After visiting Dad's sister in Texas and his nieces in Kansas (see previous posts), it was time to answer the call of the mountains. The plan was to drive to Gunnison, Colorado and hang out in the area. Dad had been there hunting (with my mom) long before I was around and I thought it would be cool to take him back there.
The drive through western Kansas was just as it's told in God Bless America, with its amber waves of grain, for miles upon miles. Luckily, the public radio broadcast was strong in the windy plains and with our early start, I was able to get a bead on the current status of our country, which as of that moment, was in the grips of civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Before leaving on this trip, I was much in need of an escape from the situation after being sucked into online conversations and getting in over my head. I even swore off the socials for the entirety of the trip, knowing full well their capacity to send me down rabbit holes of doomsday reading and getting nothing out of it, only to end up missing exactly what I was yearning for: personal connection and being present. (And I have to say I did a great job. Not once, even alone in motel rooms did I go back on my promise. Even a month later, I'm less prone to doomsday scrolling, preferring to live on Insta and looking at photos of national parks, art and baby goats).
ANYHOO, I kinda hoped that listening to the news wouldn't bring us down but rather open up opportunities for conversations. We had a few but nothing too in depth. I've always thought my dad to be a pretty fair guy. Never in my life have I heard him say anything about someone's race in a negative way or in any way, really. He seems to be a live and let live type. I've seen many photos of him in his younger days, maybe his 20s or early 30s with non-white people. Dad loves to sing and dance and I believe that was (and still is) his universal language for breaking barriers. I also believe his travels around the world while in the military helped give him a larger world view, though that is merely a projection. At 85 Dad is a very simple person, wanting for nothing beyond what sustains him on a daily basis. I say that knowing it was the cash purchase of the Buick Enclave we were driving that put this idea of his figuratively in motion. Or not in motion, as was the case when we tried to get over the first mountain pass.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We drove through eastern Colorado singing old western ballads from a collection of five CDs Dad threw together featuring singers like Hank Snow, Hank Williams (Senior!), and Bill Monroe. We saw a few bike packers riding the other direction as we came in the back way to Salida, a route that started out flat, then rolling and then became quite hilly. It gave Dad a chance to drive his new car in undulating terrain and let's just say, he was still getting used to her. ;) The breaks had a shudder to them that was very unnerving when applied at high speeds. They worked but probably needed to be looked at.
|First sighting of the high country.|
The day was going to be hot. By the time we reached Salida, it was time for a break and I wanted to show Dad where I've ridden bikes. We drove to the old part of downtown and parked next to the Arkansas River where I walked to the edge and put my hand in to see how cold it was. I did this again a few times on the trip because Dad wasn't able to. I'd get my hand good and cold and then grab is hand so he could feel the river too.
Not always sure footed, I wasn't optimistic that he wanted to stroll around much. He did want to walk a few steps to a bridge that went over the river. To his joy, there were kayakers practicing barrel rolls on some rapids.
From that vantage point, I could see S Mountain, and I told Dad I had ridden around that hill many times to get to the mountains behind it. Riders were zooming by us on the road towards the hill and after a few minutes I'd have him look up and see how high up they had ridden.
We decided to grab a snack and it just so happened there was an outdoor restaurant right on the river so I felt a bit better about bringing Dad to it. I ordered him the palest beer they had (sorry, no Busch heavy, Dad) and some nachos with extra jalepenos. Let me explain something. My dad likes only hot food. His sisters said he's always been that way so when I asked for extra jalepenos and got extra green peppers, the mistake was noticed immediately. We debated saying anything because you don't want to piss off the people that bring your food, but we eventually gently said something and she came back and said they don't even have green peppers in the restaurant and she'd take it off our bill. (They were definitely chopped green peppers).
After our daydrinking, I asked Dad if he wanted to drive up to the top of S Mountain. Ryan and I had done it before and it was a cool view. But unfortunately, partway up, the road was gated off and locked but there was a large turn out and we could still see the town and the mountains that we had to go over in the distance. I showed him the trails I probably had ridden on at some point. It was fun to be at a place with him that I've been to and hoped it could help him relate to why I do what I do on bikes. Before we left town, I stopped at the local Wood Distillery, to get Ryan a bottle of rye whiskey. They make some killer spirits and we always get a bottle when we're in town.
By the time we headed west towards Gunnison, it was between 2-3pm. Like I said, it was a hot day in Salida, probably in the 80s. The first pass of our trip would be Monarch Pass, over the continental divide at 11,300 feet. It's a long stretch of driving up and within about 20 minutes after leaving Salida, just as the pitch began to steepen, the car, without warning, shut off. Right before it happened I noticed that no matter how much I stepped on the gas, the rpm meter was going backwards and I noticed also that the temp gauge was slightly above the middle number. (Having driven multiple times in the mountains with Ryan who watches gauges like a hawk, I learned to pay attention to them as well). Luckily, when the car shut down, we were in the right lane and there happened to be a wide dirt shoulder where I could get completely and safely off the road.
"Dad, there's something wrong", I said. He was reading a book and seemed absolutely and frustratingly unfazed by the current situation once he became aware of it. This lasted the entire time we were "broken down".
"Well, it can't be the oil. I had it changed just before I left home", he said.
"How about the transmission fluid. Did you have that checked?"
"No. Decided not to."
I shut off the car. I took out my phone. No bars. Fuck. My worst nightmare scenario was happening: stuck on a mountain with my dad, with car problems and no way to call anyone.
We both got out of the car and looked under the hood. Dad was more mad that he didn't buy a new poll to prop up the hood than at the problem at hand. There wasn't anything steaming or leaking that we could see. Dad looked around for the transmission fluid cap. "Newer cars don't have those anymore", I said. Dad probably hasn't ever had a car that was less than 10 years older than the current year, so this was news to him.
"Well, how do you check the fluid"?
"You don't. The mechanic does".
"Well that's stupid. Let me get the car manual out". My eyes are rolling by this time. Yeah, the car manual will tell us. Right.
Dad flipped through it and got frustrated quickly, as I assumed and he slammed it shut.
"I need to use the throne" he proclaimed.
"Now, Dad? Really? You can't wait?" I knew this answer. Dad's bowels are looser than a whore house on pay day.
"I'll find a squat in the trees."
"Dad, you can't walk five feet without help. How will you squat?"
"I can do it." And with that he took a roll of paper towels and disappeared down a double track path. I sat there worrying. I was going to give him 10 minutes and if he wasn't back, I was going in. I worried he'd end up going down the mountain in another direction instead of back to the car. I should have gone with him. To kill time, I got out and went around back to look under the car. I've blown transmissions before. I know tale tell signs but there was not a drop of coolant anywhere. I could smell it but the undercarriage was dry. I got out the manual. Turning to the pages about the radiator, and operating temps, it didn't give me any additional reason to worry but I did learn what the median temp was supposed to be and even though we were above it, we weren't that much above it before the car shut off. Traffic zoomed by. I secretly hoped someone would stop but nobody did. I finally see Dad making his way back but he's higher up from where we were parked. I got out of the car to meet him because I knew he's struggling. Not only was he on uneven terrain (which is really difficult for him) but we were also at 9500ft and it was dry and hot. I grabbed his arm but he resisted. I said I'm not going to go on ahead because you're about to drop. He leaned on a tree, breathing hard. The next step he took forced him to grab my arm because. We went slow and got him to the car. I ordered him to drink water, which he hates but the second he did, he drank all of it. I started the car again and turned on the fan and opened the windows. It seemed to be running fine. Dad said we should just go for it. Really? It's hot as shit, I don't have cell service and we have about 2000 more feet of climbing in a car that has something wrong, and you want to go for it? Is that ignorance or hopeful optimism? I said I wasn't going another inch up until we knew what was wrong and get it fixed if possible and he needed to be okay with the fact that our trip could end here. I said we were going to head back to Salida and see if we could get into a shop to have it looked at by someone who knows what they're doing.
Within a few minutes of going downhill, we were back in town. I had a signal, so texted Ryan to call me and then I started searching for auto mechanics, of which there were many. The first one was too busy (even though there was NO car in the shop's bay at the moment and he was sitting inside the gas station). He suggested another guy, so we went there. A woman came out the door asking what we needed. I explained and she said they were too busy. She pointed me up the road. We drove there but nobody answered the door nor answered the phone. I called another place. Nope. It was 4:30pm by then and we were losing time. I called another place and they said sure, bring it in. The business was an off-road jeep and ATV rental business but they had a sign out that said "licensed mechanic on site". We pulled into the only vacant spot on the premises. I opened the door and asked for Tim. Soon, he met us in front of the car and after some initial looking, assessed that it had most likely over heated. He added some coolant to the radiator and then did one last thing that saved our trip. He told us about the manual drive buttons on the shifter that would manually allow us to change gears or in the case of driving in the mountains, to keep it in a lower gear. Huzzah! That's what those buttons are for, Dad exclaimed. He thought they were for 4wd mode. I didn't even know they were there. The mechanic was our angel. Dad tipped him even though he said no charge. He was great with Dad, listening to his car buying story, even though it sometimes didn't make sense. The day was saved but I was not in the right state of mind to continue. I told Dad I'd rather get a room for the night and drive early in the morning when it's much cooler outside and we wouldn't have to worry about getting stuck when it's dark. I had a crazy head ache from the stress and dehydration and I needed to chill but before finding a place I called Ryan who had called while we were talking to the mechanic and he gave me some advice and would do further research on the model that we would need to consider before going forward, like it could be a failing water pump.
I found a great place downtown that was cheap and clean and not on the busy thoroughfare. Once I got Dad in his room and his TV working (luckily the hotel manager was right on site to assist) I felt I could relax. There was no AC in my room so I opened all the windows, took some meds and napped to get rid of the pounding in my skull.
About an hour later, I got up and went into Dad's room. He was watching the movie Gladiator so I sat and watched some of it with him until I couldn't take another minute of commercials. I was hungry so I went to my favorite burrito place and then to the grocery store to get Dad a ham sandwich and some other snacks for the trip. We ate and continued watching the movie. Just before sunset, I told him I was going to go for a walk. I strolled a few blocks to the river where some guys were surfing the rapids on boogie boards. That was cool to watch! On my way back a couple of deer were walking down a side street. Yep, just another night in a mountain town. One of many, car willing, that were yet to come.