The Great Rocky Mountain Brakes Odyssey

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Mitch Heuer, the man behind Golden Mobile RV and Diesel Service.

Editor’s note: This piece wanders all the way back to July 2. On July 1, I posted an entry under the title “In Denver, looking for an honest mechanic.” Owing to my peculiar, perhaps fatal disregard for narrative flow, I waited 94 days to offer a follow-up. I have to work on that.
After striking out at four different repair shops in the Denver area on the first of July, I pick up the story in Golden, where I met a mobile mechanic named Mitch Heuer.

July 2, Golden, Co.
Mitch Heuer is a wrench-wielding visionary.
He’s nurturing grand plans that require fabulous leaps of the imagination.
He plans to design and develop a people-moving system that will rock the people-moving universe.
For now he’s content to invent stay-in-place concrete forms and repair recreational vehicles. And diesel rigs.
I made a date to meet Mitch in a parking lot beneath the Heritage Square entertainment megaplex on West Colfax Avenue in Golden. I got his business card from the bookish-looking chap whose name I didn’t get at Nolan’s RV yesterday. Nolan’s RV couldn’t fit us into its schedule till the middle of the month.
So I called Mitch. That was yesterday.
I left Becky and Max at Bean Fosters, the cozy, book-selling nook of a cafe up the road apiece. Soon I turned right into the expansive lot below Heritage Square and adjacent to the Apex Trail.
I did my best to park in a level spot which would allow Mitch to work in the shade. He’d spoken with enviable satisfaction about the life of a shade tree mechanic. I figured shade might help his mood.
Ten minutes later, Mitch rolled up in his mobile-repair wagon, which used to be a Snap-on tools wagon.
We shook hands. We smiled. We had a pleasant chat.
He told me about people-moving systems and stay-in-place forms. It didn’t take too long to figure out he was more interested in moving people than fixing brakes.
He quickly sized up the Behemoth then lowered his head and smiled ruefully. A troubling sadness clouded his face.
Apparently, assessing the state of the Behemoth’s rear brakes requires untying a Gordian knot of Goldbergian complexity.
He said something about having to unravel the hub assembly, and by god that would be a helluva job.
At the very least it was not a job for a parking lot on a sunny afternoon in Golden.
Mitch didn’t want the hassle. When he described it as a hassle that came with a $130-an-hour labor charge, I didn’t want it either.
Still, I was kind of sad. Mitch, whatever his peculiarities, seems like an honest guy. That’s all I hoped to find out here in the auto-repair wilderness.
And he recommended I go to a dealer, which saddens me even more.
Nonetheless, we parted amicably.
I drove back to Bean Fosters, the calculator in my mind working out multiplication tables featuring the number 130.
And recalling that the brakes squealed just occasionally, I put my mind at ease. What’s the worst that could happen?
Anyway, Mitch moved on, and the brake odyssey took another turn to the unknowable.

July 3, Just Brakes, West Colfax, Lakewood, Colorado

Maybe this is where the great brake fever of 2013 finally breaks in our direction. Maybe.
I had encountered serial disappointment at the hands of Ted and Bob’s at Ted and Bob’s Excellent Auto Repair Shop; Joe at West Highlands; Melanie at Casmin’s; the nameless young nerd at Nolan’s RV; and Mitch Heuer of Golden Diesel Mobile RV Services.
Perhaps this time it will be different.
A little over 48 hours ago, I was lured to Denver by Ted and Bob’s Glorious Internet Reputation. I never considered they might lack adequate facilities to service a genuine Behemoth of the road.
Now I sit in the waiting room of Just Brakes in Lakewood, which doesn’t have any better facilities than Ted and Bob. The garage ceiling isn’t high enough for them to put the Behemoth on the lift. But they’re willing to work around it. Guess they need the business.
That worries me. My belly rumbles with an anxiety natural to any rational human who has taken his vehicle to a strange repair shop a thousand miles from any notion of home.
Hell, such anxiety is natural in your hometown repair shop.
With each clank of metal on metal and every whoosh of a pneumatic wrench, the pangs intensify their assault on my nervous system.
Justin is the manager. His shirt is white and buttoned and unsullied by grease stains or wrinkles. He doesn’t say much.
I ask him for the wifi password. No can do, he says.
Some kind of company secret, apparently.
As for the anxiety, two things are at play: First is terror of the unknown. Even if Justin & Co. were honest enough to satisfy Diogenes of Sinope, well, your shit could still be messed up. They can’t control that. Six wheels create a lot of room, a lot of pads and drums and rotors and calipers, for escalating estimates.
Second is the fear they will not be honest at all, at least no more honest than a Capitol Hill politician.
Bill asks for the key to remove the storage bin on the back. Bill’s the mechanic. He’s portly and dirty and disheveled in the way you want your mechanic to be.
Don’t know what became of that key.
I shake my head dumbly and say I’m sorry.
The old feeling of stupidity overcomes me. Feeling stupid is my forte. The years, at least, have enabled me to grow comfortable with my stupid. They’ve given me the skills to manage my stupid.
Stupid or no, Bill’s unrequited desire to remove the storage bin imperils our quest for resolution.
It’s Wednesday, July 3. It is the 150th anniversary of sweet-smelling George Pickett’s Spectacularly Disastrous Charge at Gettysburg. The highwater mark of the Confederacy receded in an epic wave of death which made Pickett a household name. At least for a century. He had Robert E. Lee to thank for that.
July 3 is also Peter Canale’s birthday; and Jonathan Nesvig’s;
and Kelsie and Dusty Lane’s fourth wedding anniversary.
It would have also been Stan and Monophae Clark’s 66th wedding anniversary.
Stan from Tallapoosa, Ga., Mona from Crookston, Minn. They met in a hospital in Seattle and were married in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was a patient with a skin rash and a mischievous streak. She was a nurse with a big sense of humor and a wry twinkle in her eyes.
We met Stan and Mona in Bremerton, Wash. They died within 90 days of each other in the fall of 2005.
In small tribute, we got married on their 60th anniversary. That makes today our sixth. Which means Max will turn 6 soon.
One day that will make him so proud.
Two hours ago, I surprised Becky with two nights at a VRBO condo in the Rocky Mountains Shangri-La of Frisco. Check-in is two and a half hours away. At this rate, even without new brakes, we’ll be late.
Happy Anniversary, Becky. What else can I say?
I divert my mind from the anguish of the moment by torturing myself over the state of the trip. It all seems like too much squandered capital and too many wasted miles. It will be over soon.
What will become of us? How will I ever summon the discipline, skill and luck to make it worthwhile?
How indeed.
I try to calm myself. I figure the worst-case scenario is we come back here Friday for a thousand-dollar brake job.
I think I can deal with that. Probably. Won’t be easy.
Then we’ll be back on the road, toward Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches, Yellowstone and Philipsburg, Montana.
What is the state of this trip? Whither this epic project that I’ve nurtured for more than a decade?
We’ve committed too much time, traveled too many miles and spent too much goddamn money to give up now.
Too much, too long, too frightening.
Where is the line that divides determination from insanity? When does self-actualization turn into self-indulgence?
Mariana sits across from me. She’s young, pretty and pretty worried. Her brakes are squealing and rubbing and making all manner of ominous sounds. She just got home from college. Her brother’s been using the car, running it into the ground.
“I’m really scared to see what’s going on with my brakes,” she confesses to Justin.
Justin says, “Yeah.”
Not surprisingly, the news is bad for Mariana.
She has to call her dad. I remember those days, spoiled suburban kid that I was. I don’t know how much they quoted her, but she sure as hell doesn’t have that kind of money.
Her dad’s not answering his phone. She can’t get a hold of her mom, either.
She asks Justin if he’s OK with her returning with Dad tomorrow. He says yes, with obvious reluctance.
Speaking of dads, Justin’s son will turn 7 next month. He’s a single father, Justin is. I ask him how it all works out with this job.
“I work too much, but it’s better than not working at all,” he says. “It’s better than not having a job.”
I gaze through the waiting-room window at the disemboweled Behemoth. Bill lights a cigarette and confers with Justin. I can’t help but think of it as conspiring.
He points at the exposed right-front wheel.
This is going to get ugly. So ugly.
I can’t waste too much time feeling bad for Mariana. My time is coming. Nearly an hour into the check-up, the Behemoth sits suspended in air, supported by two jack stands in the back and two in the front. A fifth jack elevates the storage bin.
I’m going to get jackhammered. I just know it.
I’m summoned to the garage. I must play my part in this charade. The old double-team, coming right up.
An aside: There’s something about Justin, something that reminds me of my old Key Peninsula neighbor Tim.
Tim is a small-time malefactor, a 99-pound thug. Not that he had much say in the matter. Reminds me of a detective I met years ago in Washington who was fond of saying, “Some people are raised, and some people are jerked.”
If Tim were a character in “Breaking Bad,” he’d have been killed off three seasons ago. As it is, he outlasted us in that broken-down neighborhood with the misleading name of Lake of the Woods.
Tim once sold us a truckload of dry wood for the unbeatable price of $100. Well, caveat emptor, dumbass.
Took two years before any of it would burn.
Max was a few days’ old when I awoke early one morning to the disturbing refrain of a police bullhorn. A veritable sheriff’s posse had circled its wagons in our cul-de-sac.
As I shook off the fog, an unseen, well-amplified spokesman barked out the following chorus:
“Police! Search warrant! Open the door!”
I stumbled outside in time to see them take away Timmy and his girlfriend, Amber, in handcuffs. They were gone for a while, but they came back. She’s gone now. Tim’s still around.
So’s TJ, aka Tim Jr. TJ was 3 when we moved in. By the time we moved out, he was wandering from house to house, lifting mail from neighbor’s boxes. Poor TJ’s just one more predictable outcome of the jerking method of child-rearing.
I don’t know what it is about Justin that reminds of Tim.
All I know is it magnifies my suspicion.
I swallow hard, then join Justin and Bill in the garage.
See how the rotors are worn blue, Bill says?
I nod, but I don’t see any blue. Perhaps I will see red, though.
Bill’s face is a mask of grease and sweat. He speaks with a weary regret. He’s done this too many times. Just business, is all.
Says we’ll need new rotors. He’ll have to rebuild the calipers.
His words melt into a fog of inner seals, fluid flushes and sediment damage. Mountain driving, it’s hell on front brakes, he says.
Oh, but there is good news. The back brakes are OK.
Fifty percent life. Still, coming as it does on the heels of Bill’s grave diagnosis, this news is powerless to give me balm.
I turn to Justin and ask what this all means, empirically speaking.
Nine hundred and thirty-seven dollars, he reports in a monotone that comes from a thousand miles away. Just business.
Nine thirty-seven, just for starters. Could be more.
My waffle reflex springs to life. Somewhere an adrenal gland kicks into high gear and floods my hippocampus with cortisol.
It’s time to flee before I get bent over in painful fashion.
I mumble an apology. Say I have to pick up Becky and Max.
Justin says he can give me a ride to pick them up.
Sorry, I say. We have holiday plans, which for once is true. I offer up the disingenuous prospect of coming back Friday.
Oh boy. Justin hangs on tenaciously. Always be closing. If he could have shackled me to the lift, he would have.
Our plans, he says, present no problem. It will all done by 5 o’clock.
What? It’s three hours till 5.
A thousand bucks and you can be done in three hours?
Another thing: While Mitch hadn’t done much, he did shine his flashlight through the hole in the wheel cover and peek at the right front brakes. And he didn’t react with horror.
He hadn’t said, “Christ almighty, man, get thee to a repair shop!”
What’s the worst-case scenario? I asked Bill. He muttered something about boiling fluid and total brake failure.
My flight instinct was primal. When I considered it in rational terms, I came up with the same answer. They’re trying to screw me.
The deadline allowed for three hours of labor, four if you count the “free inspection.” Say labor is $100 an hour, which seems high. That is $400. Could this job really require $600 in parts?
Seems unlikely.
Alas, I’m a cynic, not a mechanic.
I could be wrong. The brakes might fail on the way down a mountain. The Behemoth might turn into a shattered fireball.
Still, my instinct is all I got.
I followed it and got the hell out of there.
As I edged out of the parking lot and gazed across Garland Street, my eyes fell upon the local offices of JPMorgan Chase & Co., the $2.5 trillion banking conglomerate and institutional parasite that plans to sell off my defaulted mortgage in a couple weeks.
Suddenly I was damn near certain I was right about Just Brakes.

*******
I reconnoitered with Becky and Max at the Starbucks where I’d left them, and embarked on a long, traffic-laden holiday drive to our temporary mountain home.
If I hoped to forget the brakes for a day or two, I should have considered our anniversary destination more carefully.
The direct route from Golden to Frisco takes you on Interstate 70.
I-70 takes you into the engineering wonder that is the Eisenhower Tunnel. The Eisenhower Tunnel takes you beneath the Continental Divide and up into thin air.
At 11,158 feet above sea level, it is the highest point on the whole goddamn interstate system.
When you exit the tunnel three miles to the west and begin your descent into Silverthorne, you’re faced with a seven-mile, downhill luge chute that traverses a dizzying, 7-percent grade.
Even I had to appreciate the humor inherent in the situation.
Only two hours ago I politely told Justin to slag off. I did this because my gut told me he was a dishonest prick.
Now, my gut told me something else entirely. Inspired by highway signs that warned: “Truckers, You’re Not Down Yet! Four Miles to Go!” and “Still One Mile!” my gut said I was a parsimonious moron.
Goddamn gut. All I could do was smile meekly and hope I hadn’t gambled our safety on a hunch based more upon stinginess than reason.
My mind, taking over for my gut, replayed the image of the Behemoth cartwheeling down a mountain engulfed in flames.

The Departed, featuring Cody Canada with Seth James, left, on guitar and Steve Littleton on keyboards.

The Departed, featuring Cody Canada with Seth James, left, on guitar and Steve Littleton on keyboards.

Thursday, July 4; Happy Birthday, Uncle Sam!
We’re alive!
We’re alive and living in a temporary luxury that’s utterly foreign to our plebeian sensibilities.
We watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on a big screen, courtesy of Netflix. We wallowed in luxury.
We discovered Wii bowling.
Outside it threatened to rain.
Mount Royal loomed outside our bedroom window. It hung above us with majestic disregard for our petty luxury.
It mocked us, but we didn’t care. We were bowling Wii style. We were eating cheese and drinking wine.
By the time twilight arrived, it was even money that we’d drag ourselves free from our Wii dependence in time to see The Departed at the Frisco Marina.
We did, and were glad we did. The Departed, featuring former Cross Canadian Ragweed front man Cody Canada and fellow guitarist Seth James,  put on quite a show. Now we’re fans.
Max danced his ass off. A good time we all had.
When the encore was over and the sound died away, we enjoyed the obligatory land-of-the-free pyrotechnics display that went off against the backdrop of Lake Dillon.
It’s good to be in Uncle Sam’s backyard on the old weasel’s special day.

Max gets down with The Departed on Uncle Sam's birthday.

Max gets down with The Departed on Uncle Sam’s birthday.

Friday, July 5, Frisco
Again we have blundered into an amusing auto-repair misadventure.
I must love this kind of thing, at least down in the bowels of the Old Testament horror show of my subconscious. I am a self-flagellating son of a bitch (Familial note: That is a figure of speech. My mom is not anything close to a bitch. She is, in fact, a sweetheart).
Back in the auto-repair waiting room of doom, this time at Meadow Creek Tire in Frisco.
Sure, we made down the mountain without incident. However weakly, a voice of reason nags at me. We shouldn’t go too much further with out at least getting another opinion.
Just Brakes might be total horseshit. Sure. But at 9,000 feet above sea level, do I really want to trust my instinct, particularly when it is colored by my predisposition to skepticism regarding the ethics of corporate America?
We’re going from here to Rocky Mountain National Park. And then to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. We’ll be forced to traverse some of the biggest, baddest mountains in the continental U.S.A.
So I must entertain the possibility that Meadow Tire’s professional mechanics will concur with Bill’s assessment. Maybe they will even quote me a price in excess of that which I got from Justin.
Much as I’d hate to get shafted by some automotive mountebank, I’d rather endure that than have our brakes fail on some monster of a mountain.
Hey, they’re going to check our front brakes.
That’s all I ask. It’s all I’ve asked for five days.
Is it such an arcane request? If I had wandered about metropolitan Denver looking for someone to explain string theory in a way that even I might get it, I would understand.
It’s all about degree of difficulty.
Numerically, Meadow Creek is the seventh shop I’ve taken the Behemoth to with this request. Check the brakes, if you please.
In between we managed to squeeze in a two-night anniversary celebration here in Frisco, 9,100 feet above sea level.
That’s over now. The knot has returned to the pit of my stomach. Just talked to my buddy Mitch via cell phone. I briefed him on the Just Brakes episode.
He expressed doubt about the entire story of Just Brakes.
The worst part: He doubts they even checked the rear brakes. Jesus. Can you believe that shit? What sort of mechanic tells a guy he’s got 50 percent life on the rear brakes when he didn’t bother to look?
To my left, a counterman is embroiled in an edgy discussion with a customer. Far as I can tell, he’s calling him out for being a tightwad who would risk his family’s safety to save a few dollars.
Jesus. I tried not to think about that too much.
A few minutes later I overheard someone say something about an RV with kids in it.
A mechanic had gone to retrieve the Behemoth from the parking lot for the purpose of brake-checking and got a glimpse of Max. I went out to eject Becky and Max so we might move this saga forward.
Before I got there I was accosted by a stranger named Thomas Rich. He asked if I had jumper cables.
I have jumper cables, brother, but I don’t have a vehicle. Temporarily at least.
Becky retrieved the cables from their hiding place. I accompanied Tom in his effort to recruit another person to supply the juice. He promised to make it worth my while. I said that was unnecessary.
Now I wish I’d at least asked what he meant.
Money? Beer? Drugs? In-kind services? Now I’ll never know.
Tom’s voice barely rises above a whisper. His body language is profoundly reticent, as if something inside is broken and he’s afraid of aggravating the injury.
A decade ago, he said, he fell while hiking and broke his back.  T12 and L2 vertebrae. Both crushed.
He grew up in Maine. He said his dad died when he was 11.
“My original dad,” he said. “I didn’t know what dying was when I was 11 years old. He got in a fight and got hit in the head and died on the way to the hospital.”
With the help of an anonymous Samaritan in a Jeep Cherokee, Tom got going again, which left me with a hopeful feeling.

Thomas Rich, who grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, and now lives in east Dillon Valley in the Colorado Rockies.

I trudged back to the world of brakes and broken dreams, where I was greeted by a friendly technician named Andy.
Andy said the front brakes are about 90 percent worn. In his professional opinion, they should hold till we get to Washington.
As far as auto technicians go, there seemed to be something scholarly about Andy. He explained the chemical bond between brakes and rotors, one which makes it preferable to replace rotors when getting new brakes.
Maybe it was his Buddy Holly glasses. Maybe it was his just-the-facts delivery. Maybe it was simply that he told me what I wanted to hear.
Yet I saw something I could trust, to latch on to. In any case, they were swamped. They couldn’t fit us in any time soon.
With the epic brake odyssey suspended for now, we set a general course for Rocky Mountain National Park.

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