Bad brakes in Colima: A test of the marriage on the Volcano of Fire
Author’s Note: On just about every trip, my wife and I experience some kind of calamity, usually caused by a decision of mine. She refers to it as “a test of the marriage.” Colima was an exam!
My good friend Todd, aka, Choupique is a biologist and birder. Whenever he travels, he consults the Sibley Guide to Birds and National Geographic Expeditions. My wife and I on the other hand use the UNESCO World Heritage List and Condé Nast.
When I told Choupique we were going to Guadalajara and the Pacific Coast of Mexico, his eyes bulged from his head like a great horned owl on a moonless night. “DUDE,” he said, “ya gotta go to Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima! It’s on my bucket list. They’ve got chestnut-sided shrike-vireos, cinnamon-bellied flowerpiercers, and buff-breasted flycatchers. You might even see an Aztec thrush or a great swallow-tailed swift!”
Having taken Todd’s advice before on a disastrous trip to Jamaica, I politely smiled, shook my head in agreement and then, privately, dismissed his suggestion unequivocally.
After exploring the colonial riches of Mexico’s second largest city, my wife and I rented an old Volkswagen Beetle, which, at the time, was still being made at a plant in Puebla. I had learned to drive in a VW, so when I saw the bug, I lit up up like a firefly.
On the winding road to the Pacific Coast, we passed a sign for Colima. “Don’t even go there,” my wife warned.
“But, according to Let’s Go to Mexico,” I said, “Colima is a quaint colonial town well worth visiting.’”*
“After three days in Guadala-HORROR,” my wife said (She obviously wasn’t nearly as impressed with the city’s colonial riches.), “I’m ready for a little beachside R&R.”
“Let’s just stay the night,” I insisted. “It’ll be an adventure.”
Like Lee with Longstreet before Gettysburg, my misguided persistence eventually paid off. We turned around and headed straight for “a test of the marriage.”
That evening, in the somewhat quaint town of Colima, I asked locals about the nearby volcano.
“El Volcán de Fuego es muy bonito,” they said. “The Volcano of Fire is very beautiful. And, it’s only two hours away.”
“Hmmmmm,” I thought.
“NO!” my wife said, obviously having read my ill-conceived thought.
“But it’s on Choupique’s bucket list,” I persisted.
“HIS bucket list,” she clarified. “Don’t forget, Todd almost got us killed in Jamaica!”
“Let’s give him another shot,” I pleaded. “Besides, it’s only two hours away.”
Once again, like Robert E. Lee, this time with General George Pickett before his ill-fated, up-hill charge, I somehow rallied my beleaguered and incredulous troop(s).
After a two-hour drive in the opposite direction of the beach, we arrived at the entrance of Parque Nacional Nevado de Colima. Looking up at a map of the park, my wife just grimaced. I cursed Todd beneath my breath and then tried to do the math. (Note: I was a humanities major.) There was a winding road to the top marked out in kilometers. I figured the round-trip would take us no more than an hour. Obviously, I underestimated the length of a kilometer, and I overestimated the power (and health) of our vehicle. We would spend the rest of the day (and almost the rest of our lives) on that godforsaken mountain.
Having come so far, I was now determined to summit Fuego; having come so far, my wife was now determined to see me fail. So, in a simmering stew of contempt, we slowly climbed the face of Colima - in silence. The test of the marriage on the Volcano of Fire had commenced!
An hour into the climb and less than halfway to the crater, we passed a ranger station. Men sitting next to all-terrain vehicles stared at our vintage bug in disbelief. “¡Que idiotas!” they thought (and most likely said).
Just below the snow-covered peak, we came around a turn and discovered that there had been a landslide. I hopped out to figure a way around it. At that moment, after more than two hours of smoldering silence, my wife, like a volcano, finally blew her top! She spewed out an endless flow of molten expletives, culminating in a simple demand: “Get me off this &[email protected]! mountain!”
Lee was now negotiating terms of surrender at Appomattox.
As I painstakingly turned the bug around on the sliver of a road, my wife pulled out Let’s Go and flipped to the section on Puerta Vallarta, a beautiful city on the coast with a name even the locals can’t pronounce.**
Being a flatlander from Louisiana, I wasn’t accustomed to driving down a mountain. I figured the steep decline would bring us to the bottom (and eventually the beach) lickety-split. Sure enough, within seconds, we were barreling down the Volcano of Fire.
When I pressed on the brakes to slow us down though, there was nothing. Stomping on the peddle as if it were a roach, there was still NOTHING. I turned to my wife and calmly said, “Houston, we have a problem.” She looked at me with daggers in her eyes, dropped the book and fired off another bevvy of expletives.
Then, I had a revelation. I remembered the 1972 “Super” Beetle I had had in college. Friends and I would take it on a country road. At about 30 miles an hour, I’d pop the clutch, pull the emergency brake and spin the wheel. It was a lot of fun and only slightly dangerous. I figured I could do the same thing here, without spinning the wheel of course. I’d stop the bug, save us and (possibly) the marriage!
When I pulled up on the emergency brake though, I discovered to my horror that it wasn’t even attached. I held it out to my wife like a dropped relay baton. She screamed and then opened the door; she was ready to jump!
In desperation, I threw the bug into 1st gear. All four puny cylinders shrieked in protest like an angry shrew; but the German car, “echo en Mexico,” refused to slow down. Pulled by gravity over loose gravel, we were completely out of control.
On one side there was a sheer cliff that dropped off hundreds of feet (and probably thousands of kilometers!); on the other side, there was the “beautiful” El Volcán de Fuego. After barely maneuvering a hairpin switchback, and knowing I couldn’t possibly do it again, I decided to throw the car into the side of the mountain. Hopefully, we would survive the impact, and the rental car insurance policy would cover the damage.***
Fortunately for us, nature, physics and luck intervened. There was a shallow gully on the edge of the road that had been carved out by years of erosion. It was filled to the brim with powder-like pumice. The left side tires plowed into the dirt, which brought the car to a gradual, harmless stop.
Stuck on the side of the mountain with our Volkswagen Beetle with bad brakes, I then made yet another marriage-testing mistake. I pulled out John Barry’s book, Rising Tide about the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 and plopped down on the back seat to read. It was cold outside, and besides, I figured someone would eventually see our fire engine red bug.
Like the Greenland ice sheet under a thick cloud of greenhouse gases, my wife, again, began to melt down. Expletives fell like ash from Mount Saint Helens. She grabbed a jacket and a bottle of water and started marching defiantly down the mountain. I sheepishly followed.
Every few minutes, we would scream over the edge, “¡Ayúdanos! Help us!”
Like Albert Finney in Under the Volcano, I longed for a stiff shot of mescaline.
After about forty-five minutes, a park ranger on an ATV came to our rescue. Ironically, his name was Angel; but, we ended up calling him, Nuestro Salvador de Colima, Our Savior from Colima.
After confirming that our brakes were indeed shot, he offered to drive us down in our own car. Like Lee before Chancellorsville, he convinced us that it could be done. He also told us with some authority that just about every year a foreigner died on the mountain. “We were betting,” he said, “you two would be the next.”
My wife sat in the front with the door ajar; I sat in the back, clinging to a frayed seatbelt and a prayer.
Relying solely on the clutch, Angel drove us down the mountain. Like teenagers on a rollercoaster, my wife and I screamed the entire way down.
When we finally reached the bottom, we kissed the ground and hugged Angel, Nuestro Salvador de Colima. We gave him 20 dollars, a bottle of Kahlúa and an open invitation to visit us on flat ground in New Orleans.
In Manzanilla, we switched out our bug, cursed Choupique one more time for good measure, and then headed for the beach. The test was over – for now…
* My wife and I would later refer to the guidebook as, “Let’s Go to Hell!”
** Just outside Puerta Vallarta, we experienced yet another test of the marriage in “The Palapa In Yalapa.”
*** At a motel in Manzanilla, we finally read the fine print in the rental car’s insurance policy. Apparently, there was no coverage on unpaved roads. Imagine that?
Folwell is an educator, artist and survivor of many bad decisions. Miraculously, he and his wife are still married. He can be reached at [email protected]
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him [email protected].