Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Downhill Run

     Preface:  We travel to destinations, but it is the journey that we remember.  Such was the case when my friend Steve, and I embarked on a ski trip almost 40 years ago.  We were college students looking for some excitement and adventure.  What transpired gave us the memory of a lifetime.


Monarch Pass, Colorado
Wikipedia photo

The Downhill Run
memoir
by Greg Larson

     “We’ll have a blast!” said my friend Steve. “This is the perfect time to go skiing in Colorado.  I hear they had a lot of snow before Christmas.  Think of all the college chicks on the slopes…good looking ones, too!”

     Home from college during the 1971 Christmas break, we were sitting in the local watering hole, The Keg, in Garden City, Kansas.  I took another sip of beer, trying to figure out how I could afford the luxury of a ski trip.  Disposable income was non-existent, except for a few dollars of Christmas money from my parents.

     “I don’t think I can afford it, Steve.  What little money I’ve got will have to last me ‘til next summer when I can get a job.”

     “No problem,” said Steve, “I’ve got us a hotel on wheels.  The only money we need is for an occasional meal, rental skis, and lift tickets.”

     “What? I don’t get it,” I replied.

     “We have a camper on the pick-up truck my brother uses at the farm.  He uses the camper sometimes for pheasant hunting.  We can sleep in it.  It has a kitchenette and bunks.  We’ll take most of the food with us…and some beer.  It’ll be cool!  We can drive from one ski area to the next, just park and sleep.”

     “Now you’re talkin’!  We can pull this trip off.”

     I couldn’t pass up the free lodging.  I was ready to go.  Anything would be more fun than sitting at home in western Kansas.

     The next day, we drove to the farm to get the pick-up camper.  We talked excitedly as our plans came together.  Dust billowed behind us on the dirt roads for several miles before Steve pulled his car onto the ruts at the edge of a field.  We headed toward a lone, metal barn set in the vast emptiness of a western Kansas wheat field.  He parked the car and we walked through the dusty wind to the barn.  Steve slid back the large corrugated door, making just enough space for us to squeeze inside.  In the dim stillness of the barn, the smell of the hay was overwhelming, and the sparrows chirped and flitted about.  The barn door rattled in the unceasing prairie wind.

     The old Ford pick-up rested near the stacks of hay bales.  It was covered with dust and the tires appeared under-inflated.  The mice scattered as we walked closer to the truck.  The camper shell sat on a frame just behind the truck.  I wondered if mice were inside, occupying the kitchenette and the bunks.

     “It’s got a V-8 in it,” Steve said. “We’ll have plenty of power in the mountains, if we need it.”

     A smattering of dried bird poop adorned the hood.  “Looks like it needs a wash,” I said.

     “Oh, we can just hose it off when we get it to town,” replied Steve.  “I need to back this up so we can drop the camper shell into the bed.”

     The truck door creaked as he opened it and climbed in.  He turned the ignition.  Nothing happened.  The battery was dead.

     “This truck probably hasn’t been used since the wheat harvest.  The battery is fine.  It just needs to be charged up,” he said.

     Steve drove his car into the barn, and we connected jumper cables to the truck battery.  The pick-up quickly came to life with a turn of the key.  We found an air compressor, and inflated the tires.

     I followed Steve back to town, where we spruced up the interior of the camper, using Spic-and-Span, Windex and a lot of elbow grease.  Finally, we loaded up the camper with food, bedding and clothing.

     A new pair of gloves and a ski cap were the only costly items I had to purchase.  My “ski pants” consisted of Scotchgard spray on blue jeans.

     The next morning, we pulled out onto the highway, ready for adventure.  Steve dodged the tumble weeds as we drove west, mile after mind-numbing mile.  Holly, La Junta, Rocky Ford…the towns passed by as we crossed the Great American Desert of eastern Colorado.  Finally, after four hours in the cab, the front range of the Rockies appeared.  I had visions of schussing down the slopes.  Ski country, here we come!


     The air was crisp and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the mountains in the late afternoon when we arrived in Breckenridge.  Steve found a roadside lodge with some parking spots for camper trucks.  The proprietor said that hook-ups weren’t available in winter, so he’d only charge us five dollars a night for the parking slot.

     By evening, we were already shivering inside the camper.  We noticed there was a cozy bar and lounge in the old lodge, so we decided to go inside and buy a bowl of chili.

     The bartender actually served us drinks.  We were only twenty years old, and looked all of sixteen.  He must have felt sorry for us, since we had to sleep out in the cold.  The seasoned guests in the bar and lounge glanced at us from time to time, keeping their distance from the two of us in our ragged college jeans and sweatshirts.  We didn’t see the crowds of coeds that we had envisioned.

     An older woman, who looked all of thirty, walked over and asked us where we were from.  We explained our situation, and she gave us an odd look.

     “You guys are either crazy or brave…I don’t know which.  I hope you don’t freeze to death out there.”

     Steve and I bought some popcorn and another drink, trying to eke out some more time in the warm lodge before going outdoors, into the inevitable cold.  Finally, we forced ourselves to walk back to the camper.  I was shivering before we made it inside.  I shivered getting into the sleeping bag, and I shivered all night.  The high country was brutally cold on the clear, starry night.

     In the morning, we quickly ate grocery-store cinnamon rolls, pulled from the foil pan.  We washed them down with bottled juice, then jumped into the cab of the truck and fired up the engine.  The warm air began to fill the cab and I put my hands and gloves up to the air vents.

     “Let’s go skiing!” I shouted and clapped, just to get the blood pumping.

     We skied for two days at Breckenridge.  The cold wind at the summit pierced our clothes.  The fact that we were already cold just made it seem even colder.

     At the end of the second day, I made a suggestion to Steve, “Let’s go to Monarch Pass tomorrow and see if the snow is any good there. It’s farther south. Maybe it’s a little warmer.”

     “Sounds like a plan,” said Steve, “I’m ready for a change.”

     The drive through the mountain valleys was scenic and it was nice to spend the morning hours in the warm cab.  We turned onto U.S. 50 highway and climbed to Monarch Pass.  The roads were dry all the way to the top.  We pulled into the ski-area parking lot and went inside for hot chocolate.  As we sipped our chocolate, we watched the skiers on the slope and noticed the conditions were not good.  The surface looked rocky and slushy – not something we wanted to ski on.

     “Let’s drive down to Salida and regroup,” said Steve.

     “We can decide in the morning whether to drive back north or head back to Garden City,” I added.

     We left Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet) and drove east towards Salida.  Steve guided the truck through the curves and rock cuts, hugging the guardrail while braking to slow our speed.

     All of a sudden his eyes got big and he gasped for air.  He pumped the brake pedal, then glanced at me with a look of sheer terror.

     “HOLY SHIT!” yelled Steve, “There’s nothin’ there!  No brakes!  WHAT SHOULD I DO?”

     The truck continued to gain speed down the mountain, and a curve loomed about a quarter of a mile ahead.  The needle climbed on the speedometer…forty-five…fifty.  My mind raced, and then my instincts took over.

     “DOWNSHIFT!” I yelled. “Downshift again, if you can! If we pick up too much speed, just turn the truck toward the mountainside!”  I decided I’d rather survive a crash than launch through a guard rail and over a cliff.

     The engine screamed as Steve shifted to a lower gear.  We sped around the curve with the truck leaning precariously.  To our amazement, we didn’t tip over.  We continued down the highway, curve after curve, at about thirty miles an hour, with the engine whining in second gear.  The next ten minutes seemed like an eternity.  Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic, and the highway leveled out as we entered the valley near Salida.

     We’d survived the descent, but now we had another problem.  How would we stop the truck at the intersections in town?  Steve downshifted to first gear and guided the pick-up onto the shoulder when we approached a stop sign.  With the truck barely rolling at the intersection, he gently gave it some gas and we crossed to the other side.

    We crawled along the highway and crept onto the main street in Salida, looking for a gas station.

     “There’s a Standard station up ahead on the left,” I exclaimed! “I think we’re gonna make it.”

     We slowly rolled into the gas station and over the cable in the pump lane.  The familiar “ding-ding” announced our arrival as the truck came to a complete stop.  A short, stocky man, with “Bob” stitched on his shirt, wiped his hands with a rag as he appeared from the garage.  A chaw of tobacco bulged from his cheek as he spoke.

     “Regular or Ethyl?” he asked.

     “We have a bigger problem,” said Steve. “We have no brakes.  They went out on our way down from Monarch Pass.”

     Bob looked down at the wheels.  He gave out a low whistle and then said, “Hell, you’re lucky to be all in one piece!”

It was Saturday afternoon.  They were busy at the gas station, but they put the truck on the lift and raised it high enough to remove the wheels and look at the brakes.  After the inspection, Bob met us in front of the garage to give us his report.  First, he spat out some juice from the side of his mouth.

     “Well, I got good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is that we can fix the brakes.  The master cylinder has gone bad and needs replacing.  The bad news is we don’t have a master brake cylinder for this truck.  If they have them at the Ford dealer in Pueblo, it’ll be late Monday or early Tuesday before they get here.”

     Steve and I looked at each other.  We had no choice but to wait for the repair.

     “You can park your truck on the street during the day, and at night, you can pull it onto the driveway in the station after we close,” said Bob.

     I looked around at the small town.  This was going to get old real fast.  I was glad we had a stack of newspapers and magazines in the camper.  Our trip of terror down the mountain had now turned into a boring wait for the repairs.  There wasn’t much else to do but read or walk around town.

     Steve discovered an electrical outlet in the phone booth next to the station, and we borrowed an extension cord from Bob so we could plug in the electric heater in the camper.  Even though the nights were still cold, we didn’t shiver quite as much with the heater.  By Monday, we’d had our fill of macaroni and cheese, beanie-weenies, and peanut butter sandwiches.

     “Steve, if we stay here much longer, we’ll need to put up an address and a mailbox,” I said.

     On Tuesday morning, Bob gave us the good news that the parts had arrived.  By mid-afternoon, Steve paid for the repairs, and Bob filled up the gas tank.  We were on the road again – this time back to Garden City, driving straight through, only stopping once for gas.

     When I returned to college, I bought a “ski kansas” poster to put in my dorm room.  Every time I looked at it, I remembered the frightful downhill run that Steve and I survived on the Colorado highway.  I was glad to be alive.

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