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Making it in Big Sky: Canyon Auto Repair and Towing

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Canyon Auto Repair and Towing has been serving the Big Sky community for 42 years. Ken Morton started the business when he moved to Big Sky in 1978 and today his three employees are all family members born and raised in Big Sky. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – After flying up to Big Sky for a friend’s wedding in 1978, Ken Morton wasted no time and moved out here permanently two weeks later. He resigned his position as supervisor of the city of San Diego’s equipment division, packed his bags and bought a house out West, where he’d eventually open the town’s go-to auto repair shop, Canyon Auto Repair and Towing.

He said a big part of his decision to move to Big Sky was the better quality of life and he thought it would be a better place to raise a family.

Morton said that he was lucky to snag the 4 acres that his business, Canyon Auto Repair and Towing, currently resides on. It was rough going in the beginning, he recalled, since there weren’t many people in Big Sky.

Forty-two years later, Canyon Auto is still serving the Big Sky community. Currently, the business has four employees including Morton and the business is a family affair. Morton’s son, Andy, works for him as a mechanic and Andy’s wife, Amber, serves as the secretary. Amber’s brother rounds out the mechanic team and Morton also uses his experience as a Chevrolet master technician and his degree in electronics to help with automotive repair work.

Canyon Auto provides a wide range of services, most notably towing, as well as help with jump starts, lockouts and auto repairs. Morton said they are a NAPA Auto Care Center, and all their work is guaranteed nationwide.

Explore Big Sky sat down with Morton to learn more about Canyon Auto Repair and Towing and how the business has grown and changed over the years. His answers are below.

Some answers below have been edited for brevity.

Explore Big Sky: Tell me about how you started Canyon Auto?

Ken Morton: Well, the main problem was finding real estate to start a commercial business like this, and I was lucky to find the four acres that I have here. The area had not been discovered yet and there were very few people here, so it was extremely difficult to make a living here for the first 12 to 14 years and then it got better as it got busier. We are a NAPA Auto Care Center, and we have a contract for AAA Roadside Assistance and Highway Patrol for towing and emergency road service.

EBS: What services do you provide?

K.M.: We provide general automotive repair. We have a lot of people traveling through. … We end up with a lot of people on vacation, broke down in a hurry to get to their campsite or wherever they’re going on their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Yellowstone Park and so we end up doing a lot of emergency, on-the-double repairs and we’ve saved thousands of vacations for people by getting them back on the road again. We also have a contract for towing with Big Sky Resort and Moonlight [Basin]. Tons of people slide off the road at all hours of the day and night so we have seven tow trucks, each one for different kinds of work. We have big trucks for big wrecks and little trucks for little cars and four-wheel drives and specialized recovery stuff. That’s not normal in a city. We run around all hours of the day and night, pulling people out that go off the road.

EBS: What would you say is the most frequent call that you respond to?

K.M.: Our most frequent calls would be AAA, and that would be on locked cars, jumpstarts, if they slide off the road pulling them back on the road again. If they want to be taken to a shop in town, then we take them into a shop in town. If the vehicle is still under warranty we go to the dealer. That would be the work that we do. The highway patrol calls us from their wrecks on the highway. When the highway is closed or partially closed, we do a lot, especially in the winter.

EBS: How has your business fared through COVID-19?

K.M.: We’ve fared fairly well. We were down 23 percent gross income for 2020 over the previous year due to COVID. But our biggest problem here is finding talented employees, because there’s no place to live up here, nobody can afford the rent up here. 

EBS: What is your favorite part of working at Canyon Auto?

K.M.: In this line of work, you get the satisfaction when you go home every day of saving someone from missing their vacation. And you got somebody’s car running or you pull somebody out of the ditch who was in a bad way or out of the river, it’s just generally helping people. It is one of the reasons why we do this. If somebody is locked out of their car and their baby is in the car, to unlock the car and everybody is happy and it’s a feeling that you don’t get in a lot of businesses.

EBS: What is the most memorable call you have ever responded to?

K.M.: We do thousands of calls every year. So, the most memorable calls that stick with me, because there’s so many, is so far with a tow truck, I’ve saved three lives of people that would have certainly been dead. They were accidents and people were trapped in a vehicle, one of them was on fire.

EBS: What is the best business advice that you have ever received?

K.M.: I don’t remember getting any good business advice from anybody I just saw the need for automotive service in Big Sky and started a business. 

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