Friday, September 6, 2013

Random thoughts and observations

1. I've been hooked on AMC's "Breaking Bad" for a several years now.  The thing that hooked me was trying to figure out how Walter White was going to get back up once he found the bottom of the slippery slope.  The glimmer of hope gets smaller and smaller with each episode.  Walter White is completely rational but amoral.  Everything he does is rationalized in his own mind as the most reasonable alternative.

His sin is pride. He's brilliant, but he thinks smarter = entitled.  It's an easy trap.  CEOs fall often because they start reading and believing their own press releases.  Athletes fall often because they watch their own highlight reels.  Entertainers fall often because they mistake attention for affection. We seem to take great interest in watching others fall from great height, I think because it makes us look better in comparison. Sin is serious business.  There's a chunk of Walter White in all of us, I think.  Good thing there are "mirrors".

2. I like playing tennis.  I'm just not very good at it. No highlight reels for me to watch!  But, I'm not going to quit, either.

3. The business class seats on domestic flights are nicer than coach.
They give you extra snacks and free drinks.  You don't have to worry about bumping your knees when the guy in the seat ahead of you reclines.  You get to check a bag for free.  But, the seat really isn't any nicer or bigger than a regular Amtrak seat (except for the center armrest),
you don't get there any faster, nor are your bags the first ones on the carousel, the upgrade is rather costly and you still have to do the same TSA cha-cha and hokey-pokey.  Is it worth the cost?  Sometimes.

4. Old cars are a pain.  They are a bigger pain if you bought one used.  You might know the title history, but you don't know where they've been, what they've been doing and which glitches are merely "warts" and which are real problems. Some things you can see and feel, but some are hidden.  I think I'm going to stay away from older used cars.  Anyone want a 2001 Mercury Sable?

5. Colorado is a fabulous place, but the mountain pine bark beetle is depressing.  Lots and lots of dead lodge pole pines.

Whole mountainsides.  It seems the problem stems from the mining era.  Huge areas were logged off for mining exploration a century or more ago.  The trees that grew back were mostly lodge pole pines. They are now all 80-120 years old. There has also been a drought lately. And, the winters haven't been cold enough lately to kill many beetles.  Pine bark beetles like lodge pole pines.  They like old trees.  They like distressed trees.  So, dead trees rule the landscape.  The good news is that it appears that a more diverse set of trees are replacing the dead lodge pole forests, so that might set the beetle back a good bit.

6. I know of two "fake Alpine" towns in the US. One is Vail, Colorado.
The other is Helen, Georgia.
Actual, real Germany

They are very different.  People are as likely to arrive in Vail by Gulfstream as they are in Helen to arrive by Harely-Davidson.  A meal in Helen costs the same as a snack in Vail.  Vail has skiing.  Helen has river tubing.  What they share is a desire to present an image of something they are not.  Under the "skin", they are both very American in their own way - which is not bad.  So, why the need to pretend?  Are there fake American towns in Germany, Switzerland or Austria?  I think I need to do some in-person investigation!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

...with 40 seconds to spare

For my 50th Birthday, Patti got me a nice train ride from Denver to San Francisco on the California Zephyr.  (More about that here)

Seven years and a few months later, it's our 30th wedding anniversary.  We need to go on a nice trip.

Where should we go?

Alaska?  Hawaii?  Bermuda?

All great ideas!

But, for a variety of reasons...oh, okay... Because of time and money constraints, we decided to go to Colorado.  A few days in Rocky Mountain National Park and a couple of days in Vail (it WAS our anniversary, after all.)

The whole trip was fantastic, but that's not what I want to talk about here.  What I want to tell is how I just happened to plan the route between RMNP and Vail to go through Beyer's Canyon on US 40 so that I might sneak in a little railfanning.  There were a few alternate routes between the two places, but none were appreciably faster or more scenic, so I had plausible deniability on my side.

I figured an hour's delay to stop and wait for a train to appear was not too much to ask. I floated my plan to Patti and she thought it was a fine idea....oh, okay...  She said it was okay with here, as long as her iPad was charged up and we didn't get to Vail too late in the day.  "All set!" I thought.

I had done some preliminary scouting using "Streetview" in Google Maps.  The road was on the south side of the Canyon and it looked like there were lots of places to pull off to the side of the road in the canyon. So, getting a nicely lit scene seemed possible. This was good. I had also taken a look a the Amtrak timetable and had seen that the California Zephyrs both went through the canyon in the afternoon - the most likely time we would be there.  Also, good.  The afternoon weather in Colorado in the mountains in the summer is sunny. Also, good...Oh, okay...  Sunny with many quixotic thunderstorms - something about hot air rising into cold air over mountains.  In Georgia, we have the hot air part, but no mountains with cold air, but we have lots of thunderstorms just the same.  Why?  I have no idea.  I was hoping for sun, but expecting rain.

We drove into the canyon about 2:15 PM and I started scouting a good spot.  Usually, this is when the train appears and I'm in the wrong spot, with the camera on the wrong setting, and I step out into traffic, or in an ant hill, or off the side of the road and down an embankment, or the sun goes behind a storm cloud.  But, not this time!  I found a really good spot for a westbound.  And, atypical for the weather that time of day, it was actually becoming more sunny as time went on!

Patti and I agreed that 3:15 was the cutoff.  No train by then, then off we go.  C'mon train!

I camped out in my spot and waited.

Here I am waiting..
If I lean a bit to the right, I can get the Colorado River in the scene.
The trouble with Beyer's Canyon is two-fold. One is the line of sight is very short.  The train could be on top of you before you caught a glimpse.  That might not be a problem if you could hear it coming, but that was the second problem.  The highway noise on US 40 drowns out everything as even a car passing by makes a racket that echos off the hard canyon walls.  There was hardly a moment when it was quiet.  I had to make sure my camera didn't go to "sleep" while I waited.  I'd never get it turned back on in time once the train popped out around the curve.

Still, the spot was really nice and the sunlight was improving as time wore on.  15 minutes went by.  Then 30 minutes.  I started getting bored.  I took pictures of the wildflowers nearby.  Colorado is full of wildflowers.

I have no idea what kind of flower this is.

...nor this one

Then, we were up to 45 minutes gone. I was starting to get worried about getting skunked.  I took a picture of the location as if the train was there.  For some reason, this is what I do when I get skunked.  I have lots of train pictures without trains in them.

I decided to check my smart phone's Amtrak app to see when the Zephyrs might come by. No data service.  I checked a few more times, moving the phone around a bit.  Still, zero bars.

While I had the phone out, I took a panorama shot of my location.  Here it is.
I'm a big fan of my Samsung GS3.  This is one reason why.

Now, we were up to 55 minutes gone.  Still no train.  When we rode the California Zephyr in 2006, there were lots of trains on the route.  In fact, just about every passing siding was full of coal.  Where were all the trains?  Maybe those sidings were full because the UP network was backed up elsewhere?  Maybe the coal traffic dried up with the recession? Who knows?  I just knew I'd been there almost an hour and no train.

57 minutes.  58 minutes.  59 minutes! Nuts. Should I call it quits?  What's one more minute?  I'll stick it out for that last minute.  Besides, the sun was out almost fully - the best it had been since I got there.

Twenty seconds later, I hear some commotion behind me.  It's Patti yelling, "It's the Rio Grande heritage unit!"...oh, okay... she actually yelled, "A train is coming!"  I spin around.  Sure enough, the eastbound Zephyr. I was hoping for a westbound, but c'est la vie!

Much to my surprise, Patti has her little Canon "point and shoot" camera out.  She aims it at the train and starts shooting.  Gets a couple pretty decent shots.  Not bad for a first-timer!  She later admits, "I had no idea what I was doing.  I just kept taking pictures!"

Patti's first shot

Her second shot.
In the hour I was waiting, In my boredom, I did frame up a few shots for an eastbound.  Sun angle wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either.

Here's what I got.
Rolling by some cool looking weathered rock spires.  I remember these from when I was on the "inside" in 2006

Back to back P42s along the Colorado

A "going away" shot.  I would have preferred a westbound, but I'll take this one!

Forty seconds to go.

I was worth the wait!  On to Vail - with a smile on my face!

P.S. For the record, Patti had gotten out of the car to tell me we should wait another ten minutes, when the train showed up.  I married the right person!