In the days before my girlfriend and I ventured into Colorado’s San Juan Mountains a few weeks ago, the rear brake on my Toyota Land Cruiser had started to squeal a little. Finding denial to be the easiest course of action, I attributed it to a tiny rock stuck in the caliper and carried on driving 400 miles to southwestern Colorado that weekend. The squeal was still audible at low speeds, but everything on the vehicle felt and worked just fine. See the used Toyota Land Cruiser models for sale near you
Well, as it would turn out, everything wasn’t fine: The noise wasn’t coming from a rock in the caliper, but rather the inner brake pad — which, unbeknownst to me, had worn down to the metal, leaving it liable to fail at any time. And fail it did. Spectacularly. On a remote forest road in the mountains at 11,500 feet in elevation.
Over the course of about 30 seconds, the squealing noise got considerably louder, and then there was a violent “thud,” and that squealing was now a combination of grinding and even higher-pitched squealing. We deemed it unwise to move any further, so we came to a stop and dug out my little toolbox and the spare tire tool kit. When we removed the rear wheel, we were met with a grisly scene. Shards of metal were everywhere. The caliper had spit out the inner brake pad into the space behind the brake disc and dust shield, where it was now grinding with every turn of the wheel. Mind you, this was the first time my girlfriend or I had even removed the wheel on a vehicle, let alone taken apart a disc brake. Luckily, we had one bar of cell signal each, and were able to call a few contacts with a little more automotive know-how.
Never in my life have I learned more in an hour as I did during the next 60 minutes we spent on that mountaintop — and with my friends’ help, we devised a solution that involved swapping the inner pad with the outer pad, which still had a little life left, so that the brake cylinder would at least push on a functioning pad. This was enough to limp down the side of the mountain — and, the most terrifying part, drive the most dangerous portion of the Million Dollar Highway, which, I insist got its name from the millions of dollars in life insurance claims for which it’s responsible every year — with a brake situation that was marginally better than that used by Fred Flintstone. Then we’d find the nearest auto parts store that had pads and a rotor in stock for a 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser. This turned out to be an Advance Auto Parts an hour and a half away in Delta, CO, and we arrived about 20 minutes before they closed. After paying for our new rotor and pads, we explained our predicament to the two store employees.
Employees: You’re going to change this right now?
Us: In the Maverik parking lot.
Employees: And you’ve never done anything like this before?
Us: That is correct.
They conversed for a minute, and then, one of the employees, named Levi, told us to hold on — he was going to come help us. I think it was probably the way my girlfriend told them to “wish us luck” that he realized it was probably in everyone’s best interests that we had some help.
So, we limped a mile on down the road to the friendly, well-lit Maverik parking lot, found a nice, flat corner spot, and waited. Levi pulled up, rolling coal and setting off car alarms in a 1980s Dodge Ram flatbed dually loaded with more tools than me, my dad and every other male in our family owns combined. It was at this point that I knew we were in good hands. Levi proceeded to change our absolutely obliterated, and by this point scorching-hot brake rotor and pads, while I knelt behind him and mostly pointed at things in the wheel well as he wrenched away.
Two different people came over to offer us help during the hour we spent in the parking lot. One because he owned three Land Cruisers himself, and another who just seemed to want to talk and offer up tools. He hung out and made jokes until we were completely finished. What an interesting place, the town of Delta, Colorado.
My girlfriend gave Levi a few dollars for his help — but however much it was, we both agree that it wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for the absolute headache he saved us. We decided to extend our trip by an extra day and continued on as planned — this time, with four, fully functioning brakes. Find a used Toyota Land Cruiser for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.