Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'm Happy to Be OK, But...

... I Feel Like an Idiot.

This is the Ft. Harrington workmobile: a 2005 Dodge Dakota. It weighs a little more than three tons, and has a pretty powerful V8 engine, full-time four-wheel drive, and power everything. That means that the engine has to be running in order for the steering and bakes to work easily for anyone who isn't monstrously strong. I'm not monstrously strong. Keep that in mind. (It also has automatic transmission, since Mrs. Fort's surgically-reconstructed knees and ankles prohibit clutch-pedal operation.)

My daily commute is beautiful, about 25 miles long, mostly through the great redwood forest of the Santa Cruz mountains along the twisty, two-lane track of California highway 9. Highway 9 is a popular excursion for folks with all kinds of transportation modes, all the way from hikers to sports-motorcyclists, a spectrum that includes, of course, bicyclists. Recently, over on RACS , I had occasion to vent some frustration over the small percentage of bicyclists who "lane hog" up here in the mountains: downhill coasters who clog up traffic by refusing to pull out of the center of the lane to let motorists pass.

I got caught up behind one of those today on my way to work. The below image from Google Earth (please click on it to see a better view) shows a roughly two-mile stretch of my commute; I was traveling right-to-left along the highlighted path. The yellow-highlighted portion is where I glumly trailed the guy on the bike who was going about 30 mph at maximum, and the comfortable, legal speed for motor vehicles along this stretch is 40. All along this part, he frequently looked back over his shoulder at me, so he knew I was there, but never pulled over to let me pass, and there was (clearly) no place safe for me to pull into the oncoming lane to pass him. The blue part of the path is where things got interesting.

I know this road well. I've driven it just about every workday for the past ten years, so I reckon that means that I've driven this stretch of mountain road more than 4,000 times (both ways.) It's a good thing that I know it well, as it turns out.

Above is a closer view of the blue stretch of the path; I was going from right to left. At the beginning of the blue part, I knew I could pass the cyclist, but there was oncoming traffic, so I waited until point "1" (please click on the image for a better view.) At that point I accellerated moderately until position "2", where I floored the accelerator in order to get past the still-lane-hogging bicycle before any traffic could heave into sight around the oncoming hairpin curve.

At position "3", I was past the cyclist -- and in deep shit.

The throttle was stuck full-open; the V8 was screaming at full rpm, not backing off a bit when I took my foot off the gas.

Between "3" and "4", I stomped on the accelerator several times, trying to unstick the throttle, meanwhile thinking that I could not turn off the ignition (brakes and steering are power-enabled, remember, and I knew that nasty hairpin was coming up fast), and I shouldn't throw the transmission into neutral, because that would probably blow the engine.

At "4" I gave up on the accelerator-banging, and just plain STOOD UP on the brake pedal. From there until position "5", the power brakes and the 230+ horsepower of the out-of-control engine battled each other, the tires screamed (and maybe me, too, but I ain't sayin' for sure), and that hairpin between "4" and "5" flashed past faster than it ever had before.

At "5", knowing the road and its upcoming very short, gentle-curved section, I disengaged the transmission, turned the ignition key off, kept standing of the brake pedal, and leaned heavily to the left with hands in a strangle grip on the steering wheel around the curve -- no power means no power steering, no power brakes, and four-wheel drive becomes 4-wheel lead-weight without power. The whole crippled thing came to a stop at position "6", anticlimactically safely off the road. No cliffhanger. That's okay, really, thanks, my adrenal gland had already had a pretty good workout in the previous ten seconds or so. Didn't need the cliffhanger business, much as it would make for a better read.

(By the way, the valley running down the left side of the above image is the San Andreas Fault.)

Here's where the "idiot" part kicks in:

So, there I was, safe and sound, but a bit rattled. I called in AAA's help via cell 'phone, and while waiting for the yellow truck mused about times gone by. Specifically, that if this had happened in the '60s, I would have just popped the hood and traced the accelerator linkage to find the problem. But I knew that modern automotive technology had progressed so far beyond what I was used to that it wasn't even worth the effort to pop the hood.

When the AAA guy arrived, he agreed with me. He appeared to be about my age, very well-experienced, and capable. And he didn't pop the hood.

When we got the truck to our mechanic, many miles away, and after the truck had been gently lowered from the AAA transport, our mechanic did pop the hood. Here's what he found:

... no, not a pillow, but this redwood twig (the standard pillow is there for scale.) Turns out that the cable from the accelerator pedal to wherever it goes travels up close to the bottom of the windshield. This redwood twig had worked its way from the hood seam at the bottom of the windshield into the engine compartment -- and had fallen into just the wrong place when I floored the accelerator to pass the cyclist, wedging the thick end between two metal parts of the engine and its midsection against a protrusion from the accelerator cable, jamming the throttle into wide-open mode.

If I had just opened the hood, I would have seen it. I didn't, so I wasted half a day of my own... and of the AAA driver.

Not a complete loss, though. It was a beautiful day, and a nice ride in a big ol' yellow truck.


Dann said...

Oh man, Sherwood.

I'll skip the wise-acrey* thoughts and get straight to "I'm glad you made it through that in one piece".

And I'm willing to bet that the glutious-chapeau* on the bike couldn't be bothered to stop and see if you were OK.


*I noted the cuss-o-meter and didn't want to screw up your score.

ronnie said...

Holy smokes! Talk about your heart-stoppers.

I, too, keep wondering what the reaction of the idiot biker was.

Imagine. A branch, of all things! Reminds me of a case I know of where an orange got loose from a bag on the floor in the back seat and rolled under the driver's seat and under the brake pedal, resulting in the death of a driver. Whoever said there were eight million ways to die was WAY underestimating.

Happy thing is we dodge almost all of 'em almost every time. Glad this turned out ok. Don't envy you the experience!

ps Don't feel like an idiot. Idiot would've been enthusiastically diving under the hood and starting to poke around stuff you know you don't know anything about...

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

O. M. G. I'd say you and your adrenaline handled that as well as is humanly possible!

I had a close encounter with a semi a few months back, calmly recovered and went about my day ... then had a real quaking PTSD attack later that afternoon! Hope your respiration/heart rate is back to normal!

Cuss-o-meter...? Oh! 8~) Nice feature!

Mike said...

Same thing happened to me. Well, similar. The accelerator cable got stuck wide open. One difference is that I was on a highway in Iowa. Wide, level highway, pretty much straight.

Okay, nothing like this ever happened to me. And that's just fine.

Brian Fies said...

Holy crap!

That's all I've got to say. Glad you had the presence of mind you did and got nothing but a good story out of it.

We've also got that genus of cyclist up here, especially along Highway 1 (for non-NorCalians, a windy road that hugs the Pacific coast very adventurously). I love bikes, love everything environmental, healthy, and aesthetically wonderful that biking represents...but sometimes you really just want to shove 'em off a cliff.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks to all who have commented here, on racs, and by e-mail. Nothing like a good horror story to bring out the comments.

As for the bicyclist, I heard him whirr by as I was rummaging in the glove compartment (does anybody actually keep gloves in that thing?) for my AAA information and cell 'phone, so I wasn't giving him much thought at that point.

And, you know, the hair-raising part of this episode wasn't really his fault. He was the trigger, but that twig was poised to jam the accelerator cable the next time I floored the pedal. I seldom do that, so (unless it was removed before) it was going to fail in an uncomfortable situation no matter what because that's about the only situation in which I would stomp on the gas like that. I fault him for being an inconsiderate jackass, but not for putting my well-being in danger. Circumstances beyond his control did that.

Ruth, I too had a delayed reaction to the episode. It happened on Thursday afternoon, I blogged about it that evening, and didn't have the cold sweats and the shakes about it until the middle of that night.