Thursday, October 29, 2009

“RIGHT LANE CLOSED”

The volcanic eruption from Kilauea crater on the Big Island of Hawaii began in 1983 and has been continuous ever since, with lava flowing through natural underground tubes as well as along the surface.

Today’s Honolulu Advertiser has an interesting story about all this. There is mention in the piece about the Royal Garden subdivision, which once consisted of several hundred homes. No more. One by one, the lava re-took the land and the houses with it … all but one, last I heard.

At any rate, this is just one more reason why this is such a fascinating place. I feel very fortunate to have lived here for close to 50 years.

By the way, today is a milestone, albeit one of very little note: this is the 500th post to appear on this blog. Whew!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Third Edition is On the Way

Someone recently reminded me that I have not yet mentioned that I’m working on a 3rd edition of my train travel book: All Aboard! The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.

The first edition came out in 1995, the second three years later. A few years after that, the publisher was bought out by Random House. They had little or no interest in a third edition, so last year I asked for the rights back and they agreed.

I dithered for a while because I knew from time spent on the second edition that it’s big work to update a book like that. There are dozens of facts and figures and statements in every chapter that need to be double-checked and up-dated.

But finally, probably in a moment of weakness, I decided to go for it. My agent shopped the proposal and Yuval Taylor from Chicago Review Press responded favorably. I’ll be sending the completed manuscript off to him in another couple of weeks, but the book won’t be in stores until about this time next year.

In the meantime, a lot of people have pitched in to make it possible. At the top of that list is Cliff Black, head of Corporate Communications for Amtrak, who personally undertook to either give me answers to what was an embarrassing number of questions or get the answers from someone else within their organization.

Likewise two people at VIA Rail – Jenny Jasper and Elizabeth Huarte – came through for me … big time. And there have been a lot of others.

Anyway, I’ve been pounding away at this and, in part, that’s what has accounted for fewer than normal posts here. I’ll try to do better once everything has been shipped off to the publisher in another month.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as dumb luck.

I’ve written here on several occasions about the constantly recurring tragedies of grade crossing accidents … when trains strike cars and trucks where highways cross railroad tracks.

It’s hard to imagine a circumstance when one of those incidents could legitimately be called and accident because, in case after case, subsequent investigation determine that they were avoidable. Chalk them up to carelessness, inattention or just plain stupidity on the part of the driver.

And so – speaking of stupidity – we have the recent case of a 22-year-old German student who was tossed off a train in the town of Lauenbrueck because he didn’t have a ticket. Apparently thinking that was some kind of an injustice, this moron dropped his pants and stuck his bare butt up against the window of the departing train.

But … uh-oh … his pants got hung up on the door of the railcar and he was carried along, bare butt in the air, for 200 yards until someone hit the emergency brake and the train came to a stop.

Somehow, the guy escaped with minor cuts and bruises, but is now facing the legal consequences that could result in a fine plus a big assessment for damages.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Ups and Downs (and Highs) of Grand Mesa

The only firm objective for our last day in Colorado was to connect with Amtrak's California Zephyr late that afternoon in Grand Junction. But here we were, deliciously sipping our morning cappuccinos in a funky little coffee shop in the old Colorado mining town of Ouray and contemplating how to spend the next six or seven hours.

Our map showed a main road that would take us directly to Grand Junction, but that would get us there three or four hours early. Instead we opted for a much more circuitous route, taking us still farther east on roads that Rand-McNally depicted with very narrow, very squiggly black lines ... roads that would take us to, then up and over, something called Grand Mesa.

It took less than an hour top reach Grand Mesa which, as it turns out, is a National Forest. As we made the slow climb up the southern flank, spectacular vistas began to appear ... looking back across the fertile valleys we had just passed through.

My first surprise was the mesa itself: not barren, not rocky, not flat-topped and not at all the stereotype of a mesa I had in my head. This mesa - Grand Mesa - is a damn big mountain, with steep sloping sides and thickly covered with evergreens and aspens already turned brilliant gold in the crisp fall air.
The top of the mesa is indeed flat ... at least more or less so ... and is criss-crossed by many trails and dotted with lodges being used by hikers and campers. It takes 15 or 20 minutes to cross it, then we begin our descent down the northern slope of this unique landmark.

Perhaps it's a bit colder here on the northern side of Grand Mesa, for all the aspens have turned yellow and their shimmering leaves create the impression of an avalanche of gold spilling off the top of the mesa and sliding thousands of feet into the valley below. It's a startling illusion, one the camera doesn't really capture.

On our way again, we reach Grand Junction in ample time to return the rental car and meet the California Zephyr for our overnight right to Davis, California ... all through one of the most scenic stretches to be enjoyed by passengers on any Amtrak route. More on that next time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

There's a Reason Why People Visit Colorado!

We had another two days before arriving in Grand Junction, Colorado, where we would connect with Amtrak's California Zephyr and the ride back to the West Coast. What to do? Where to go?

We finally decided to turn back toward the southeast and head for Ouray, Colorado, where my wife's great grandfather was the editor of a newspaper back in the late 1800s. The drive from Moab, UT, would take about three hours and, as it turned out, was a big extra bonus. The road took us over the La Sal Mountains and, after we crossed into Colorado, through the towns of Paradox and Bedrock. We soon began following the San Miguel River -- so damn pretty at this time of year, with all the aspens changing color, we had to stop and soak it all up for a while.

After crossing over the Dallas Divide at almost 9,000 feet of elevation, we headed down through some idyllic valleys, passing through farm and ranch country ... at one point, having to brake hard to avoid a small herd of seven mule deer that dashed across the road in front of us. Beautiful creatures! I thought about them a lot over the next couple of days as we began seeing signs in front of motels saying "WELCOME HUNTERS." (Oh, yeah ... and when I noticed that all of the road signs -- all of them -- were riddled with bullet holes.)

Ouray, Colorado (pronounced OOO-ray) is shoe-horned into a narrow pie-shaped opening between two steep, almost sheer, mountains. The town grew up around all the gold mining that once went on in this area and still has a hundred-year-old look and feel about it.
Just a block up from the Ouray Hotel is the little museum here, praised by the Smithsonian as "the best little museum in the west" with good reason. When we stopped in to check on my wife's relative, she spoke his name to the receptionist, prompting the curator to jump up from his desk behind a partition and proclaim that they had a lot of material on the old guy. He asked if my wife has any papers or photos she might donate to their collection. She has and she will.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Arches: Hot, Dry, and Some Very Big "WOWS"

Day Two out of Moab, Utah, and we headed off to Arches National Park. The entrance to the park is just a few miles, but there is a great deal to see -- not to mention miles to cover -- once you move along after a stop at the Visitor Center.

First, there are a number of very impressive rock formations, including this one where a gigantic stone, which I would guess to be 75 or 80 feet high, seems to be precariously balanced on top of a much smaller stone. (Smaller? Damn thing was probably the size of my garage!)

You can park your car and hike off on a number of paths to see other rock formations and a number of natural arches. The temperatures were tolerable in early October, but are no doubt brutal in July and August. Whatever the time of year, bring water!

Another weird formation. Our vantage point here was probably a quarter of a mile away -- maybe more than that; it's very hard to tell -- so I have no idea how big that giant boulder is. But, take my word for it: that sucker is REALLY big!

This is, of course, the highlight of any visit to Arches. To give you an idea of the scale, this one is something like 350 feet in length, so you can see how distances are so deceiving. Park officials won't let anyone get closer than where we were standing, and with good reason: About 10 years ago, some people were sitting beneath this arch when they heard a very ominous cracking sound. Being sensible folks, they jumped up and ran like hell. And a good thing, too, because 70 or 80 tons of rock broke off from the under side of the arch and crashed down on the spot where they had been resting. Furthermore, this was not an isolated incident. There have been other collapses since then.

Bottom line: Arches National Park ... very much worth seeing!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Continuing Our Trek Through Hot, Dry Arizona

After leaving the Grand Canyon, we stopped at the Navajo National Monument – 10 miles off the main road and bit off the beaten path, but well worth the extra hour or so.

The feature attraction is a stunning view of an ancient cliff dwelling from across the canyon. (You’ll have to enlarge the photo by clicking on it before you can make out the structures.) This settlement dates back more than 800 years and was abruptly abandoned when a 20-year drought ended. What was that? When the drought ended? Yep … that’s what the ranger said. The chief took it as a sign they were to move on. Go figure.

From there we headed to Moab, Utah, which we used as a base of operations while we explored two nearby attractions, the first of which was Monument Valley. I had never realized that it is not a national park but rather is located on Navajo land and entirely controlled by the Navajo Nation. And I must say they do a very fine job of it, too.

I couldn't resist stopping for this shot, taken from the dirt road that winds through Monument Valley. I suppose, for an even better effect, I should photoshop-out the guy standing to the left of the rider, but this is what I actually saw. Still pretty classic, eh?

By this time we had settled into a Best Western at Moab, Utah, which we used as a base of operations. You can ride through Monument Valley on a dusty dirt road, either in your own car at your own pace and with your air conditioner on … or on seats in an open flatbed truck under a canvass top. (Gee … let me think … which of those options will I find more attractive?)

Not all the impressive rock formations are in the various national parks. You see them all over the place! This one was massive -- very hard to tell, but I guessed it to be at least 500 feet high -- and was located outside the parks as we were driving to Moab, Utah. Pretty ho-hum for the locals hereabouts, I suppose ... just another big rock stuck out in the middle of a field. But another big WOW! for us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Just a Few Feet Can Make a Big Difference

Bi-level Superliner equipment isn’t used on some of Amtrak’s eastern routes because, at a bit more than 16 feet high, they’re too tall for some of the older tunnels in that part of the country.

Norfolk Southern has the same problem. They’re one of the seven Class 1 railroads in this country, operating trains over more than 16,000 miles of track, most of which is east of the Mississippi River. Hauling flatcars with two shipping containers set one on top of the other will double the capacity of a train, but those double-stack trains are too tall for 28 tunnels along their main line running between Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Chicago … in other words, the route connecting the East Coast with the Midwest.

So Norfolk Southern has begun the huge job of raising the height of all those tunnels to 21 feet, which will accommodate those double-stack trains … with a whopping nine inches to spare! Total cost of the project is more than $150 million.

But the savings will be significant: Once finished, every train will shave 233 miles and a full day’s running off their current schedule.

The work itself is slow, tough, dirty and potentially dangerous. But it will pay big dividends when finished.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More of the Grand Canyon ... and Then Some

There is a very good free shuttle service that moves people from one vantage point to another all along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It's certainly not as convenient as your own car, but it doesn't take much imaginatioin to visualize the monumental traffic congestion -- nevermind the additional pollution -- that would result without that service.

From one of the outlooks a few miles from our hotel, we got quite a gook look at the Colorado River nearly a mile below us. It's hard to believe that the river could have scoured this amazing mega-ditch, even over the hundreds of millions of years the geologists say the process took.

From still another lookout, a mile or so farther on, we could see two turkey vultures circling far below us. These birds have wingspreads of as much as seven feet, which helps explain how they are able to soar effortlessly, literally for hours, on the winds swirling through the canyon.

On the third morning, we left the Grand Canyon and drove to Moab, Utah, setting down there for two nights while we explored Monument Valley. This is not one of our national parks, but is part of the Navajo nation, which is responsible for the entire area.

We were particularly impressed by what appeared to be the nearly-new View Hotel, the only hotel in Monument Valley. It was beautifully designed to blend into the side of the mesa over looking the valley and giving hotel guests ... well ... the view. We would have enjoyed staying there, but the concierge at the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon had apparently never heard of it. Strange ... perhaps even more than strange.

Next: More photos of Monument Valley and others from Arches National Park.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Photographs of Marginal Quality and Possible Interest

Our just-completed 12-day junket included three separate train rides. The first, aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief, originated in Los Angeles with an early evening departure and concluded the next morning around 5:00 at Flagstaff, Arizona.

This lucky fellow is the Amtrak engineer about to climb up into the head end of Train # 4 that will take us to Flagstaff. As part of the research I did for the first edition of my book, the Amtrak people arranged for me to spend several hours up in the head end of the Empire Builder between Milwaukee and Winona, Minnesota. You know how many of us wanted to be railroad engineers when we were kids? Well, we were right!

How strapped has Amtrak been over the years? Note the logo on the wall in the Flagstaff station. Referred to derisively by some as "the pointless arrow", it should have been replaced five or six years ago by the new logo. The station agent told me that he requests a new logo every year, but there has never enough money for small "non-essential" requests like that.
We picked up a rental car in Flagstaff and drove to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I took more than 50 photos and not one begins to do it justice. It is just too damn big!

The Grand Canyon Railway operates a round trip to the South Rim every day from Williams, Arizona. We had booked it well in advance but, regrettably, decided at the last minute to cancel. It was just a great deal easier to rent a car in Flagstaff, have it for our use during our time at the Grand Canyon, and then be able to take off for the other national parks on our list directly from there. But I am resolved to take this train the next time!
From here we headed to Moab, Utah, for our visits to Monument Valley and Arches National Park. Photos in the next post.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

... And Back to LA on the Coast Starlight

The Coast Starlight arrived spot on time at Davis, California this morning at 6:50. We deposited our bags in our sleeping car and headed directly to the diner for breakfast. Later, along with a number of other passengers, we opted to have our lunch and dinner in the Pacific Parlour car, which is a wonderful luxurious extra for sleeping car passengers on this train.

I mention this because on the Coast Starlight there were four people serving food to passengers: three in the dining car and one in the parlour car. By contrast, there is no parlour car on the California Zephyr which brought us to Davis, and all passengers were therefore served in the diner ... but by just two people.

I have no way of knowing how the two passenger loads compared, but the plain fact is, those two folks on the Zephyr were badly overworked. One, the LSA (lead service attendant) told me she was up at 5:30 in the morning and it would be 2:00 a.m. before she finished all her paperwork for the day. That poor lady had to wait on half the tables in the diner, plus take payment for meals purchased by coach passengers and for any beer or wine sold to those of us in the sleeping cars. And if her accounting was off, she personally would have to pay the difference.

I have no idea who schedules the crew for the Zephyr -- I gather it's someone in Chicago -- but that just ain't right, folks!

That said, the ride down to Los Angeles today was delightful and, if pressed, I will have to say the Coast Starlight is my personal favorite among Amtrak's long-distance trains.

Back home to Maui tomorow.