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F-150 at Comanche Flats

I took my truck on kind of a crazy drive this weekend - but not intentionally - just wanted to see some of the countryside northwest of Billings via a random dirt road connecting Molt Rd. and MT HWY 3. The name of the dirt road I turned on to is called Popelka Rd. The road was a little wet, had some nominal puddles, but gave the tires purchase and there was no need to engage the 4 wheel drive system.

This road continued on for a couple miles past some other perpendicular roads that themselves appeared to go on into unending nothingness: Clark Rd on the right; Connole Rd on the left; Mainwaring Rd on the right.

And then I reached somewhat of a crossroads. I reached an E/W running road called Ballard Ivie Rd. It went both directions into more nothingness. However . . . and this is a BIG however, Popelka Rd did indeed continue in front of me. But even the most superficial glace betrayed a significant change in the character of Popelka Rd beyond this point. It no longer looked of solid earth, but more like micro layers of living mud with bad intentions of trapping and eating any ordinary 4-wheel drive with the presumptuousness that moving forward was in any way remotely prudent.

Not wanting to miss at least a few feet of adventure, I scouted a cattle guard at about 100 feet past the Ballard Ivie line. I put the truck in 4 wheel drive and pressed forward, finding myself now needing to make numerous uncharacteristic adjustments to steering and throttle just to keep the truck moving forward and in a straight line. I reached the cattle guard with the tires never having found purchase on a stationary bit of earth. This was mud. Hell mud. The type of mud that immediately sticks to off-road mud tires and utterly neutralizes their aggressive tread patterns. I stopped. I put the truck in Park. I looked around in all directions -- nothing for miles. The only rational thought I had was to utilize my 4-wheel drive capability to reverse out of this mess and choose a different route, ANY route except going forward. Incidentally, while I do have brand new tires, they are highway tires, not all-terrain tires, not mud tires.

I sat there some more, debating less in my mind about the actual mechanics of moving forward on such a road with an unknown distance and totally unknown road conditions. I debated more about the choices we make in life: How something seems insurmountable more out of fear of the unknown than of the known.

Once again I looked ahead. I had to believe that road conditions like this could not last for the remaining distance (an estimated 2-3 miles) to HWY 3. With some trepidation but also with some sense of baseless certitude, I placed the truck in drive and moved forward. My first thought upon passing the cattle guard was, "God I hope I'm right about the road not remaining in this condition all the way to HWY 3." Even walking in this stuff would've been difficult.

During the next 2 or so miles I had to practice relaxation techniques I learned during some biofeedback sessions in Helena in order to keep my jaw from clenching, cramping, and possibly even damaging some teeth. There was no section of this road that was predictable, no earthen purchase for the tire tread, periodic standing water on top of clay-like mud, a complete inability to stay out of ruts of some stupid person who drove this road before me. There were times I had the wheel turned all the way to the right or the left while the truck kept going completely straight, a certain sign that I should feel lucky I was still moving at all and I would have to be a bit (or a lot) more flexible on exactly where I was moving. Exacerbating my worry at these times was looking out the windows and seeing 2-3 feet of standing water running along either side of the road. Driving the truck into that water was not an option. Going back was not an option. Stopping moving was not an option. I had chosen my fate and with the most judicious use of throttle and steering I could muster, I kept the truck on the main mudway . . . and more importantly . . . still moving forward with what seemed to be the grace of God.

I reached one point where the road was not level, but pitched to the left. At first I thought I noticed this too late, as nothing I did seemed to slow the maddening slide toward the plunge into the 2-3 feet of standing water with who knew what kind of quicksand beneath it. Keeping my wheel turned all the way to the right and continually lowering the throttle to near nothing and choosing very specific times to engage small bits of power, the ground slowly allowed the truck to stop its slide, even slowly allowed the truck to begin moving more toward the right side of the road. Looking at the tracks of the vehicle that came before me, it appears he was not so lucky, as his vehicle ended up going through the standing water and into the muddy field where his ruts ran deep and random. Did he have to be towed at that point? It was hard to tell.

During the last stretch of Popelka Rd, the mud became a denser clay-like material. It was no easier to control the truck but the tires were now throwing 12" square pieces of compressed road material in all manner of direction. It sounded as if somebody was standing next to my truck and smacking it over and over again with their open, wet hand, or snapping it with the end of a thick, saturated towel. It was literally raining dense pieces of mud all around me.

Still, the truck kept moving. I made it to the end of Popelka Rd and hit pavement. I grabbed my camera and took a walk around the truck. I momentarily stepped off the pavement onto a piece of ground that looked as solid as any reasonable piece of ground. My feet started sinking and I started sliding/skiing down the incline. I testily pulled myself out of it and, many days later, still have not been able to get that Hell mud off of my shoes.

While snapping photos of the truck and laughing that I made it through that nightmare stretch, a car pulled off of HWY 3 and drifted past me. Then I heard a quick squeal of breaks and looked up to see reverse lights. The lady back up, rolled down her window and asked, "Where did you just come from?"

There was some gravity and seriousness to her question that I didn't quite understand. I pointed back toward the road I just finished driving on and said, "I came from there."

"Where exactly," she said. "Did you come from the south?"

Wanting to be a clear as possible I explained my entire trip from Billings up to the very point my truck was now sitting.

"YOU DROVE THROUGH THE FLATS!!!???" she asked.

Not knowing what "The Flats" were I reiterated exactly where I came from.

"You made it through THE FLATS!?" "Oh my God, YOU made it through The Flats!!"

"Yeah," I said. "And I don't even have mud tires. I mean, I have new tires, but these aren't mud tires."

A chuckle, a whistle of disbelief. "I can't believe YOU made it through The Flats. You are SO lucky." (repeat 5 times) "Don't EVER try that again," she said, "not EVER."

Trying to make a bit light of the situation I stated, "Well, I knew that if I did get stuck I could've walked out with mud up to my knees and found some help, found somebody who would've towed me out."

At this she smiled and, with a hint of pride in her voice stated, "Yeah, we would've got you out." I looked up into her yard where there sat two large 3/4 ton pickups that looked fairly clean. Then I saw a large tractor.

I'm pretty sure she was referring to the tractor.

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I hit the highway and headed home at 70 mph. I heard some mud flailing from the tires but not near as much as I would've expected. After the 20 mile drive home and parking my truck in the driveway, I noticed that much of the mud was still hanging on, almost in anger that I dared drive through The Flats, and naively at that. Over night mud dripped and plopped off my truck and onto the driveway, making a big mess, but the truck was still utterly caked with the stuff.

The car wash charged an extra $10 for a muddy vehicle and practically shut their operation down for 10 minutes while 5 guys tried like heck with high pressure hoses to relieve the mud's strangle hold on every part of the truck. Even after that there was still mud stuck to various parts and within the tire treads. But I was happy to have most of it gone.

Later the next day I was thinking again of what that lady told me: "Don't EVER try that again." I kind of laughed at myself and posed the question: Would I ever do that again?

Imagine my surprise when, with little ado or rational reason behind it, I confidentially responded: "Why yes . . . . I would!"

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