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Temperature tracking: a South Dakota habit

The first vehicle I bought with an on-board gizmos that gives a real-time reading of the outside temperature convinced me Detroit had really outdone itself.

I mean, sure, I liked the tail fins on those 1959 Coupe deVilles and the powerful lines of the ’58 Impalas. But for a guy later to be addicted to The Weather Channel? What’s more fascinating than a device that tells a driver every time the outside temperature changes a degree?

You can have your Bluetooth and your satellite radio, your heated seats and factory air. Just tell me how much the temperature changes when I drop from the top of the Cheyenne River bluffs down into the valley where the bridge crosses. If I’m ever accused of distracted driving, it most likely won’t be a phone or a text or fiddling with the radio or eating a burger or spilling my coffee. It will be checking the temperature as we drive out of a patch of fog, something really important like that.

I paid attention to the road last Sunday when Nancy and I traveled to Wolsey on Highway 14 to pick up our granddaughter and bring her back to Pierre for a visit before she heads back to college in Ireland.

(And, by the way, what’s up with crossing an ocean for school, anyway? I remember when a cousin went from Reliance all the way to Brookings for college. I’d never really known anyone who had actually gone to college, and I couldn’t imagine going all the way to Brookings. Sure, there were stories that my dad’s big brother, George, left Lyman County for engineering school at Iowa State or someplace, but I wasn’t sure that was even possible.)

Anyway, I paid attention to the road, but now and then I checked the temperature. Well, why wouldn’t I? The temperature overnight on Sunday reached the teens below zero, after all. That’s as cold as it has been in these parts for quite a spell. When we left the garage, the gizmo in the Prius registered minus-10 degrees. Tell me you wouldn’t have kept one eye on that thing to see if it was edging toward a more hospitable level. I’m not the only one.

We’ve had such a device in our vehicles since that first one, a mini-van we purchased back in the days when mini-vans were cool. (Or maybe, to paraphrase the country song, we were mini-vans when mini-vans weren’t cool.) It was love at first sight.

That vehicle had a few flaws. When a cold wind blew straight into the front end, the carburetor kind of froze over and the mini-van gradually ran slower and slower and slower, which was a rather disconcerting thing when you’re trying to get through a blizzard on a trip from Omaha. The four-cylinder engine, though it scooted the vehicle along just fine, lacked a certain oomph. Or, as my wife’s Uncle Ronnie said when he moved the mini-van from the street into his driveway (a distance of about 30 feet), “Man, that thing is gutless.’’

The gauge that measured the outside temperature, though? That was the best. Don’t tell the sales manager, but having discovered such a thing, I’d have paid extra for the feature. Skip the factory undercoating and the extended warranty. Tell me the temperature as I’m passing through Bridger.

We drove that mini-van to Watertown one frigid Friday evening in 1996 to watch our younger son play basketball. The temperature was something like minus-12 on the trip over in the middle of the afternoon. After the game, somewhere between Watertown and Clark on Highway 212, the temperature gauge fell below minus-20. It hovered in the minus-22, minus-23 range from that point all the way to the top of the hill west of Blunt.

If you’ve not driven that stretch of South Dakota recently, maybe you’ve forgotten how dark and empty it can be in the dead of winter at the midnight hour. There aren’t many vehicles coming or going. They fixed the carburetor problem, but still, if I’d stalled, we might have been there a long while.

But we’d have known the outside temperature.

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