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Heads Up, Ralph

May 8, 2018

Road maintenance can be a sore subject for county commissions and the South Dakotans who live along our rural routes.

Our car has every high tech device that was known to the automotive engineers of 20 years ago. It’s a top-shelf 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis with digital everything, including door locks, which we’ve never trusted enough to actually use. There were lots of these on the road at one time — they were a favorite of the Golden Agers Who Drive Large Cars set, and you may have seen one in your rear view mirror with lights flashing because many police departments used them.

It’s easy to understand why the police liked them. In the event of a high-speed chase they would come out best in a collision with anything up to a cement truck, and you could easily fit three beefy prisoners in the back seat without scrunching. Which is important because an uncomfortable crook is an unruly crook.

Most of my automotive knowledge is decades out of date, so this probably isn’t a new feature, but our Merc is also equipped with a Vehicle Safety Shutdown system. This consists of a dingus that helps prevent fires by automatically cutting off the gas in case of an accident.

This shutdown is initiated whenever a sensor experiences a sudden, violent movement; it interprets this as a car crash and goes into panic mode.

“What the heck was that?” shouts the microscopic man in charge of the system as he picks himself off the floor. He’s been sitting at a desk with his feet up ever since the car was built, waiting for just this moment. “Shut off the gas! Call my wife! Tell her I’ll be late!”

Pardon my digression, please. Whenever I am confronted with a mysterious device my default explanation is always that there’s a little man inside making it work. Ask me sometime how a toaster makes toast.

Simply driving down a gravel road can also activate the VSS. I know this because Carolyn was driving home one evening, hit an epic bump and the car promptly expired. Nothing was obviously wrong — no smoke was pouring from the engine, no parts littered the road — but the car refused to start. She called a tow truck, and bless his heart, the driver had heard of the VSS. He popped the trunk, reset the system and Carolyn was back in business.

Living on a gravel road means living with a few certainties. Dust fills your lungs whenever the neighbor’s wild kid blows through the corner stop sign at 60 mph. Your car is always dirty, which at least hides the chipped paint. You will need to replace your car’s windshield at some point, or get used to looking at the world through long spaghetti cracks. You learn to approach every stop sign at a crawl lest the washboards set your bones to jumpin’ worse than an acute case of St. Vitus Dance.

I had made my peace with all that, then the road up and committed autocide on our poor Merc, which had never hurt anybody. It did give our youngest daughter a backache because the leather upholstered, six-way power-adjustable driver’s seat swallows you like a beanbag chair, but otherwise it has been a well-behaved, dependable source of transportation. Knock on wood.

When I was a numbskull and thought I knew everything — last month — I would have used this incident as a launching pad for a tirade about the Yankton County road department. Like chronic grumblers everywhere, I’d have begun by loudly and profanely pontificating on a subject I know less than nothing about, in this case road maintenance. I’d soon move on to taxes, of course, citing the new courthouse carpet as evidence of a county commission that would rather waste taxpayer money on frivolities than take care of roads.

Then I’d get personal by pointing out that an oil road runs right by a certain big shot’s property. For my finale I would dump on the county road workers. I’d recall the time I saw a bunch of them loitering beside their equipment eating sandwiches RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY! Disgusting!

These days I try to be more understanding of the difficulties faced by others. Take one small concern of the road department: the “gravel” on gravel roads. We spread a truckload of gravel on our driveway, and a year later it was gone. Where did it go? Did thieves strike? Did a glacier scour our place? What is it like, then, trying to keep a good gravel base on a hundred miles of road when NASCAR wannabes kick rocks into the ditch whenever they pass? I’m amazed there aren’t more giant potholes and epic washboards lying in wait for us all.

As I was pondering the case of our dead car and the road that killed it a thought occurred: Yankton is a small county. If it’s challenging to maintain roads here, what’s it like west of the Missouri, where the counties and reservations are much larger and have many more miles of dirt roads?

In the spirit of public service, I thought I would pass on a little wisdom. I pulled out my trusty highway map and looked for a town that only has gravel roads connecting it to the world, and I found Ralph, in Harding County. There were many other possibilities, but you’ve got to love a town named Ralph, don’t you? So here it is, Ralphites: if you’re ever driving down the road and your car dies …

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the May/June 2016 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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