Gerard Byrd thinks he has the greatest job in the world.
For the past 35 years, the Martin City native has risen before the sun and prepared his bus for the 164-mile round trip to deliver students from the Essex and Nyack Flats areas to the West Glacier and Columbia Falls schools. Rain, sleet, snow and fog are no deterrent to Byrd as he makes the often-treacherous drive along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on U.S. Highway 2.
“It’s gotta be one of the most remote school bus routes in the lower 48,” Byrd said as he navigated a snowy road Monday morning. “It’s a very unique route with some very tricky road conditions. It can be very intimidating to some drivers. It’s not the longest school bus route in the state, but it is one of the longest.”
Over the years, Byrd has carried hundreds of students safely to school, accumulating more than 1 million miles of accident-free travel, or just over the equivalent of two trips to the moon and back.
“I have just been very fortunate that I have never had an accident. I have had accidents happen all around me, but I have never been in one,” Byrd said. “It can be dangerous these days. There are so many people driving with cell phones and there are so many other distractions.”
The second youngest of 12 children, Byrd was born in Martin City in 1959. He graduated from Columbia Falls High School before attending Carrol College in Helena. After graduating college, Byrd began looking for a job in the area and finally hired on as the driver of the route in 1983, partly because no other drivers wanted it.
“Nobody really wanted to drive that road every day. It’s just so far out here and a lot of the drivers were intimidated by the road,” he said. “I took it anyway, even though it only paid $25 per day.”
Though supplementing his income with other jobs, Byrd decided to purchase the route the following year and has been making the trip every morning during the school year ever since.
“I never get tired of this drive. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the state and I love to see it every day, though I could probably drive it blindfolded,” Byrd admitted. “You never know what you are going to see on this road, and it doesn’t matter if it is morning or evening. Anything can happen and I have seen it all.”
And he truly has seen it all, from black and grizzly bear, moose, elk and wolves to more than his fair share of accident scenes. Byrd can relate first-hand tales of roll-overs, slide offs and even a logging accident that left the cab of a semi completely sheered off (luckily the driver was not injured), but the one that impacted him the most was the accident that claimed the life of his brother and eight others in 1984.
Byrd had been driving his bus for just a year when his brother, Jim (a bus driver for the Whitefish High School wrestling team), along with eight others, were killed on a return trip from Browning when a gasoline tanker lost control and slid into the team’s bus near Nyack Flats. Eighteen others were injured in the crash.
“It made a huge impact on me. Ever since that day, I have always been very aware of how the other people around me are driving and what the road conditions are,” Byrd said. “It definitely opened my eyes. He was a good driver and there was nothing he could do. It affected me, but it didn’t stop me. This is what I like doing and I am going to do it. I just always make sure that I am focused on driving.”
In addition to his strict attention to the road, Byrd also attributes his accident-free record to the fact that he washes the dirt and salt off his bus after every trip and checks the electronics before leaving every day.
Despite his attention to detail, Byrd admits there have been some close calls.
“One morning about 20 years ago, we had a Chinook coming in from the east side. When I left the house in the morning, there was snow on the ground. When I got to the flats, the road was wet, but when it is dark, you can’t tell if it is wet or if it’s ice. It looked wet to me, but all of a sudden, the bus started turning sideways,” Byrd said. “I got it straightened out, but I pulled off as soon as I could. I knew a lot of the railroad workers out here and a friend of mine was the next car after me. Pretty soon I saw his headlights just spinning as he hit the same patch of ice. Neither of us were expecting that. This road is never the same at one end as it is at the other.”
Despite the miles, and sometimes the white knuckles, Byrd said the trips are more than worth it because of the lives he gets to touch. No matter the conditions, Byrd always greets all of his riders with a warm hello and a smile, an more than a few times, has left them with enduring words of wisdom.
“I’ve bused a lot of kids over the years, but there are always a few that stand out in my memory. I see some of them around town from time to time and they come up and tell me about how I made a difference in their lives,” he said. “I’ve had a few that would make trouble over the years, but I would always tell them that they had to take responsibility for their actions. Everything you do affects the people around you.”
As for the future, Byrd says he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. When his contract expires in two years, he intends to sign on for another five years.
“It’s been a good route,” he said. “I haven’t gotten tired of it, and I never will.”