So much for the notion that historically high gas prices will curb road warriors this summer—during Memorial Day weekend the roadways we encountered looked more like parking lots and demolition derbies than thoroughfares. It seemed every Western Montanan—and their boat, not to mention, perhaps, their beer cooler—was traveling to or from the lake, park or campsite, making it, in the words of one Highway Patrolman we encountered, “as crazy as I’ve ever seen it out here.” In fact, that officer uttered the phrase just after responding to an accident in Arlee that involved a suspected drunken driver hitting a broken-down car trying to pull to the side of the road. At one point in the center of Arlee on Saturday, three tow trucks were responding to three separate incidents on the same block.
And it didn’t get much better the farther north or south drivers traveled. In Polson, one of our intrepid reporters waited more than an hour for a tow truck after his transmission gave out en route to Glacier National Park. The reason for the wait? A multi-car backup on State Highway 35 had stopped traffic in both directions for at least 30 minutes. Our reporter and his rambling crew, left with no available hotel rooms and few options on a late Friday night, ended up at the mercy of his eventual tow truck driver, and camped in the Good Samaritan’s backyard.
In Missoula, meanwhile, things were much worse as a motorcyclist on Interstate 90 died from injuries suffered in a Sunday crash. Wayne Stanfield wasn’t wearing his helmet when his bike crossed the median, re-entered the roadway and spun out of control; he was one of three Montanans to die in Memorial Day weekend accidents, bringing this year’s state highway fatality toll to 102, 10 more than at the same time last year.
It wasn’t just slow going last weekend—it was downright dangerous. And despite still-rising gas costs (whoever got gas before us on our way back into town Sunday night spent a whopping $107.63 on a fill-up), AAA doesn’t expect there to be any drop-off as the summer goes on.
“Here in Montana we are so used to hitting the road, we are so used to camping, recreating, that a lot of people own those campers and RVs and they just don’t want to give it up,” said AAA spokeswoman Denice Harris to NBC News. And according to the Montana Promotion Division, it’s not just us locals—of the more than 10 million people who visit the state each year, nearly half will come during the months of June, July and August and 85 percent of them will arrive by car.
The crazy thing is that last weekend was just the beginning. It almost makes us want to get the heck out of Dodge—if only we knew a way to avoid all the damn traffic.