The Drive to Yellowstone, Part One: Losing Our Brakes at 8000 Feet

There is that moment in time when you know everything is about to go horribly wrong. It’s that feeling that comes just after the doctor tells you something unimaginable, or when your car starts sliding on the ice, or when someone looks at you and you realize they are choking. It’s when you realize that all the terrible things that happen in the world actually could happen. They do happen. And they are happening to you.

* * * * *

Thursday, May 17th. We are going down a 10% grade (think very, very steep). The bus will not stay in first gear – it keeps kicking up to second, forcing me to use my brakes. Each time I push on the brakes the air pressure drops, and drops, and drops.

Suddenly my foot is flat against the floor and the brake will not stop us. I bring my other foot over. Now I’m pushing as hard as I can on the brake with two feet, pulling on the steering wheel to try and leverage my weight.

“Can you stop?” Maile asks me, a tremor in her voice.

We are only going ten miles per hour, but that is increasing, and soon we will be going much, much faster. I look up at her quickly. I don’t say anything. I just shake my head, no, and try to push the brake harder. Nothing. Ahead of us the road curves to the left. Beyond the road, a thousand feet of air and rock and evergreens. Beyond that, the town, like a tiny model village. Far beyond that, more snow-capped mountains.

We are driving through the Teton Pass, 8472 feet above sea level. And our brakes no longer work.

* * * * *

Thirty minutes before that, we climbed the Teton Pass, amazed by the view. The mountains’ peaks, a harsh mixture of rock and ice, split the clouds. Warnings of a 10% grade didn’t alarm me, although they would be almost double the highest grade (6%) we had encountered up to that point.

We stopped two or three times on the way up to let the bus’s engine cool. The angle of the road began to unsettle me – creeping along at 5 to 10 miles per hour up that mountain, sometimes it felt like the bus could simply stop and coast backward. Eventually we made it to the top.

The view was like nothing we had seen on our trip. The mountain, over 13,000 feet up (5,000 feet above us), was covered in evergreens, a hearty, rugged color broken only by the rock faces of cliffs. I didn’t look forward to the trip down the mountain, but I determined to keep it in first gear and ignore anyone behind us who got upset about our tortoise-like pace. They would just have to deal with it.

I like to keep my posts at around 500 words, so I’m going to continue this one tomorrow. To all of those folks who posed questions to me last week, I hope to have a post with the answers by Friday. Thanks! (And if you’d like to ask me anything about our trip, go HERE and leave a question in the comments.)

22 Replies to “The Drive to Yellowstone, Part One: Losing Our Brakes at 8000 Feet”

  1. A literal cliffhanger.

    Seriously though, glad you guys are okay. That’s scary stuff. Years ago, I was driving a van with a trailer attached down a snowy hill in Ohio. At that point, I’d had no real experience driving in winter conditions. As I hit the steepest part of the hill, it happened. I hit a patch of ice and lost all control. I couldn’t brake. I knew enough not to slam on the brakes, so we rode it out. For about a mile, we slid through red lights and prayed to Jesus that no one would come from the other direction. Luckily, we made it to the bottom of the hill with no damage (just some soiled pants). Craziness.

  2. Move over Dan Brown… that’s some suspense. Holy crap man! That’s intense. I like to think I’m exceptionally good at imagining worst case scenarios for everything, but this story exceeds the limits of my imagination. So glad you’re alright.

    1. Yeah, it was a worst case. Often I look back on things I went through that were scary in the moment but realize it wasn’t that bad. This is not one of those.

  3. actually guys, we don’t know how this ends. For all we know their bus careened into the village and took out 3 unoccupied houses before crashing into the local pillow factory. Everyone was unharmed, but the pillow factory’s owner – a terribly evil man – kidnapped the Smuckers and is holding them hostage in his basement until they give up the recipe for their family’s jelly. Despite passionate protests from Shawn and Maile that their family has nothing to do with the jam company, the man refuses to budge on his demands, his hunger and curiosity growing every hour. In the meantime, he is using their computer to update instagram, twitter, facebook, and Shawn’s blog pretending to be him.

    The question is, will he tell us all this in tomorrow’s update or will he continue to spin a pillow of lies and pretend to be Shawn by writing a “the bus didnt crash and we are all fine now” post? Stay tuned…

  4. “Suddenly my foot is flat against the floor and the brake will not stop us.”

    I can’t remember the last time I read a line that made my heart do a flip in my chest. Honest to goodness, man, it just did.

  5. oh screw the 500 words, don’t leave us hanging!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    i’m with the others though, i’m scared just sitting here in my chair. i can’t believe that happened.

  6. I’m gonna guess you pulled a macgyver and popped the hood and it flew off and you crawled out onto the engine while mile grabbed the wheel and cut the leaking brake fluid line and transfered the cooling fluid into the leaking brake fluid line…easy as pie Mac! That’s my guess…

  7. Look, buddy. I stopped watching E.R. when they kept making babies get sick. Don’t make me go there. All I can say is Thank GOD you all are alright.

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