Mountain Driving Impressions

By Mike Mello

08.08.2007

Summit County, Colorado


Driving in the mountains can be a scenic, scary, or exciting experience, depending on what kind of road and traffic conditions you’re used to. On a recent vacation to Summit County, Colorado, I got a good taste of how drivers in this rugged part the U.S. negotiate the blacktop at well over a mile above sea level.

Leaving Denver on Interstate 70 during rush hour was basically like any other major city’s major driving hour with one noticeable difference compared to my native Boston-area routes. When the far right lane closed and the blinking amber arrow could be seen on the detour trailer up ahead, cars started to move into the center lane well in advance of the cones that would eventually lead traffic to the left. What happens in Boston? Most folks drive up along the cones and the concept of merging becomes more like a hunt for a space where you can cut someone off.

Back to I-70, passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel reminded me of Boston’s I-93 tunnel (or more officially, the Thomas P. ”Tip” O’Neill Jr. Tunnel,) but without the leaks and missing wall panels. I-70’s steep downhill grade that led to Dillon and Silverthorne was a lesson in braking as I left the Saturn Ion rental in “Drive”. Runaway truck ramps to the right reminded me to space out the braking in an effort to keep the discs and pads relatively cool.

A trip into Vail was fun too, but made me think hard about when I really had enough room to pass an 18-wheeler on a steep uphill run. The Ion felt like a bit of a dog so passing was reserved for times when absolutely no traffic could be seen behind me for at least a mile. Along those same lines, patience was the key in order to simply make headway in the slow lane behind a parade of tractor-trailers if there was no good opportunity to pass. Sometimes you just have to leave the left lane open to those with more power and gearing.

As a tourist, perhaps the most important thing to be aware of is, of course, the incredible scenery. On a ride up to Leadville, the steep cliffs were often not too far beyond the guard rail and it can be a challenge to wait for the “scenic area” pull-off in order to take in the view.

Luckily, no roaming animals came across our paved path and the sudden rains that cropped up each afternoon were just passing through. The downpours could at times make for greatly diminished visibility, but slowing down to a safer speed was not a problem.
In Summit County, I only saw a few extra driving lights on a handful of front bumpers and far fewer brush bars on trucks than I might have expected.

Speaking of which, I’m always curious about what extra driving accessories people buy for their cars wherever they live. I know drivers love their fog lights on the Pacific Coast, not for looks, but because of all the frequent and heavy fog they get there, and I’ve had people in the Midwest and some parts of the West tell me driving lights are a must there for the long, flat roads that go on forever. I’ve heard people in the Northeast say they put brush bars or rhino bars on their trucks and SUVs not to knock brush down, but because of all the deer that jump out on the road. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, Utah, Colorado, etc. are the places where it snows a lot and people pony up extra for AWD in their truck and cars. People in Phoenix, Arizona, and Palm Springs, CA sometimes add an extra oil cooler to their vehicles – 115° ambient temperatures are pretty tough on your car. What are the driving accessories that have real value to you in your part of the world?

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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5 Comments

  1. I live in Orlando and when I buy a new car, it doesn’t matter how good it looks if it can’t freeze me out of the seat. The domestic cars have some issues, but I can tell you that AC is not one of them. Even the cheap models have good AC, but some pretty expensive Japanese and European cars have AC that’s kind of weak.

  2. I think I’d prefer to drive nearly any other vehicle than a Saturn Ion in a mountain driving trip, rental car or not!

    To answer your question, in Pennsylvania, I don’t have any driving accessories. Our Accord EX V6 doesn’t even have foglights from the factory, but our Pathfinder does, and I use them on rainy or overcast days – more to be seen than to see.

  3. After hitting a deer 10 years ago, and having it come partially through the windshield as it rolled up the hood, I put thick brush bars on the front of my pickup. Deer are like rabbits here in Minnesota, they’re all over the place.

  4. You can say that again about the Ion! It was alright, nice that is was new, but definitely not something I’m anxious to drive again.
    For now, my Tacoma daily driver is totally stock; no accessories.

  5. The accessories we spring for here in Houston are those portable beer coolers. Good for those long commutes home.

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