Up the hills and down again!

I’m a long way from my scopes right now, and missing them dreadfully. Meanwhile, I’ve run into another aspect of travel, namely totally new experiences.

I’m a flatlander. A hill to me is a couple of hundred metres high, and while it may be a pain to climb, it doesn’t pose any problem for your vehicle. Traveling through mountains was thus a trip into another world.

I had had a taste of mountain driving while traveling from the LA area to the RTMC site at Big Bear, CA. The route passed through Onyx Summit, which is the highest point on the the California Highway system, and there were a number of sharp turns, steep ascents, and scary (to me) descents. I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I found some of the loops around the mountains rather nerve-racking – I suppose I have a touch of acrophobia. On the whole, though, I figured mountain driving was a matter of watching for hairpin turns on narrow roads. I was wrong.

Driving from Toronto to LA meant I had to travel through the Rockies, and I followed my GPS’ recommendation and travelled along the I-70 through Denver and on to Las Vegas and ultimately California via the I-15. That route took me through the Vail Pass, and I found it a very scary drive indeed. There’s a long climb out of Denver followed by steep descents which stretch for miles and often incorporate sharp curves and narrowed sections where the engineers ran out of mountainside. From the summit at 10,660 feet there’s a long drop down to the valleys below, and those are followed by further climbs and descents. It was the length of the descents which I found verve-racking, particularly as some of those descents incorporated breath-taking views into the valleys far below.

Eventually you make your way through the pass, and you’re on to sections which continue to resemble a roller-coaster, but don’t generally present you with a thousand foot drop when you look over the side of the road. The views are still stunning, and you’re still climbing up and braking your way down some pretty steep roads, often in very hot weather, despite it being the end of summer. Nevertheless, you breathe a little easier (though signs advising “no service for 100 miles” are a little daunting).

Las Vegas comes as something of a relief, but once again to get to the next point do interest you have to climb a mountain range. This one presents no scary curves, but there is a long climb with many sections where slow vehicles have a dedicated lane, and eventually there is a long slow descent, where once again there are dedicated lanes for slower vehicles. And it’s hot – you’re heading towards Death Valley.

Regular travelers through the region generally know what to expect, and the majority of traffic throughout these mountain areas will push the speed envelope a little. So did I, at least when the curves were easy. It was a mistake.

Sometime traveling down the 18-mile 6% – 7% grade leading toward Baker CA my much abused fan belt (did I mention it was hot?) let go, and when I stopped for gas in Baker, it was dangling close to the ground. Fortunately there was a truck repair station open on a Sunday, and I was able to limp into the yard, which was littered with cars of various makes and ages, all in obvious I’ll-health. The mechanic on duty felt around a little and pronounced the fan belt dead, and the fan clutch and associated parts were not in good shape either. He’d have to order parts, but it’s a Dodge, right? Well, actually, no, it’s a Mercedes Benz diesel, badged as a Dodge from the era when Dodge and MB were allies. Hmm. Oh, and it’s Sunday.

He phoned around, and couldn’t get parts. He let me park on his lot and spend the night there (no hardship as the van has been converted to an RV), and next morning began phoning around again. No parts, and the nearest Dodge dealer was in Barstow, about 60 miles away. A tow was needed (the value of pre-planning – I had joined an auto club just in case of such a need). In Barstow the Dodge dealership was a little dubious. The Sprinter has a high roof, and they had no hoists able to handle it. The nearest Dodge van dealership was at least 40 miles further down the road. They had a mechanic who thought he could deal with the problem though, but I would have to leave the van for a couple of days. No, you can’t park in the lot and spend the night. We’ll call when your van is ready… Bring your checkbook!

I took a rental car to my destination, and picked up the van a few days later. Lighter of pocket, I’m planning a less arduous route back to Toronto, and will travel more carefully through the high desert sections. I’m looking forward to getting back to the flatlands again!