash and the Suburban was no longer drivable because the brakes had failed. Mark wanted $250 for the Suburban so to raise some cash I was able to sell the 51 pickup for the $250. Being the shrewd (17 year old) business man I was, I offered him $200. We settled on $225. The steel brake line was ruptured on the Suburban when I bought it, and Mark insisted on buying the new line. He also insisted on replacing them himself before he would let me pay him. So there he was on his back in the street and installing the new lines. He also bought the brake fluid and helped me bleed the brakes.

          I figure I only paid $25 for the Suburban, because it was always the means to my method of acquiring first the ‘51 pickup only to end up with my ‘53 Suburban in the end! Maybe it was free when you consider the brake line repair and all?



          The Suburban was completely stock including the front seat – which needed a 2 x 4 wedged between the floor and back to keep it up in order to lean back against. I soon replaced the seat with some buckets out of an early Honda Civic. I then sewed (with the help of my brother) some rear and side curtains. I put in some rear carpet with a 4-inch foam pad underneath. I decorated with a couple bean bag chairs and it was perfect for backing into a drive-in movie and opening the rear doors and doing what ever it was that we did at drive in movies. The padding came in useful to throw down your sleeping bag on one of the MANY camping trips to Eastern Washington during summer break from North Seattle Community College.



          During winter break of 1974 from NSCC, myself and girlfriend at the time were going to drive the Suburban full of a load of this old friend’s delicate equipment (stereo, amp and LP’s) to his parents cabin on Flathead lake, Montana. We were to enjoy the holidays over there and return for winter quarter. About 50 miles this side of Missoula, I stopped to add a quart of oil. We were in the middle of nowhere about 10 miles from the oil stop when I heard this horrid metal on metal sound, saw 0 psi of oil pressure and in a panic I turned off the key and pulled it into neutral. The truck was all Stovebolt original at this point. I had a good head of steam so I coasted a couple miles. I was thinking wherever we came to rest, we had enough Spam, crackers, Spaghetti O’s , tuna-fish and sterno (for heating the Spaghetti O’s and melting snow to drink) to survive a week or so.

          Well, my Guardian Angel was watching that day as we coasted down a two-lane, tree lined hill on a road that was going from nowhere to nowhere.

          Just then I see blinking lights:


          I just managed to coast into a parking spot and came to a stop without touching my brakes! I walked into the store (front half of a single wide trailer where the family lives in the rear) and ask to use the phone.

          The guy says “Sure, but no long distance calls." I assured him I would not and proceeded to call my old friend who had just arrived at our destination cabin after driving non-stop 500+ miles from Roundup, Montana. I left a few bucks on the counter to cover the call!

          My old friend was about 100 miles or more north of me at Flathead Lake. I explained where I was and waited about two or three hours for him to show. I think my earlier week estimate for survival may have been a bit optimistic because the spam, crackers and tuna-fish were all but depleted by the time we were rescued - about three hours.

          Well, we loaded everything into his borrowed ‘72 4WD Chevy pickup and made it to the cabin that night. We were able to rent a tow bar in Missoula on Monday and return to the incident scene and tow my Suburban to the cabin at Flathead to dig in for repairs. My complete toolkit consists of 3/8” - ½” - 9/16” - 3/4” wrenches and sockets, an extension or two, a couple screwdrivers, and a $8 torque wrench, similar to one a buddy of mine traded for his ‘57 Chevy. He still has the torque wrench.



          I worked on my Suburban (216) engine for the remainder of my “vacation” in a two-car garage with a nice cement floor. But only framing -- NO sheathing -- on the walls. I did have electricity and propane. This was December in northern Montana!!! I had discovered that the phonelic (or something similar) timing gears from the crank to the cam had disintegrated! You can guess what the loud metallic sound was I heard. I was able to find gears from some boneyard and had a local shop (supposedly) magna-flux and resurface the head. With my trusty heater at my feet, I was able to get the beast reassembled.



          It was New Year’s Eve now, and I was over due for my return trip so as soon as I got the truck started and felt a slight amount of heat coming from the heater, I let it cool and re-torqued the head. My girlfriend and I said good bye (or good riddance!) and headed west. We figured 12 hours and we would be home! – Hah we got several miles and I noticed the truck just was not heating up as it should. I put cardboard in front of the radiator but it didn’t help. We would drive for a couple miles and then just loose all power until it cooled. Cracked head you say – good guess. One of the stops to cool down was passing through the town of Ronan. I’m not sure what part of town I was in but after I noticed the way the locals were eyeing my girl, I got my bottle of 151 Rum and headed out. We made it about 10-15 miles down the road to a group of buildings that could have been a town and with what little daylight was left, and I mean little if any, we found a wide spot on the side of the road about 100 yards from this town and decided to settle in for the night with the 151 Rum and the last can of sterno, Spaghetti O’s and Tuna. What a feast! It was a Saturday night New Year’s Eve to remember!!





          Early the next morning I heard a really load, really close train whistle. I jumped up and peered out a window to see a train barreling down the track towards me, and as it whizzed by me ( I think I did also) on a track about 10 feet from me, all I could do was watch. I woke up my girl friend who must have fainted, because she wasn’t that sound of a sleeper. I thought maybe she froze into a coma because although there was some insulation and we had started the truck for the heater a few times, it had been 6 or so hours of nothing but “body heat.” It was actually a bit warmer outside because the sun was out. There was at least 2 to 3” of frost built up on the ceiling (headliner) of the old Suburban!


          I decided we should move the truck, so I put my boots and jacket on and jumped outside. I noticed down the road at this group of building, there was a big BEER truck with a man delivering a keg or two to a little tavern-looking place. I made my way down there after deciding the truck was not on the tracks (just close) and we already came as close as we were going to come unless they had an oversize load coming!! The gods had been good so far (relatively speaking) so I decided to try for another phone call.

          The guy delivering the kegs said he had no authority to let me in to use the phone. He apparently received that authority when he saw my girlfriend wandering toward us. I made a call to my old friend still at the cabin at Flathead. He was just within minutes of heading back to Roundup, Montana. This was before the days of cell phones, just CB’s which he had and I didn’t.

          He found us again and still had the tow bar, so we hitched up the Suburban and back to Flathead Lake we went. I sadly had him back it in next to the cabin out of the way because I knew I wasn’t going to be doing any more toes at the heater rebuilds any time soon! Besides, by now I am – we all are – flat broke. I called my parents and explained the situation. They were, like always, understanding and my Father sent me money via Western Union so my girlfriend and I could ride the train home from Missoula, Montana. I packed as much stuff as we could carry – my Speaker Lab S1 speakers and 12W (booming for the day) amp and AM/FM CD player. The ice chest was packed with necessities to come home and of coarse some clothes in a bag.



          We were finally heading home -- but my Suburban was NOT!

          Although it was bitter sweet, the train ride was the best part of the “Vacation.” We had about a 12-hour train ride home. Unfortunately most of it would be overnight, so a lot of the scenery we saw was the inside of the lounge car. We found our regular seats in the passenger car and then headed for the lounge car. One of my first surprises was at the bar when I sat down $3 of my remaining $10. Some guy behind me grabbed it and I thought “I’m in no mood for a fight” and besides, he’s with two other buddies – big buddies! Suddenly, he hands me back my money and says “I’m buying! Me and my buddies just got off vacation down from the North Slope. We’re headed to Seattle to catch the train (or a flight - I really don’t remember) back north. I know I’m making more money than you so the bartender and cocktail waitress have instructions to put everything on my tab.” I thanked him, introduced myself and informed him he was definitely right about the income. (I was collecting $39 a week from unemployment.) Later in the evening, some other passenger got out his guitar and a good time was had by all until about 4 a.m. At least that is when we took a nap back at our reclining seats at the passenger car. I think I woke up in time to go through the North Cascades Tunnel.



          My Brother gives me a call in May of ‘74. I had left my Suburban in Flathead Lake Montana in Jan 1974. He called to tell me he had bought himself a 1974 Ford F250 XLT 4WD Ranger. It had a canopy, 60 gallons of gasoline capacity and he had put an 8, 000 lb Warn electric winch. The first words from my mouth were “Nice truck. When are we going to Montana to get my Chevy?” He said “How about this weekend.” I said “I’ll buy the gas and start packing!”

          I think it was about mid-week, so we had a couple days to get ready. Of course we waited for the last day and were packing for the trip on Friday afternoon from my parent’s house. I was still living there while going to school. I had borrowed a tow bar and packed it along with our sleeping bags. My dad handed me his credit card and said “I’ll buy you guys the first tank – go filler up!” Sixty gallons later I handed back his card and receipt and without looking, he put them in his wallet. My Father was a Chef so he made us a basket of sandwiches and goodies to take. We filled the thermoses with coffee and hit the road east about 6 p.m., Friday evening.



          The trip over was rather uneventful. My brother took first shift. I took over about 11 p.m. My brother dozed off about 2 a.m. and of coarse, I hadn’t napped yet so I was getting a bit groggy. I pulled over around 3 a.m. and took a well needed 15-minute nap as I became aware of the tires running on the gravel roadside, right at a wide spot to pull off. That is what I told my brother I was doing with his new truck anyway! Later on down the road, we found some greasy spoon and stopped for a refill of our thermoses. We ate a couple sandwiches from the cooler and hit the road.

          We made it to Flathead Lake about before 7 a.m. We were going to bed down in the back of the truck, but I remembered a window that was always unlocked to crawl into the cabin. We did just that and crashed in our bags on the floor. I woke about 11 a.m. and went out and just about had the tow bar all hooked and ready to go when my brother showed his face at around NOON. He helped me finish and checked all the hookups and we headed out for the return trip. It was relatively uneventful until descending Lookout Pass. There was a reported four feet of packed snow and ice on the pass. We had chains with us but not on. They would not have helped anyway. We made it up the pass without incident. The 4WD and good tires carried us up the pass. We stopped at the summit and waited for some of the jackknifed big rigs that we could see to make their way down or at least out of our way. We started our slow decent. All was well for a while, until I noticed the rear bumper of my Suburban was next to me. I was on the passenger side. My brother had noticed this also and was trying to regain control. We weren’t going that fast, but my Suburban was bouncing off the snow/ice walls on either side.

          Finally, my brother brought the rigs to a halt and got to the side to help avoid some big rig from taking us out.



          I was volunteered to get in the towed vehicle (my Suburban) and pump the brakes and keep the front wheels straight in an attempt to keep the Suburban behind the tow vehicle. I put on all my arctic ware I had along, which amounted to long underwear and a wool shirt topped with a down vest. I had a towel to wipe the window so I could see but ended peering with my neck out the open door window because the glass had about ¼ inch of ice inside and out. It was some time in the middle of the night when we started down. It was a long cold journey down the Rocky Mountains to the bottom of Lookout Pass and it was getting near daylight when we finally made it down. I got back in that Ford and warmed up on our way to the nearest greasy spoon for a nice hot cup of coffee with all the greasy trimmings. We also now needed a second filling of the fuel tanks. This one cost me, but after seeing my Suburban on the way home – on the west side of the Rockies – it was worth it! We made it back to Seattle about 2 a.m. Sunday morning. A 32-hour, 1100 mile road trip.

Jim Sloate
Duvall, Washington

          Read about Jim's "second round of modifications" and what he's up to now with the 'Burb. Check out his gallery page!

v. October 2005

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