STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY Sam Brown
"Scout has a personality of his own...The quality of our relationship revolved around what kind of mood he was in."
Dawn broke clear and cold—we were getting closer to the mountains. I rolled over in bed to peek through the windshield at the rising sun over North Dakota basking in the warm light you can only find at dawn on the prairie—a perfect morning. I made coffee and oatmeal on the tailgate and used a dirty T-shirt to wipe the dew off the windshield.
My 1970 International Harvester and I were two days away from Michigan, and still about two days from Montana—our destination. Slowly working our way closer to the country where we both felt like we belonged.
After breakfast I checked his fluids and tire pressure. My breath fogged the windshield while I ran through Scouts starting procedure: push the pedal to the floor three times, pull the choke out a quarter inch—no more, no less—turn the key, and pray. Jam the gas pedal up and down until he roars to life. Forty-five years had taken its toll on Scout’s V8, starting him became a chore, and I was the best at it. I had him figured out; I knew what he didn’t like and the perfect formula to turn him on.
Around the time my leg was barely strong enough to push the clutch, my dad sat next to me, speaking loudly over the engine noise, teaching me how to shift at our hunt camp in Northern Michigan. Fortunately we only needed first gear as we bounced along dirt roads. And I, young and naive behind the wheel, was smitten. Most ten year olds feel invincible behind the wheel of any car, but this wasn’t just any car. Maybe it was the blue curls of smoke from the exhaust, that deep engine note while he lurched around in four-wheel-drive—whatever stuck has never left.
This old truck that sat empty in a pole barn for most of the year never left my imagination. I wanted it. Not it, him. I wanted Scout. I’ve been anthropomorphizing vehicles since I lived in an old van in Jackson, Wyoming. Giving her a name (Rocinante), a favorite radio station, and an appetite for getting lost. She was the lady that didn’t get mad at me for a messy room, or coming home late from skiing, or staying out all day climbing. Now it was time for a guy in the family. The antithesis of our modern vehicles, built to last, no creature comforts, and certainly not fuel-efficient; Scout had everything most people avoided.
Scout was an early graduation present from the college I hadn’t graduated from yet. Begging my dad to never sell Scout while I was gone, the easiest option was to just give it to me and let me deal with the headaches of owning a 45-year-old truck. It was also a convenient, yet ambitious (reckless if you asked my mom), plan to get his son and all his crap out west for school without having to lift a finger. I was over joyed; Scout was mine, forever.
Scout has a personality of his own. He decided when the windshield wipers work, the gas gauge, or when it was time to start. The quality of our relationship revolved around what kind of mood he was in. I swore I wouldn’t step anywhere near him when he ran out of gas on a first date, or the time he left me stranded on the side of the road, and the time before that, and before that....
Eight years later, Scout sat in my driveway, groaning from all the weight I was piling in. Headed west to college—to the mountains—all my gear had to come with. My mechanic caught wind of my plan to drive Scout 1,500 miles to Montana and kindly recommended I take a horse if I wanted to get there faster and more comfortably. Friends and family heard of my idea to drive a 1970 IH Scout 800A from Michigan to Montana, a few sincerely questioned my sanity—driving a car with no air bags, one functional tail light, top speed of 60 (with a hefty tailwind), no air conditioning, heat, or defroster.
With three on the tree Scout demanded a skillful balance of clutch, throttle, and speed to shift—usually objecting in violent grunts, groans, and roars from the transmission case. Shifting into first while idling was the hardest move to master, which is the easiest in any other normal stick shift car.
Without power steering I’d break a sweat trying to park—parallel parking, forget it. Filling him up at the gas station took a keen eye and a steady hand to prevent overflow, and mix the correct ratio of lead additive—yes lead—because Scout is old and cars didn’t always run on unleaded gas. All of these mechanical quirks made it almost impossible to just get in and start driving, which was great since his doors didn’t lock.
Unlike driving a modern car, Scout demands all senses to drive. You have to immerse yourself in the driving experience if you wanted to get anywhere safely. Bound by reckless passion and my denial to just “sell it and get a real car,” andour steadfast refusal to do thingsthe way everyone else does, Scout and I were destined to be travel companions. Our bond only grew stronger as the explosive heartbeats of the V8 pumped its way toward the mountains. Scout roared into Montana with the open plains still wet with dew in the read view mirror. I would have beeped my horn but it didn’t work, so I just gave a hoot out the window and slapped his dash, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
I pulled over for gas just across the border of Montana. Still not close enough to the mountains to see their silhouette on the horizon, but certainly closer as Scout had trouble breathing the thinner air.
A man in overalls with a patch of thin hair that danced in the dry wind walked from the mechanics shop as we pulled up. His glasses magnified his eyes and he spoke loudly. Theodore admired Scout, reminiscing about the good ole’ days when there used to be “loads of ‘em around the shop,” he’d say wide eyed, sweeping his hand in an arc over piles of machines and engines scattered around the small shop.
His grease stained clothes and poor hearing were proof that engines were part of his life. “They just don’t make em like dey used ta,” Theodore shouted, “I’ll tell ya these boys run foreva. Youse jus gots ta know what dey like and how ta takes care of dem,” he exclaimed waggling his finger that was missing a nail, “Your’s here sure sounds like he got what he likes,” he said running his hand across the hood over the IH logo leaving a grease streak. Theodore seemed the least bit phased when I rattled off Scouts long list off in-operables, and just smiled. Encouraging me to take good care of him, he handed me my receipt and we were back on the road.
We made it to Bozeman. We ran out of gas four times, once within sight of the gas station. His speedometer broke on the first day. I lost my starter motor on the last day so didn't turn off the ignition until we arrived in Bozeman. All under his own power Scout propelled me, three bikes, four skis, and too much other gear into the mountains. Just a few minutes after finally arriving, Scout decided to quit, warranting a push start. We coasted silently down Main Street as two generous college kids gave us a nudge.
He has adjusted well to life in Montana. He got rid of his cough with a carburetor adjustment, and always looks forward to getting his treads muddy in the seemingly endless dirt two-track roads at our disposal. The journey began on faith, an impulsive gut feeling we would make it.—some might say flagrant neglect. There is a scarcity of ease in adventure, the harder it is to find, the bigger the reward.
Sam Brown lives in the woods with his wife and dog. They’ll probably be there for awhile. See more of his work at www.samueltyler.com