September 9, 2013

El Capitan : Rockies Adventure

It’s been almost 3 months and 9,000 miles of me and El Capitan traveling around the roads of Canada and the Great American Southwest. We’ve been down highways, through forests and canyons and valleys and deserts. We’ve camped out in the open and under the cover of little back roads, by ourselves and with good friends. And everything has gone really well.

I grew more confident every day and allowed myself to drive a little faster, following the flow of cars, instead of keeping a steady 65 MPH like I used to since I left Montreal. That didn’t cause any issues, until we hit the Rocky Mountains from the west side.

Since the speed limit over there is 80 MPH, I kept a constant speed of 70, on cruise control, not thinking about how steep the climbing actually is and how hard it can be on an engine. I kept an eye on the gauges, making sure the heat stayed down, and it did.

But something happened coming down from the summit. There was a strange pull in the transmission, like someone was holding El Capitan back. Stupidly, I just stepped on the gas, hit the kick down and kept the pedal to the floor until the hill was over. It seemed to work. I did it again on the next climb, and again and again.

Steep gets... steeper
There must be 12,000 feet of climb from the flats in the west to the summits in the mountains, and at one point, the hills started to take their toll. We lost power in the transmission, and the steering wheel started to shake uncontrollably, forcing me to brake and head for the curb. I thought something had been caught in a wheel, or that maybe something had broken down in the transmission. I was really nervous.

I lied down under the van and looked at everything. The transfer case was fine and nothing was leaking from the engine or under the transmission. Everything looked all right. I climbed back in and started to drive again. It went OK for a couple minutes, but the shaking and loss of power started again. I pulled over.

I couldn’t find anything wrong. We were getting closer to our destination, Boulder, but we still had 25 miles to go. I carefully drove back onto the highway, and hoped for the best. Not 5 minutes later, the whole thing started once again.

I was freaked. El Capitan was undriveable and I was on high nerves. There was a heavy silence and I was running out of options. I thought of calling the AAA, but what good would it do? I decided to drive as slow as I could, in late-day traffic, to try to reach my friends’ house in one piece. Upon reaching Boulder, I gave up.

I parked by the curb and gave my friend Dan a phone call. I asked for a reliable garage I could pull in, and he gave me an address. Chan’s on Folsom, he said, is an honest family-owned garage you can trust. I was just a couple streets away, so I decided to try and make it there. We did.

I pulled over at Chan’s, and walked in one of the bays. A woman walked out and came to me, sking if she could help. I told her about El Capitan and what he was doing. She asked where I drove from, and when I answered, she gestured for me not to worry and said “Your transmission overheated. Happens all the time.” She couldn’t take El Capitan in, but she said I should be able to drive a couple more miles.

At that point, my engine had been shut off for about 15 or 20 minutes overall. When I started the van again, it sounded way better. I carefully drove out of the parking lot, and things seemed better. I decided to drive to my friends’ house, and made it all right.

Upon getting to the house, I inspected my tires. They were not only badly worn out, but at an angle. El Capitan never was really well-aligned, but I’d pushed back the garage work to the next time I would get in and get new tires. Well, it seems that time has come.

My new Khumo tires
I got online and found a good deal on 4 highway tires (as opposed to all terrain or off-road), and realized the tires I had on were wider, which probably did not help the case. So I ended up at the tire shop this morning, only to discover they don’t do alignments. I couldn’t believe it. They guy was helpful, however, and gave me a card with a garage’s name and address. He said they were good guys and they should be able to help me out.

I got on the phone and a calm, quiet voice on the other side told me there might be room later in the day, to just drive in and ask for Dave. So I did. I got to Alpha & Omega on 49th and Pearl, pulled in and talked to Eric, the mechanic. I left El Capitan to their good care and walked away to get some lunch.

Two hours later, I walked back to find my van neatly parked and a smiling Dave in the office, finishing off a sandwich. He gave me a detailed analysis of El Capitan’s symmetry, adding “This kind of offset will sure chew your tires out”. I smiled, and said “It sure did”. He explained to me in detail the work that had been done, and I noticed the bandages on his left hand. Turns out he’d sawed off two of his fingertips a couple days ago, and didn’t want to spend the time and money at the hospital, so he just had them cleaned off and bandaged, and simply went home!

Happy El Capitan at Dave's Alpha & Omega
I shook Dave’s hand and he wished me a good trip, simple as that. For $80, they realigned El Capitan and changed the oil, and they even made sure everything was fine by driving around the block.

One thing’s for sure; anytime I’ll be in Boulder and need some mechanical work, Dave’s my man.


  1. Always fun to read your adventures. Keep driving, running and writing !

  2. thanks for this! I am looking for a local mechanic and your recommendations here make it easy!