Saturday, November 30, 2013

A ride of a lifetime... In the Cab of a Steam Locomotive

Backing down the mountain
This has been a crazy fall and I have not finished writing about an incredible trip I took out west this summer.  I’ve already written about Benton Hot Springs and Mono Lake as I made my way from Las Vegas to Virginia City.  And I have also written about a mountain biking trip along the rim of the mountains above Lake Tahoe.   This trip had so many highlights (including time with my grandson in Cedar City) but second to that was a ride in the cab of a 1914 steam engine on the Virginia and Truckee.  Five years ago, I wrote about how they had planned to rebuild the Virginia and Truckee to Carson City, Nevada.  Today, the tracks go from the Carson River to Virginia City, a curvy 16 or so mile run that includes a steep climb up into the Virginia Range.    I had to ride this line when visiting, but thanks to Dee, an old friend who does the books for the railroad, I didn’t have to ride in coach with the other tourists, I got to sit up in the cab with the fireman and the engineer!

I arrive at the V&T shops a little after 7 AM.  As they were getting the engine ready for the day’s run, I walked around the machine shop where the Virginia and Truckee has the capability of repairing and rebuilding old locomotives.   Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of work and a shop is a necessity as parts often have to be fashioned to replace those that have worn out.  The complexity of a steam engine led to their demise as it is much easier to maintain diesel-electric locomotives.  Today’s locomotives may be efficient and easier to maintain, but they lack the romance and the “life-like character” of a “breathing steam engine.”

Heading uphill, looking back over the tender

Our run today is aboard a ninety ton Baldwin locomotive built in 1914 for logging railroads.  The locomotive features a smaller wheels and a large boiler, which also made it a perfect engine to pull trains up a steep line that snakes around the Virginia Range as it climbs from the Carson River to Virginia City.    In its “working life” the locomotive hauled logs for the McCloud Logging Railroad which ran around Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  Today, she hauls tourists to the Comstock Lode and has been trucked offsite (she is the largest locomotive capable of being trucked) for movie appearances.  Some of the guys from the V&T ran her in “Water for Elephants” and I was told the crew had a photo of themselves with Reese Witherspoon, who starred in the film. 

Fireman Ed checking smoke
At about 7:30, Tim, who served as conductor and brakeman, tells me to hope aboard.  He introduces me to the crew, Brian and Ed, and gives me some instructions such as watching my feet so that I don’t ruin a pair shoes by them being pinched by rotating the sheet metal flooring between the tender and the locomotive.   We wait for the go, the iron horse is hissing.   Every little bit there is a booming sound which I learn are the air pumps working to keep a nice draft in the fire box.  When we get the “all clear,” I find a comfortable place to stand and hold on as Brian, the engineer moves the throttle into position and releases the brakes.  We’re off, pulling three empty passenger cars.  Because there is no longer a working turntable, we’ll pull the cars down the grade with the tender in the lead.  At Moundhouse  (Carson Eastgate), where we’ll pick up passengers, we can drop the cars, move the engine to the front as in a normal train, and the pull the cars back up hill.   

Map of  the modern V and T

It’s cool in the morning, but it promises to be a warm day.  Because the grade is so steep, the descent must be controlled.  I watch Ed, the fireman, as he maintains the boiler, making sure there is enough steam for both movement and brakes.  Ed learned to fire a locomotive on a miniature (5 ton) steam trains in California.  Brian jokes that he has the easy job and Ed agrees.  Even though this locomotive is fired by oil and not coal (which requires shoveling), watching the boiler requires constant vigilance, especially on a grade like the V&T which has a few places that you might be going down, only to find yourself heading uphill for a short stretch.  Besides keeping enough steam so that Brian can operate the train, he has to make sure the water level is always high enough to cover the plates within the boiler.  On level ground, this is easier, but when the locomotive is pointed uphill, the water runs into the back of the boiler and when it goes over a hump and points downhill, the water moves to the front of the locomotive.   Exposed metal to the temperatures of the fire, without water to cool it down, could seriously damage the boiler and risk spraying those of us in the cab with steam.

Brian, our engineer for the day, is in charge of the train itself.  Brian is a Virginia City native.  He graduated from high school on the Comstock in 2000 and that summer went to work for the railroad.  He’s been at it ever since.  For years, he was seasonal and had to find other employment in the winter, but a few years ago, was hired on full time.  In the winter, they make a few runs (last year’s Christmas run was infamous as the snow was heavy and it took them nearly three hours to make the run back up the mountain.  Brian and Ed can do each other’s jobs and often switch back and forth.  As the engineer, he’s in charge of the operation of the train, but must depend on the fireman to watch the boiler and to provide him the steam needed for a smooth operation. 

A few minutes later,  Virginia City is out of sight as we cross the tunnel at the Divide and move toward Gold Hill.  Down below us is the Crown Point Mine and Mill site.  We cross the highway, by the old station and the run on over a fill that once was connected by the Crown Point trestle.  The trestle was torn down in 1936, but is widely believed to live on the Nevada Seal, which is a myth since the seal was designed in 1863 and predates the building of the trestle by five years.  Interestingly, there wasn’t even a train within the boundaries of the Nevada Territory when the seal was designed, so the trestle on the seal expressed a hopeful dream of the artist.      

After Gold Hill, the tracks make a long circle around American Flats.  There is a new mining operation with its cyanide leach fields on the north side of the Flats.  Also along this section is a herd of horses.  Ed and Brian seem to know well as they have names for many of the wild animals.  At Scales siding, the half way point, we stop and Brain and Tim checks the brakes.  There is some smoke in one and they are afraid it is overheating, but after checking it, all appears well.  We loop around the south side of the Flats, above the old American Flats Mill, which operated up into the 30s.  Then the tracks turn south and we slip into a tunnel.  On the other side of the tunnel, we can see Moundhouse, the site of where the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado Narrow Gauge used to connect.  The train continues to hug the hillside.  The tracks mostly follow the original route except through Moundhouse.  Brain, the engineer, tells me that the original tracks went straight through Moundhouse and picked up the Carson River near where today are several brothels.  Figuring the whorehouses didn’t need to be disturbed by trains, they relocated the tracks to the west.  We cross over Highway 50 on a trestle and soon are at the station.  
Brian oiling the locomotive in Moundhouse (Carson Eastgate)
The parking lot is filled with cars and people have lined up to ride a piece of history.  The cars are dropped and then the train is unhooked and switches tracks.  On the far track, we stop and fill up with water.  I learn that although the train will only use 300 gallons of oil during the weekend, each trip up and down the mountain will require nearly 8000 gallons of water.  Once the tank is filled, we run up to the front of the cars, then switch tracks and couple up with the cars for the run back up the mountain.  Before leaving, Brian oils the working parts of the locomotive

As we leave Moundhouse, Ed pours a couple of cans of sand into the firebox.  The draft is such that the sand is sucked through the boiler tubes and out the stack, cleaning out any build up on the tubes and hopefully making the train run smoother.  As the sand runs through the boiler, or perhaps because of the addition air of having the firebox open, the smoke turns black for a few minutes.  Although it was a relaxed trip going down the mountain, running uphill requires more work, especially from Ed, who has to constantly keep checking on the boiler and making sure there is enough steam for running the train.  It almost seems he is as much of an artist as a mechanic as he both watches gages and makes adjustments to the amount of water going into the boiler or the amount of fuel pumped into the firebox.  But it’s not just the gages that he watches; he also keeps an eye on the smoke, occasionally glances into the firebox, and is always listening to the boiler breathing.    

Arrival in Virginia City
The sun is now high in the sky and it’s getting hot, but I’m not prepared for the experience of the first tunnel.  When we enter it, a hot wind blows across the boiler and into the cab and the temperature must have risen by 30 or 40 degrees.  Coming down, with the boiler behind us, the tunnels weren’t hot, but with the boiler in front, we feel all the heat.  This was the reason the last steam engines built for the Southern Pacific were “cab-forward” varieties.  It was harder to build a cab-forward locomotive when the fireman had to shovel coal (or you had to have the fireman and engineer in two different ends of the train which created communication problems).  But once the railroad began using oil, they could move both to the front of the boiler.  Not only did this allow better views of the track, it keep the cab more comfortable in long tunnels and the miles and miles of snowsheds the locomotives traveled as they made their way through the Sierras. 

At Scales, we stop for a few minutes and Brian gets out and oils various parts of the engine.  We then continue on until the Gold Hill Station where a few people get off in order to have lunch at the Gold Hill Hotel, but most continue on as the train makes the climb into Virginia City.  There, everyone gets off.  They’ll have three hours to tour the town before making the run back south.  I skip the ride south, but go out into the heat and photograph the train as it makes its way down the mountain.  Ed, Brian and Tim will leave the train at Moundhouse overnight.  The next morning they’ll pick up passengers and run them up to Virginia City and at the end of the day, after dropping the passengers off in Moundhouse, will take the empty train back up the mountain where it will be used during the week to shuttle tourist around the Comstock between Virginia City and Gold Hill.  The steam trains only run between Moundhouse and Virginia City on Saturdays and Sundays.  
Ed and Tim at the end of a run

Friday, November 15, 2013

Things That Are

Amy Leach, Things That Are (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2012), 192 pages.

In these essays the author ponders over the mysteries of nature and science, from the smallest animals to the vastness of the universe.   Nothing is too small to escape her awe as she provides a fresh look at the world in which we live and the universe in which our world travels.  Of course, Leach tends to have certain favorites within creation as turtles and hippopotamuses often reappear.  To the science she uses to weave her stories, she adds mythology, history and folklore, which creates a delightful collection of essays.  This book provides the reader new lens for looking at the world in a novel way.

I was hooked by Leach’s prose in an early essay within the collection.  In “Goats and By Goats,” she discusses the eating habits of goats and sheep and how sheep, when the grass dies, wanders aimlessly looking for more grass.  Goats, on the other hand, look for new sources of food and have even been known to climb trees to eat the sprouts and leaves at the end of branches.  “Goats are generalists,” she writes, noting that as explorers set out in the 16th Century, they placed goats on deserted islands knowing the goats would survive and would be there for the taking if they, or another ship, was ever marooned on the island. (15)  In the meantime, the goats enjoyed the freedom of the island.  This essay caused me to recall an incident from my childhood.  We were fishing at night in a tidal creek off a barren island on the Carolina Coast, which still had wild goats at the time.  That night we heard a ruckus and when dad shined a light, we saw two rams fight it out, not more than fifty feet away.  Leach gave me a new appreciation for a specie that’s been maligned ever since Jesus told the parable of the separating the sheep from the goats. 

Leach sprinkles humor throughout her essays.  “What happens to jellyfish out of water is similar to what happens to bridesmaids hairdos in water,” she writes in an essay about jellyfish and light.   (84)  Later, in the same essay, she pronounces: “Your blessing is your curse and your curse is your blessing.”  (90)  I begin to wonder I she’s been reading some of the same stuff on polarity thinking that I have been studying recently?  In an essay upon which she muses about the possibility of a modern day “Noah’s Ark,” she tells the animals there is not enough room for everyone because we need to save our junk (electronics, refrigerators, cars, planes, etc), however there will be plenty of room for animals with rumps and ribs!  She names Noah’s first boat “Fantasy” and the new ark “Reality.”  (106)  Unlike Noah, we are more focused on luxury and maintaining our standard of living than saving a planet! 

Her opening essays are grounded on earth as she sticks to animals and plants, but about midway through the collection, she turns her thoughts outward, to the stars and the galaxies and on to the divine.   In a short essay on God, she writes:  “The people say the word repeatedly, and the more they repeat it, the less I can understand it.” (99)  I wondered if we say the word more and more as a way to attempt to give God meaning (which would be a form of blasphemy), and was reminded of a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent.  Taylor makes the claim that God’s silence may be a defense against our glut of words.  In a later essay, in which Leach muses about oracles, she writes: “Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?” (166).   I am sure I would read too much into Leach to see her affirming the Protestant position on the priesthood of all believers, but I do think she has a point in that the divine is all around.   When it comes to our connection with the stars, she foretells of a potential crash (or merger) of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (a mere three billion years away).  When it comes to the stars, we’re really alone, she reminds us:  “Living in a galaxy is like living in a neighborhood where the house down the street might have burned down four thousand years ago but you wouldn’t know it for another three thousand years.”  (144)

These are essays to be savored.  I enjoyed reading them and will reread them.  I came across this book in the promotion of the Calvin Colleges “Festival of Faith and Writing."  Leach will be one of the participants (there are generally sixty five or so) at the 2014 Festival.  This every other year event is a treat and I would recommend it to you, if you are able to make it.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Morning in Watkins Glen

I spent the first five days of November in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.  This is the story of one morning walk when we were in Watkins Glen

The day before, the rain turned to a mixture of snow and sleet before stopping and the wind had ruined many kids plans for Halloween had died, having blown the clouds away.   It was 19 degrees at 6 AM.  Two days earlier it would have been 7 AM, but daylight saving time had ended and it felt like I’d slept in.  I crawled out from the plush covers at the Harbor Hotel, a four star hotel that must cater to lowlifes for everywhere I turn in the room are signs and notes about not stealing.  They seem concerned for their fluffy towels, terrycloth robes, the pen set on the desk, the corkscrew and the wine glasses on the cadenza…  The signs inform would be thieves that such items are available in the gift shop (or was that shoppe, as this is one of those kind of hotels that likes things to sound fancy).  If just take them, they threaten to charge you even more when they tack it to your bill.  I figured I didn’t have a need for any of the items.
True Love in dry dock
There’s coffee by the elevators and I pour myself a cup before heading out into the cold.  Crossing the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, now Finger Lake Rails, which run down the west side of Seneca Lake, I head to the town’s pier.  Things are quiet and a mist is rising from the water that’s warmer than the air.   There seems to be no one around. There is a sign by the empty berth indicating where “True Love” is moored in summer.  The old schooner has been featured in a number of movies.  The pier itself is a little slippery from the frozen frost.  Only a couple boats remain in the boat slips, most having been pulled from the water for the season.  At the end of the pier, along the rock break wall and behind the shack, I’m surprised to find a lone man fishing the deep water.  Wearing heavy insulated clothes, he drinks coffee from an oversized insulated mug.  We talk for a few minutes and I realize he has had some luck when a couple of perch in a bucket flop around.  I’m surprised there’s no ice on the lake and he tells me that the lake has only frozen over a few times in recorded history, the last being in the 1940s.   

The boat in front is Hagar (the hotel is to the back)
As I head over to the marina, the 7 AM horn blows at the mill on the east end of town.  At the marina, there are three boats are still in the water.  At the end of the marina pier a classic 63 foot schooner named “When and If” is tied up.  I later learn from the morning paper that the boat, which was once owned by General George Patton, had just sailed in a few days earlier and would winter in Watkins Glen.  The owner, who runs a vineyard, plans to sail it out through the canals in the fall (he’ll have to take the mast off to do this) and out to the ocean where he’ll sail along the northeast coast before taking the boat south for the winter of 2014-15.  The boat was launched in 1939.  Patton and his wife had plans to sail it around the world after the war, but his death in an accident just after the European War ended kept him from enjoying the boat.   There are two other classic wooden sailboats still in the water at the marine; both more to the size I prefer.  One is named Hagar and I wonder if the owner’s name is Abraham.  If not, I’m sure she’s named Hagar because she’s his other love. 

One of the plaques in the sidewalk

Waterfront bathed in sunlight
As the sun rises over the hills to the east, bringing a bright red glow to the trees that still have leaves.  I walk back across the waterfront and into town, looking at some of the older buildings.  In the sidewalks are marble plaques honoring race car drivers that have won at Watkins Glen, a quaint town that has a long history with auto racing.  As I come back to the hotel to pack up, I stop at a wonder bakery and deli, the Glen Mountain Market for a wrap with spinach and egg along with some pastries for breakfast.  We eat in the hotel room and soon are back on the road, heading south to Corning where we plan to once again tour the Glass Museum before heading west and visiting friends for the night in Ellicottville.