Risk (part 1 of 4)

We were driving down Highway 1, just south of the famed Big Sur section—claimed to be the most scenic drive in all of the US. I love a good drive with curves and inclines and scenery. Bridges are a plus. And I love the opportunity to pull out on the berm for a vista. And Big Sur offered all of the above. And then our brake line broke.

We were pulling into one of the cliffside overlooks—a crowded gravel lot with large chunks of volcanic stone acting as a barrier to keep runaway cars from rolling over the cliff and plummeting into the ocean several hundred feet below. I downshifted into second, threw on the blinker and touched my foot to the brake pedal. Then I pressed harder and then I stood on it. We stopped, but only with about three inches of life left in the pedal. The little brake warning light on my dash flared on and we rolled into the lot. 

As usual the onlookers and admirers of the bus wanted to make small talk as soon as we rolled in. I, of course, was in no mood. We were miles and miles from anything with a two lane road—sheer cliff up one side and sheer cliff with salt water at the bottom on the other side and some oaf from the midwest starts nattering on about his daughter’s love for buses. Normally I would engage. Normally, I’d call this guy a friend and not an oaf, but bus disrepair instantly curdles my mood. I rolled under the bus and saw the brake line pissing fluid. It was dripping from the wheel well. The metal line had snapped. We still had some fluid and some pedal and no cell signal, so I jumped in the bus and pressed our luck, hobbling us down the road to what might be the west coast’s most-isolated coffee house. The manager was super friendly and let me borrow their landline and internet signal to call around and set up a plan. The first shop I called was closed for renovation and the owner recommended me to a foreign car repair shop. The foreign car repair shop was less than pleased by the rec and the guy hemmed and hawed and said he might be able to squeeze me in. Maybe. Between the 911 and the Z3, the Carera… and, well, you get the picture. Then, in another series of calls, I ended up on the phone with Pierre—owner and operator of Just Andy—a shop specializing in VWs. 

By the time I got off the phone, the bus had relieved itself of all available brake fluid and the day was getting past us with all of Big Sur ahead of us. 

Thankfully, the late bay bus can still be driven with the rear brakes in disrepair. I learned this in Tennessee, did this in Mississippi and relearned and redid this in New Mexico. At this point in the journey, we have probably driven about 1/3 of the trip without functioning rear brakes. Still. The cliffs. The impatient California drivers who will pass on a blind curve and a double yellow line. And the wind. 

The wind has been outrageous. For the past six weeks everywhere we go, the locals assure us that the wind this year is above average, record-setting in some cases. Deadly when fire is introduced. And from Japan to Highway 1 there is no buffer for the wind and our time along the road now had us leaving at the windiest time of the day. Which also happened to be rush hour in Monterey. 

The drive through Big Sur transformed from a carefree ramble along America’s most gorgeous coast to a cautious, painstaking drive where I battled gale-force gusts and people in 911s and Z3s and Carreras zipped over the double yellow line and around me. We arrived at Just Andy late in the evening and we parked on the street outside the shop and popped the top, fully expecting a cop to come along and try to roll us out. I prepared my speech to the imaginary officer—outlining the issue with the brakes and then the argument. My eventual insolence and imprisonment. Aside from one fellow with some really unique rap music, the night was quiet and I reflected. On risk.

This week I am doing things a little differently and talk about three parts of risk. While we are not adept risk-takers, I think it is fair to say that we are more comfortable with more kinds of risk (physical, financial, circumstantial) than most people. So the next three days will focus on three takeaways about risk that we discussed with our friend and fellow podcaster, John Hammond.

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