Gimme a Brake! / by Brian Beck

We woke up on Sunday morning feeling tired from the drive the day before, but we had to get going.  We were only planning to be at the Grand Canyon for less than 24 hours, and as we broke down the tent and stuffed the sleeping bags back into their sacks, I realized that Man vs Machine V was going to be waaaay too aggressive.  We only had a few hours to orient ourselves to the Grand Canyon before we were back in the old Pontiac and headed to Mesa Verde.

We made the best of it though, walking along the South Rim, having breakfast at Angel Lodge, and perusing the gift shop (Parker got his first pocket knife--emblazoned on one side with a rendering of the Grand Canyon and on the other, the word "Dude").  It got a laugh out of me and that seemed to be enough to convince him that it was a winner.  Still, I have many questions for whomever decided to order pocket knives personalized with the word "Dude", especially when not flanked by "The" and "Abides", but I digress.

After some brief photos on the way out, we high tailed it to Mesa Verde National Park, arriving once again right before sundown.  We pitched our tent and headed back into the town of Cortez, CO to grab some dinner.  While we ate, I ruminated aloud about how long Monday's drive would be--over 600 miles from Mesa Verde to Jackson, WY--besting the record set on Man vs Machine IV by a full hundred miles.  Samantha, who had been reading the itinerary in the car, piped up that perhaps we should cut our stay in Mesa Verde short and instead spend Sunday night in Moab, UT, shaving about 120 miles off the drive to Jackson.  It was a great suggestion and we decided on the spot that we would call an audible.

Our one night in Mesa Verde was uneventful, unlike the last time when we were nearly washed away.  Before pulling out in the morning, I took another look at the level of my brake fluid.  It appeared to be at the same level as it was in Kingman, so I was satisfied.  We briefly toured the park before heading to Arches.

We arrived at Arches National Park, just outside of Moab, at about 4:30pm, hitting the visitor center right before it closed and then heading into the park just as a storm was gathering.  It chased us all the way through the park, kicking up swirls of Martian-looking dust and nearly blowing us off the road.  By the time we got to Devil's Garden, the furthest and highest point in the park, the storm had moved south, leaving a moody sky punctuated by pockets of heavenly sunbeams poking through.  I took some IPhone video out the windshield as we cruised back down the mountain.  And then I hit the brakes...

NOTHING.  I pumped the pedal and it went back to the floor.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  With no warning, I suddenly had no brakes and we were heading down a mountain.  I yelled at the kids to stop talking so I could think for a minute.  I dropped the shifter into low while the engine growled and the speed dropped to about 30.  Fortunately it was late and there weren't many cars on the road, but this was a park and people stop for all manner of rubbernecking.  If anyone was in my way, it wasn't going to be pretty.  I was now a 4000 lb runaway lead sled, and I was pointed downhill.  On the bright side, I was glad I stayed up on Thursday night fixing the horns.

When I saw the first turn off with nobody in it, I dropped the shifter into first and dived in while putting both feet on the pedal.  Nothing.  When I was just about out of real estate, I yanked the wheel back onto the road and considered my options while my stomach dropped away.  The Pontiac continued downhill unimpeded.  Seeing that plan B had now failed, Samantha decided that it was time to give me a pep talk about how she believed in me and that if anyone could figure this out, I could.  I told her to shut it.  There was another turnoff coming up again.

I ducked into the turnoff and put one foot on the parking brake and one on the pedal and pushed for all I was worth.  I got down to about 5mph or so before I ran out of pavement and jerked the wheel back onto the road.  The parking brake was weak, but at least it had some stopping power.  I just needed to time it better.  The next empty turnout was on the other side of the road and I got on the parking brake early this time, crossing the centerline with both feet to the floor and one hand on the shifter, ready to throw it into park if I got close enough to a stop.  We were slowing, but again we were using up too much runway.  I pushed harder.  We weren't going to make it.  I pushed even harder.  We were committed now--all that was left in front of us was tumbleweed.  With a few feet to spare, I dropped it in park and it screeched and rocked to a stop, gasoline sloshing in the tank.

I collected my shattered nerves and got out to inspect, while Samantha and Parker cackled about what a good story this was going to be.  Samantha began texting her friends.  As I stood there looking at the old car with new a new-found respect, I considered what had just happened.  I knew I'd lost hydraulic pressure, but how?  I lifted the hood and opened the master cylinder.  It was empty.  I retrieved the bottle of brake fluid I'd bought in Kingman and poured in enough to fill it up.  I pumped the brakes a few times, feeling the pressure build, and crawled under to look for the tell-tale puddle.  There wasn't one, but I saw that the left rear tire was wet.  Leaking wheel cylinder.  That's where the fluid went.  The plug I tightened in Kingman was leaking for sure, but it masked a bigger leak.  With the fluid filled and after a few test stops in the nearly-named Beck Memorial Turnout, I decided I could get it safely back to Moab, but no further without a repair.

So this morning, behind the friendly O'Reilly Auto Parts store in Moab, Utah, I disassembled the wheel and brakes and rebuilt a wheel cylinder.  A replacement part was unavailable.  Took me two hours, but it got us back on the road.  Helps to have your mechanic with you.

This is not called Man vs Machine for nothing.  iPhone 6s.

This is not called Man vs Machine for nothing.  iPhone 6s.

The kids play on their iPads while I do the dirty deed in the parking lot.  I think this is my version of extreme sports.  iPhone 6s.

The kids play on their iPads while I do the dirty deed in the parking lot.  I think this is my version of extreme sports.  iPhone 6s.