By on February 5, 2013

We rejoin our tale of high adventure—en route to Golden, CO, for the purpose of taking delivery of a slightly used superbike—aboard a newly acquired and undertested first-gen Toyota Van. Having passed it’s first serious test—the midnight-to-dawn segment through southwestern Utah in a driving snowstorm (including a near-miss involving a concrete center divider) on the I-70—we set our sights on Grand Junction, CO and the Vail Pass.

Having made our descent to the high plains east of Moab, The Mint and I now had time to reflect on both my performance behind the wheel, and that of our rapidly appreciating and Bodaciously Beaten Van. We had to conclude that the proof was in the proverbial pudding in both cases: aside from the occasional stop to clear snow and ice accumulation from the wheel wells—checking on the integrity of the cable chains on the rear—our progress was confident and rapid, considering conditions.

I had to declare that the whole dynamic of keeping the mass in motion from the upright driving position perched just above the left front wheel, was really something completely different than what I had ever previously experienced. And quite a kick in the seat—very literally, when wheel well ice accumulation reached critical mass—at that!

Now, the real issue became managing our cable chain life—as the segment across the high plains to Grand Junction wasn’t going to be over completely snow-packed road. We figured that it’d be snowing up the Vail Pass, and we didn’t want to shred our only set of cables before we got there.

We didn’t know how correct that assessment was until we got back into blizzard conditions at the beginning of the climb up The Pass.

We had seen a couple of vehicles that had spun off the road coming into Grand Junction, but the frequency of these sightings got to the point where we flat-out lost count as we proceeded with the ascent. Although we were not exactly playing it tight-on-the-bottle conservatively, we were surprised at the generally borderline-frantic pace of our fellow motorists, including—and maybe especially considering—the Big Rig jockeys. All of these folks must have felt some measure of invincibility behind their respective steering wheels, to be pushing the limits as they were. Many of them—again including the truckers—were not running chains on vehicles that we could verify as not in possession of any kind of All or Four Wheel Drive system!

The attrition rate was impressive!

We began to be concerned that the local Highway Patrol might at any point close The Pass, thus scuttling our non-stop strategy.

As far as it went, though, was the enabling of warning signs mandating the installation of chains on Big Rigs and Two-Wheel-Drive vehicles.

Fortunately, ours were still intact at this point; and with the increase in traffic volume, and all of the surrounding vehicle carnage serving as a warning to the previously frantic, it seemed unlikely that we were going to run afoul of the maximum speed warning for our cables.

Just as we were considering this while passing by the Breckinridge Ski Area, a loud whack from the rear, followed by a rhythmic slapping, confirmed what we had just been denying:

Our cables were finished, before we were with their use!

There was nothing to do other than pull over and finish the removal job that centrifugal force had initiated.

We rejoined the traffic fray—now reduced to a snail’s pace—chainless, but thankful that there was enough grip on significantly colder snow, so as not to require their necessity.

When we made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel without incident, we knew we had passed through the worst of it, for the day. With the exception of a couple of still frantic, and soon to be self-neutralized urban Suburban drivers, we continued to Golden unthreatened, otherwise intact, and fairly close to on-time, all considered!

We’ll consider the acquisition of our intended cargo, and the less-than-uneventful trek back to LA in Part Four, next week.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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21 Comments on “MEMOIRS OF AN INDEPENDENT REPAIR SHOP OWNER: Tall Winter Tales – Extreme Weekend Banzai Road Test / Rally—Part Three...”

  • avatar

    Heh, I wonder how that car in the first picture got up on its nose like that. Didn’t seem to be physically possible, to stay in that position, that is, with nothing holding it vertical like that.

    • 0 avatar

      Seems getting out of the car would be a dicey proposition, too, with trying not to get crushed by it falling forward or back. (I would probably try shifting my weight to make it land back on its wheels, not as if it won’t be totaled anyway.)

      Could just be that someone got there and snapped it with a fast shutter, too, before it went over or fell back.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Oh, I remember the joys of driving a 65 Chevy van with a three speed manual in the snow. The only things worse were Mustangs, Camaros, and pickups. Not necesarily in that order.
    Once on Christmas night, I left my GFs house about 1 AM to drive the seven miles home. I had to cross over a wooded ridge that extended across all possible paths back. After failing to summmit on the numbered highway, I decided to take some back roads. With about 5 miles to go, I slid off the road into a drainage ditch just far enough to get stuck.
    I decided to hoof it home. It was now about 1:30 AM. It took about two hours to trudge through six plus inches of snow, but was one of the most peaceful walks I can remember. Everything was calm and so quiet. I didn’t see one moving vehicle the whole way back. Thirty years later I can still recall the details.
    The next day I called my GF to tell her about the trip home. She was a little ticked that I hadn’t called, but I didn’t want to wake up her family so late. It turned out she called our house about a half hour after I left her place. My sleep talking brother got up, answered the phone, and told her I was home and asleep when in reality I was miles away. He slept more soundly than someone in a coma, but could carry on a conversation which he would not remember the next day.

  • avatar

    Ah, the Eisenhower Tunnel. So much fun. Everybody gets a mile of nice, dry, well-lit road to shed their worries and their cares and forget the miserable, treacherous road conditions they just left and get back up to 50MPH.
    And then (no matter which way you’re going) the tunnel ends and drops you into a remarkably steep descent with a large curve on it.

    I came back from Las Vegas one September weekend a few years ago and got jumped at the Eastern side of the tunnel by 4″ of snow and ice that was NOT on the Western side of the pass a minute-and-a-half earlier. Oh, that was exciting, let me tell you.

  • avatar

    I frequently get passed by semi’s in bad weather conditions on that stretch of I-70. Those OTR drivers run those passes every day of the year in all weather conditions and generally know what they’re doing. It’s the “urban Suburban” drivers you have to be careful of, those with four/all-wheel drive who think they’re invincible.

    “The I-70″ sounds funny to a Coloradan.

    • 0 avatar

      It depends on the name on the side of the Truck.

      If its Con-Way, Yellow-Roadway, UPS the driver has spent the past 5-10+ yrs driving the same roads and its all good.

      If its Swift, Prime, CR England or any of the other entry level puppy mills with 1-800 “We Hire Anyone with a Pulse” on the back of the trailer: DANGER WILL ROBINSON!

      +1 Only people from SoCal are allowed use definite article road names.

      • 0 avatar

        Im not sure what “definite article” means, but if I refer to the I5 north of LA as the Grapevine, would everyone reading this know where it is?

        When the Grapevine is closed due to snow, and the snow levels are low enough, its fun to watch as the idiot big rigs with bald tires and no chains jacknife on the snow-covered desert highways that are an alternate route.

      • 0 avatar

        So, I-70 from Richfield to Grand Junction I see tractors pulling three trailers all the time, but never on I-70 from Grand Junction to Denver. Is it illegal? And what about logistics? Do the trucking companies keep tractors in Grand Junction and Denver, split the triples into doubles or singles, and ferry them back and forth?

      • 0 avatar

        I always refer to it as the Ridge Route, nikita, but that’s probably a bit old school.

      • 0 avatar
        Phil Coconis

        Thank you for your validation of my def. article use. When one has to deal with the adverse time-to-distance ratio that is part and parcel to the SoCal driving experience, one views the route in a different way!
        Re: truck drivers–we’re not done with the trip yet. More Big Rig shenanigans to come…

  • avatar
    Joshua Johnson

    My first time on I-70 going through the Vail pass was in my brother’s Mazda3 in a snow storm. Now that was a fun time – just missed the mandatory chain requirements by a matter of minutes. Being from Minnesota, I wasn’t really phased by the weather. What got me though, is how much faster the semis were traveling compared to the rest of the traffic. It was about 1am and visibility was fairly limited, but man did those semis fly right by.

    Still, I found the Vail pass to be a blast to drive. So much so that I went back this past summer and drove it in a proper RWD car with an ample amount of power. Absolutely incredible! I sure wish MN had some roads like that (and the 80 mph speed limit of eastern Utah!).

  • avatar
    01 ZX3

    Poor Fusion in the picture. How’d that even happen?

  • avatar

    FWD is really great with chains. You get decent traction just by using one set of chains. The advantage over RWD becomes patently obvious when you have to drive through several mount-dismount points, such as along U.S. 50 in Nevada. Owners of RWDs, so loved by the commentariat, get to pay twice and work twice, or they have to choose if they want steering or braking.

    • 0 avatar

      Some car makers, such as Ford, dont provide enough clearance and prohibit chain use (even cables) with their FWD cars, making them unlawful to operate on California mountain roads in the winter. That was the main reason I chose the Fit over the Fiesta in 2010. I did have a 1980 Fiesta, my first FWD car. When cables were mounted the car was a torture chamber. The vibration and noise, even going under 25mph was almost unbearable. Never had a steering issue with the RWD Ford Ranger with chains just mounted on the rear.

    • 0 avatar

      At least in California, you are not required to chain all 4 wheels if you have RWD. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone chain all 4 wheels on US 50 — only the drive wheels.

  • avatar

    I remember, years ago, driving from LA to Chicago in November, left Amarillo Texas, a little bit of rain, listening to the trucks on the CB (remember those?). I heard a few truckers talking about ice, and having 80,000 pounds of “road hugging weight”. I tried telling them that they weren’t Russian icebreakers, and if they started sliding, they wouldn’t stop til they hit the Atlantic. Long story short, I’d been following a truck at 75, and I heard them talking about the ice, then I hit the gas and the rear end came loose, the whole highway (I-40) was a sheet of ice. I slowed down to about 15 MPH and got off at the next exit. Found a gas station that would let me use their lift to put chains on, after I got done and asked them “How much?”, the kid said “Is $2 ok?”…. I gave him $50 and told him to have a great night, it sure beat putting the chains on alongside the road (not a dry spot to be found). I still love the idea that “weight+ice=traction”.

    • 0 avatar

      “I still love the idea that “weight+ice=traction”.”

      Yes, it shows a completely lack of understanding of physics. It has to do with weight distribution, more than weight per se. Also, there are other issues of static and dynamic friction — for example, the tire could deform over load in a way that increase friction, and the wheels can be more or less loaded depending on the slope you’re driving on, but even if you simplify things, it’s not just about weight.

      “I gave him $50 and told him to have a great night, it sure beat putting the chains on alongside the road (not a dry spot to be found).”

      I believe that’s more than chain installers charge in the Sierras.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the stories, Phil. I actually enjoy driving in stormy weather and look for excuses to take a long drive when the snow starts coming down hard. It’s a great show and fun to feel the vehicle move around as it floats above the soft surface. But it’s only truly enjoyable with a good set of winter tires. The only time I can recall being out in such conditions with bad tires was when I drove 650 miles in a Powerstroke diesel cube van with a worn-out front end to transport my possessions to my new job location. While unloading the van, the snow started coming down hard but I had to get the van home for the sake of low rental costs. It was a sketchy trip back with a lot of steering corrections having an unloaded box, but pretty much free of incident. However, at a really slippery point I got distracted looking at a jack-knifed semi in the ditch and ended up doing a little 60 mph drifting, but it was an easy recovery. I think the big slab sides are good for putting the back end where it belongs once you’re sideways.

    I ended up with the same van when I moved back two-and-a-half years later, and they had put a set of fresh Nokian Vatiivas on it by then. Of course, it was summer so I didn’t need the extra traction on that trip.

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