Saturday, July 13, 2019

Classic Hondas on the Dragon 3 - No Honda Left Behind

I woke to the sounds of the Tuckasegee river bubbling and crashing over rocks and fallen trees, just yards from my tent.  It was still very early and only the glow of the rising sun over the mountains in the east illuminated my tent.  It was cold and I was still tired from my late arrival the night before, but none of that was going to dampen my spirits because it was the start of the Classic Hondas on the Dragon weekend.  CHD (Classic Hondas on the Dragon) is special for me for many reasons, but this year turned out to be extra special for a completely new reason. 

I poked my head out of the tent to see Kevin Acre from 3G Southern Civics, and James Savage from the Bento Box Project moving around their camp site, preparing for the day's activities.  We had all camped on the site of the main meet location, Darnell Farms, situated in a picturesque valley just outside Bryson City North Carolina.  The folks at Darnell were kind enough to let us use a portion of their large property to host the event.  After packing up our camping gear, it was a short, muddy drive across the farm to the large grassy field where the gathering was to be held.  It wasn't long before cars were streaming onto the field and parking in two parallel rows, facing each other.  There were plenty of familiar faces, new faces, and many lovely cars.  It was our biggest turn-out yet.  Hoods were being propped up, coffee was being sipped, and folks were mingling, talking and laughing.  It is scenes like this that are what CHD is all about.  Seeing all the smiling faces and hearing the classic Honda chatter... It warmed my heart.  Speaking of warming, by then, the sun had come over the mountains and was drying away the morning dew and chasing away the chill left over from our cold night in the tents.

Before we knew it, 10am had arrived, marking the second scheduled activity, the first scenic drive.  This is where the complexion of my CHD event began to change.  It was closer to 10:30 by the time we all rolled out of the field at Darnell and hit the road.  I was bringing up the rear of the group of cars as we drove through downtown Bryson City.  It wasn't long before I realized all was not right with the GENONE CRX.  It seemed as though the engine was working harder than it should to get me going.  Not because it was losing power, but because it felt as though it was fighting some form of resistance.  After noticing the issue, it quickly got worse and worse, causing me to pull off the road and into a parking lot.  The resistance had gotten so bad, it took all the power the engine had to just get me off the main road.  I'm sure you have already guessed it, but it was the brakes, and this was no surprise.

Not even 24 hours earlier, the car was in pieces in my garage.  What was I working on?  The brakes.  I had been chasing brake issues for almost 6 months leading up to that point.  I ended up replacing everything in the brake system except for the lines, trying to cure a spongy pedal.  After finally discovering the issue just days before the event, I was forced to frantically reassemble the car.  I literally tightened down the last bolt/nut, threw my gear in the car and left for North Carolina.  Never a good thing to do.  Somehow I completed the 3 hour drive to Darnell without issue, but on this day, I wasn't so lucky.

The brakes had seized.  My only thought was that there was still air in the lines and it had expanded from the heat of the day, causing the brakes to compress.  I needed to bleed the brakes.  One problem, you can't bleed brakes on your own, unless you have a pump, which of course I did not.  Trying to avoid slipping into a complete panic, I decided to text Kevin from 3G Southern Civics. He was the only one I didn't remember seeing in the group of cars I was following moments before.  As luck would have it, he had stayed behind to help a fellow 3G owner change his tires.  By the time I got in touch with him he was on the road heading my way.  For those of you who know Kevin, his amiable willingness to help is no surprise.  He is one of the nicest guys I have the pleasure of knowing.  Minutes later he was in the drivers seat pumping my brake pedal.  With Kevin's help, it wasn't long before we got the car going again, and we made the short drive over to the grocery store parking lot where we were all going to meet up again after the first scenic drive.  However frustrating it was for me to miss the first drive, it was the first of several instances where I would experience the abundant kindness of the people that host and attend the Classic Hondas on the Dragon event (as well as the kindness of complete strangers). It would turn out that this kindness would be the key to making this the best CHD yet.

After gathering in the grocery store parking lot, emptying our bladders, and then getting more fluids to fill them up, the group headed out again, this time toward the Tail of the Dragon.  I was pretty convinced I had solved my car's issue because there was indeed air still in the brake lines.  However, I couldn't have been more wrong.  As the group drove along my car started to slow again.  The main road heading out of Bryson City towards the Tail is four lanes for much of the way, and as my car began to slow, my advantageous position midway through the pack of cars started to disappear as everyone began to pass me.  To my shame, for a few crucial miles I was in complete denial that the same problem was happening to me again, and I kept pushing the car down the road, but to no avail.  Long after everyone had passed and as the last few signs of civilization slipping into my rear-view mirror, I finally gave up and pulled into one of the last buildings along the road before it entered the national forest.  It was the Nantahala, North Carolina post office, a tiny brick building with a parking lot for about 10 cars.  The situation was grim and about to get even grimmer.

First, the car was in a bad way.  The brakes were siezed even harder than before, and when I went to get my tools, I realized that I had left my only 10mm socket in the gravel where I had broke down the first time.  Second, I had no cell signal, and there was no one around.  I sat in the car for a while trying to stay calm and assess the situation.  Finally, after the brakes had cooled enough for me to move the car slightly, I drove it out of the post office parking lot into a shaded area under some trees to speed up the cooling process.  After waiting for a while I became impatient and decided to try something really dumb.  It was the rear brakes that were taking the longest to cool, so I rummaged around in my tool bag and found an 11mm wrench.  My brilliant plan was to throw caution to the wind and try to relieve some of the pressure in the brake lines.  It wasn't what I was planning that was entirely idiotic, it was how I executed it.  Since my factory jack points are gone, I decided to use a Honda scissor jack to jack up the rear of the car using the rear tow hook as my jack point.  This is a sketchy proposition on a level, paved surface, but I was in the grass on a slope.  Sadly I ignored all the red flags and paid for it.  All was well at first, successfully removing the left rear wheel, and loosening the bleed nipple with the wrench, relieving some of the pressure in the brake line.  It was when I tried to put the wheel back on when things went to crap.  I picked up the wheel with both hands, my right hand under the bottom of the wheel, and my left on the top.  When I pushed the wheel onto the studs, it bottomed out on the brake disc with enough force to push the car off the jack, sandwiching my left hand between the top of the tire and the wheel well.  This probably wouldn't have hurt as much, if I hadn't trimmed the lip along the inside of the fender wells because of rust, creating an almost sharp edge.  This was digging into the base of all four fingers.  The pain was unbearable.  I yelled (because men don't scream *wink* ).  As luck would have it ( and it must have been a lot of it ), a group of 5 folks on Harley Davidsons had pulled into the post office parking lot only moments before, because one of their bikes had had an issue.  I called out to them in earnest.  It took them a few moments to realize the urgency of the situation, but when they did, they rushed to my aid.  There were three men and two women.  The three men lifted the car off my hand and the women, one of them being a nurse, assisted me as I slumped to the ground in agony.  I was exhausted and light-headed from the pain.  The base of my fingers on my left hand were an unpleasant shade of blue and they had been compressed to the thickness of the bone.  I lay on the ground as the woman who was a nurse massaged my hand and talked to me.  The men were kind enough to get the car back on the jack and even put the rear wheel back on.  As I collected myself and stood up, I expressed to them my immense gratitude for their help.  They accepted and informed me that they were just about to drive off when they heard my cries.  It was a close call to say the least.

After taking a short rest in my car to calm myself down from the whole ordeal and regain feeling in my hand, I tried driving the car.  To my surprise, it was rolling again.  I knew I had likely the same amount of drive distance to work with as I did getting there, so I headed back towards town.  Thankfully I was able to make it to Mountain Auto and Customs, the mechanic shop owned by Niles Stillman who is one of our sponsors and organizers.  Even though there was no one there, I finally had cell signal and was able to get in touch with several people, informing them where I was.  It wasn't long before several members of the group were at the shop pouring over the car.  I never asked any of them to help, in fact I was content bowing out of the event at that point and counting my losses.  But, in typical CHD fashion, they insisted on 'taking at look at it'.  One of them, Tim Salvino, questioned me about all the repairs I had made before leaving for the event.  After receiving the info, he quickly came up with a plan and without saying a word, he grabbed a wrench, dove into the drivers side foot well and began working on something below the steering column.  As he tinkered, he explained to me that the problem was likely due to the fact that I had adjusted the brake booster nut the wrong way, causing the brakes to never fully retract when lifting off the pedal.  As the light bulbs began to turn on in my head, he extracted his large 6' 3" frame from the car, handed me the wrench and said, 'Try it now.'  Sure enough, after a quick run down the road and back, the car was rolling freely.  I could tell the difference immediately.  I pulled up to the shop, jumped out and began to thanked him profusely.  That was the third act of selfless kindness expressed to me in one day.  I was overcome with gratitude, so much so that I probably made Tim feel a bit awkward, but oh well.  Little did I know, more kindness was to come.

Even though the next morning was shrouded in clouds and rain, I was excited to get back on the road again with the group.  I had missed out on both the scenic drives and the visit to the Tail the day before, so I was anxious to get some mountain driving in.  It was a smaller group than the day before, but that's no surprise.  It's easier for folks to be available for one day than it is the whole weekend.  It was no less fun though because as a smaller group, it was easier to stay together, and James Savage (Bento Box Project) got some fantastic rolling shots of us from the passenger seat of Michael's Straman CRX.  As the day went on, the weather cleared and the sun came out.  This provoked another visit to the Tail, squeezing in a few more moments of spirited driving before the weekend was over.  Starting from Deal's Gap, we hit the Tail.  It was nice because the crowds were lighter than usual and the pavement had already dried.  About two thirds of the way down the road, my battery light came on.  The weekend's curse hadn't lifted.  My heart sank.  I wasn't sure if I could take more issues with the car after what I had gone through the day before.  For the last third of the journey, I slowed, only using the engine to get up the hills, and just coasted on the way down.  I pulled into the large parking area at the end of the Tail on the Tennessee side and got out.  Those who had already arrived and parked saw the look on my face and knew something was up.  I popped the hood and quickly discovered that my alternator belt had come off.

'Great, where am I going to find an alternator belt for this car, in the middle of nowhere?!" I said.

With calm and composure, the remaining members of the group quickly came up with a plan.  They kindly offered to form a convoy, with me in the middle, and drive towards the nearest town, in the hopes of getting cell signal, and finding a part for me.  Again I was overwhelmed with their generosity and gratefully agreed.  We set off with me setting the pace because since I was running on the battery alone, I had to drive the car slowly, putting as little load on the engine as possible.  This made for a tedious journey, but somehow, we made it back to civilization.  Even before we had stopped, Cameron Grady had already called several of the local parts stores, and found one that actually had a belt!  As we pulled into a gas station, he quickly shared the news, and we hit the road again.  Shockingly enough, the parts store was only about 10 minutes up the road, and before long, I was under the hood of the car in the Autozone parking lot, wrestling the new belt on.  After the repair was complete, I was still full of gratitude for my fellow classic Honda enthusiasts, for they again, got me out of a nasty bind.  This time, I wasn't just going to thank them.  Instead, I treated everyone to lunch.

Above photos by Cameron Grady

The third Classic Hondas on the Dragon event was fraught with problems and peril for me, but in the end, it was the kindness of others that really shined through to make it the best yet.  I wasn't the only one who was treated to the kindness of the CHD crowd.  Matthew, a first timer, had broken down on the Tail of the Dragon in the evening of the first day after most of the group had headed back into town.  He would have been stranded there all night if it hadn't been for the kindness two other first timers, Carly, who had gotten separated from the group and was making a late passage over the Tail, and Wesley who joined them later.  The two of them stopped and helped Matthew get back on the road, which was no easy task.  They didn't make it back until almost midnight.  The kindness didn't end there.  We instructed Matthew to take the car to Mountain Auto and Customs to have the car looked over.  Niles, the owner, was happy to lend a hand.  It turned out to be a huge task, which required removing the gas tank and cleaning the fuel system.  But with Nile's help, he was back on the road later the following week.

I realize that it is the passion for these cars that gets us all together, but it's really the people that attend this event that make it what it is.  It's the kindness and humility that makes friends out of acquaintances in a short amount of time.  I encourage those of you who haven't already been able to attend this humble but passionate event to come check it out.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.  See you in October!


  1. Man I wish I read this sooner. I knew you were having a tough trip but I didn't realize there were this many setbacks. This is a great post though and I really appreciate you summarizing the trip. I'll definitely be coming back to this post for years to relive those memories.

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