Rail Ridge Crossing – The Valleys
The old school bus ground slowly up to the crest of the last ridge before crossing through the summit tunnel and the final descent into Hot Creek Valley.
Thar the mountain goat worked his way expertly through the gears, slowing carefully at each corner knowing the exact speed and gear that he should approach each of the many twists and turns of the narrow mountain road. The engine gave a grateful gurgle as the bus reached the top of the hill and entered the summit tunnel which would complete the traverse under the steepest part of the ridge.
Emerging from the tunnel the bus began the long serpentine decent to the floor of the valley below. Thar shifted down a gear and lightly touched the brakes just before entering the first hairpin curve of the decent. The bus exited and then straightened only for a few moments before entering the second tighter hairpin curve. Thar shifted down a gear again, carefully touching the brakes to maintain the correct entry speed of the curve. The brakes were spongy.
Thar frowned. The old mountain goat had been driving this very bus on this very road every school day for the last 34 years. He knew every hill, every bend and every quirk that the valley roads had. The same held true for his bus – it may have been old, but he knew its every sound, rattle and gurgle, how it responded in all types of weather conditions and how it felt on every inch, yard and mile of the road. The visceral connection between bus and driver was strong and something was wrong. He knew it – from his horns to his hooves.
With even more caution than usual he carefully completed the second hairpin curve – his senses alert to any change in the bus. As he exited the second curve, he again touched the brakes – this time his hoof-foot went straight to the floor.
The bus had now entered a longer straight downhill stretch.
Thar faced an immediate dilemma with only seconds to decide. Should he attempt to downshift again? He knew disengaging the clutch and moving the shifter out of gear would momentarily disconnect the drive from the engine to the wheels. If he was unable to successfully engage the lower gear the inertia and the increasing downhill momentum of the bus would take over. The gearbox being as old as the bus, had its own temperament, with its own peculiar quirks and cranky demands. The overall speed of both bus and engine had to be just right or the gearbox would howl in protest and could well refuse point blank to cooperate. The alternative was to leave the bus in its current gear and hope that he would be able to make the 90° turn at the bottom of the downhill straight. This was not a good option. Failure to make the turn would mean that the bus would drive off a near vertical cliff. Downshifting a gear with a fully loaded bus, increasing in speed, on a straight downhill with no brakes was no small decision.
Thar could hear the revs of the engine. Too high! Too high! The engine screamed at him. He glanced at the speedometer. Too fast! Too fast! It glared accusingly back at him.
Decide! You must decide! – screamed a voice in his head.
The curve was fast approaching and he, the bus and his load of kits were out of time. As all the lives of those aboard depended on it, Thar disengaged the clutch and with all the determination gained from years of driving experience he moved the shifter towards the lower gear. The gear box protested loudly. Crunch! Graunch! Howl! A battle of wills between driver and box erupted, adding to the increasing whine of the engine and the sudden gasps of some of the kits who too were now becoming aware of the danger.
Thar: Git in gear ya temperamental sonofabitch!
The bus was entering the fatal curve. The gearbox gave one last howl of protest, Thar re-engaged the clutch and the engine screamed, revving wildly in an ear splitting counter protest of its own. The bus rounded the curve with its cliff side wheels scrambling for grip on the soft edge of the gravel road. The kits on the outer side cried out as the open vista of the valley below flashed by the windows. Inexplicitly the bus managed to just make the curve, the sheer cliff slipping by, mere inches from the wheels and certain death to all on board had it gone over.
The danger remained. There were several curves left to navigate and the bus was still only half way down the hill. Lurching now to the left side of the road, Thar attempted a correction for the upcoming 90° left hand turn. The combined speed and momentum finally had its way and the bus failed to make the curve. It left the road entirely and became airborne over the less precipitous but no less dangerous gully below.
Several things now happened – almost as if in slow motion.
Kits screamed in terror.
Jaak and Tag both looked at each other with wild eyed horror and gripped the seat in front of them.
The stones in their pockets suddenly felt incredibly light, even to the point of being weightless. This weightlessness then spread outwards first to Jaak and Tag who rose slightly out of their seats and then the weightlessness spread to the bus itself. All those on the bus felt their stomachs lurch like they were at the top of a very high swing.
Time seemed to slow. The trajectory of the bus through the air slowed.
The bus began to spin very slowly in the air. It did not dive directly downwards, but continued to spin slowly in a graceful arc out over the gully below. The bus then gradually lost height and gently flumped into a deep drift of snow coming to rest almost at the bottom of the hill.
The engine had cut out and for a moment there was nothing but stunned silence.
Those on the bus hardly knew whether to cheer or cry. In the end there was a mixture of both. Incredibly, no one was hurt – not even so much as a bump or a scratch.
Before long the alarm was raised and the local rescue services and several others of the valley’s inhabitants were on the scene. The students were ferried to the care and safety of their schools where anxious parents had started to arrive. News, especially bad news always travelled fast in this small close knit community.
Gazza turned up with his flatbed tow truck to haul the bus out of the gully and then back to his workshop where it could be given a full inspection – however as amazing as it seemed except for the broken brake hose, there appeared to be no other damage to the bus whatsoever.
Naturally everyone involved had a slightly different version of what had happened, with some stories becoming wilder and more fanciful as time went on. What no one could explain with any certainty, was how on earth the bus and it occupants could have possibly survived driving off the edge of that mountain road and end up in the gully below, with not so much as a scratch or a dent to body or to bus.
For Jaak and Tag however, when they discussed the matter between themselves privately they were pretty much in agreement.
Jaak: So you definitely felt your stone get light when the bus drove off the road?
Jaak: I think it’s time we pay Layan another visit. They are giving us the rest of the day off school – you wanna go up with me?