When customers find out that I’m from Kansas, they often say, “Kansas? What can you tell me about mountain passes if you’re from Kansas?” But after they hear my story, they cut me a little slack. (By the way, did you know that there was once a researcher with too much government grant money who determined that Kansas actually is flatter than a pancake?)
When I was a kid in the early 60’s my parents owned a 16 foot Mobil Scout travel trailer. We pulled that trailer all over the western United States and Canada with a 1962 Chevy with a 283 cubic inch engine and a three speed on the column. So I learned to love mountains and I learned to love traveling the wide open spaces of our great land. With that small trailer and the reliable Chevy, we never had any problems climbing or descending grades.
Fast forward about 30 years. In the early 90’s I was growing weary of the work I had been doing for 20 years and I needed a change, even if it was just for a while. Kansas has many attributes, but as they say, I wanted to “get out of Dodge” and see some of the country I had seen when I was younger, and yet I needed to earn a living and support my family, so I started driving a truck. I found parts of the job fascinating. When you transport both raw materials and finished goods you get to see what makes our country tick.
One day I was dispatched from our company terminal in Kansas City with a load of car batteries. The total weight of truck and cargo was 72,000 lbs. Maximum weight allowed was 80,000 lbs. I was to deliver them in Los Angeles. As I was leaving the yard, I heard two of our drivers talking on the CB radio about a team of our drivers who had been killed in a runaway truck on Cajon Pass, which is on I-15 just outside of Los Angeles. During my truck driving school and later with my company trainer I had been taught the current method for descending a steep grade (which turned out to be completely wrong and was later changed in the CDL manuals) but I had not actually done it yet and I wanted to practice the techique on something a little less challenging to start with. Our company had about 1500 trucks and none of them had Jake Brakes.
I had planned to go across I-40 to Barstow and then take I-15 (and Cajon Pass) south to LA. After hearing about the accident on Cajon Pass I decided to take I-40 as far as Flagstaff, then drop down on I-17 to Phoenix and go into LA on I-10. I had been across I-10 with my trainer and I already had driven over the hill at Indio. It’s mild compared to Cajon. What I did not know was that there is a descent between Flagstaff and Phoenix that is worse than Cajon. It is the descent down into the Verde River Valley at Camp Verde, Arizona. Imagine my surprise when I saw a sign that said “6% next 13 miles.” Well, I had adjusted tractor and trailer brakes in Tucumcari and I thought if I followed the method I had been taught I shouldn’t have any trouble. Wrong.
The method I had been taught was to reduce speed and hold light steady pressure on the brakes all the way down the hill. I dropped several gears and started down the hill at about 30 MPH, holding just enough brake pressure to keep my speed from building. I kept checking my mirrors looking for smoke and everything looked good as I passed the only escape ramp about 11 miles down the hill. Then I began to see a little smoke and then an unbelievable amount of smoke. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t catch fire. People going uphill on the other side of the interstate were looking over at me with their jaws hanging open. There was nothing I could do but hang on and hope for the best. Luckily the grade flattened out for a ways and there was a rest area. I pulled in there with just enough brakes left to get it stopped. I let it cool for a couple of hours and then screwed up my nerve to go on down the hill. The rest of the descent was without incident, but the whole thing got me to thinking about what ifs………What if the grade had been a little longer? What if I had weighed the legal 80,000 lbs? What if the flat spot and rest area hadn’t been there? What if I had made the mistake of descending at a higher speed? More speed equals more friction equals more heat. If any of these things had been different, there might have been a very different outcome.
When I got home from that trip, I started calling some of the western states trying to get a little basic information about steep grades and mountain passes. Just where are they, and a brief description, please. But to my surprise, I found that no one had ever compiled that information. So I kept driving and thinking about it and finally decided to compile the info and write a book that would help not only truckers, but RVers as well. So I quit my job, borrowed money and over months and months drove over 60,000 miles from San Diego to Maine and North Carolina to Washington state, gathering info, writing, making maps, etc. Of the 700 mountain passes and steep grades in these two books, I have personally driven about 95% of them. It was the only way to get accurate information about signs, curves, escape ramps, speed limits, shoulders, number of lanes, and many other details that are important to drivers of large or heavy vehicles. Then it was time to go all in and borrow even more money to print 5,000 copies and see if they would sell. They did sell, and over the years I have sold over 120,000 copies of the printed books, which have been updated many times over the years. We have now converted them to ebooks, available to you in just minutes.
In a bit of irony, I have read that Mr. Clessie Cummins narrowly survived a descent of Cajon Pass in 1931 and later developed the Cummins diesel engines and Jacobs Engine Brake or “Jake Brake” that helps diesel powered vehicles descend steep grades much more safely. So Cajon Pass helped get us both started!