My Northwest Passage Big Loop Adventure
If you’re ever in Kooskia and have car trouble, stop by and see Mary.
I was almost to the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, halfway between Grangeville and Kooskia this morning when my oil light went on. Aside from the initial ding directing my attention to the dashboard, it made no noise but the red message on the dashboard said, “You have reached the minimum oil level. Add oil now.” As if.
I was 13 miles down into a canyon leading to the Clearwater River. The countryside is that shade of green that makes your eyes hurt and every bush, every tree is leafed out and flowering. A sinuous creek and narrow canyon hug the road. About the only signs of civilization out there are a few houses, barns, and a trailer house or two. The entire 26 miles are remote. No gas stations, no auto repair shops, and certainly, no place to buy motor oil.
I stopped in a wide spot along the road that had a cell signal and pulled up this warning: “Pull over immediately [the car said I had 125 miles, but... but...], check the oil level, and add engine oil as needed. Do not drive with no oil or low oil level, as this can cause excessive engine wear even in as little as 10 or 15 minutes.”
I had to keep going. I had no oil and even if I had, the Professor’s the one that maintains our cars. I didn’t even know where the hood release was (I know, how embarrassing). I certainly hadn’t anticipated this kettle of fish when I left St. Gertrude’s this morning.
I’ve been here now almost a month. In that time, I’ve left the Monastery just twice, both times to shop in Cottonwood, about three miles away, but I was getting a little stir crazy. So last night I decided to go to Hells Canyon and take a jet boat ride through the canyon today. It’s said to be a great way to see wildlife (bears, horned sheep, etc.) coming down for water, generate a little adrenaline, and get splashed with river water. The Snake River is high from recent rains and a little bit from snowmelt, so it seemed a good idea though I didn’t make a reservation (good thing). I figured I’d just take my chances and show up.
Father Meinrad told me going to Hells Canyon was a great idea. He told me stories about hiking there, and rattlesnakes. One young river guide, he said, stepped out of the boat onto a snake and got bit (for you grammarians, that’s how we say it out West). I resolved to watch where I put my feet, but it didn’t dissuade me.
So, at 7:30 this morning I backtracked south from the Monastery to Whitebird and turned off I95 for Hells Canyon. The first inkling that it might not be a good idea was a sign that said, “Watch for logging trucks”. Immediately after that along came a logging truck. The second inkling I had was the road itself. It turned from dry pavement to muddy gravel after only a few miles. I wished I were driving the Jeep, but I wasn’t, so I decided to turn around. I’d do something else.
That something else, I decided, would be to drive down to the Clearwater River from Grangeville by way of Kooskia. The road is paved the whole way, but again, there’s nothing alongside it but farmhouses for most of the way. So, when I saw that oil light I was not only concerned, but I was also thankful that I hadn’t gone to Hells Canyon (where it’s said there are few services, not even, a website warned, food).
I didn’t want to damage the engine, but I had no choice but to go on. I was afraid I’d have to go the 77 miles to Lewiston, but wouldn’t you know, when I drove into Kooskia, there was a Napa Auto Parts store right on Main Street. The lady behind the counter sold me some oil but I had no idea where to put it in the engine.
“Is there anyone in town who might be able to help me?”
“Yeah, here’s a card. Give CB Tires, Engines, and Transmissions a call,” she offered.
A woman answered. “Mary,” she said. I gave her a sob story.
“Yeah, come on over. I’ll help you put it in,” she said. I wasted no time.
Mary is tall, heavy set, and probably in her fifties with red hair out of a bottle. She wasn’t dressed up (neither was I).
“Hey,” she yelled to a kid working on a 4-wheeler in the large metal building filled with cars and parts and boxes I had to pick my way through. “Where’s the funnel?”
While she found the funnel I looked and found the hood release on my car. That’s where my usefulness ended. She poured two quarts of oil into the engine and started looking for the dipstick. There was none: the Owner’s Manual said there’s a sensor in the bottom of the oil pan. The only way to get the oil level is to run a diagnostic test from the dashboard. I did that and she had added just the right amount to bring the level to maximum.
“Mary, how much do I owe you?” Had I gone all the way to Lewiston, it would have cost a lot of money.
‘Ah, nuthin’,” she said. “You brought your own oil.”
“But I could have bought it from you,” I protested.
“Nah, I woulda just had to walk over to the auto parts store and buy it,” she said.
What a kind soul. I was flabbergasted. I was driving a nice car and was prepared to get soaked out there in the middle of nowhere, but she insisted. I got back on the road and called the Professor. He wasn’t going to believe it. He switched into man-mode, wondering what kind of oil we added, why it was leaking, and worrying about a catastrophic leak that would drain the just added oil.
“Call me the minute you get to Lewiston,” he said. “And then call me before you leave Lewiston for St. Gertrude’s.”
“Thanks, Professor.” Though there’s nothing he could have done, he acted like there was. I appreciated that. I was glad it all worked out.
The drive down the Clearwater to Lewiston is glorious this time of year. It was overcast and cool. The river was full and surprisingly clear given the recent rainstorms. Drift boats were out fishing, and I think I may have seen a spring run salmon or steelhead spawning in a riffle. Summer’s road crews were out in full force repairing winter damage to the highway. As I drove, I felt free. There’s not too much better than road trips like these.
I did some retail therapy in Lewiston and crossed the river to Clarkston where it seems the city has done well in recruiting big box stores. I had an early dinner at Rooster’s in Clarkston. If you’re ever there, I recommend it. It’s right on the Clearwater. The river was like glass today. I sat and watched a new cruise ship glide by, a speed boat turn a big loop, and some jet skis dart here and there. Notcho Momma’s Nachos and a something, something Naked Margarita (with a baby bottle of Corona inverted in it) was dinner. As I ate, I wrote in my journal.
The drive back to St. Gertrude’s was much quicker than I ever remember it taking when I was through here for work several years ago. The canola fields to the south that were blooming when I arrived at St. Gertrude’s are almost gone while twenty miles north, they’re still bright lemony yellow. I stopped to take a photo of the famous Dog BnB alongside I95 for you, but don’t know as I’d recommend it. I didn’t go inside.
Now tonight I’m looking out my window at a beautiful rainbow, feeling thankful for a great day and beautiful countryside on a big loop, and appreciating Mary. I hope someone stops in and blesses her the way she blessed me. Please, if you ever get through Kooskia and have car trouble, remember, CB Tires, Engines, Transmissions, and More. And tell Mary I sent you.