For the Love of a Hitchhiker and a VW Bug

5 min. read

Narrated by Rebecca K. McConnell, written by Linda T. Kennedy

If Volkswagen ever wanted some sort of story illustrating that their bug is as mighty as an SUV, able to take on the treacherous roads of say, the likes of Gallatin County in the winter, well I have one (ahem, Volkswagen: contact us if you’re ever remotely inclined to take this seriously).

But likely, my story actually has less to do with which vehicles are better snow cars (Volkswagen vs. Cadillac – nether one, typically), and everything to do with what one good person can do to change lives forever.

In Gallatin County in the early 1960s, there weren’t mobile phones and 30-minute AAA tow service for car troubles. So as I recall the moment Charles, my husband, and I slide off the highway into a snowbank, in our Cadillac, it’s easy to picture how the ordeal would have been different had it happened 40 years down the proverbial road of life with a mobile phone in hand. At the least, we would’ve missed having the friendship of a lifetime.

It was early October and we traveled from our home in Salt Lake City to our cabin 8 miles north of West Yellowstone, Mont. From there, we decided to travel 84 miles north to Bozeman , Mont. – the morning was cloudy but the roads appeared clear, at least in front of the cabins.

But, a few miles into the beautiful Gallatin Canyon, 5 minutes into our journey on state road 191, we wondered if we had made a mistake….it was snowing. We had good all-year tires, and while the snow banks were high, the plow had been through and so we still felt confident we could make it. It was not okay, though; snow covered the black ice on the road and the car slid out  of control and down the embankment sideways. We were at least 10 miles from any possible help in West Yellowstone.

All at once I thought of so many things I wish I had done before this trip.  Of course, family things; I wished I had hugged my two children a little longer when I left them with their grandmother. The car came to a stop….nearly on its side. I was afraid any movement would make it roll farther down the embankment.

Thumbing for a rescue

My husband slowly got out of the car, holding my hand.  I slowly slid to the driver’s side until he could pull me out.  Fortunately, there was enough snow there to hold the car and keep it from completely rolling down the embankment. Then, we became hitchhikers; out in the middle of Gallatin County, it was the only way then to reach a wrecker to drive out and tow our car into Bozeman for repairs.

Having some age on us and leaving the groovy clothing at home probably worked in our favor that day.  It seemed no one was traveling that desolate highway; it was cold and the fog hung close to the ground, making it hard to see travelers unless they were right upon us. But when a little Volkswagen Bug passed by, my husband flagged it down and fortunately, it stopped without sliding off the road, too.

Marian Drew, the driver, agreed to take me into Bozeman while my husband stayed with the car. Still shaken from our accident, I worried about the safety of such a little car in that storm.  I finally mustered up the courage to ask how it held the road in the snow. “I don’t know,” she said, “this is a new car and the first time I’ve driven it in a storm.”  I was nervous the whole way, but for some reason, that small Bug outperformed the 2-ton Cadillac that day.

Fifty-mile ice breakers

The hour on the road gave us plenty of time to break the ice and become acquainted. The journey ended with Marian inviting our family to dinner the next day at their cabin in West Yellowstone. We gratefully accepted, and at dinner her husband Dick and mine had a great time, having so much in common.

The friendship grew and by time we left for Salt Lake City, we trusted them enough to look after our cabins, which we considered our second homes , until we returned in the spring. That established a 20-year routine of stopping at their cabin to pick up the keys on our way in, and dropping them off on our way out. Dick and Charles kept in touch throughout the winter, and Dick arranged the seasonal upkeep on our cabins.

They sent pictures now and then to show us our place was still standing.  And we were on the phone with them constantly. These friends became as close to us as family. Over the years, they also visited us in Salt Lake City. And our days in West Yellowstone usually included them frequently spending time at our cabin or us at theirs.

At our cabin, the fare always included a banana split and at Marian ’s, a sour cream chocolate cake. Our best memories in West Yellowstone, including drives through Yellowstone National Park, dinners at local restaurants and performances at the Playmill Theater, are also associated with Dick and Marian. Truly, they are synonymous with some of the best times of our lives.

Cars slide off the road every day and our experience was not a catastrophic event like many Gallatin accidents throughout history. But for us, it was a first, and therefore very frightening and challenging. No one likes to leave their loved one standing in a snowbank for more than 3 hours, while the other takes a chance with an unknown driver.

And if you think about it, it was rather miraculous that Marian , a woman traveling alone, was willing to brake on that road herself that day. But her personal risk for the sake of a couple of desperate hitchhikers that day would be a life-changing experience for our families, and one of my best silver lining experiences. It made a serious experience something we would fondly recollect time and again.

 

The Drews' trusted VW Bug.

The Drews’ trusted VW Bug.

 

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