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How we got rescued 30 years ago from East Pryor Mountain

July 25, 2019

William H. Thormahlen 1934-2019

July 25, 2019

Our daughter Clara and I weaved our brand new ’89 Nissan Sentra sedan carefully through the sharp rocks atop East Pryor Mountain.  I had gotten through before with a VW, even though the sign recommended a 4WD.  The day was gorgeous!  Warm, blue sky, lots of June wildflowers.

She and I wanted to find Mystic Cave, reputed to be one of the best-decorated limestone caverns in Montana.  You have to drive a couple of hours from Billings, half of it on dirt roads, then up on top, past Big Ice Cave, then the road gets iffier and more rugged.  You drive on a broad ridge through the BLM wild horse range.

At the far end of the East Pryor ridge we eased down a steep hill but crunched against some sharp limestone.  The hideous crunch didn’t sound good, so I set the brake.   On hands and knees on the rocky ground I reached beneath the hot engine.  

Oil.  Turns out we busted the oil pan at least 30 miles from the nearest gas station.  You could go ahead toward Lovell, Wyoming, or back toward Pryor or maybe Bridger.  Obviously, we were stranded.  I felt almost panicky.

It was maybe three in the afternoon, and what could we do?  We walked back up the way we came on the ruts perhaps a quarter mile when we saw a 50s-era Willys Jeep loaded with four people coming our way.  This was barely a road.  The jeep was open on top, freshly painted bright blue.

I waved them down.  I explained our situation to the driver, an older man with big white beard.  He said he was taking his friends on a tour, but he would come back around and get us.  I felt like we were getting the brush off, but heck.  His Jeep was full.  I could see crying wouldn’t help!  I wanted to ride on the spare tire or running boards.

We were alone again, so we walked back to the car.  Damn!  

Oh well, it would take hours for the bearded guy to return, so we might as well look for that cave.  She and I hiked on down the road, then combed the timbered top of the ridge.  We didn’t find the cave.  

An hour or two later we returned to our car, only to find a second car.  A Jeep Wagoneer.  

This time It was not the bearded man, but another guy, who said he was a pastor from Billings.  I explained our plight again.  He offered to take us to Billings and I accepted.  

An hour later we were back on the main Forest Service road descending from East Pryor Mountain, when a couple of deer ran in front of the minister’s car.  Right behind the deer was a six-passenger pickup with that familiar bearded face behind the wheel.  We stopped and I got in with the bearded guy.  Clara stayed with the minister for the ride to Billings.

My rescuer was a man from Bridger:  Hearty man, named Bill Thormahlen, and he was with another man.  They had a five-gal. container of oil and an ice chest with sloshing water and lots of beer.  The other guy drank a beer and Bill drove.  Told me he had just returned from Alaska where he could fix anything with baling wire, silicone calk, and “hunnert-mile-an-hour” tape.  I made a mental note.

Of course I felt sheepish that I had not trusted Bill to return, but he didn’t seem to notice.  Instead he told me some of the recent history of the Pryors.  For instance, how they had long ago used a bulldozer to create divots on the surface to catch snow and moisture.

When we arrived at our disabled Nissan the other guy, at Bill’s direction, took a leatherman tool to finish draining the oil and to close up the break in the oil pan.  I’ve since wondered how.  Then he took a bunch of the silicone calk and applied it to the pan.  Bill said to wait 10 or 15 minutes for the calk to set.  

Then he put five quarts of oil into the Nissan.  He handed me a smaller, plastic oil container that would hold, perhaps a gallon.  He told me to check the oil half way to Billings and add more if needed.

Before they led the way out, I offered to pay Bill for his time and trouble and oil.  

“Money”  He said.  “Ha ha!  No!  You won’t pay me! No!  No money!” he repeated, laughing again. Again, I made a mental note.

The silicone repair lasted all the way to Billings.  I checked the oil in Pryor, but the Nissan didn’t need any.  It did leak a puddle of oil after I parked in front of our house, but I added some more oil and was able to have the oil pan welded the next day.

I wrote about Bill Thormahlen’s heroism in my magazine, “The Portable Wall,” and sent Bill some chocolate candy at Christmas. I titled my piece “The Code of the West.”

Today I went to Bill’s funeral service in Billings.  I told Jean, his widow, the story of her husband driving up to rescue us on East Pryor Mountain.  He lived to be 85, and his family told about his life as a cowboy and truck driver, but mostly about his being a generous, good-natured man.

Waiting for Bill’s service to begin.

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