Waking to the morning heat at our campsite below Kite Lake could not have been more relaxing; M&M pancakes, topped with a delicious blueberry syrup, and fresh coffee to start the day. We reorganized the van and set off on to our next destination, Aspen, CO. With a full tank of gas we surveyed the options as the mammoth mountains stood directly between us and our destination, three hours around to the south, two hours north, or a mountain dirt road pass; usually pushing motorists to log the hours and safely navigate around the range. We consulted with the local general store, Al*Mart, employees who directed us away from Mosquito Pass but offered an alternative route, a “maintained county road”, Weston Pass. Looking for epic views and adventure, it was an easy decision. We charged the dirt pass dodging crater size potholes, the washboard grate vibrating the Concord, flying through turbulence. Up…Up…Up we went gaining elevation, loosing oxygen. We pushed hard towards the crest, the grade was steep and the top was near.
Four hundred yards from the top of the pass, The Concord hissed, white steam poured from beneath the hood; the ultimate distress signal. Chris and I jumped out of the car as he threw it into park, quickly popped the hood and stared blankly, thousands of thoughts flying through our minds like a supersonic star field time travel. Once we had gathered our composure we created a plan. We would feed the thirst of the blown radiator until we crested the top, pop the transmission in neutral, and use the force of gravity to descend to civilization, some ten long miles away.
The first push with a newly filled radiator and a cool engine crushed our delicate optimism, making it only a few hundred feet before The Concord spewed the last of the water we had on board. Our next five stops only helped to reduce our fragile minds to dust and anguish. We crested the hill and the hard part was over; so we thought. The downside of the pass proved to be less ‘maintained’ for antique airplanes (The, 330,000 mi old, Concord) and more suited for an off road monster truck. Giant boulders exploded with laughed at us as we attempted to dodge the biggest behemoths and take as little damage to the underbody as possible, while dependent on gravity to push us each inch closer to a mechanic. We traveled downhill, each corner providing the opportunity for a smooth road or any sign of civilization…that never came. What did come, were more decisions; a grand canyon sized pothole putting us on two wheels or a boulder the size of a tortoise accompanied by many friends. We sat quietly on pins and needles traversing the sketchy scenery. An occasional “nice line” or “good miss” would come from Chris in the passenger seat, when he took the time to stop holding his breath. The tension boiled like a hot teakettle. Occasionally, we would abruptly stop, throwing our 4x4, off-road, van into park, cooling the engine and releasing the pressure from within the cockpit, as it balanced delicately on the brink of a piercing whistle. After hours of stress-rich survival driving we met US-24 placing us seven miles downhill from Leadville, CO (the highest city in the U.S). One last hill to crest putting us within reach of a local mechanic. The engine in 2nd gear struggled as we crept toward the city, successfully getting ourselves to Ron the Mechanic. He delivered the fatal news…cracked radiator, $540, with the possibility of cracked head gaskets. The Concord’s death ticket had been signed. Opting to stay with the Concord for its final heartbeats left our bank accounts in tact but ourselves stranded. We solemnly wheeled our wounded solider behind the Leadville Opera House, where we could park for the night and reorganize our thoughts. Attending the local bar’s Friday night Dollar beer special was the immediate conclusion, in need of some liquid confidence. I pulled clothes from my duffel attempting to appear ‘clean’. Straightened my pants, threaded my belt through the loops, and pushed my pockets open to find an unexpected piece of paper in the front pocket of my khaki pants; it read:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose ones attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl
We had maintained our composure, but now our attitudes toward the situation became lifted; we went to the bar. The Minnesota bartender served us dollar beers until our eyes became dizzy. We sat at the bar surrounded by local men, all relieved that Friday had made its way around once again. A 3rd generation descendant of an early Leadville miner glanced down the bar piercing my returning gaze, Chris quickly started conversation. He taught us about the land, how the continental divide held no mineral potential, but the mountains to the East were home to Silver, Zinc, and Molybdenum, but the EPA held the key to those riches. We exchanged stories and talked about possible radiator fixes but the possible head gasket problem loomed over this solution. Ordering another round of drinks had us conversing with Rebecca about her past mistakes, bankruptcies, and her daughters who were only a few years younger. We told her our story and she presented a possibility; an old station wagon sat unstarted for years, consuming precious yard space at her house on Alder Ave. We made sure to exchange cell numbers, like we had just found our lucky lady, reminding her to call us at the agreed time, 11:00am the next morning, as we waddled behind the Opera House to the awaiting Concord.
We sat in the wounded Concord, butterflies flittering deep inside our stomachs as we waited to see the fruits of our drunken agreement. At 10:57am the phone rang and Rebecca’s name came across the caller ID. We met at her house and helped her clean years of junk from the old cavity only to find the battery lacked the juice to turn the archaic engine. Our anxiety wouldn’t be coaxed until the charger delivered enough volts to jump-start the cranky engine. We awaited a phone call to discuss the successful start and finish the deal, but the battery had seen its final day years ago. We decided we would try to drive our van, as it held loosely to the strings of life, across town to transfer our battery, starting the engine. The Concord pushed down the road emptying the radiator after only several hundred feet of work.
Rebecca came to the rescue to transport the battery and us. The old station wagon housed a side-mount battery, which differed from the battery within the Concord. We bought a, non-returnable, battery on a whim, hoping it would be the Catalyst to an awaiting engine. Rebecca sat in the driver’s seat, cranked the key giving it a hint of the gas pedal. The ol’ wagon shook the collected dust from the engine and purred to life! We shouted with joy, a slight wave of relief softened our faces; we connected fives, up high. A drive around the block proved her worthy of completing our journey with a new respected style. We returned to our broken down van on the roadside, and nursed her back to Colorado Mountain College where fajitas were for dinner and relief was for dessert. Sleep came easy that night.
*This is a poem I wrote about this same incidence once the dust settled:
The Plight of the Concord
We pressed forward, the boulders shook
Our van violently, up, down, left to right
As they sat stably supported by the earth, not moving an inch
Providing more anxiety than a Senior riding the bench
The pot holes, ravines, and rocks got larger
But we could not stall, car in neutral, gravity pushed us farther
Each corner our drug, we phened on the hope
Like a drug addict in need of coke
The road continued on like an uncut rope
Finally the pavement began, but the uphill started
Unexpected and grotesque, like a dog had farted
In our faces the, tension was present
Hazard lights signaling, radiator fluid trailing
Like cars behind a hearse, death was happening.