Thursday, June 20, 2019

Water Usage in The Van

A while back I wrote about making this modification to The Van to make it simpler for me to check my potable and grey water levels by simply opening the false cupboard door and looking directly at the levels in the tanks through the "windows" I cut in the cabinet face.

I have one 10 gallon tank for each, potable and grey, placed side by side under the sink. (With the added bonus of no unprotected plumbing at all outside the shell of The Van to worry about.) With this setup I carry a maximum of about 84 pounds of water. (When the potable tank is full the grey is empty. As I draw water from the potable tank making it lighter, some of it ends up in the grey making that one heavier.)

About now some will be shaking their heads thinking that 10 gallons is a ridiculously small amount of water to have to live on, and when I was young and dumber and susceptible to the lies of "experts" I would have agreed.  Hell, in one of the previous rigs I built for myself I installed a 40 gallon potable tank smugly thinking 'Now I can really go boondocking!'.

Well that turned out to be a bone-headed decision!

Not only did I never even come close to needing all that water, that 40 gallon tank, and it's corresponding grey water tank, cost a lot of money, took up a whole lot of space, and when full weighed in at 330 pounds, costing me even more money for every mile I drove.

"Yeah, but only 10 gallons! You must have to fill up every few days!" is a comment I often hear, but when I tell people how long 10 gallons can last me they don't believe me. I know they don’t, I can see it in their eyes and in that condescending "whatever you say" way in which they terminate the conversation, but it’s true non-the-less.

I recently took this photo showing the level in the potable tank when I got back home from a trip. I left with a full tank, didn't refill at any point along the way, and this is what I came back with. I recon that's about a third of a tank left, but to be conservative let's call it a quarter tank.

It was a 15 day trip but let's also not count the 5 days I spent with Mom and family because I wasn't cooking for myself those days. So we'll ignore them, even though I was still brushing my teeth, hitting the pits, cracks and dangly bits, and took a couple of my sink-showers during those five days. (I took two "real" showers at Mom's because – well, mothers worry.)

Another mitigating factor I also need to point out is that, with the exception of hot tea once in a while, made with water from the tank, I pretty much exclusively drink water, no sodas, no coffee, and I carry 4 gallons of purified rainwater, the same thing I drink at home, for that. In addition the toilet in The Van is a portable unit with its own water supply.

Anyway, given those parameters, that means that in 10 days I went through 7.5 gallons of water for cooking, cleaning up, and personal hygiene.

How the hell is that possible!

Well there's only one of me so cooking uses a minimal amount of water. To wash dishes, which I do once a day, hiding dirty things under the sink-cover in between, I put a drop or two of soap into my sink along with a quarter-inch of cold water followed by another quarter inch of hot water from the kettle (I am an advocate of small sinks in RV's as it doesn't take much water to fill them a half-inch or so, and dishes don't have to be swimming in water to wash them.) and then wash the dishes with an 18X18 micro-fiber towel. The kind that will suck up and hold about half the water in the sink but then hand-wring nearly dry. Then I dump the wash-water, stack the dishes back in the stoppered sink, and rinse with scalding water directly out of the kettle.

By planning the rinse sequence this too only takes a bit of water. Dribble a little water over the larger bits like pot-lids, being careful to keep fingers out of the way to avoid cooking them, while letting the dribbled water run down into the bowl or mug the utensils are stacked in, swish the forks around then dump the bowl/mug into the pot it has been sitting in and swish it around again, unless I used the cast iron skillet which just gets a wipe-down then a polish with a drop of oil, all before drying everything with yet another micro-fiber towel. (The bowl is for the salad and I eat right out of the pot so no plate. OK, don't judge me! I like my food hot and both my cast iron skillet and heavy-bottomed pot hold the heat well.) The used rinse water in the sink, cooled off enough by now to prevent any serious burns, is then utilized for a final wipe-down of the counters and backsplash and finally the sink itself.

As always when using the kettle, if there's any water left in it when I'm done, I leave it there for next time rather than waste it by dumping it out.

To brush my teeth I put between 1/2 and 3/4 of a cup of water (I had to go out and measure this just now) into a glass, actually an old-fashioned tin camp-cup I've had since I was a kid, swing the faucet out of the way, and use what's in the cup for rinsing me, my toothbrush, and the sink.

Baths – well frankly I think baths are just disgusting, even if they were possible when on the road, which they really aren’t. Showers are nice, but while we’re still being frank, I find them over-rated and can get along without just fine. (I'm not even going to get into a discussion about the farcical fallacy of trying to cram a usable shower into a small RV!) Even when they are available, and clean enough to not make me cringe, and not swarmed by a bunch of the noisy, 15-minutes-minimum-of-wasting-water-or-it's-not-a-real-shower, crowd, and not too much of a hike away, (I like to lurk in the further reaches of a campground) I still find them to be a hassle compared to my sink-showers.

What the hell is a sink-shower?

Pretty much the same as washing dishes, except I use a dedicated set of micro-fiber towels, one for washing the other for drying. And instead of dish-soap I use a few drops of a no-rinse body bath.

Same procedure for filling the sink with a half inch or so of water, though I often skip the hot water part of the formula. (A little shock to the system is good once in a while!) Then I drop one of the towels in, let it get soaked through, wring it partway out, and start washing, wringing and re-dipping as I finish each ‘part’.

It helps that I keep my hair zipped off with the shortest foot on the trimmers because it’s a whole lot less hassle that way, so “washing my hair” consists of scrubbing my head with the towel just like the rest of me. (And I haven't owned a brush or comb in decades.)

And this is clearly TMI, but when I get down to – you know – the output end, I use a disposable wipe and toss it, (I hope we all know by now that anything like this marketed as disposable or flush-able should absolutely NOT to be thrown into the toilet!) to keep any sort of potential contamination away from my wash-towel. Though, since they are light, small, and inexpensive, I carry a whole stack of these towels in The Van and use them for everything, dish washing, me washing, van washing, window cleaning, wiping up in the shop, etc., and rotate them out to the laundry bag frequently.

It takes less time for me to complete a sink-shower than it did to write about taking a sink-shower, and when I’m done I’m already home without having worked up a sweat or covered my feet in grit from the hike back.

Anyway, back to the original point of this post, it’s not like I’m really trying to conserve water when I’m out there with The Van, it just comes naturally. (At home I also use a cup for teeth brushing and only turn the shower on when wetting down and rinsing off.) Maybe in large part because as a kid I tent-camped with the family all the time and it was me and my brother’s job to lug military-style jugs (Cheap at the surplus store) of water back to the campsite from the hand-operated water pump, so being careful with our water was just part of what we did, just like never walking through someone else’s campsite and making sure to use our inside voices around the campfire.

So, less than a gallon of water a day? No problem. Really!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Downhill: 14:53 – 17:51 (Part 1)

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

October 20 1954: 14:53 – 17:51

Downhill sits squarely in Daylight Pass and was rather unimaginatively named based on the fact that from here the tracks in either direction run downhill. It started out as a simple siding with a ‘depot’ made from an old, modified boxcar, a refrigerated boxcar because it was already insulated.

This depot, in addition to sheltering the block operator, also served as sort of a mini section-house for the track-gang along this section of the line to store equipment and tools rather than drag everything down to Three Creeks all the time.

Trains in either direction would have to stop in the pass to drop off helper engines and set themselves up for the downhill run to come and it wasn’t long before the siding was extended around the curve at the east end of the pass to allow a little more room because it was soon discovered that trains tended to bunch up here in the pass waiting for others to clear the grades on either side.

Then the post-war prosperity came along and created a middle-class out of the war-weary working-man.  A middle-class with more free time, and disposable cash, on their hands than ever before.

For some of them downhill skiing became an increasingly popular free time activity, and capitalizing on the ready-made slopes on the south side of the pass, (The north side of the pass is a little too rugged for your average skier but it is starting to attract a small but growing climbing crowd.) it didn’t take long for a fancy lodge and some ski-lifts to be installed up here.

The growing demand for the recreational possibilities of the place, despite its remoteness, brought along with it the need for shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and a larger depot, as well as housing for the staff needed to cater to the visitors. And now the owners of the lodge are expanding it, hence the emergency load of lumber Otis and his crew have dragged up the hill today.

When they come around the corner Jake, who can see it first because of the curve, alerts Tom that the west switch has not yet been lined for the siding and he brings the train to a stop so Ronald can go forward and line it for them.

From here Tom can see that a speeder is sitting on the main in front of the old depot which is now used for storage. He can also see that the track-gang, instead of putting the speeder away in the small shed alongside the old depot, is dragging out tools and a second trailer to add to the one already behind the speeder.

He also sees that the arm of the semaphore out in front of the new depot farther on down the track is horizontal, telling him they have new orders to pick up.

This can’t be good.

As he pulls through the switch and rolls slowly past the track-gang they finish lifting the second trailer onto the tracks then all six men head for the rail-bunks where spare sections of rail are stored up off the ground. By the time Tom stops the train out in front of the new depot the track-gang have lifted a 39’, nearly 800 pound section of rail off the bunks and are horsing onto the trailers.*

*Track comes in standardized 39’ lengths so they fit into 40’ gondola cars. Spare lengths of rail are left at key points along the line, often, as is the case here at Downhill, stored on pairs of concrete posts, called bunks, with notches in the top that the base of the rail sits in. This keeps the rail sections up off the ground, and here in the pass, up out of the snow.

Tom stops with the engine just short of the spur to the Bailey Fuels Downhill Terminal and the team track. Both of their drops, the Bailey Fuels tank-car and the boxcar full of lumber, go into this spur and since it, unlike the old helper-spur, now refurbished to service the newly opened Downhill Mercantile and the future High Country Warehouse, is a facing point spur for upbound trains, they need to cut the engine off and run it around the train to shove the cars into place. But they can’t take the main for the runaround until the track-gang, whatever they are up to, have cleared, so he climbs down and joins Otis who is headed for the depot.

Ed, the station agent, is just hanging up the phone when they walk in.

“What’s going on out there Ed?” Otis asks.

“Well, we got us a little bit-a trouble,” Ed replies, handing each of them a hand-written TO that holds them here in DH until the operator releases them.  “Griff (Griffon McCray, the conductor on the Ore) says dey ran over a broken rail at ‘bout 58.3. Says a chunk a rail jumped up be’ind da last jenny and smacked da pilot beam on da ‘ouse-car pretty ‘ard and I seen da dent it made.

“Anyway, I ‘ad Griff drop a butterfly* ta da track-gang as ‘e went by telling em to git der butts back up ‘ere. We’re gona ‘ave ta ‘old you ‘ere til dey git on down dere and fix whatever ‘appened.”

*A note or orders dropped from a moving train. Called a butterfly because, unless weighted down, it often flutters like a butterfly across the ground.

Otis pulls out his watch and checks the time. “Well there’s little chance they’ll get things put to rights in time for us to make it down to TR (Three Creeks) before the Express leaves. This is not turning out to be the best of runs.” (He doesn’t need to check his observations against his timetable because he has that committed to memory.)

“Yeah, I ‘eard about your troubles down on Mesa ‘ill. Da foreman uh dat Lodge projik was fit to be tied a couple-tree days ago en da lumber dey expected didn’t show up. Claims ‘e’s got 16 men on da job all standin’ round with deir tumbs up deir – well, you know, waitin’ on some wood. In fact I’m surprised ‘e’s not ‘ere crawlin up our – well, you know, right now. ‘e must a been in ‘ere a ‘alf dozen times already  ta’day askin when y’all are gona  – Oops, spoke too soon. ‘at’s ‘im coming up from da Lodge right now.”

Otis and Tom beat a hasty retreat, leaving Ed to deal with the irate customer while the two of them wait from the safety of their train for the track-gang to get loaded up and clear out of the way.

When the rest of the crew is informed about what’s going on they just shrug their shoulders. Despite Tom’s reaction back there in Big Timber, running late is no big deal, especially when running upbound since Three Creeks, where they have to spend the night, is not their home base anyway. And on the positive side, every hour they are held up out here on the rails means another hour of overtime pay this half.*

*Most railroaders are paid twice a month, or once a half, and though they are, by Federal rules, allowed to work up to 16 hour days, they are paid time and a half for anything over 8 hours.

For Dean there’s yet another positive to being held for several hours here in Downhill. This time of year the lodge will be starting to staff up for the winter season and he has a feeling that he just might find something of a diversion in the form of the female persuasion to keep him occupied. But first they have to finish their switching and tie-up,* which means that dang track-gang needs to get a move on!

*When a train is stopped for a while it is ‘tied-up’ or ‘tied down’, even if there is no actual chain involved.

As if they heard Dean’s hormone-driven plea, the speeder, dragging two trailers loaded down with a mound of tools, one length of track and a track-gang, ticks across the rail-joints as it goes by.

Because it’s hard enough keeping the switches they do have up here in the pass ice-free and functioning during the winters, despite being the second longest siding on the railroad there are no intermediate crossovers between the main and siding so Tom, Jake and Ronald have to run the engine all the way down the siding to the east switch, then back through Downhill on the main all the way to the west switch in order to come up behind the house-car and the rest of the train which they left sitting on the siding.

The crew shoves the tankcar to the end of the spur and spots it next to the tanks and unloading facilities of the Baily Fuels terminal.

As of last year Downhill now gets its electricity from the power plant in Three Creeks rather than from the small local plant, but Bailey Fuels’ are still used for heating, cooking, and fueling the various vehicles used for transportation around the village (calling it a town at this point is getting a little ahead of things) as well as the funny looking groomers that run around on the slopes at night like bright-eyed insects, preparing the surface for the next day’s onslaught of skiers.

Tom is relieved to have that tank car set out and off the train, but because of the order of the remaining cars, he has to back all the way out of the spur to set the boxcar destined for Three Creeks aside before he can shove the infamous box of lumber onto the team-track where the construction crew is already standing by to unload it.

Even if the construction crew didn’t need the lumber right away, they would make sure the car was empty so tomorrow’s Downbound Freight, which comes through here before dawn, can pick it up because though the boxcar is owned by the DP, customers still have to pay demurrage after 48 hours, so if they miss tomorrow’s train that means a day’s worth of demurrage since the next downbound after that isn’t until Saturday. (The tank cars used to haul the Bailey fuels are owned by Bailey so they are not subject to demurrage, but in order to make room for the loaded tank expected Friday the workers here at the Downhill terminal will probably have today’s drop emptied and ready to go back down the mountain by tomorrow as well.)

With the house-car tagged back onto the rear of the Three Creeks box Tom uses the main to run around the train one last time to couple up to the head end, ready to finish the final 9.5 miles of their run to Three Creeks.

But first they have to wait on the track-gang and then, unless the track-gang is exceptionally fast, giving the Freight enough time to get down to Three Creeks before 17:10 at the latest, they will have to continue to wait here in Downhill until the evening Downbound Express clears.

So with their train tied down just opposite the depot, the new depot, Otis, Tom, and Jake walk the short distance to Hap’s. Otis, even after chaining the house-car down back there in Wild Woman Canyon, is neat as a pin as usual, but Jake and Tom have to slap the worst of the dust and grime off as they go.

Ronald, as he usually does, opts to stay with the engine and keep an eye on it, and Dean has his own plans for the next couple hours, such as prowling the north side for anything interesting in the way of stray females, unencumbered or not.

 By day Hap’s is a sandwich shop, by night a bar, and more importantly, Hap’s is on the north side of the tracks, the cheap side, along with the dorm-like single-staff housing, a short row of apartments for married staff, and various low-brow entertainment establishments where the underpaid staff of the south side’s  Lodge, fancy restaurants, and various pro and gift-shops can cut loose and shake off a shift of cleaning rooms, clerking stores, manning the lifts, washing dishes and just generally serving ‘guests’, though it isn’t unknown for lodge visitors to cross the tracks to go slumming for an evening.

Even if he was willing to spend way too much on a quick lunch, the working railroader hardly meets the standards of dress and cleanliness of the south-side.

After running a thickly sliced roast-beef sandwich, chips, and his freshly filled thermos (coffee of course, with plenty of sugar.) back out to Ronald to ease their guilt at leaving him out there on his own, Tom, Jake, and Otis settle down with their own sandwiches, chips and coffee, in mugs in their case, at a table in the front window of Hap’s where they can see the tracks.

In addition to working all hours, the life of a railroader also means irregular, and usually basic, meals.

These men spend a lot of time together so there isn’t much new to talk about except the latest shenanigans of Otis’s grandkids, (The oldest girl, Shannon, finally got the cast off her arm and Tom, wondering how he ever would have managed, is guiltily relieved that he and Mary never had children of their own.) Jake’s most recent combination camping and fishing trip with his wife, (They took the wife’s brother with them over to the Caballo Reservoir on the Rio Grande and it didn’t work out too well, Jake’s brother-in-law being more of a motor-court and restaurant kind of guy.) and the latest repairs on Tom’s truck (None, knock on wood.) and progress with his garden. (The crew is often the happy recipient of excess harvest.)

They have been sitting in companionable silence, nursing mugs of coffee for a while (Railroaders quickly learn the art of waiting, it’s an inescapable part of the job.) when Otis asks, “What do you think of those Alco’s Tom? You’ve ridden them already haven’t you?”

The pair of Alco’s are relatively new to the DP and have been assigned exclusively to the Ore, the DP’s highest earner, dragging as many as 12 loaded ore jennys from the mines in the Six Peaks Basin down the mountain to the Fresnel Processing plant every single day.

Unlike the pair of steamers they replace which required a crew each, not to mention the third steamer and crew needed to hump anything more than a six car train up the East Pass Grade, the paired diesel-electric Alco’s not only don’t require the services of a helper when climbing, albeit slowly, up out of Three Rivers on the East Pass Grade, but also only require a single crew because the engines can be MU’ed (Multi Unit) together by connecting up a series of cables between them so both engines take commands from a single engineer.

“Yeah, in fact I completed my third trip last Sunday and am qualified on them now.”*

*In order to be turned loose on any new type of engine the DP first requires three qualifying trips, round trips, under the supervision of a qualified crew. These qualifying trips are at half pay. Not that the money was an issue, but rather than take himself off the board for his regular freight runs, Tom did his qualifying runs over three Sundays in a row. By the time he finishes this coming Saturday’s Downbound Freight run he will be a few days short of working a solid month without any time off, but that isn’t unusual for a railroader. During the rush of the war many railroaders worked 7 days a week for months on end.

“I didn’t know you were doing that! You think I should qualify?” Jake sat up and asked nervously.

“Yeah, I do Jake,” Tom answered without hesitation. “Word is Charley (Referring to Charles Bishop, the railroad founder’s son and current owner, though he’s only Charley when he’s not around, otherwise he’s always Charles.) has already ordered more of the Alco’s and has plans to pull the steamers out of regular service altogether in the next couple years.

“But to be honest, I think you better get set up and running (qualify as an engineer) soon too,” Tom added. “You must have heard the rumors that railroads, and that will include the DP, are going to do away with the fireman’s position on the diesels? Well I don’t think it’s a rumor at all. I think it’s going to happen, and soon. You need to start taking the right-hand seat more often when I offer.*

 *’Taking the right-hand seat’ is when the engineer has the fireman take over his duties for all or part of a run while he moves to the left seat and handles the firing, sort of an informal apprenticeship program. Tom has always been willing but so far Jake has preferred to stay on his side of the cab.

“Tom is right Jake,” Otis pitches in. “Right now the crews on the Ore still have a fireman, but everybody knows there’s no fire to take care of.  Instead the fireman just sits there and keeps an eye on those big diesel engines and the generators and such,* but I’m convinced the rumors are true and the fireman position will eventually be dropped. Heck I’ve even heard that the house-car will be dropped from the through trains which will then be run by a three-man crew!”

*These early diesels are not terribly sophisticated machines and the electrics can be finicky.  Crewmen quickly learn to add big, non-conductive fuse-pullers to their toolkit because there are many fuses protecting the various circuits that, fuses doing what fuses do, often needed replacing. It also isn’t unusual for the fireman, or maybe even the head trainman if he can be talked into it, to have to use the wooden stick of a flag to force recalcitrant relays to – well, relay.

“How can they do that?” Jake asks incredulously. “Everybody knows you can’t run a train with just three men.?!”

“Why not?” Otis asked. “The Expresses already operate with just one man. I’m not saying that will happen on the Freight, but the Ore and Pipeline don’t do any switching except at the ends of the run where some yard-man can help out.”

“Well I don’t see these new machines ever replacing the steamers,” Jake sulked, never one to be comfortable with change.

“I think you’re wrong there Jake,” Tom said. “I heard that kind of talk on the SP back just after the war, that the diesel-electrics were just an experiment that might be alright in the yard but would never make it out on the road and there’d always be steamers. But those diesel electrics are still here nearly 10 years on. Heck, just look at the SP down there in Daylight. The majority of the trains going through are headed up by those big PA units now. I only hear a steamer on the SP tracks maybe two or three times a week. No, my guess is that even here on the DP the diesels are putting the steamers out to pasture within the next 10 years, maybe even 5.”

There is a renewed silence at their table as the three railroaders contemplate the future.

“So what are the Alco’s like?” Otis asks.

Now even Jake is leaning forward to listen, so Tom tells them about the Alco’s, in railroader to railroader detail.

“The first thing that kinda slaps you in the face,” he tells them, ”is the view from the cab. Some railroads are doing it differently, but here we’re running the RS-3’s with the short-hood forward and it’s almost like riding on the pilot!

“From the seat it feels like the oncoming track is going to end up in your lap. On the other hand, from there you not only can see more of the track in front than from the Consolidation, but if you stand up, you can also over the hood to the left side. And you don’t have to lean out the window to see behind, instead you can look over your shoulder and see down the side of the engine behind.  Or just pivot around on your comfortable little seat which is like a stool with a back on it. But after riding all the way back behind the boiler for so many years it’s a little scary being so close to the front of the engine and that’s going to take some getting used to.

“And unlike a steamer, even when the Alco’s are stopped they’re noisy. There’s a constant rumble from the massive 12 cylinder engine that you can feel in your feet, along with a roar from a whole bunch of fans that are always spinning back inside the long hood to keep the beast cool. And instead of the occasional creak of strained boiler-plates adjusting to changes in heat and pressure, there’s random clacking from something called relays and little snaps as electricity jumps into sparks.

“As far as operating the Alco, in some ways the controls, that are mostly clustered together on this thing called a control stand that sits right were the boiler backhead and firedoors should be, are similar to those of a steamer, but in others they are quite different and take some getting used to.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Sometimes Ya Just Have Ta

Here in Central Texas, from about mid May through at least the end of September, mornings are for outside work.

It's when I take care of chores, repairs, and maintenance.

It's also when I do my workout and knock off most if not all of my daily (OK, mostly daily)  3.5 miles.

It's not just the heat, though that is a factor, it's the sun, which is really strong down here during our predominantly cloudless summer days.

During these months I reserve the afternoons, that space after our one big meal of the day and before the lowering sun starts releasing its grip, for hanging around, filling my harmonica with spit while making it moan and squeal discordantly, working some Suduko, jigsaw, or even better, some recently discovered Sumuko, puzzles, knocking off a few Spanish lessons on Duolingo, screwing around on the keyboards (musical and laptop) and (Gasp!) napping. (In my defense, I got up at dawn!)

But some morning, like this one, (June 12) are just too pretty for all those "have-to's". Some mornings ya gota just kick back on a bench or under a tree, push through the guilt, and just enjoy the blessing.

Of course, if you're not retired - - well that sucks - -

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Oh What Fresh Hell Is This?

The Van has a lot of lights on the dash. I mean a lot! And they can be very confusing. Like what the hell is a guy doing the backstroke in the rain (Center cluster, second row, second from right) supposed to be telling me?! (Time to add DEF. - I keep the owner's manual within reach of the driver's seat with the page explaining all those damn lights [page 28] dog-eared so I can find it quickly.)

Which is how I recently knew that a light had burned out when I was a few miles into Missouri just after crossing Arkansas from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the state. (That little shining-faced, big nosed dude wearing a too small hat, center cluster, bottom row right) I even knew it was a headlight because that little bright-idea bastard lost his glow when I turned the headlights off but kept the running lights on.

I just went back through my maintenance records and of the 4 times since 2010 I have replaced headlight bulbs  on The Van, 3 of those can be traced back to me being either on Arkansas roads or just coming off of Arkansas roads. Now I have to admit, of the nearly 40 years I've been driving those Arkansas roads when getting from Texas to Michigan, in the past 15 there has been a lot of improvement. But when you start as far behind the eight-ball as Arkansas did "a lot" just isn't enough to catch all the way up to the civilized world and there are still stretches of Arkansas interstate that will jar your dentures off - even if you aren't wearing dentures!

Typical Michigan "heavy double"

Now I'm not saying there aren't other states with bad roads, hell, Michigan roads will turn your ride into scrap in just a few years, but I kinda expect that from a state where lawmakers have been convinced (Read bought off) by the teamsters union to allow them to run super-heavy truck-trains (At up to 160,000 pounds these things are heavy enough to turn even the best engineered road into rubble within a few years, I don't care how many axles you put under them!) on a daily, unsupervised, basis. But having grown up in Michigan I expect it there.

Anyway, back to my light bulb, my non-functioning light bulb. Of course, despite not yet being mid-day, the skies were, at that particular moment darkening up ahead and it had already spit some rain on me when the bulb went, but I was only 20 minutes from a fuel stop so I left the headlights off, you know, so I wouldn't look like a cockeyed hick driving a junkyard heap, (A phobia I come by honestly - thanks Dad!!) and kept on going with the running lights on.

By the time I got to the fuel stop it was raining like hell so I sat there and blocked the pump, one of only two diesel pumps out of a dozen, but still, the covered pump, while changing out the dead bulb. (Yes, I carry at least one spare for every bulb on The Van with me. Don't you?) The Van's headlights are well laid out and it takes no tools and only a short few minutes to change the bulbs.

Then I fired her back up, The Van I mean, which is about the only her I can fire up these days, moved her out of the way and braved the rain for the bathrooms.

When I got back the rain was still pounding down hard but my weather-bug app showed that by the time I hit the Mississippi River Bridge, 10 miles away, I would have driven out from under it.

Except that when I started The Van back up the damn check engine light was on! OK, officially it's now called the EDI, Engine Diagnostic Indicator, but either way - CRAP!

When I grew up the check engine light coming on was really bad news. Like pull over and stop right now before the engine falls out bad news. Now days - well who knows what the hell the damn thing is complaining about.

Fortunately I have a DashDAQ permanently plugged into the diagnostic port. I mostly use it for displaying important gauges that the manufactures clearly think we are too stupid to deal with now days. Things like manifold pressure (turbo function), exhaust-gas temp, a real fuel gauge instead of that ridiculous tapered string of 10 bars, and an actual coolant temp instead of waiting for that silly red light, just to the right of the speedometer needle hub, to tell me I've already run the coolant temp up to 250 degrees  and need to shut the engine off NOW! But in addition to gauges, I can also use the DashDAQ to read codes.

Cool! - - - But now what the hell does P203D Reductant Sensor Circuit High mean?? Can I keep going or is my trip over and my wallet shredded?

To the web!

Turns out I have a bad level sensor in the DEF tank, one that is showing 3.7 volts or more. (OK, you can start breathing again you silly old fool!)  Once the floating spots of impending black-out settled down in proportion to my anxiety level I pulled up my maintenance records and found I had added 2.5 gallons of DEF 2500 miles ago. Since The Van goes through 2.5 gallons, about half the capacity of the DEF tank, every 5000 miles I decided that I'll just add another jug when I get to my next overnight stop, which just so happens to be a Walmart in Fort Wayne. (I don't carry spare DEF because it's bulky and doesn't age well, especially in Texas heat.)

As one of the guys on a Ford forum found, adding that DEF also cleared the fault, presumably because the sensor is back under the surface again. Since the Ford sensor/heater cluster costs about $200 I figure the Mercedes version probably costs twice that, plus another $400 in labor to change it out. I got better things to do with my money (Which is why I live with the TPMS, [center cluster, top row, left] screaming at me all the time. I'm old school and check my tire pressures all the time anyway so that damned expensive, yet busted, TPMS crap can just suck it!) So, from now on, instead of waiting for that backstrokin'-in-the-rain dude to light up telling me I have about 1200 miles of DEF left in the tank, I guess I'll be using the P203D code to tell me I'm down about half a tank and need to add more DEF to kill the check engine light; you know, just in case there's something more important that wants to use that light too.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Cutoff to Downhill: 13:35 - 14:53

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

October 20 1954: 13:35 – 14:53

The first couple miles east out of Cutoff are a continuation of the same gently winding grade encountered below Cutoff, but then the track starts to steepen, eventually reaching a stiff 2.65%, then soon arcs into the left-hand turn that marks the beginning of the giant S curve that claws its way up the west approach to Daylight Pass.

Leaving the jenny behind in Cutoff has lightened the train a little, but with three loaded cars it still weighs in at just about 284 tons which drags their speed down to around 13 MPH on the steep grade, which means covering this 18 mile segment of track, the longest single segment on the railroad, will take well over an hour. It doesn’t help matters at all that they have to slow when crossing trestle 39.6 which is so close to the steep part of the grade they have little time to build any speed back up after crossing the weakening bridge, but that’s railroading.

The western approach to the pass is not particularly rugged, just steep. And while the scenery in the confines of Wild Woman Canyon is spectacular, the view from the West Pass Grade is far-reaching.

The altitude has caused the trees to dwindle into a few scarce and scraggly specimens as the tracks work their way up into the clear, and increasingly cold, air. Up here the ground is covered with low brush and short, twisted trees, but unlike down in the basin with its sparse and thorny gray-greens, here the alpine flora is a undulating blanket of greens; dusty greens, deep greens, bright greens, the whole spectrum.

Tiny, ground-hugging flowers sometimes cover the greens creating little clouds of purple and dusky yellow. And this time of year the train is rolling through russet patches as the greens of the leaves give seasonal way to the colder nights, showing yellows and reds instead.

The laboring train passes MP 54 with no sight of the track-gang that is supposed to be clearing brush on the downhill side so there will be somewhere to dump snow clear of the tracks this winter. What the sharp eyes of both Tom and Jake do see is the telltale ash and remaining spike of a burned out fusee right at the point where the track-gang obviously stopped cutting brush.

Since the fusee is already burned out the track-gang, who have apparently set their speeder back on the track and bugged out, is more than 10 minutes ahead of them so Tom keeps the train running as fast as the little engine will allow*, but it is strange that the crew has knocked off and headed back to Downhill so early.

*If the fusee had still been burning Tom would have been required to stop. If he could stop before running over the burning fusee he could proceed as soon as the fusee burned out. If he ran over the burning fusee before he could get stopped he would have to wait a full 10 minutes before proceeding. In either case, he would then be operating under the restricted speed rule which means he has to be able to stop in half the distance he can see down the tracks.

Nearing the upper flank of the approach to the pass the tracks duck into a 1238’ long slide-shed spanning a natural chute carved into the flank of the mountain by eons of wind and water. In addition to being prone to slides, this chute also tends to gather wind-driven snow along its leeward side, piling it into a train-stopping drift. When this happens the slide shed creates a tunnel through the drift so the trains can keep on moving. It will come into its own in a few months, sheltering the tracks from slides and the frequent winter winds, but today all it does is amplify the sound of the hardworking engine while trapping its wet smoke under the heavy timbers, forcing the crew to breath as shallowly as they can until open air finds them again at the other end.

From these high slopes, as long as you’re not inside the slide shed, a person can see down the mountain all the way to Daylight huddled there at its base. Beyond that is the bright shimmer of the white gypsum fields towards the western side of the basin and north of that, if you know where to look, the faint black slash of the lava fields. And to the west, all the way over on the far side of the basin, lurks the rugged blue outline of the San Andres range some 70 miles away. If you like long views that dwarf the scars of man into oblivion, riding the rails clinging here to the side of the mountain is the place for you.
But near the top of the grade one last left hand curve puts the engine crew’s view behind as the tracks make the final eastward run up into the pass itself.

They run over a couple more burned out fusees as they climb the upper reaches of the grade,* but the last one, just before they reach the long left-hand curve on the final approach to Downhill, is still smoking.

*The speeder crew, or any train crew that thinks they may be over-run by a following train, is required to drop a fresh fusee about every 10 minutes until they can get into the clear.

The little speeder the track-gang is using is even slower than the Freight and they have been catching up to it. Tom glances over at Jake who shrugs. Something isn’t right, probably one of the track-gang got hurt bad enough to need help, but they will have to wait to find out for sure. Right now their job is to get this train into Downhill.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Structural Crisis Averted - I Hope

You might remember a couple posts ago I was behind The Wife's barn trying to keep it from washing down the hill.

Well she has a shady little garden tucked in against the north side of that barn decorated with various things, including three of these decorative bird cages that she picked up for next to nothing at a resale shop and had me hang from one of the surrounding trees before populating them with another cheep find, some green metal cats.

Well I was back there trying to kill myself by digging a trench when I noticed, through the sweaty fog and floating eye-spots of over-exertion, that one of those cages was populated by more than those stylized metal garden-cats.

In some sort of twisted irony, some Carolina Wrens had built their nest in the bottom of the cage and right now it was filled to bursting with chicks that hadn't fledged yet.

The thing about Caroline Wrens is that they will build nests anywhere. Every year I have to shoo them out of the barn and once I caught one of the little buggers building a nest in a cubby in the open rear door of The Van.

So even though they had chosen the lowest of the three cages hanging in that tree, this wasn't such a bad place for a nest.

Except that disaster was looming.

These cages are not really built to hang out in the weather like that and I guess the added weight of the nest along with retained moisture from all the material the wrens had brought in was on the verge of being too much.

My quick fix was to wrap a couple lengths of para-cord around the cage to hold the floor up. Not pretty, but it was something I could do with the least amount of disturbance to the inhabitants and it only has to last until the occupants have fledged.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Cutoff: 12:37 - 13:35

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

October 20 1954: 12:37 – 13:35

Cutoff* is the smallest and most remote of all the outposts along the DP. Remote enough that here, firmly in the middle of the twentieth century, it still requires a generator to supply electricity because no power lines reach into this isolated part of the valley.

*The question of whether Cutoff was named for its isolation or because it’s the point where the Thorny Branch branch-line cuts off from the main has never been definitively answered, though there are adamant proponents in both camps.

Not counting the Jackson family, which pretty much keep to themselves partway up Gobblers Knob, and the small, seasonal logging crew that sets up camp out in whatever woods they’re working at the time, Cutoff has a permanent population of two and consists of the depot, a generator shed, and a speeder shed.

Originally Edward Bishop envisioned Cutoff growing into a town not much different than Three Creeks. A bustling, growing little center of commerce servicing the mines he expected to start popping up along the flanks of Russian Flats as soon as his railroad opened up the area. A town, not coincidentally, that would be sitting on Lincoln Holdings land. But apparently the vein of ore under Gobblars Knob was an anomaly and once the Thorny Prospect Mine closed down the DP would have abandoned this blip on the mountain were it not for its importance as a control point at the base of the West Pass Grade.

The depot here is the only one on the line with living quarters attached. That’s because the DP has found the most cost-effective way to staff this remote location where labor is hard to come by is to hire a husband-wife team and have them live right there in the depot. To that end an addition was added to the back side of the original building to accommodate a small but cozy kitchen, indoor tub, and bedroom/sitting room. Of course the depot waiting room rarely sees any actual passengers so the occupants can more than double their space by spreading out into it when they want.

Between the remoteness and being ‘on’ 24 hours a day every day, it’s not an assignment suited for just anybody, which has resulted in frequent turnover, but Matt and Anna, a couple that are somewhere in their late 50’s early 60’s,* have held the post down for almost three years now, almost as long as Tom has been back on DP tracks.

*Everyone assumes they are married but nobody bothered to look at their backgrounds very carefully when they applied for the job that very few seemed interested in.

A couple times a month one or the other of them will use their company pass and catch the morning Downbound Express to Daylight. After a stroll through the bustling environs of town and eating a lunch prepared by someone else for a change, they, which ever one of them went down, will return on the evening Upbound with supplies. And for emergencies the DP leaves a speeder sitting in a shed near the generator that they can use to get down to Rockhouse fairly quickly if necessary, not that that’s a lot of help since, other than a few more people, Rockhouse is pretty much as bereft of services as Cutoff, but taking a speeder down Mesa Hill would be suicide and going up to Downhill is too much for the diminutive engine in the old and surplus speeder.

Once in the siding the crew of Extra 1428 East cuts the house-car off then pulls the rest of the train forward, right out the other end of the siding and onto the main. (Despite the length of the siding, because of a design blunder the only way a train more than a single engine in length can get into the west leg of the Y is to pull out onto the main.) Anna, the other half of the Cutoff Station Agent team, is there to throw the west Y switch for them  and Tom backs into the curve.

Anna has already lined the south Y switch and unlocked the de-rail,* so Tom doesn’t have to stop again until the ore jenny has been shoved back beyond the de-rail, onto what used to be the beginning of the Thorny Branch, the DP’s one and only branch-line.

*When closed a de-rail will pick up a wheel and throw it to the outside of the rail, dragging the opposite wheel off the inside of the other rail, putting the car or engine on the ground, protecting the track beyond. When open the de-rail lies harmlessly between the rails so cars can pass.

Back when the railroad was built, even before the track was completed up through the pass into the lucrative mining area of Six Peaks, the construction crews shoved a switch-backing, 7.8 mile branch-line up the eastern flank of Gobler’s Knob to reach the site of the Thorny Prospect Mine. It just so happened that Edward Bishop held the proofed and patented mining claims up there and he leased them to the newly formed Thorny Prospect Mining company for a little percentage of every ton of ore that came out of the ground. Of course he also got paid for every ton his railroad dragged down the mountain to the processor.

When the mine ceased operation in 1946 the Jackson Brothers, owners of a small drift-mine partway up the flank of the Knob, convinced the DP to turn the lower 3.1 miles of the branch line over to them with the stipulation that the brothers would maintain and operate the track on their own. With scrap prices being modest at best, the DP management, which by then meant Edward’s son Charles, decided that the limited revenue they would get from hauling the occasional load of Jackson Brother’s ore down the mountain would, in the long run, be worth more than the scrap value of that last 3 miles of rail, so they agreed.

So instead of having to back up the former branch-line all the way to the Jackson Brother’s tiny mine, all Tom has to do is leave the jenny sitting on the track behind the re-locked de-rail.

Because they are late dropping this car off the brothers are already sitting there just up the track in the little 4 wheel, 7 ton Baldwin they picked up used in Albuquerque and repowered with a John Deer diesel engine of shady origins, (The brothers claim it came from the same Albuquerque dealer the Baldwin did after they found the original gas engine wasn’t up to the job, but around that same time a nearby abandoned McGiffert log-loader’s engine, coincidentally also a John Deer diesel, went missing.)

The brothers are waiting impatiently to drag the jenny the rest of the way up to their mine as soon as possible so they can get it loaded, by hand since their tiny operation doesn’t include a fancy loader, and back down to the derail before tomorrow’s downbound freight.

It only takes a few minutes to pull out of the Y and back down the siding to retrieve the house-car, but now they have to wait on the Ore so, with Ronald staying behind to mind the engine, the rest of the crew drifts on over to the depot where they spend the time standing on the ramp to the freight room chatting with Matt and Anna. The Station Agent are a nice couple that have few opportunities to socialize up here so the crew are content with taking a break.

Well, perhaps Dean is a little less content than the rest.

Being delayed has ruined his plans to sit at the counter in Ryan’s Emporium – Drugs – & Sundries up in Three Creeks and flirt with Isabella Montego between her bouts of serving burgers, fries, and ice-cream, mostly fries because they are the cheapest, to the kids after school lets out.

Now, by the time they get to Three Creeks Isabella will be home serving her widowed father and older brother, both of who work first shift at the power plant, their dinner. Dean knows better than to come calling when Isabella’s father is around. The man has no trust when it comes to Dean, nor should he truth be known.

At first Tom isn’t much of an active participant in the conversation, which he is vaguely aware is centered on the upcoming winter and getting a machinist from the roundhouse to come up and give the generator a good going over before it gets here.

Instead he lets his eye wander to the fenced garden-plot there in the middle of the Y. Matt and Anna, mostly Anna though Matt puts in his time as well, are accomplished gardeners and in summer the plot is bursting at the seams with an array of plants that feed the two well for most of the year.

This time of year there are only a few late-season crops still in the ground. He can see carrots, beets, cabbage, and, even from here, he can see the tops of plump red radishes poking out of the ground. It’s still a little early for them down in the warmer climes of Daylight, but he doubts his own radishes will look anything near as good as Matt and Anna’s.

Until the past couple years he would have never recognized the different plants let alone have some of his own, but now he has his own garden-plot behind the little two-bedroom house he bought in the old section of Daylight when he moved back after – well, after.

He’d never been a gardener before so he doesn’t know where the urge came from, but now he spends much of his downtime out back messing with his plants, which include what the older lady that lives on the other side of the alley calls ornamentals mixed in amongst his veggies just because he likes the way they look.

Being reminded of his garden helps chase away the daemons brought on by the ineptitude of the paperweights down in Daylight, or at least drives those daemons into some remote corner, and with renewed interest he joins the conversation.

Eventually they hear the whine of the Ore coming down the mountain, even though it will still be several minutes before it arrives.

The whine comes from the eight traction motors on the two Alco RS-3’s that make up the Ore’s motive power. The motors, instead of delivering power to the track are now busy turning the rotation of the axles into electricity. This is like downshifting a vehicle, and like downshifting, is holding back the 1000 ton train. The traction motors whine when used as generators and the whine is only added to by the sound of the big fans inside the short-hood struggling to cool down the resistors all that generated electricity are heating up.

The resistance of dynamic braking means that the air brakes can be used much less and, unlike when it was powered with a couple steamers, now the Ore can roll straight through Cutoff without stopping to cool brakes and wheels and reset retainers after the long run down West Pass Grade.

Finally the headlight of the approaching train, with engine 1955 running in the lead with 1956 trailing, pokes though the woods and the group in front of the depot, to a man, or rather to a person, checks their watches as is the ingrained habit of railroaders. The Ore is right on time and the group in front of the depot splits up.

The semaphore is pointing down since there are no orders to hand up so the Ore will be rolling straight through Cutoff. Matt stays put on the depot side of the tracks while Anna steps across the main to the other side. The crew of Extra 1428 also drifts across the main to stand next to their train.

Anna and Matt inspect their respective sides as the Ore rolls by with a raucous, soulless blatt from the airhorns that makes the crew of the steamer cringe.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that sound,” Otis says.

“Yeah,” Tom agrees. “You can’t play those airhorns like you can the whistles either.” That’s going to suck some of the life out of railroading. He keeps that last thought to himself.

Both Matt and Anna give a highball to the house-car crew when they see nothing more than a little residual smoke from the brakes that helped control the speed of the train as it came down the long, steep slope of the West Pass Grade. From here to Rockhouse the dynamic brakes will be enough to hold the train without using the brakes anymore. At Rockhouse they will stop just long enough to alternate the retarded cars as they prepare for dropping down Mesa Hill.

Shortly after receiving the highball the engineer, who has slowed the train while passing the depot, pulls the selector handle back to the big “B” position which reduces the amount of dynamic braking effort to zero and the whine of traction motors in generator mode drops to a whisper. This allows gravity to do the work of speeding the train up again as it starts down towards Rockhouse.

That’s the crew of Extra 1428’s signal to get ready to roll themselves.

As soon as the Ore clears the depot Anna, who generally handles all the switching at the east end of Cutoff while Matt handles it at the west end, trots lightly and expertly along the ties between the rails and lines the east switch so the Freight (Technically it’s not the Freight anymore but everyone still thinks of it that way.) can take the main.