Friday, December 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

Speaking of reading...I had a flashback the other day to a short story I read many years ago.  I'd forgotten all about it but something hit the right button and an old quote popped back into my head from wherever I had it tucked away.  Like "Fate...", it's not exactly a classic...but it sank it's hooks into the old gray matter somewhere and just stayed for the ride.  There's a lot of that rusty junk kicking around behind my baby blues...someday I'll have to have a yard sale and dust out the cobwebs.  'Till then, here's to Helen America and Mr. Grey-no-more...somehow they're a part of how everything turned out and where it's all headed.

"She saw in him a young bachelor, prematurely old.  A man whose love had been given to emptiness and horror, not the tangible rewards and disappointments of human life.  He had had all space for his mistress, and space had used him harshly.  Still young, he was old; already old, he was young."

Cordwainer Smith
-The Lady Who Sailed "The Soul"-

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Fate (is the Hunter)

After that lengthy hiatus on Office Train posts, it's back to reality and business as usual (or as usual as it ever gets) at the Wayward Home.  As I so often say when I ease the throttle out on another we go again.

Believe it or not...I read more than I write and sometimes I actually have a minute or three to do that very thing.  My favorite book is still a less-than-well-known autobiography called " Fate is the Hunter "and my old softcover copy is now very faded and dog-eared from being read over and over.  It's the memoir of an airline and transport pilot who flew in the early days of commercial aviation, beginning before World War II and on into the '50s.  Ernest K. Gann, I know is not a literary giant in the sense of a Dickens or a Tolstoy but his story suits me just the same.  As a much-loved book should, it speaks to me and makes me think.  So what if it isn't a 'classic'...

I'm not much of a highbrow type anyway I guess.  I chewed my way through "The Inferno" a while back, mostly just to say I had.  Talk about a workout.  "Moby Dick"  was a tough go as well.  It turned out I actually liked it but I had to work pretty hard to digest that many chapters and it's not the kind of thing I can just pick it up and read a few paragraphs of before I pull the covers up and call it a day. 
I often do exactly that with "Fate"; find it on the nightstand or pick it off the floor where I dropped it last time, open it to a random page and start in.  It's like a comfortable old chair where I can spend some time and fall asleep with the light on.  There's no famous, epic lines;  "To the last, I grapple with thee..."; no deep metaphor; no CliffsNotes...just a story.  And a good one.  Thunderstorms, crummy landings, the Hump, malaria, ice, the Taj Mahal, DC-2s and C-87s...I won't re-tell it all here but it's a story I can relate to, even though I've never been a pilot.  Read it someday and you'll see.  You might see something about me in there too as you go along.

One of my favorite passages is in the last chapter:

"Tell me now...since you are older and wiser, by what ends does a man ever partially control his fate?  It is obvious from the special history of our kind that favorites are played, but if this is so, then how do you account for those who are ill-treated?  The worship of pagan gods, which once answered all this, is no longer fashionable.  Modern religions ignore the matter of fate.  So we are left confused and without direction.
Let us admit, then, that the complete answer may only be revealed when it can no longer serve those most interested.
Perhaps we should hide in childlike visions of afterlife wherein those pronounced good may play upon harps and those pronounced evil, stoke fires.
...At least let us admit that the pattern of anyone's fate is only partly contrived by the individual."

Ernest K. Gann, "Fate is the Hunter"

There's an idea in there that says something to me.  I haven't figured out quite what it is or what it means yet...but if I leave that book on the nightstand long enough, I just might.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The End (of the OCS)

So down the road we went with our travelling show.  After our brush with the detector, there were only minor distractions and I spent the next few hours trying to look cool and collected.  My mother told me once that she thought I was like a duck; calm and unruffled on the surface but paddling like crazy underneath.  If only she knew how true that was.
Finally, it came down to the last long swoop off the hill into home.  By some accident, the set on the brakes was right and we coasted in like we knew what we were doing.  And just like that, it was almost over.  The plan was to change head-end crews first, then have the fresh guys pull the rear of the train to a crossing to load and unload passengers.  Sounded good to me.  There suddenly wasn't much energy left in the old guy.
I pulled to a stop and sagged in my seat.  Suddenly I was very weary even though it was not yet noon.  The outbound crew waited by the ladder as we handed out our grips, still trying to do everything by the book right to the bitter end.  The Road Foremen thanked us and smiled.  One leg of the trip was over for them and we hadn't gotten them or us dismissed.  I thought I might actually kiss the ground when my boots came down off the last step.  I refrained however and contented myself with giving the outbound a fare-thee-well rundown and then fading into the background to watch the proceedings.

The last car stopped on the dot and a whirl of passengers came and went.  At the last minute, my CEO appeared one more time and shook my hand.  Our Chief Operating Officer also swung by and chatted a minute or two before it was time for them to load up and head west.  As before, there was more talk of bicycles than trains.  Funny thing...bicycles...who ever would have thought?  A smile and a wave and they were off to board the coaches.  I hung out for a minute to watch the markers go around the corner and out of sight.  Suddenly I realized I felt like I'd been hit by a truck and staggered across the track to the office to call it a day.  My grip and book bag felt like they weighed as much as the train and I realized my vest was on inside-out.  Oh well.
One of my friends was around to take some photos.  I thought Lucky was going to have to prop me up for the picture...

At the end of the day, for all the stress and worry, the experience was worth it.  Particularly since I managed to keep my job and everybody went away happy.  I can say "Been there, done that" and add it to the list of things I might never do again.  We'll see...

As a little postscript; I was driving home when my cell rang.  Seems the second unit had caught on fire less than three miles from where I handed off the train.  Talk about dodging the bullet...but that's another story.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The OCS Third

Day three of the project started early.  Much before dawn, my alarm and the wake-up call I'd set the night before woke me out of an often-interrupted sleep to saddle up and get underway.  Even the breakfast buffet in the lobby was still hours away so we made a stop at a convenient store to load up my coffee thermos and grab something to munch.  This had a familiar ring to it.  If we hadn't been riding in a manager's Jeep, it would have been just like the thousands of other wee-hour expeditions to get on trains over the years.  Zero-dark-thirty is well known to train crews.

The sun was a faint smudge over the hills when we got to the yard but the railroad police and a pack of officials were already patrolling up and down the sleeper cars.  We got a wave from a well-armed special agent past what looked very much like a checkpoint to get to the train.  I was expecting someone to bark, "Papers!" but I guess the hi-viz vests and goofy-looking safety glasses gave us away as T and E.  Nobody else in the world would wear the things. 
In truth, I actually had a brand new vest for the occasion as my everyday working one is only yellow about halfway up the front from too many brushes against greasy engines.  The bosses thought we should at least try to keep up appearances for the big show so a couple of fresh ones suddenly became available and we went well-dressed if not wildly enthusiastic.

With the actual crack of dawn, the System Road Foreman (who would ride the head-end with us) came along to get the party started.  This guy is the one I ultimately answer to on all things engineering and so I was somewhat nervous about his presence.  Here was another of the reputed evil career-killers who as it turns out, isn't anything like the hype.  He's younger than I am and soon proved to be basically a pleasant guy to work with.  I have no illusions that he could in fact probably be a hard-ass should the occasion warrant or he wouldn't be wearing the title but for now, he seemed mostly interested in getting the circus on the road with a minimum of uproar and finding more coffee.  I voiced a couple of concerns and questions about handling the train but he seemed relatively unconcerned.  His advice was to just do what I know and not worry about it.  He did mention that we'd undoubtedly be the first to catch hell if anything was unsatisfactory back in the coaches but waved it off as unlikely.  He inspected the units for me and signed the daily cards before drifting off to fill his coffee cup while my conductor and I chewed over the bulletins and tried to think positively.

Other official-types were about including my division superintendent who I'd met on other occasions so at least I recognized him when he strolled up and said good morning.  His first question for me was to ask how many times I'd run the business train in the past, to which my answer was of course, "Zip" except for the unoccupied deadhead move two days prior.  They don't exactly let you borrow their zillion-dollar, pimped-out, rock-star train-set just for practice so the opportunity had never presented itself.  You go locked and loaded the first time you step up to the plate and hope for the best.  I allowed as how I was pretty familiar with the territory having run it for years but had never actually pulled a passenger gig before.
He looked a little surprised by that revelation and casually mentioned that a little run-in of slack on the head-end translates to taking people off their feet on the rear.  Like I needed to know that.  He advised caution, wished me well and then was off leaving me to wonder what my next career would possibly be after today.  No stress.

Shortly before we launched for the run home, the CEO came by once again with a grin and encouragement.  As before, he was easy to chat with and seemed completely at ease.  Whatever business they might be pursuing back in those cars is so far beyond my ken that it's unlikely I could comprehend any of it and I'm sure the pressure was up there in his world just as it was in mine.  Different scales of pressure I'm sure but for the moment, all of that was put aside and I could have been talking to some guy at the bike shop about my next set of tires.  He also wished me luck and went on his way.  A day at the office for him I suppose but that camper of his I was going to drive was giving me the jitters.  It's probably a stock line since he does this all the time but it was kind of fun to hear him comment, "Don't worry.  If anything goes wrong, we just fire the Road Foreman."  I know better but as was intended, it took the edge off a little.

With all the formalities finished and everyone aboard, it was finally time to earn my keep.  The jump seats were occupied by Road Foremen from two railroads and my conductor and I took up our long-accustomed positions left and right.  A final check on the radio to the train to make sure we had all the VIPs and suddenly it was showtime.

Now in full daylight and miraculously on schedule, the signal in front of us turned green for our track and the curtain went up.  With a honk of the horn and the bell ringing, I took one last gulp, snipped back the throttle, eased out the slack and tiptoed out of the siding and onto the main.  How did I ever get myself into this?  Hordes of photographers were festooned on every vantage point until we got out of town.  You could almost hear the whir of motor-drives over the racket in the cab.  Such dedication.

Determined to give it a good shot or at least go down fighting, I dragged the brakes through the first couple of sags, feeling it out once again.  A steep, nasty little dip went by and we were now on an uphill without killing anyone as of yet.  As I said, these are freight brakes on passenger equipment so if you release them at all, you have to release them all the way.  You can ease off the throttle but not the brakes.  This complicates things when also trying to maintain a constant speed and learning it as you go.  Think of it as taking your foot all the way off the brake pedal of your car and then having to wait a couple of minutes before you can use it again.  It takes a little planning or at least dumb luck to make it work.  Luck was with me so far and the RFs looked relieved.  I, on the other hand was already sweating in the air-conditioning with a hundred plus miles still to go. 

The fact that my side window was riveted shut (which I'd noted the night before but hadn't thought much about) started to make a difference when I realized I couldn't look back and see the train.  I have a long-established practice of sticking my head out the window and watching for things like sparks or smoke from the cars and have been rewarded by actually finding them a few times.  With the window closed beside me and a full-width locomotive body at my back, I felt like I was half blind.  Trying to turn around to look out the non-existent rear window gave me a great view of a blank door and a grin from the RF.  He allowed as how everybody does that, the only difference being how many times in one trip.  I managed to get the side mirror where I wanted it and promptly swivelled my seat to gaze at the back wall once again.  Old habits die hard.  It wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things but you fall back on what you know when the pressure's on.  Like rubbing a rabbits foot, I needed the familiar.  Not finding it, I resigned myself to seeing a lot of that wall and soldiered on.

I do know there was some chit-chat among my three cab-mates as the day went along but I really can't remember much of it.  I had my eyes constantly jumping between the speedo, air gauges, rear wall and out the windshield looking for the next low spot that would require a stretch to keep the slack tight.  I found that the train handled nicely even when loaded but also learned it's reaction time is very fast.  It would jump over the speed limit in a second if I looked away from the speed indicator too long or was a tad late getting the air set for a downhill.  My boss seemed content to study a track chart and if he was watching the proceedings with a critical eye, he didn't let on.  So far so good.

A snag developed when we rolled over our first wayside defect detector.  I wondered if it would behave since I was dragging the train against the brakes and had been for a while to keep it slowed down.  A hit on the hotbox detector would really be less than ideal so I hoped the wheels were cool enough for the detector to let us slide.  It did but it's radio message included "Detector Malfunction".  Crap.  The CPRR gods couldn't even get us by this thing the one time when it really mattered.  A call to the dispatcher couldn't get us an office indication of what was wrong so it was 30 mph until we could get a roll-by inspection of both sides.  Our shadowing local Road Foreman caught us at a couple of crossings in the next few miles to give us a twice-over and luckily got us back up to speed.

From there, it's kind of a blur of brakes, throttle, horn and worry.  I expected to see nothing but green on the signals for a move like this and that's exactly what we got.  I'm sure the CP wanted nothing more than to have this thing off their property and out of their hair as quickly as possible.  Every other train went in the hole for us and I got my first taste of running the hottest thing on the railroad.  I don't think I've ever been so focused on getting it right.  I know there was times when I went too deep on the brakes and had to yank pretty hard but all I cared about was making sure I never felt that little bump the superintendent was talking about.  I had visions of vice-presidents plastered against the bulkheads and various department heads draped over the tables with lunch pressed firmly into their ties.  It must have worked.  The halfway point came and went without a hint of my imminent dismissal.  The sun was still shining and I was still employed...miracles never cease.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Second Bite of OCS

Day Two

After doing our best to demolish the free breakfast buffet at the hotel, we left on a hike about the neighborhood to settle down the muffins and kill time.  We were scheduled to re-assemble the train when it came in from New England late that afternoon so until the appointed hour, we wandered around the streets like mall-rats peering in store windows. Since we were only going to switch around in the yard and not hit the road till the following day, I wasn't worried about getting caught short on sleep for a change.  Not that I could have napped after 8 gallons of coffee anyway...

Later on, as I was just rummaging around in the hotel room getting ready to head to the train, I suddenly felt the building moving under my feet. This is most unusual behavior for the majority of buildings I'm familiar with, especially large and substantially built hotels. My first thought was high winds but a glance out at the sunny sky and stationary trees cancelled that.  The fancy mirrored closet doors were banging open and closed and the water in the toilet bowl was trying to leap over the rim. I wondered for a moment if it was possible to hallucinate on a coffee overdose.  The gyrations went on just long enough for me to wonder what the hell just happened, paused a moment then did it all again.  So now I've had my first experience with an honest-to-west-coast earthquake. It was the weirdest sensation I've ever known without a concussion. The shaking was enough to make it hard to walk and I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to experience a really damaging quake. It only lasted a few seconds and I later found out the epicenter was actually several hundred miles away in central Virginia.  A long ways away from us to be sure but it was enough to send track patrols out to check for shifted rails and bridges all over the northeast. When I said the earth would move before I'd take a special train I guess I wasn't kidding.  The TV was still breathlessly running the story when I left to meet the Road Foreman for a ride to the yard. 

As advertised, the now-occupied-with-big-names train showed up and the three railroads involved once again tried to out-order each other on how the moves were going to occur.  When everyone is nervous, nothing ever works out.  Just as the day before, the orders changed repeatedly and I finally retreated to a locomotive cab where at least no one was actively pacing or waving their arms.  Our mission was to get the sleeper cars back on the train and stitch the four units back together for the run home in the morning.  Simple and only slightly complicated by the fact that while we were switching, dinner would also be served in the dining car.  The RFE repeatedly reminded me (in case I didn't get it the first time) that I had to make the hitch on the cars like they were glass or I'd wipe everything off the tables and into well-tailored VIP laps, thereby lowering my (and likely his) career expectations considerably.  No stress.

As these things seem to do somehow, the whole affair eventually sorted itself out and a finished product started taking shape.  At one point though, I noticed flashing lights out on the street and looked up long enough to realize that the whole roadside running along the yard was jammed with people.  The police had the block closed off and onlookers, photographers, kids and what looked like half the local populace was lined up watching us do what we do.  I've seen the rail buffs before but this was over the top.  Who'da thunk it?  It is a shiny train and all but really?  There was camera lenses out there that cost more than my truck.  I figured they could see what color eyes I have if they focused on the windshield.  I wondered if I'd scratched myself inappropriately in the last hour and if it was already on YouTube.

After some further minor confusion, I wound up heading back to make that all-important hitch on the dining car.  We took a momentary pause in there for some reason that I can't even remember and as I sat waiting for the next call on the radio, I was surprised to see a set of hands coming up on the door frame followed by a neatly fitted-out gentleman in over-large safety glasses.  This was the CEO of the carrier.

Before I could get out of the seat, he shook my hand and introduced himself.  My conductor radioed the next move at the same moment but I called a quick stand-by and had a couple minutes with the boss of the bosses.  He was extremely pleasant and chatty but what tickled me the most was his interest in our Tour de Cure team.  He knew I was the captain and that was pretty much what we talked about.  He rides in the Tour every year in Virginia on the huge home-office team but still wanted to hear about our little show.  It was the high note of the day to know he noticed us.  Too soon, his phone rang and he took a call but the noise in the engine made it impossible for him to hear so with an apology, he slid out the door and was gone.  In the meantime, the conductor told me the RFE (who didn't know about my cab guest) was almost having a seizure because I wasn't moving.  Oh well, when the guy that owns the train wants to stop in and say hello, he gets to do just that.  Rank hath it's privilege.

Back to work, I tried to make that lousy hitch on the diner so easy that an egg on the knuckle would never jiggle.  Repeated efforts however failed to make the pin on the coupler drop.  Our intrepid road foreman was beside himself.  By now, all the worry about hitting it gently went out the window as it finally took a good old boxcar smack to get a good hook.  I hoped nobody needed extra napkins.

With that, the train was built and ready for the ride the following morning.  It felt like I'd been running the thing all day even though it was only a couple of hours.  The pucker-factor had been a little higher on the scale than I typically like but we managed to get through it with our careers intact.

I was thinking as we headed back to the hotel that evening that I was relieved to have met some of the people who'd be on the trip as we'd been backing and forthing during the afternoon.  In between moves, a few of my multi-titled passengers had stopped by and I'd found them to be nothing but courteous.  Some of my friends said later that when you have that kind of pull, you can afford to be nice to the peasantry but I prefer to think they were being genuine and let it go at that.  The pre-supposition I'd had of hauling a train-load of high-powered people with attitudes faded with the daylight and actually started to think I might survive this.  We piled our bags in the back of the manager's truck and went for dinner on the carrier.  That adventure will be for another tale.

We'd be on the train again at about dawn for the big show so I set my alarm and put in a wake-up call just to be sure.  Like I was going to sleep much anyway....

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Bite Sized Post...The OCS

I'm still here gang.  Really.  I've been tapping away at a little memoir from this past summer but it keeps getting longer and longer without coming to a Happily Ever After quite yet.  To spare you the tedious slog through a ridiculously long post, I've decided to chop it up into bite-sized chunks that will hopefully be a little more palatable.  My first attempt at a serial I guess.  It still may take a while but at least it'll look like I'm doing more than getting distracted by YouTube every time I light up my computer.  The summer has gone to frost but I promised railroad stories...

I planned on doing this post right after the fact but the fact is, too many other misadventures cropped up around the Wayward Home in the mean (really mean) time. Let's just say it's been an eventful couple of months and get on with it.
The old blog finds itself getting pushed to the back burner more than I like between working all the time and...well, working all the time. That being said, I'm finally putting fingers to keys and getting it done before the facts fade into fiction and this becomes just another well-embellished rail tale.

Here then, after much delay is the story of the OCS.

Day One

In early August, my local Road Foreman of Engines approached me to run the Office Car Special, the infamous OCS train.  For those less connected with the railroad world, this train is sort of a hotel/conference center/restaurant on rails.  It's used by the carrier to haul officials touring the realm or on other assorted corporate gigs stratospherically above my pay grade.  The Kentucky Derby comes to mind...  It's actually a rolling resort with its own chefs, stewards, security detail and mechanical forces. They don't call it 'varnish' for nothing as a trip on the thing can hardly be classified as 'roughing it'.  On this outing, it would come into my charge equipped with four spiffy "F" engines, sleeper cars, a diner, observation cars etc. but more importantly it would also contain the CEO of our company and a long list of notables viewing the railroad and politicking.  No one on the passenger manifest had less than three initials after their name, most beginning with VP of something or Chief Officer of something else.  Tacked on the head end is a boxcar loaded to the doors with stress for the crew.  No pressure.

Having heard more than a few horror stories about what a nightmare this train can be, I was somewhat reluctant to take the bait even though I was intrigued by the idea of running the old "F" units at least once in my career. Challenge of something new aside, I remembered that it is commonly known as "The Punisher" because almost everyone who runs it gets punished in one form or another.  It also has other less-than-inspiring nicknames such as "The CEO"...short for Career Ending Opportunity.  What had I gotten myself into?

Adding to my indecision was the fact that I know almost nothing about passenger train operations except what I've picked up from various rumors and hearsay. I'd never pulled anything behind me in 14 years that could outright fire me if it didn't like the ride.  Flatcars rarely complain if I run the slack in and out too much. This was another ball game. The train is not equipped with dynamic brakes so everything has to be done the old fashioned way...put on the air and drag it.  At least the brakes are a standard freight setup, not passenger so at least it looked familiar. Something else to think about.

The deal was done when I came to the conclusion that the only way they were going to give me my requested time off for the Tour de Cure was to cave in and take the train. Something about one hand washing the other...

As is my usual mode of operation, I fretted about it and called everybody I could think of for advice or at least a heads-up on possible career moves if I got my silly self fired off the thing. I hoped I could figure it out well enough to avoid the worst but with so many big names aboard, the odds seemed less than ideal. I bought a lottery ticket just in case.

The whole event was scheduled to take three days so I took a midnight call and kissed my wife goodbye until Wednesday.  I got a glimpse of coaches and idling engines as I drove in the parking lot, hoping it wouldn't be the last train I ever ran.  The first order of business on our arrival was to deadhead the train without the officials aboard to get it in position for the big show. A couple of guys minding the store would be our only passengers for the first leg.  Walking out with my grip to load up I found it waiting, looking shiny and intimidating. I fired up another 'B' unit for the climb over the first hill and tried to settle in. It really isn't that much different than any other train from the right seat. Same old familiar EMD control stand, everyday radio and head-end box but that sure is a funny shaped windshield out there. So far, so good.

A fly landed in the ointment about a mile into the trip. The CP dispatcher dropped the bomb on us that one of their freights was stalled on the back side of the hill and it would be 'a while' before they could rescue it. "A while" in railroad parlance could be anything from an hour to a week. The hours indeed started to pass as our time on duty inexorably ticked away. The RFE paced and worked his phone. Eventually, a monstrous bag of junk freight and intermodals in the charge of a relief crew slid past us clearing a path over the hill. Shortly thereafter, we finally got the ok for launch from Minneapolis to leave town. Hurdle number one.

The trip up wasn't actually too bad. I spent some time getting acquainted with how the thing handled and feeling out the brakes.  Nothing was smoking much at the bottom of the hill so I guess it was ok. The sun came up in our eyes just like it has a million other times heading up north and I almost relaxed a little. I know the ups and downs pretty well so it was just a matter of getting the timing right.

The real fun began again once we got to our crew-change point to hand off to the Pan Am guys taking it on to Massachussetts. We were scheduled to chop up the train so our new compadres from New England could put their own set of fancy power in the lead along with an office car or two. No big deal except we were now short on time, the dispatcher was on her first day solo and there were officials from three railroads trying to give orders and look official.  On top of it all, I was starting to fizzle out from the all nighter. I finally retreated to the cab while the assorted bosses tried to out-boss each other and come up with a workable plan of attack. I was too tired to argue.

After a suitable interval of snorting and hoof-pawing among the leadership, orders reached my radio and the move got underway. Of course, it immediately changed and confusion reigned. I guess the job briefing was a little too brief but my conductor had it figured out anyway.  I had an idea what we were trying to accomplish so I just went slow while the mess sorted itself out. Patience as they say, is a virtue.  With time on our hours-of-service now down to almost zip, we set out to turn two of the four engines and all the sleeper cars and get it parked before we blew up. It was almost a photo-finish but as the clock ran out, we shut it down and tied it up where we were supposed to be almost like we planned it. Hurdle number two.

We were dropped off after the festivities at a pretty high-zoot (for a train crew anyway) hotel and then abandoned to fend for ourselves until the following afternoon.  Airline crews would probably consider the place slumming but it was a couple notches above our usual digs.  I'm not used to a hotel room with a couch, a coffee table and more than two towels in the bathroom but it was nearby and the carrier was paying so who am I to nitpick? I collapsed for a while but the bright sunshine was too much to allow for any serious sleep so I eventually wandered out to find my conductor and locate some dinner. We hooked up with a band of CP officials that happened to be stationed in the same hotel and wound up having a pretty good time chatting and yukking it up at the expense of our employers (figuratively speaking...we don't rate a corporate credit card). The CP road foreman who would be riding with us on the train was most reassuring in that he figured he'd get fired just as quickly as I would if anything went wrong so at least I'd have company filing for unemployment. I finally realized that I was about running on empty from lack of meaningful sleep so I called it a day. I don't even remember turning out the light.  Tomorrow we'd do it again.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's Getting Late (A Photo Journey)

So I went for a ride last weekend.  Not too unusual for me really.  This time though was a little different.  The weather is getting pretty cool and I left before the sun found it's way into the valleys so I bundled up a little.  Long, thermal riding pants and a couple extra layers of shirt under the windbreaker.  I wasn't really in a hurry so I figured I'd go uphill first to get above the low fog and warm up along the way.  I picked out a road I haven't been on in a while with about a 2 mile climb to reach the top.  The sunshine was waiting when I popped out from between the ridges and the cold misty stuff fell behind.

I remembered doing this same hill on my old Raleigh Record one day when it was about 90 degrees after I got home from work.  Why I took on a climb like that when I was already shot escapes me.  I think I stood up most of the way but never stopped until I made it.  Seems like it was a lot tougher going on the steel 10 speed but maybe it was only the heat.  Anyway, since I wasn't out to overachieve on this fall day, I dropped into creeper-low and just spun until the familiar right-hand curve announced that the climb was done.  The view was worth it.

I'm usually glad when I remember to stuff a camera in my bag on one of these little forays and this trip was no exception.  As they say, sometimes you can see forever if you just look.

My travels led over the next ridge line and after a screaming downhill that reminded me that the ambient temperature was still only in the 40's, I stopped to regain the feeling in my fingers at a small lake shore campground and recreation area known as Park Station.  It's a booming place in the summer with a man made beach, ball diamonds and all the other normal warm weather goodies but now, sneaking up on November, it was mostly deserted.  I like places like this when it's so still.  There's something about that quiet that's good for my soul...

I think this guy probably would understand...

As is the usual way with these things, after I left the lake, I just kept pointing the front wheel wherever the notion led me and changed my mind about a destination maybe ten times per minute until I finally ended up on another back road semi-headed toward home.  The sun was up high but still cool and teasing me to peel a layer or two but unzipping the windbreaker was enough to convince me otherwise.  I still had to climb back over a ridge line to get looped around so it was middle-ring and spin once again.  Going slower on a long, steady uphill and without the wind to drown out everything, I caught the sound of a big red-tail hollering at me from about a mile above and turkeys arguing with the crows two hedges away.  I knew who was doing laundry on a Sunday when I'd get a sniff of dryer sheets from houses I passed.  For some, it was trash or leaf burning day and then the smell of an angry skunk somewhere followed me for miles.  I wound up at a crossroads on top of a hill that I've only seen once in my travels.  You'd think I'd have seen them all a couple of times by now but...not quite yet.  The downhill sign is not kidding.

The layers were too much after the climb but I knew the descent would be cold again so I grabbed a Clif and a stretch before the drop back down to the valleys and home.  As I remembered, the drop off the hill was steep and twisty but I didn't know the local highway guys had sprinkled the corners with loose stone.  A couple of tense moments later, I made it down intact and headed out on the last leg for the Wayward Home.  I had to take one more look over my shoulder and catch one more shot.

I know the season is winding down and soon it'll be snow and salt again which takes the Trek off the road till spring but I'll take what I can and see what I can see while there's still a little sun.  I'm already wishing for May.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

So What Else Is New? (Long Delay)

There really is a reason (or maybe a couple) why I've been going so long between posts these days.

Life around the NWH (New Wayward Home...for the uninitiated) is still and always an adventure.  Along about the end of August after a spring littered with tornadoes (in upstate NY for crying out loud), a sideswipe from a hurricane and an earthquake (again...all this in upstate NY?), I made the mistake of asking myself what could possibly be next.  Really?  Remind me never to ask that again.  I thought laughingly of maybe a volcano or perhaps a minor asteroid strike (since I had just watched a re-run of 'Armageddon' in the hotel) but what did I know?

The floods came shortly thereafter.  The slogging-wet remains of Tropical Storm Lee plodded up from the Gulf of Mexico, stalled over the northeast and just sat over our heads while all the water drained out of it.  It rained like the proverbial cow pissing on a flat rock for days.  We were already soaked from Hurricane Irene's near-miss so the inches-per-hour downpour from Lee was more than the ground could handle.  The rain fell straight down in sheets and curtains hour after hour until the little creek under my driveway was roaring like a monster.  I figured the OWH (Old Wayward Home) would have water in the basement before long and sure enough, our tenant called to say there was suddenly 6 inches and it was climbing fast.
Connor and I saddled up with boots and rain gear to start the pumps and hopefully get ahead of the rush.  I had two sumps running and figured we had it when the floor re-appeared about 3 hours later.  I was actually thinking about calling it a night when I noticed the slowly-but-steadily dropping water level very suddenly reversed itself and started back across the concrete and up the wall.  This is not good.
I called my sister and she brought over another big pump.  I even rigged the little one we use to get the water off the pool cover to do it's little bit to help.  The water continued to climb regardless of all efforts.  My Big Sis made it home but later said the road had disappeared on her way there under a black, fast-moving sheet studded with tree stumps and a possible cow or two.
In the meantime, the basement pool was now back to square one and still rising.  We had four pumps running and we were losing.  I killed the power to the water heater and furnace but could only watch as the pond got deeper and the rain came on like I've never seen.  My tenant and I tried digging diversion ditches to funnel the surface water away from the cellar steps but the rain was coming too fast and too heavy for it to make much difference.  In desperation, we decided to call the fire department for a pump-out but they too had surrendered for the night or at least until the deluge slowed down.  They had whole towns disappearing and my basement was the least of their worries.  The crews were exhausted and most roads impassable anyway so there was no hope of seeing them until daylight at the earliest.
I eventually tried to rig a swimming pool pump as a last resort but couldn't make it work and so finally, for the first time, I gave up.
I had the tenant keep an eye on the rising water and told him to call me when it got near the breaker panel, then headed for home to catch a nap.  An hour later, the power went off.

Without pumps running, the flood level came up fast so John waded through the thigh-deep water to reach the panel box and shut off everything before the inevitable wiring disaster when the box went under.  Luckily, the juice came back on before the breakers submerged so I stripped to skivvies and waded back in to turn the main on and get the pumps running.  Nothing like flipping a 200 amp breaker connected to pumps through a web of extension cords while standing in water up to my...well you get the picture.  My procreating days are long over but the idea of getting jazzed to death by that route was worse than the freezing-cold water.  Some things I'd just rather not think about.

Finally, dawn came and the rain subsided enough for the pumps to catch up.  The floor re-appeared but to stay ahead of the leaking foundation required two pumps all day long.  We took a drive around town and found we couldn't get very far because most of the roads were fast-running rivers and a sizable chunk of the valley was a lake.  In actuality, we got off easy.  It seemed like a crisis doing battle with our one little cellar but almost everything to the east of us was simply demolished.  Whole sections of towns along the rivers went under in a matter of hours.  When the crest came, it was the worst flooding in this area since 1972 and some said it was close to the 1936 monster that just about wiped out the whole region.  That makes two "Floods of the Century" in less than 5 years for us...I think that'll do for now.

The wreckage is slowly disappearing around the area and the mud-lines have finally washed off from halfway up the tree trunks but it'll still be months, if ever before anything resembling normal life comes back for those who really got hammered.  It was quite a fight at the OWH but I can't help but thank our lucky stars we got out as lightly as we did.

I'll never again ask..."What's next?"

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rain

It's another dark and rainy day at the Wayward Home.  And I mean pouring-straight-down, all-day-soaker, enough-is-enough-already rainy.  It's the last gasp of tropical storm Lee blowing itself out and dumping half the Gulf of Mexico into my swimming pool.  There's flooding all over the area and travel is getting a bit tricky even for vehicles.  The first day of school in my district is closing early due to high water and closed roads.  There's no bicycle weather in sight.  It's a great day for ducks and bloggers.

Looking out the back door at my overflowing pool I've reached a conclusion.  Since I'm old and have certain prerogatives befitting a man of my advanced age, I've chosen to stay mostly dry, ignore my good intentions and decline the semi-planned, celebrate-my-birthday-late-Century bike ride that I had in the works for today.  As is common in my line of work, I missed the actual day of my birth and noted it's passing from the right-hand seat of a locomotive.  I did fully intend to make up for it by putting another hundred miles on the Trek as soon as I got home however.  Then along came the rain and washed the spider out...
I had it in my head this morning to go anyway despite the downpour but there's not much incentive to drown myself pedaling through a monsoon just to prove I can.  Younger hammerheads who haven't been beaten half to death riding a Harley in the rain are welcome to earn their stripes today but I think I'll take a pass.  There's dedicated and then there's lunacy.

And man is it raining hard.  This next catastrophe courtesy of the weather will undoubtedly lead to track closures due to washouts and downed trees for days if not weeks.  The lines have only been reopened for about a week now after Hurricane Irene took out sizable chunks of roadbed and dropped about a thousand trees across the ROW.  I guess I shouldn't have asked after the earthquake and hurricane what was next. 

It was pouring the whole way home on my last trip back from Harrisburg so the ground is already saturated and rain rates of inches-per-hour is certain to bring down the hillsides and take out the culverts yet again.  I hate working when this kind of crap is going on.

Long stretches of my route are 'dark territory' meaning trains run on paper 'Warrants' that grant authority to occupy the track instead of signals on the wayside.  The 'dark' part is means more than just that there's no signal lights along the way.  It also means there's no way the dispatcher or a train can tell anything about what's out there until somebody gets eyes on it and reports in.  This has led to some pretty awful events in the past and the potential is still there.  Moving water is a powerful thing and since most my run follows river grades for miles, I get a little bit uneasy when conditions get like they are today.  Mudslides studded with stumps and rocks are a real possibility and fallen trees are almost a certainty.  Darkness and fog only make it worse as you can't see far enough ahead to even slow down before you hit something large and leafy or drop into a hole full of fast-flowing water.

My first brush with a washout taught me quite a bit about what heavy rain can do.  A homeward trip in flash-flood weather brought us down to Restricted Speed along the river that the track parallelled.  Restricted Speed means that you have to run slow enough to be able to stop in half the distance you can clearly see.  When it's pitch dark and raining in sheets, that's not very far or very fast.  Good thing.

I tiptoed along for many miles until at one point something out in the headlights didn't quite seem right.  It almost looked like the track was moving.  Track is not normally supposed to move.  I stopped and the conductor and I walked ahead to take a peek at what I was pretty sure was an optical illusion brought on by staring intently into the dark too long.  Again, good thing.

What we found was water rushing down a steep bank like Niagara, then using the rails as a guide to change direction and shoot along about a hundred yards straight at us before diving under the ties and taking the roadbed with it.  While we stood there, the hole got visibly bigger and the washout moved appreciably closer to the front of the engine.  This is certainly not a good thing.

I happened to have two brand-spanking new Canadian National engines on the train that night and it was shaping up like they might find them and us in a Pennsylvania river along with half the cars by morning.  I was pretty sure the CN would be most unhappy if I destroyed a pair of engines that still smelled of fresh paint by sinking them in a flood.  A quick try on the radio found that the relay towers were down which left us unable to contact anyone with our predicament.  I started thinking about how much I hate swimming in cold water.

We were out of options so the conductor suited up and started hoofing it for the rear end of the train to protect road crossings behind us so hopefully, I could shove the thing back.  He didn't get far before he found more knee-deep, fast-moving water swirling toward the river blocking the way.  He resorted to hanging onto the cars and trying to work his way along without getting washed downstream.  It was slow going and we really didn't have all that much time.  I left the headlights on and watched the hole in front of me eat it's way under the rails, steadily getting larger and closer.  I could hear rocks rolling down the newly formed rapids in front of the engine and the rain just kept on coming.  Finally, as the ballast stones started dropping away about twenty feet in front of the snowplow, I called my half-drowned CO and told him to get up on a car and stay there while I backed up and away from the abyss.  A few more minutes and those shiny units would be in the drink and that new-car smell in the cab would be only a memory.  I could only hope the track was still intact behind us or we'd be pushing cars into the river.  The rails in front of me were visibly drooping lower as the support under them disappeared so the choices were pretty limited.  There's times when you just have to do what you can and hope for the best.  I pushed the train slowly back about 50 yards or so until it looked like the ground was solid again and the water wasn't over the top of the railheads.  Safe for now.

For some reason, the radio towers came back to life and we were eventually able to reach the dispatcher just about the time the conductor got to the last car.  We got permission to back up a mile or so to clear the road crossings of a town and that was all she wrote for that trip except for a van ride home.  A MOW foreman came out to assess the damage sometime after we got safely parked.  He set his pickup on in front of us and hi-railed to the washout for a peek.  He must have made some quick phone calls because while we waited for our taxi, a string of dump trucks loaded with big chunks of rip-rap stone and gravel started to arrive and soon a mountain of fill was growing beside the track.  The dispatcher came up on the radio and asked the foreman how long he thought it would be until he could run trains again.  You could almost hear the track man shake his head when he answered, "I've been dumping rocks into the hole since I got here and we still can't find the bottom.  It's gonna be a while."  And so it was.

I found out I should have a bit of respect for high water that night.  We kind of get used to thinking of trains as the biggest and baddest things going but something as simple as a couple days of no-kidding  rain can bring the tough guys to their knees.  Lesson learned.

I already know I'll have burning eyeballs from staring into the rain when I go back out again.  Maybe next week I can do that Century unless...I won't even ask this time what could be next.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Tour of 2011

Holy Lost Month Batman!

August came and went in a rush of busy days and full-bore craziness.  The lead-up to the Tour de Cure, the Office Car Special, an earthquake, a hurricane...where to begin?
I lost track of the Wayward Home somewhere around mid-month as the Tour closed in, sometime after my vacation in July.  I guess that's as good a place as any to start picking up the pieces.

I was off for a little over two weeks and blissfully unaware of RR doings as is my wont when I don't have to worry about going to work.  I try to forget everything track-related for as long as possible to the point of having to be re-trained when I go back.  It's good for the soul.

But this time around I had to keep my mind just a little bit on the a non-engineering sort of way. A pretty good chunk of my vacation was spent working on our corporate Tour de Cure bicycle team for this year so I had a different sort of training on my mind.  Since I somehow fell into the Captain spot (my wife caught it last year because neither of us knew any better) I was doing a constant running dance trying to make it all happen and make it successful.  The closer it got, the busier I was.

Backtracking a little more, sometime last year I agreed to help lay out new routes for the Tour since we had a change of venue for a starting line.  This led to much Google Mapping and driving around the countryside checking and re-checking mileages, conditions, hills, hazards, etc.  It also entailed doing a bunch of arrow-painting all over about 5 counties during the week before the ride.  It used up a lot of my available time off and even more of my wife's patience.

So as the event got near, it was crunch time.  We'd done a ton of fundraising, a bunch of riding, a few events, volumes of emails and hundreds of phone calls to get the team to Tour day.  I spent Friday packing up all our assorted stuff and putting the final tweaks on my faithful Trek but found I couldn't fall asleep despite the ridiculously early hour I had to be back up.  I finally dozed for about 3 hours before the alarm went off for showtime.  I slithered out of bed, took one last look for what I might have missed and hit the road long before the sun came up.

It still wasn't even hinting of daybreak when I got to the site but there was a bunch of other early-birds already putting up tents, traffic cones, tables and all the other paraphernalia that such an event requires.  I blundered around in the dark for a while but eventually found the spot for our team tent and started unloading.  By now I realized that as expected, I'd forgotten stuff and called my still-snoozing wife with panic-stricken requests to bring said stuff with her.  The response was predictably unenthusiastic but as always, she found what I had missed and tossed it in the van.

As it got a little brighter in the east, the team started showing up and more hands made things come together a bit faster.  The tent and tables were suddenly up, the banners hung and it looked almost like we were ready...

Our dedication family was there soon after and the pace picked up.  Before I knew what hit me, it was 7am and time to go. I was still meeting people as the pack rolled out and hit the road on the northbound leg of the Century.  How did this happen so fast?  I'm not ready yet...I've still got stuff to do...I don't even know some of my team...never mind for now...just pedal.

Our resident hammer-heads took off like a shot not to be seen again until much later while my old riding partner, the Good Dr. Annabel and I took up positions with some of the not-so-fast-and-furious.  The tradition we started on our first Tour is that no one on our team gets left behind to ride alone.  That's something I'm pretty proud of and work hard at maintaining.  I can't see asking someone to ride with us and then blasting off to leave them in the dust so Doc and I formed a cheering section and spun in the little rings.  It's worth it to see people conquer that 10 mile climb out of the valley when they doubted they'd ever make it.  It's quite an accomplishment for a new teammate to look back and see that long hill behind instead of in front the first time!

From there on out for fifty miles, we just rolled along taking in the scenery with Angie, one of our original team members from last year who was attempting her first Century.

I haven't met too many people more determined than Ang.  She walked a few hills, dug in and climbed the rest, gritted her teeth and fought the bonk like a champ for 50 honest-to-God miles before the shakes finally got too bad in Geneva and she had to get off the bike.  She never surrendered though, just took a rain check on the 100 and vowed triple digits next time.  A lot of people got around the lake faster but not too many can claim they tried harder.

The Doctor and the Captain were now the dead-last pair on the Century.  This had certain advantages in that we had our own personal SAG truck and no waiting in lines at the rest stops.  We tried to send the sweeper truck ahead in case someone else needed them as Doc and I are pretty good at taking care of our ownselves on the road but they wouldn't leave and so we became a two-bike parade for the second 50 miles.  The turn south for home brought a headwind so we pace-lined a while until we hit the hills again and progress slowed considerably.  The big guy was in a fix.

Doc and I have ridden together for years and so we know a thing or two about doing distance.  We both did our first Century on the 2010 Tour and have thrashed mountain bikes and roadies to exhaustion more often than I can remember.  Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to ride much lately and the lack of miles was taking a toll.  You have to understand that Doc is quite frankly a huge man who's hands could probably cover my whole head with his fingers locked.  He also has legs that routinely snap spokes off the hubs and that have been known to twist high-end frames to destruction.  The catch is, being that strong burns a lot of calories and sometimes he can't replace them fast enough to stay ahead of the bonk.  The shortage of pre-Century saddle time also had him somewhat at a disadvantage for the fight and so our average speed continued to drop. 

I was almost starting to think he'd give up for the first time in our long acquaintance but then he glared at me on a steep uphill, told me to shut the **** up and stopped talking.  I knew he was now angry and so all doubt of his eventual success evaporated.  We were long overdue off the loop and the Tour was officially closed but I wouldn't have wanted to be the one to tell Doc we couldn't finish.  It wouldn't matter if it took till midnight, he was mad and come hell or high water, we were making it back.  We put in at the last rest stop and Ang got back on her bike to finish the homestretch 20 miles while I poured ice water over Doc to recharge him for the final leg.

It was kind of a blur from there on until my cell rang at about 10 miles out.  Chris wanted to know where we were and if we were going to make it.  Since Doc was now a speck in the distance ahead, I allowed as how we'd definitely be along fairly soon.  He said his computer topped out at near 50 mph on the last downhill and so with that screaming descent, the tail-enders staggered into town.  We turned a corner about 4 miles from the finish and to our delight, there sat a big contingent of Team NS waiting for us and cheering.  Doc was near collapse and didn't dare even stop lest he not get started again so the pack fell in behind and we made for the finish line.  True to another team tradition, we held up traffic at the last stop light to make way for everybody to get through together.  I don't think any vehicle drivers were anxious to debate the short pause with the glaring monster named Doc who was stopped in the middle of the lane with his hand up.  Without a hitch, everyone made the turn and so, whooping and laughing like maniacs, Team NS rode for home.

Doc and Ang led us across the line...true to form, dead last but still a team.  A bunch of red, white, blue and yellow jerseys wheeling in long after the crowd was gone.  The only ones still around were the clean-up crews breaking down tents.  We didn't care.  We brought in our last riders and no one was left to finish alone.  That my friends, makes me proud to be on this team above all else.

I guess that's the reason I decided I'd take it on again for next year.  We done good guys!

After loading up the remaining stuff under the tent at Camp NS and discovering that I'd lost my truck keys, a large train of vehicles formed up in a caravan for the Wayward Home.  Chris's Mom had the grill going and burgers on when I finally made it in the driveway (Whew...Thanks Ann!).  I suddenly realized that I hadn't eaten anything but dry peanut butter sandwich quarters and Clif bars since about 4 am.  A mattress was calling like the Sirens but I tied myself to the mast (well, the picnic table anyway) and held off until the few remaining die-hards surrendered to exhaustion and headed for home. I'm not sure I was exactly coherent during any of this but everybody else looked a little glassy-eyed and wind-burned too so I don't think it mattered much.  Doc survived it all and in Doc fashion, recovered enough to swing in and yuk it up with us for a while...almost like his legs weren't really on fire and he wasn't looking at driving to Virginia in a few hours.  I lasted long enough to make a pass through the shower before succumbing to an earth-shaking collapse into the sheets that brought down the curtain on the 2011 Tour de Cure for well and all.  I found my keys a day later.

We wound up at the end of the day with people from 5 states, we raised a lot of money for the  American Diabetes Association, made a pack of new friends, rode a bunch of miles and learned a lot of things about being a team.  It was stressful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes wonderful, always interesting and a ton of fun to the very end.  It was an amazing experience to lead this bunch and so I can't sign off this post without...

Many, many thanks to all of the incredible Team our long-haul travellers, our monster fundraisers, our distance record-setters, everyone who pitched in when I asked and others who helped even when I didn't, to all of you who did so much just because...

But especially my thanks go to Chris for putting up with it all...

To the Cardone family for our inspiration...

And of course, my behind-the-scenes, couldn't-do-it-without-ya people...

Karin Stamy from the home office in head cheerleader and sounding board for my craziest ideas...always able to answer,  "What do I do now?"

Jess Bottoms, our Energizer Bunny Tour Manager...if ever there was a right girl for the job...

The guys from Kingsbury's Cyclery...Paul, you ain't seen nothing yet...

Tanner's Bar and Grill...Good thing Woodie's around 'cause John never answers his phone...

Big Footes Sporting Goods...Now those are some kinda GREAT shirts...

Thank you all!

Now let's talk about getting you guys signed up for next year...!!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Where The Hell Have You Been Mister?

I've been a little bit....busy.  Somewhere in the last couple of weeks I lost all my extra minutes and for the life of me, I can't figure out where I left them.  I'm still here but burning the candle at both ends with a torch.

Do not adjust your set.  We will return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

100 at 100

If anyone out in my little corner of the electronic world was watching yesterday, you might have caught my latest adventure in bicycle lunacy...I put on a little experiment in heat exhaustion and sweat production which will go down semi-officially as "The Hot 100". With a nod to the famous Billboard chart, this actually had nothing at all to do with the pop countdown. Although now that I think about it, my iPod did die about 40 miles out for lack of charging so I guess there's a tenuous music connection there somewhere.

The festivities began when I decided I was due for another Century while I was still on vacation. I'd been wanting to go when I didn't really have to worry much about how long it took or when I had to be back but scheduling conflicts meant that Thursday was the only chunk of time available for such an undertaking. I know my long-distance pace is pretty low so it's likely to be an all day thing once I leave the driveway.  I can't get underway at noon and have any hope of returning before dark at my less-than-impressive average speed. These things take time.

So to planning...something I do very little of except in the most vague and general way.  But having done this distance thing a few times now, I peeked at the National Weather Service site with a wary eye. Mostly this exercise is to check on whether I should figure on getting wet or not, which then determines if I need to pack extra zip-locks to keep electronics dry but this time it was not rain on the radar. The weather guys made it pretty clear it was going to be unabashedly, miserably, viciously and maybe dangerously hot. Yeah,'s July people, so noted. In my typically cavalier fashion, I was mostly undeterred by the big red EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING headline at the top of the page. It's going to be warm? Surprise, surprise.  Pack an ice bag baby...I'm going.

I was actually more interested in the fact that the wind was predicted to be out of the south at first and then swing to the west with gusts up to 25 mph. 25 mph in the face of a 15 mph rider means you're going backwards so there was some changes forthcoming in my planned general direction of travel. I figured if I headed west at the outset, I might be able to make the turn for home with following seas and a boost from the wind instead of a kick in the teeth when I can least afford it. Score one for the Gipper, that part actually worked out but more on it later.

I got up with Chris and the sun, loaded the frames and pockets with liquids, saddled up and was gone while the shadows were still long and deep in the valley. As predicted, the wind was at my tail at first and miles rolled away easily on fresh legs and cool temps. My semi-planned route was to go almost due west to Hammondsport and then up the west shore of Keuka Lake. From there it was a crapshoot depending on how hot it actually got and how much leg I had left. The one detail I forgot was that to get to Hammondsport from home requires a Cat 2 climb over the ridge between the lakes. With the wind on the bow and a hill under the tires, my speed dropped to about zip.

Eventually though I headed down out of the hills, picked up some speed and only had to dodge one idiot passing across the double line into my lane on the way to a rest stop in a park.

I noticed the temperature was getting a little above the comfort zone when a sip of Gatorade went down hot and a Clif bar came out of the wrapper like melted butter.  The world was getting hazy and everything looked like it was dancing.

There goes the alarm bells again.

I looped Keuka Lake and started fantasizing almost continuously about a cold vanilla shake.  20 more miles went behind and out of the heat shimmered a mirage-like ice cream stand!  I pulled in and suddenly realized I was probably in over my head again when I almost couldn't unclip before I fell over.  I wobbled into the air-conditioned interior and customers parted like the Red Sea.  I probably smelled like my junior high gym locker but didn't care.  My goal was something cold and no glares from cool, freshly washed vacationers was going to stop me.  A uniformed EMT passing me at the door made a comment about her desire to not meet me professionally along the road later in the day.  I agreed wholeheartedly and retired to a corner stool to nurse my core temperature back down within human limits.

Things get a little loopy from there on out.  I know I hit a mini-mart and reloaded all my bottles before the climb back over the ridge.  The ascent was lengthy but I did catch the wind as I'd originally hoped when I left home.  The breeze astern helped push me up the hill but unfortunately, it also created a stationary bubble of super-heated air that surrounded me all the way.  I put my leg against the top tube once and damn near got a burn.  This cannot be good.  My hot Gatorade was disappearing to no avail so I finally took a break and stretched out in the shade of an oak tree by an old cemetery.  The symbolism seemed fitting.

Barely 15 miles later, I put in again at an Amish roadside farm stand and begged to use the garden hose I'd spotted coiled next to the building.  I let it run till it got icy and then just poured it over my head until I stopped steaming.  It felt wonderful.  Much refreshed, I pushed another 20 or so.  The computer was reading about 80 miles gone at 4 pm and even with the sun now past the zenith, the air was still sizzling.  The breeze felt like the exhaust of a blast furnace and smelled like hot metal, burning grass and asphalt.   A guy out in his yard yelled something about how stupid I was to be out riding as I passed.  Yeah well, thanks for the insight buddy but how about handing me a beer instead?

The descent into Watkins Glen should have felt pretty good but knowing I had one more climb to do sort of took the fun out of it.  I stopped in the park at the foot of Seneca Lake and stretched out on a shaded picnic table bench to recharge for the last push.  I seriously wondered if I'd be able to get off that bench at all.  The climb was all I expected it to be...toasty and steep with the end hidden in the haze and heat wiggles.  The mileage turned over 100 about three quarters of the way up and the wind went out of my sails just like that.  I trudged on up to the top and sort of fell into the lot of another mini-mart to reload the bottles one more time.  I know I looked like the wrath of God.  I got some really strange looks as I downed a whole bottle of water in three swallows but couldn't have cared less.  The worst was over.

I eventually saddled back up and headed east but knew there wasn't much left.  Chris had by now announced her intention to come and get me and to be honest, I was glad of it.  I probably could have made it the last few miles if push came to shove but I was about out of heroics for one day.  I loaded the Trek in the van and collapsed in the seat with the A/C knob turned all the way around.  Another one bites the dust.
I'll never learn.

Score for the day:
101.7 miles
108 honest-to-Fahrenheit degrees (at Watkins Glen)
8 or 10 bottles of Gatorade (I lost count)
1 vanilla shake
1 jumbo iced tea
1 orange juice
1 humongous water
1 near-miss
2 hecklings
And 5 lbs. off my body weight.

View Interactive Map on

I promise I'll make the next one about the Tour de Cure.  Really.  There's even a connection to this post in it.  I'm still on vacation you know. 
One thing at a time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Time Off Continues...

Vacation is rolling along nicely.  It's hot, muggy and summer so I'm mostly content.  The RR is a distant memory for now and tomorrow I'm planning another long jaunt on the Trek regardless of the predicted heat index above 100.  No fear.

Hey, I ride a triple ring anyway so triple digits seem only appropriate.  I'll load up the bottle cages and jersey pockets with water and Gatorade and have at it.  I've been out in real hot before and have learned to take it in stride.  You just have to be aware of the signs you're burning out and not push quite so hard.  The Great Dismal Swamp adventure taught me a healthy respect for heat and humidity so I won't be easily caught off-guard again.  Besides, not much can scare me after the mountains in Virginia where Doc and I were playing earlier this week...


We only did about 15 miles on top of  Skyline Drive but it sure went uphill for an awful long way, in percentages us sea-level riders aren't used to all in one shot.  Creeper-low was the order of the day.  The reward was going back down.  I admit it, I cheated and rode ALL the way down the hill and back to Doc's place from our parking spot after he blew a spoke up on Skyline Drive.  I know, it's against The Rules to descend a hill unless you've climbed it first but this was a special case and I'm not sure when I'll ever get the chance again.  So sue me, I'm not shaving my legs either.

Ten-plus miles of twisty, fast descent was just too much to resist when the opportunity presented itself.  The 2.1 got pretty twitchy and my neck cramped up but I was going fast enough coming down that I couldn't bring myself to stop and load the bike on the rack so I just got low in the drops and sprinted until I hit the driveway.  It was like icing on the cake.

Riding in VA was certainly an eye-opener in more ways than one for the old guy...the terrain was much different than my accustomed upstate NY haunts and I learned a thing or two about attacking the climbs but more than that, as you might have noticed from my new cover shot, the view from the top was spectacular.

I won't go all Zen on you so let's just say it was worth the admission price in leg-burn and leave it go at that.

We might have been able to go further up the mountains if we hadn't ridden 40 miles of continuous rollers the day before and if somebody would design a spoke that can absorb Docs pedal stroke without snapping.  I think we've ridden a couple times without his rear wheel going out of true for lack of spokes but I'm having a hard time remembering when.  He popped one on each of our road days so we were left with only his mountain bike still rideable after Skyline.

Never ones to quit while we're ahead, we loaded up the off-roaders again and took in some nice single track until the sun went down.  Dark-thirty found us grimy, whipped, sweaty and unfit for human companionship at a KFC trying to buy extra-crispy through exhaustion and hoping we wouldn't get arrested as vagrants.  We looked like we'd just parked our shopping carts out by the dumpster.  The counter help was happy to see us pack our bird and go.

So at the end of a three day excursion south of the Mason-Dixon, the total was about 30 miles on the mountain bike between a mid-journey detour on the C&O Canal Trail and the dirt adventure somewhere near Ruckersville with maybe 60 horizontal and a couple of vertical miles on the roadie.  Not a lot as these things go but it was enough.  We got out with no bloodshed or even poison ivy, just some broken parts and blown tires so it was all good.  Photos taken, mission accomplished.

Now it's back to my familiar stomping grounds and still I'll be riding.  I'm toying with another Century in the morning before the road gets too scorching.  We'll see how that goes.  And I know I said I was going to post more about the Tour de Cure too...just hang in and you'll see it pretty soon.  First things first...miles.

Who said I was crazy?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vacation Days of Mine

It's official...I'm on vacation.  Hence, there's a ton of stuff happening around the NWH (New Wayward Home) that leaves but little window for blogging.  The first couple days of time off are always busy but gradually, the reality that the phone isn't going to ring sinks in and I can slow down.  Unwinding takes time.

To get the non-working party started, I parked my last 12"-to-the-foot-scale toy train for two weeks on Saturday morning and promptly dropped off the radar.  The railroad and I manage to get along pretty well on most occasions but at some point, I have to step back and completely break from operating trains or I'd probably become somebodies lab rat in a padded room somewhere.  I know a couple of actual lunatics who want to work through their vacations every year and I pray regularly for their eventual recovery or quiet removal from the property before they become a danger to themselves and others.

Old guys like me can only put up with the day to day madness for so long and then something has to give.  That something is me because the railroad, like the juggernaut that it is, will blunder it's way along without this particular minion and never even blink.  Vacations are really subtle reminders that the carrier can get by just fine without you cleverly camouflaged as a couple weeks of rest.  Be that as it may, the time off is mine to burn and burn it I shall.  God help them when I get old enough to have four weeks at a crack.  If I took all that at once, I'd have to go back to engine school when (if) I came back.  That's how seriously I take forgetting all things RR when I'm off. 

This go-round I do have to think about my ever-insistent employer to some extent though because I find myself spending a fair amount of time 'captaining' a bike team in their name.  Between a long-overdue hack-down of the lawn, assorted to-do list missions around the NWH and environs and some competition deck-lounging, I've been chewing away at a checklist of backlogged priorities on that project.  It's turned into something of a monster.

But first, a little background.  Anyone who's been around me for more than about two minutes knows that I ride bicycles a lot these days.  I took it up a few years ago when I realized that my sit-down profession was turning me into something about the shape of a turnip.  My sudden change from outdoor calorie burning activity to sedentary, almost motionless lump with the same appetite cost me about four waist sizes.  Photos from those days are most depressing.  A change was in order.

A worn out big-box women's hybrid that was laying in disrepair around my shed suddenly found itself being oiled and prepped for abuse by a fat guy.  It was the most incredibly ugly greenish-blue ever created, didn't fit, barely shifted and the brakes were pretty iffy but the tires held air and we were off.  Breathless, gasping circuits of a block or two soon turned into loops measured in a couple of miles.  Combined with a crew hotel that was equipped with a treadmill and a determination to back away from the buffet without taking prisoners to eat later, I started to find my old self beneath the pudge.  I discovered off-road riding at some point and thereafter treated my beater like the mountain bike it most certainly was not which only hastened it's demise.  I rode in snow, mud, dirt and even back out on the blacktop when I could overcome the embarrasment of being seen on the most hideous, gender confused bicycle in four counties.  I figured out that I was pretty much hooked.

The hybrid finally succumbed to an overdose of broken cables, bent rims and a bottom bracket that digested itself into steel filings and square ball bearings.  I began searching Craigslist for a suitably cheap replacement but my wife came to the rescue before I could make a move.  That Christmas brought a shiny-new Mongoose with suspension and fat tires and suddenly the Murrey was history.  The 'goose was real steel and weighed as much as a small car but everything worked and I was rolling again.  I rode the thing to destruction in about a year.  Talk about loving something to death.  I went everywhere my strengthening legs would take me until the New York road salt dissolved the freewheel and deraileurs into rust powder.  I found trails and roads just out of sight around the next corner and saw more countryside in my own backyard than I ever knew existed.  My weight and blood pressure continued to decline and there was no turning back.

Things progressed from there as things seem to do and I found myself aboard a much-used but much-loved 80's vintage Trek road bike.  I found out what it meant to go really fast with those little tiny rear cogs and skinny tires surrounded by aluminum frame.  It felt like flying.  Somewhere in there, I turned 50 which was duly reported in this post and a new hardtail mountain bike came to my house to live.  I was almost back down to my fighting weight and the miles under pedal-power were starting to scare me.

Then came the new blue and black Trek.  That Father's Day gift changed a lot of things again and the road stretched out much further.  Our first Tour de Cure went under the tires as a result of all the prior leg work and Century Rides became something other than fantasy.  People around me got used to hearing about 3 digit mileage and some even stopped looking at me like I'd lost my least sometimes.  A few even bought bikes, tagged along and fell into the same trap that caught me so unawares.  Frames, clipless pedals, drop bars and gear ratios became common subjects of conversation among us in the peasantry rather than an arcane language spoken only by people with French names and silly looking, short-brimmed caps.

But back to today.  As usual, I've wandered off my subject and now there's things to do, people to meet, rides to take.  The Team Captain story will have to be part II of this post so stand by and if the stars line up right, I'll hit the keys again before too long.

Or not...that's what a vacation's all about.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Blog Slacker

I've been busy.  That answers the question about where I've been lately.  Talk about nipping things in the bud.  Let me see...where to start?

I guess sometime around Sunday the 3rd would be as good as any.  In true railroad fashion, there would be no recognition of Independence Day in the form of a shutdown or even a slowdown.  On the most picnic-prone, family reunion attending, fireworks shooting, beer drinking and pool diving day of the year, the carriers dig in and want everybody to work.  They'll never learn.  The layoff list was an epic as everyone jockeyed to get time off for the Fourth.  This in spite of an endless and sometimes pathetic barrage of phone calls from Crew Management searching desperately for warm bodies to fill vacant slots on trains.  The Fourth of July weekend is one of those times when they might be better off to ask who WILL work rather than who won't and just take it from there.

Me, I'm going on vacation soon anyway so I answered the mechanical voice and went to work Sunday in the wee hours.  Turns out it was an EP (extra pay) day for us engineer types so I made some extra cash but I have a hard time figuring out how the carrier thinks that's an incentive when they don't tell anybody about it until the actual day.  As I've been told repeatedly, I don't see the BIG PICTURE but in my small picture, it seems it would work out a lot better if everybody knew what was going on a little in further in advance.  Oh well...

So a train awaited and off I went through considerably more than the usual tribulations.  The whole affair seemed doomed from the start as it took almost six hours just to depart the terminal.  I won't go into all the sad details but let's just say it was an exercise in futility that led to our time expiring at a fairly significant distance from our destination.  A further lengthy wait for a crew van and the round-about route out of our parking space kept us on duty for close to 16 hours.  By the time we made it to the crew warehouse to be stacked and racked until needed, there wasn't much left of the old guy.  I think my collision with the pillow was noted on Richter scales in 5 counties.  I was pretty much non-functional when I finally peeled back the sheets, turned off the phone and collapsed.

I guess there is such a thing as miracles because for all the insanity of the outbound trip, the return was remarkably uneventful.  It still took about three hours of gyrations to get out of the yard as is fairly common but once we got out and running, we sailed.  It helped that not much else was out there as most of the usual traffic was sitting somewhere hooked for a crew.

The only fly in the ointment was a stretch through a Pennsylvania town where the tracks looked like a pedestrian mall.  The local municipality was putting on their fireworks show and about half the city was using the right-of-way and bridges as a shortcut to the field or just setting up lawn chairs on the banks.  We were forewarned by the dispatcher and it's a good thing or we'd have smoked into that mess at a considerably higher rate of speed than we did.  We arrived right at prime-time for the event.  It was just about dusk and the warm-up shells were going off overhead.  People were everywhere and no amount of horn-blowing or bell-ringing seemed to make much of an impression on the populace.  They just ambled along like the zillion-ton monster bearing down on them was of no concern.  Some were even pretty annoyed that they had to detour out of the gauge to let us pass.  I'm always amazed by the capacity of Joe Public to look stunned and angry by the fact that there's a train on train tracks.  What were they expecting?

Normally sane citizens seem to just lose their minds around tracks.  Not too many cognizant people would stroll casually down an airport runway under normal circumstances because they could reasonably expect a large, heavy, fast moving vehicle with the potential to kill them to arrive unannounced.  The fact that railroad tracks are pretty much like that is lost on a sizeable portion of the world.  I also don't know too many people still living who would jump out on the interstate and put junk in the road in front of a tractor-trailer "just to see what happens" but they were lined up to put coins and rocks on the rail in front of us.  "Hold my beer and watch this" was in full effect.  I hope nobody got zinged by the shrapnel.

It took a while but we got by the madness eventually.  I dragged the train through with the brakes on both so I could stop quicker and to keep some yo-yo from pulling a cut lever back there and putting us in emergency.  It was one of those times where if you slow down too much, the half-drunk idiots will try to climb on but if you go too fast, you risk running down some bonehead who believes with all his heart that you can steer around him.  You just have to find an unhappy medium and go with it.  My buddy Stosh is fond of saying, "You can't fix stupid" and I agree but I'd rather not kill anyone to prove it.

From there on out, for the next 15 miles or so, it was a continuous fireworks display from all sides.  Unlike in grouchy New York, fireworks are legal in PA and the party people take full advantage of it.  I dare say I've never seen so much 'rockets red glare' from so many places all at once.  The cannons and star-shells shot up in that one hour probably would have made a dent in the national debt.  The whole valley reeked of flash powder.  At least nobody actually shot at the train this time (which happened to us a couple of years ago when we got peppered by rockets and cherry bombs all the way through town) but a few strategic shots went off just as we passed and rattled the windows.  It was all good fun after worrying about that herd on the tracks now far behind us.
Even as we were climbing up the hill out of town, the sky was flashing colors and an occcasional boom made it past engines in Run 8.

It was quite a display and I was duly impressed.  I'd rather have been home on the deck with a cool something listening to the neighbors blow up stuff but that's how it works out sometimes.  I'll get my time off later just like all the other birthdays, anniversaries and holidays I've missed.  The timing is usually wrong but the heart is in the right place.