A Road Rally for Lemons: the 2023 Rocky Mountain Breakdown

A Road Rally for Lemons: the 2023 Rocky Mountain Breakdown

Written by Rudy Radelic

“Don’t die.”

“Lemons Rally is not a race!”

“Obey all traffic laws.”

The rules of a Lemons Rally, a spinoff of the 24 Hours of Lemons racing series, are fairly simple to follow, and it’s obvious that I observed at least one of those rules, as I did not die and am here to tell you about our latest trek through a handful of states over the course of four days.

Each year’s rally is different. While some rallies, like the Rust Belt Ramble or Fall Fail-iage Tour, often start and end in the same or similar places, their checkpoints and areas they travel through will differ each year. Some rallies are one-offs, like last year’s Great River Road rally which took us from New Orleans to St. Paul, and this year’s I-Threw-A-Rod Alaska Rally, which ends on July 4th at Glacier View National Park, where the traditional launching of junk cars off of a cliff culminates the event. (Given the time and funds required, that is one rally I have to skip.)

This year’s Rocky Mountain Breakdown took us through states the rally has never traveled before – Idaho and Montana. The rally started and ended in Casper, Wyoming, and landed in the evenings at Idaho Falls, Idaho; Missoula, Montana; and Bozeman, MT along the way. If I wind up doing one rally a year, it will be this one, as it always passes through my favorite parts of the country. How can anyone resist a drive with views like this (through the Tetons in western Wyoming)?


Our participants ran the gamut of old cars and hoopties. A couple of us had vehicles from this century, while many of the others were decades old. Some were revived (a ’60s Mustang that sat in a “tree row” for decades, a salvage title flood Corvette) while others were purchased for use in rallies such as these.


Our checkpoints were the usual assortment of stops that included historical structures, abandoned ruins, roadside curiosities, and geographically significant points of interest. One such curiosity was located in Casper, on our way out of town. The checkpoint called for a “giant Bugs and Daffy” and these were found at Sanford’s Grub & Pub.


Earlier in the day, before my failed checkpoints, we needed to locate a pair of dams, including the still-active Pathfinder Dam in Alcova, Wyoming, which was first completed in 1909, and modified and updated many times since, but still has some of its historic original operating equipment.


The first day of a rally is always frustrating for those of us who travel solo, as a lot of our checkpoints must be looked up on the fly, and many locations in this part of the country do not even get a wireless signal to check for additional instructions from an Internet search or a map. While I do store all of my maps offline for navigation (ensuring I always have a map), the ability to search is curtailed once I’m out in the wild.

Such was the case in Lander, Wyoming, where I abandoned finding two of the checkpoints and only took a photo of the outside of a third. One of our checkpoints was the Miner’s Delight ghost town, but the muddy route along a hillside ended a few hundred feet later when I encountered a large snow drift. If there was a longer route available, it would have taken too much time to get to.

The same happened when trying to locate the Parting of the Ways, a place along the Oregon Trail where the Sublette (or Greenwood) Cutoff splits off and heads due west, saving travelers at the time 85 miles and five or six days of travel albeit over much more rugged terrain (including mountain ridges and semi-arid desert). It takes a 4 x 4 to get to the historical plaques and markers, and while I did have some of the capabilities, there were a few places that could have gotten me stuck without a way to get help, especially since small streams often crossed the ruts. Whether or not a western approach past Little Sandy Crossing would have been possible is unknown – it is something I did not have time to investigate given the time I had already lost traveling the rough path.


I ended up skipping the next few checkpoints to make up for the lost time. Further along the route I located the Elk Antler Arches in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.


Our drive that day took us through the Tetons. We also passed by Red Canyon, where warning signs alerted us to the current wind conditions of wind gusts exceeding 70 miles per hour. Even if it’s not a checkpoint, I like to take in the scenery, and the view of Red Canyon was no exception.


After passing through the Tetons and arriving in Idaho Falls, one of our checkpoints was this roadside curiosity, a “muffler man party” outside of an exhaust repair shop.


Our second rally day gave us three options: The Good, The Bad, and The Empty. There are a lot of places in our Western states where you can drive seemingly for hours and rarely encounter another car, or pass services such as gas stations or restaurants. That was The Empty, and was worth more points than the other two routes. (And as I predicted, some teams ended up backtracking to do two or all three routes.) The Empty route took us to find Barney Hot Springs, the Summit Reservoir, and Big Gulch Road, all located in Custer County, Idaho.

While the first part of the route was paved with asphalt, most of it was unpaved, and I spent more than three hours off the pavement. And indeed, for the first three hours off the grid, I passed maybe three cars total, beyond encountering two other rally participants along the way. These checkpoints were not hard to find, but they required a lot of drive time, and a lot of trust in your vehicle. I found Barney Hot Springs to be rather lukewarm, although it was only 40 degrees outdoors at the time.


Summit Reservoir and the intersection of Big Gulch Road were not far away, and I took a lunch break about 45 minutes from these locations at the intersection of two dirt roads with nobody in sight.

Following that adventure and rejoining the US highway system at Ellis, Idaho, we were instructed to find The Owl Club, a tavern in downtown Salmon. Is there some untold story here?


The third day’s route covered a span of Montana, and included one of my favorite checkpoints – the ruins of an abandoned miner’s union hall in Granite State Park. This was one of those checkpoints where the drive was the most rewarding part. The signs warned of an “unimproved” road – dirt, gravel, some larger rocks, and a few pits where water flows down the sides of the hills. The road did not disappoint. I started out on a muddy section in light rain. Higher in elevation, it turned to snow.

Near the highest point, and maybe a quarter-mile from the ruins, there were not even tire tracks. Many rally participants had to turn around since the road got too rough, including a couple of larger vehicles (a 1970s Chevy Suburban, and a Chevy “dualie” pickup truck) that couldn’t lumber their way up. Some who made it most of the way ended up walking the final bit to get to the top. Thankfully I had all-wheel drive, all-terrain tires, and enough ground clearance that I had no issue getting all the way to the miner’s hall. (The only unknown was whatever was hiding beneath the snow…which turned out to be not all that treacherous other than a few deep puddles that required good traction and ample ground clearance.)


After a stop in Butte at one rally participant’s shop (where in addition to running a business, they store numerous classic Japanese cars that many of us found interesting), we continued to Helena, the state capital. The Grizzly Gulch Lime Kilns, first operational in the 1860s, provided lime for construction materials back in the day, including the lime used to help construct Montana’s state capitol.


In downtown Helena, the Fire Tower is a prominent historical landmark. Built in 1874 in what was then known as the Last Chance Gulch, it replaced a similar structure built in 1868 which ironically fell due to a fire. Fires were a constant hazard in mining towns, and this tower’s location made it ideal to watch for wisps of smoke among the many log cabins inhabited by miners.


One of the day’s final checkpoints was the confluence of the headwaters of the Missouri River. Watching the currents of these rivers merging together was mesmerizing.


The fourth day involved a stretch of driving, as we needed to complete the Montana portion of the rally and return to Wyoming. One interesting roadside curiosity was the Hyart Theatre located in Lovell, Wyoming.


Another was a natural phenomenon that I would have overlooked had I not encountered it as a rally checkpoint – Hell’s Half Acre. It gained notoriety as the location of the planet Klendathu in the film Starship Troopers. It looks like a downscale version of one of our national parks.


The rally ended without incident in Casper in the early evening. This time, all of the vehicles made it to the finish line, including the winning team (on points) from Florida, A Quest for Fun, who drove a revived Corvette with a flood salvage title purchased from Copart a few months prior to the rally.

Having participated in four Lemons rallies so far, it has been interesting meeting up with others who have taken part in the same rallies that I have, and seeing what they’ve driven. Given my schedule and other stops I had planned along the way, I took my daily driver, a lightly modified Honda CR-V, on this rally. But for the next rally I may take part in, the 2023 Rust Belt Ramble, all bets are off. I may have a vehicle to revive and put on the road and make a good run at getting a fair number of points for doing so. I mainly participate in these rallies because it’s another excuse to get out on the road, visit places I have never been to before, and to enjoy the experience with other rally friends I have made.


All images courtesy of the author.

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