Rattlesnake Ridge

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Gone Ape




It was a hot sunny summer's day in July 2009 when King Asher and I were returning from a scouting pack trip to Pete Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.  Asher, our large five-year-old intact alpha male, is usually the one to accompany me on solo scout trips as he is a strong packer and doesn't mind being the only llama in the herd during these excursions.  He follows me on solo hikes and hangs around camp. Cruising I-90 east of Ellensburg Asher was comfortably cushed in the back of the llama llimo watching the world go by as we gradually regained altitude.  Cresting at 2500' following the steepest part of the climb I smelled something very hot and a glance at the instruments confirmed something was seriously amiss. The temperature gauge, which typically reads low, was nearly pegged hot. The van doesn't lack for cooling so there was clearly a malfunction. I lifted my foot from the accelerator and the engine immediately died. We were now traveling 55mph at the start of a 2000' descent to the small town of Vantage ten miles away next to the Columbia River.  Power steering was gone and I knew I had one, maybe two, actuations of the power brakes available.  Rather than use the one shot brake to stop on the shoulder of the highway in the middle of nowhere, I decided to coast to let the airflow cool things off and at least get closer to the gas station with convenience store (which is about all there is in Vantage).

Speed gradually increased to 70mph -- the only thing moderating our descent being the very unaerodynamic shape of the van providing the aerobraking.  Like a plummeting spacecraft, with furnace-like heat radiating from the vehicle, interior heating up, and trailing a vapor cloud we dodged slower automobiles with lane changes while winding our way down to the river for a landing.  Fortunately, traffic was very light.  The thought occurred to me as we sped along that it was a good thing the tires were new.  A blowout at a time like this could cause a catastrophic rollover in such a high CG vehicle.  At last the Vantage exit neared as the highway leveled out, which ends at a T-intersection with stop sign.  On nearly level ground the van decelerated rapidly.  A left turn is necessary to reach civilization on the other side of the freeway and there is just desert to the right.  I calculated if I could coast through the intersection, I could make it at least very close to the gas station, which is the first establishment three hundred yards away.

Weighing the pros and cons of breaking the law by rolling through the stop sign, visibility clear in all directions, I spied a single automobile to the right on the normally deserted road on a perfectly-timed intercept course with me to the intersection, obviating the need to make that decision.  So the brakes came on and there we were, stranded on the shoulder of the road.  Figuring the long downgrade had cooled things down some, I thought perhaps I could fire up the engine just long enough to get the van up to about 20-25mph and then shut it down and coast into the gas station.  A turn of the key said we were going nowhere.  The engine wouldn't even crank over.  By opening the hood and raising the pressure relief lever on the radiator cap, I discovered there was no pressure.  The cooling system clearly had developed a breach somewhere.  Removing the cap and peering in revealed only emptiness.  I normally carry a water can on the van at all times for just this sort of thing but of course this time it had been removed for periodic refresh and had not been returned prior to the trip.  Aside from my small bottles of drinking water there was not only no water but no large closed container to easily transport water either.  I poured in my drinking water and it right away flashed to steam.

After a while a mini-Winni style RV came from Vantage and turned at this intersection, stopping in the road to ask if I needed help.  I told him of my need for water for the radiator, whereupon he hoisted a gallon plus poly juice container off the bench seat next to him and held it out the window stating he had just filled it from the river.  He said I could have it.  Wondering to myself what he was doing with a bottle of river water next to him but not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth I thanked him as he went on his way.  I very slowly poured the water into the radiator.  After some sizzling and steaming the level in the radiator was still not high enough to be visible, but at least it wasn't leaking out on the ground.

More time passed with a round trip to the service station to refill the container.  Returning and emptying it into the radiator had it near the top but now water was leaking onto the ground from somewhere near the front of the engine.  I feared a failed water pump seal, with 80 miles of hot desert still between us and home.  Hurriedly before much water leaked out I attempted to start the van and things were now cool enough it turned over and fired right up.  I quickly made our way to the gas station lot and parked.  After raising the hood and with water still leaking onto the ground, I decided I'd better get Asher off the van in case he needed a potty break.  Asher had been on his feet casually monitoring the situation from the back of the van since we became stranded.  I tied him close by to the only tree in the area, which was all of about nine feet tall -- not much shade -- and put out a pail of water.  As usual he was not interested in a potty break (bladder of steel) but was quite fixated towards the river and accompanying park about a thousand feet away with its expanse of grass, like a desert oasis, and vocalized to me quite emphatically that he would like to go there.

Meanwhile, my attempts to disassemble the van were in vain.  It wasn't for lack of tools.  I always carry a well-provisioned toolbox on trips.  It was Asher's natural irresistible charisma.  With a steady stream of travelers refueling their automobiles and motorcycles, it fed a steady stream of excited people of all ages coming over to pet the llama, take pictures, and chat.  I couldn't get a minute without interruption.  After about thirty minutes of this, there was a momentary lull and I decided I had better get Asher out of sight or I might become a permanent tourist attraction.  I was anxious to find out what was wrong with the van.  I put him back on board.  I'm sure he thought we were going somewhere -- like to the river!

Removing the air cleaner assembly and searching for the source of the leak, I found a piece of heater hose had a hole next to an attachment point.  Relieved, I figured I could disconnect the hose end, cut the bad part off, and reattach.  This would be an easy and effective fix that would at least get us home. But while I worked, Asher's patience was wearing thin.  He was not happy to be stuck on the van with nothing to do while I was too busy to pay attention to him and he could see far more interesting things to do.  With my head under the hood and hands working the tools, the van began rocking violently from side to side.  Keep in mind this is a tall but stiffly sprung E-350 with extra springs added in the rear for even more carrying capacity.  I was both mystified and somewhat alarmed.  I went to the passenger side and stuck my head in the doorway to see Asher facing me throwing his full weight from side to side, front legs alternately leaving the floor and sidestepping!  He had somehow mastered the resonant frequency of the van suspension and was exploiting it fully with impeccable timing.  I yelled, Asher!  Knock it off!... He stopped, and just glared at me with a steely gaze.  We locked eyes and I gave him the sternest look I could muster under the circumstances.

I retreated under the hood and continued working.  Less than ten minutes passed when again, the van began rocking violently from side to side.  Through the open passenger door I yelled, Asher!  Knock it off!!...  Again, he froze and we locked eyes, each trying to wrestle the other to the mat with our looks.  Back under the hood, I was nearing completion after about five more minutes when the van resumed its lateral oscillation.  Returning to the passenger doorway with the now standard refrain, Asher!  Knock it off!!!... I was met with the same pause and "make me!" look, but again not receiving my cooperation he escalated matters according to plan.  Raising up on his hind legs, with a front foot he hooked one of his panniers sitting on the floor attached to the wall with bungee cord and tore it loose, batting it across the van.  As it ricocheted off the opposing wall, he batted it back and began leaping around on all fours spinning and kicking this thirty pound pannier all around the floor like a soccer ball. Faced with this temper tantrum the first thing that came to my mind was a recollection of the 1970's American Tourister television commercial where a man tosses a piece of luggage into the gorilla cage to demonstrate how no amount of abuse would spring it open -- only in this case I was watching a Flaming Star Master Pack commercial.  Asher had gone ape!

After a moment of incredulity, I charged onto the van to face down the miscreant and with verbal chastisement affixed the pannier back to its proper place.  Asher seemed quite satisfied that he at least had my attention.  I finished the repair job by topping off the radiator and closing the hood.  Back in the driver's seat, we were quickly on our way.  Asher cushed and calmly watched the world go by.  As long as we were doing something or going somewhere, he was content.  The remainder of the trip was uneventful but I had to marvel once again that there is so much more that goes on between the ears of these thinking and emotional creatures than we realize.


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Last modified: 15 May 2012