Barreling across Wyoming in his restored 1952 Willys Army Jeep, Capt. Scott Montefusco is a rolling bundle of olive drab and red, white and blue. The top’s down — heck, there isn’t a top — while Johnny Cash and John Wayne blare from an 8-track deck.
Montefusco whoops, hollers and waves as others on the unpaved back road pass him by. He stares ahead through heavy goggles pulled over a beat-up white crash helmet.
The career U.S. Marine and FBI agent is on another mission for his country.
Montefusco is recreating the first transcontinental automobile trip, more than 4,000 miles from San Francisco to New York City.
That’s what brought a Marine who’s gung-ho for America through the Cowboy State ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.
Patriotism On Parade
Cowboy State Daily caught up with Montefusco in Laramie. He got a hero’s welcome in
Rawlins the night before, and the night before that was at Little America in Green River.
Aside from the afternoon thunder and hailstorms, he said right away one thing became clear to him on his coast-to-coast drive.
“Oh my God, the people in Wyoming are just so patriotic. It’s full of patriots,” he said. “I’ve already told my wife, ‘We’re moving to Wyoming.’”
As a Marine and former FBI agent, Montefusco said part of his goal in recreating Horatio Nelson Jackson’s first trans-America car trip in 1903 is to inspire younger people to find their patriotism.
That was evident across Wyoming, he said.
“The people here show there’s not just patriotism for our country, they love their state,” he said. “You go into every store and there’s a bucking horse. That’s awesome. You should be proud of your state, your town, your community, your nation.
“I’m driving around and seeing the American flag in people’s yards. It’s awesome. I love Wyoming.”
Montefusco has another reason to love the Cowboy state. It’s where once upon a time he met his wife on a cattle drive.
He Did It On A Bet
While Capt. Montefusco is retracing Jackson’s route out of patriotism and pride, Jackson did it to win a $50 bet.
It was 1903, and Jackson and his wife — who were well-off financially — had taken a cross-country train ride from their home in Burlington, Vermont, to New York City, then to San Francisco. From there they made a jaunt up to Alaska to consider investing in a gold mine.
When they got back to San Francisco, Jackson and his wife still had a couple days before their train returned home, Montefusco said. Killing time in a local pub, Jackson overheard an argument about whether the automobile would replace the horse.
Jackson bet the men $50 he could drive from San Francisco to New York in less than 90 days — even though he’d never driven a car before.
“He begs his wife to allow him to do this,” Montefusco said.
She said yes despite the reality: The only driving experience either of them had was a one-hour lesson they took one day.
Jackson bought a used 1903 Winton Touring Car, a 2-cylinder, 20-horsepower, 3-speed manual with overdrive made in Chicago.
Jackson loaded 1,200 pounds of camping gear into the car and hired a bicycle mechanic to ride with him, promised to write his wife every day and set off.
It was May 23, 1903.
He arrived in New York City on July 26, 1903, having traveled about 6,300 miles, a lot more than the 4,048 miles his route should have been.
“That’s because he got lost and twisted around,” Montefusco said.
There’s little chance with today’s road system and technology that Montefusco will suffer a similar setback.
While Jackson did his cross-country drive on a $50 bet, Montefusco has a more meaningful motivation.
Calling it the Great American Road Trip For Vets, Capt. Montefusco is using the drive to raise awareness for military and first responders and to raise money for Tunnel to Towers, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Gold Star military and first responder families.
To understand his journey, Montefusco said you have to know the backstory behind Tunnel to Towers.
It started Sept. 11, 2001. The Siller brothers, Frank and Stephen, were teeing off for a round of golf. That’s when Stephen, a Brooklyn firefighter, got the call to respond to the World Trade Center towers.
“He goes to his firehouse, but they’re already gone,” Montefusco said. “So, he jumps into his personal vehicle and drives toward the towers to meet up with his team.”
But when Stephen Siller got to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, it was closed off.
“The police have the tunnel blocked off and won’t let him through,” he said. “No vehicle traffic at all.”
So, Siller ditched his vehicle on the side of the road and put his full gear kit on: tank, helmet, mask, gloves and ax, and takes off on foot.
It’s a 4-mile hike from there to ground zero.
When he got there, “he starts saving lives,” Montefusco said. “And then he’s lost. They never recover his remains.”
On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Frank Siller formed the Tunnel to Towers foundation to retrace his brother’s route from the fire station to ground zero. Participation in the trek has grown every year since.
“I’ve done it twice,” Montefusco said. “And it’s the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done.”
Last year, 37,000 people did the Tunnel to Towers trek, he said.
The money the organization raises is used to pay off the mortgages of Gold Star military and first responder families with children.
Montefusco’s schedule has him in the homestretch of his 43-day journey spending the Fourth of July in Toledo, Ohio. He’s scheduled to roll into New York City July 26, the same day Jackson did.
The day after, he’ll be at O’Hara’s Pub and displaying the Willys Jeep at ground zero.
While his journey is taking him across the United States, Montefusco said he has a special regard for Wyoming and the West. He calls Salt Lake City his home base, where he fixes up vintage military and other vehicles.
And every stop on his journey through Wyoming was memorable, he said.
“Kemmerer is the first city I spent in Wyoming on this journey,” he said. “When I rolled into Kemmerer, they just came out to meet me. There’s this bar owner, he’s also a Marine. He came out and was like, ‘Semper Fi, Marine.’ People were coming out of the woodwork to meet me and see the Jeep.”
About That RV
Every stop along the way, Montefusco said, his custom-built RV comes along, a rolling tribute to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Volunteers come out of the cross-country woodwork to drive the RV ahead Montefusco, who drives the Jeep.
It’s a 1973 Winnebago Brave painted with Marine Corps images, logos and phrases. He calls it Marine’s Dream and Gunship Winnebago, and there’s hardly a place on the rig he hasn’t painted, altered or upgraded.
Even the driver’s seat has been replaced with the ejection seat from a military aircraft — although the explosives in the chair have been removed.
Because Montefusco is taking the same route Jackson did, most of his time is spent on unpaved roads because that’s how Jackson traveled.
Getting the RV from stop to stop is another challenge, one veterans along the way have stepped up to, he said.
For example, when he rolled into Kemmerer, he didn’t have someone to drive the RV on to Little America.
“A truck driver from Kemmerer volunteered to drive the RV for a stretch to Little America,” he said. “But he couldn’t find a ride back home. Eventually he said, ‘Screw it, I don’t care. I don’t have a ride home, but I don’t care. I want to help you out.’”
That’s how it’s been most of the way. A veteran or first responder volunteers to drive the RV to the next stop, then has to find a way home.
From Rawlins to Laramie, the volunteer was an old friend, Bobby Brooks of Laurel, Montana. They’ve known each other for years and have done war reenactments together.
Brooks said being part of Montefusco’s journey is something he wouldn’t have missed. He drove the RV on to Cheyenne the next day.
More About That Jeep
The 1952 Willys Jeep was made for the military, which is probably why Montefusco loves it so much. He restored it to near-mint condition with one exception — the 8-track tape deck he has wired into speakers placed in a pair of ammo cans.
And don’t make the mistake we did and refer to it as “that thing.”
“First off, I have to correct you,” Montefusco said. “It’s not a ‘thing,’ OK? Her name is Little Glory. Give her a little respect right there. That’s my girl.”
And while the 1903 Winton that Jackson drove across America has a pretty cushy seat, not so much the Jeep. Guess comfort isn’t the military’s No. 1 concern.
“It’s not bad at all,” he said. “But those 1903 seats had to have been more comfortable. Those things were like couches.”
He’s not setting any land-speed records along the way. Top cruising speed is about 55 mph, Montefusco said, but going over mountain passes has been a struggle.
“The overdrive helps a lot,” he said. “Some of those mountain passes I was only doing 25 mph, and I was watching the temperature gauge.”
The radiator got close, but never boiled over, he said, adding it couldn’t boil over much as his overflow is a World War II canteen.
“The best part of those mountain passes is if it’s raining, it’s coming down like a son-of-a-bitch,” he said. “Everybody’s seen ‘Forest Gump’ and the scene with Lt. Dan on the mast hooting and hollering? That was me at the wheel of the Jeep during storms.”
Follow Capt. Scott Montefusco’s trip across the United States and support Tunnel to Towers by visiting his Great American Road Trip website.