Mountains are Tough on Car Brakes!

In the last few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate just how mountainous West Virginia is.  I didn’t know that before moving here in January.  While that knowledge wouldn’t have prevented me from moving to Seneca Rocks, I may have had the Volkswagen dealership in Woodbridge check out my Jetta’s brake system before I pulled up my roots in Northern Virginia.

Between Seneca Rocks and Franklin, West Virginia, North Mountain reaches almost 4000 feet in elevation; its turns and steep inclines and declines are notorious among truckers who drive that road routinely.  One turn in particular is quite dangerous – I think it’s called “Dead Woman Curve” – and averages one fatal accident each month.  If truckers fail to downshift and rely on their brakes alone, or if they take a turn too fast, the little bit of metal guardrail simply will not prevent their tractor-trailer from plummeting over the side.

Since mountain driving in West Virginia is new to me, a friend insisted upon driving me to Franklin for the first time.  I really didn’t know what the big deal was – after all, I’ve driven on Pennsylvania’s mountain highways from Northern Virginia to Western New York.  I figured one mountain was pretty much like any other mountain.

No.  I was wrong.  West Virginia’s mountains make those in central Pennsylvania look pretty tame.  And I used to be intimidated by them.

The first thing I noticed about North Mountain’s road was its winding turns that switch back on each other.  Who in the world decided to create a path up it in the first place?  I cannot imagine oxen or horses trying to haul a wagon up and down those steep inclines even in the best of weather.  Level tunnels seem to make more sense.  Who knows – maybe the state highway department could get lucky and tap into one of the state’s numerous underground caverns?

The second thing I observed about the North Mountain road was that a good portion of it lacked any sort of guardrail.  It makes sense to me now – why bother with the expense of something that isn’t particularly effective?  Maybe the lack of any barricade is West Virginia’s way of warning drivers to take mountain travel VERY SERIOUSLY.  Then again, maybe someone in the state highway department has a passion for roller coasters and wants to share his love of “life on the edge” with the state’s drivers.  I think my oldest daughter would love driving these roads.  She’s a big fan of roller coasters, the scarier, the better.  Me?  I stay off the things. 

The third thing that caught my eye was the incredible scenery on North Mountain.  I think I’ve cruised at this altitude while flying Frontier Airlines in Wyoming.  I might have felt a little more at ease on the road if I knew that oxygen masks would pop down if cabin pressure was lost.  Or if I could signal for a flight attendant who could smile and reassure me that we’d be landing soon.

Just when I figured we couldn’t possibly get higher, a sign appeared stating the elevation of North Mountain and we began our descent.  I really don’t know which was more terrifying, climbing up or flying down the mountain.  As if to punctuate the danger, there were truck ramps at various spots along the road, inclines of soft soil or sand to slow a runaway truck’s descent in case of brake failure.

By the time we reached Franklin, I was SO ready to get out of the car, walk on level ground, and resume my normal breathing.

Recently, it was my turn to drive alone to Franklin.  A woman in town had agreed to prepare my taxes.  I had no problem climbing North Mountain but noticed that my brakes weren’t quite right on the way down.  If I wasn’t down shifting to control my speed that way, hitting the brakes felt like I was pushing my feel against a brick wall.  Not the most pleasant of feelings when driving from a height of almost 4000 feet.The service station that my friend uses in Franklin diagnosed the problem – a leak in the line leading to the vacuum boost.  (Or something close – I’m not a mechanic.)  The garage owner, Mr. Hartman, told me that there was a VW mechanic in Harrisonburg who could help me out.  I asked him how far away Harrisonburg was – 45 minutes. He reassured me that my brakes would be fine for the trip.  I felt so relieved – I just did not want to go back home over North Mountain with questionable brakes.

If I had thought to ask Mr. Hartman about the topography between the two towns, he would have told me that I’d have to navigate over Shenandoah Mountain since it stands between Franklin and Harrisonburg.  But I didn’t ask Mr. Hartman.  I just drove, figuring on 45 minutes of fairly tame roads.  Ignorance is NOT bliss.

If it’s possible, the scenery from Shenandoah Mountain is even more spectacular than the view from North Mountain.  I caught glimpses of it as I drove, white-knuckled, up and down and around the little ribbon of road connecting the towns.  I also discovered, much to my relief, that when I put the Jetta in what amounts to a manual transmission mode instead of driving in automatic, the gears allowed the car to downshift, slowing the Jetta and even allowing the brake pedal to respond when I pressed it.  What joy!  If I ever needed brakes, it was getting off of Shenandoah Mountain.

The Virginia side of Shenandoah Mountain is characterized by dairy farms – there are acres and acres of Holsteins dotting the landscape.  Back in West Virginia, the cattle are overwhelmingly Black Angus.  I even passed an Amish buggy pulled by a single black horse.  I bet they don’t try going up the mountains.

I was grateful to be on more level ground and eager to find the VW garage.  I was told that Airey’s VW Service is the best place in the area, so I was a little surprised when I first pulled into their parking lot.  Their sign is a bit faded and all manner of vehicles are parked in front of the garage.  I pulled next to an old red Farmall tractor, circa 1954, and an old International Harvester Scout, then walked into the building.

Oh, I was in mechanic’s heaven!  Anyone with a passion for working on cars would love this place.  The rectangular-shaped room was full of cars, not just Volkswagens, and about six mechanics bent over various vehicles.  The floor was grease-stained and well-used tools lay in equally well-used toolboxes.  An old red Lance’s snack display case was still in use on the wall.  Dusty signs hung from the ceiling in the office area.  One old computer perched on an out-of-the-way desk, used by the younger mechanics to track parts down on the Internet.  The place smelled of gasoline and grease and it was obvious that SERIOUS mechanics worked here.  It was actually a delight to be in a place like this and not in some spotlessly clean dealership garage.  I felt like my Jetta was going to be in excellent hands, worked on by folks who really knew and loved Volkswagens.

A restroom bore the sign, “Customer Restroom”, so I went over.  Looking around, I wondered what the employee restroom must look like!  This room hadn’t seen a dust cloth in a very long time and while it fulfilled the need, I couldn’t really tell how it had been “saved” for customers.  A large box of paper towels rested on the floor but had not yet been used to refill the dispenser.  It just added to what I considered the charm of the establishment.

After about 10 minutes, an older man, the owner, came over to see what I needed.  (Now, 10 minutes may seem like a long time but I’ve learned to wait patiently in the rural south – good things really DO come to those who wait!)  I explained what was wrong with my car and who’s suggested that I bring it to Airey VW.  A couple of mechanics drove the car into the shop and checked it out.  They explained that there did seem to be a leak in the vacuum boost line but there may be other things wrong, too.  However, the engine needed to cool down first.  I was just grateful that they knew what to do and told them to take their time, I was in no hurry.

Then I asked the owner about the old Farmall in the parking lot.  He’s in the process of restoring it and has restored several tractors for himself and for customers.  One of his sons works in the garage with him and collects and restores John Deere tractors – he rolled up the cuff of his left pants leg to show me a John Deere tattoo inked on his calf.  That’s a man who’s passionate about the green and yellow tractors.

I have never left my Volkswagen with a mechanic in whom I had more faith.  A little over a week later, when I had a ride to Harrisonburg, I picked up my Jetta.  All it needed was a new line.  The brakes work beautifully once more and I’ve found what I thought would have been impossible here in rural West Virginia – a reliable VW mechanic in the mountains.

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