My friend Shawn Smucker is a great writer. His brand new book How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp tells the story of the cross country journey he took this past year with his wife Maile and their four kids. They had no idea how much the trip would change them.
As someone who just published a book that’s all about transformation, I’ve been enthralled by Shawn and Maile’s epic adventure. I contemplated a number of excerpts to post here, but there are so many great ones! I’ll stick with the mind-spinning tale that became an instant legend. Imagine driving down a mountain in a bus with your family inside. Now imagine losing your brakes with a large bend and precipitous cliff just ahead. Here’s a taste of Shawn’s storytelling genius from the new book.
The Runaway Truck Ramp
We had pulled away from the scenic view at the top of Teton Pass. Breathless. Anxious. Eager to have the ensuing four-mile descent behind us.
It wasn’t long before I had realized we would be fortunate to make this stretch without incident. Even in first gear, I had to use my brakes too often, too hard. The air pressure dropped. The brakes smelled hot after just half a mile.
I pulled into a side pull-off area to give the bus a rest, and my parking brake barely engaged. Adrenaline left me feeling shaky. I opened the bus door. The cold air felt great, and behind us, the mountainside was covered in snow, but both were contrasted by the smell of hot brakes. The smell of something important not going well.
After ten minutes or so, I released the brake and began creeping forward. The brakes felt okay, but not quite right. I had no idea what to do, but then, I saw another pull-off a few hundred yards ahead. I decided to pull in there and park for an hour, let the brakes cool completely. We might take all day getting down. Oh, well.
By now, Maile and the three older kids sat just behind me. Sam napped in the back. The kids chattered on and on about the view, the trees, and the bears they wanted to see. It was surreal – inside, I felt a massive sense of tension nearing panic, yet just behind me the kids were having a great trip. They had no idea.
But Maile – I could tell she knew what was going on. She asked me short questions in a quiet voice as we crept along at 5 mph, questions that I had no answer for.
“Are we okay?”
“Can you stop?”
“Should we pull off?”
I pulled our 20,000 pounds into that next pull-off, preparing to stop, put on the parking brake, and wait until the brakes cooled. But it was at that moment I realized we couldn’t stop, at least not completely. I pushed the brake all the way to the floor, but we kept coasting, a snail’s pace really. It’s amazing how immense fear can rise up in the face of such slow movement. In a last ditch effort, I pulled on the parking brake, but it did nothing. We kept coasting forward.
I had no other option but to coast back out on to the road. This is when we began gaining speed. This is when I reached over with my other foot, put both feet on the brake and pushed down as hard as I could. This is when I realized we could not stop.
A guardrail defined the next curve, to the left, just a hundred yards or so ahead of us. Beyond that road, a thousand feet of air and rock and evergreens.
Faster. Soon, we were going fifteen miles per hour. We came around the turn. I began calculating at what point I would need to wreck the bus into the side of the mountain. The brakes no longer slowed us at all. Then, we saw it – on the left, a runaway truck ramp, the kind I used to always look at and think, Seriously? People actually use those?
Shawn Smucker is the author of How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp and Building a Life Out of Words. He lives in Lancaster County, PA with his wife Maile and their four children. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook, and he blogs (almost) daily at shawnsmucker.com. Maile blogs at mailesmucker.blogspot.com.