Thursday, June 27, 2019

Mom's New Digs

The two or three regular readers I still have may recall that last fall my mom rendered me homeless by selling her condo of 30 plus years in a fifty or older community (fifty five or older when they first moved in) and moving to an independent living community.

Well in May I went up to see her new place in this community.

Out in front of one of the two club-houses
OK, technically she is living in the independent living portion of this community, which is by far the largest part of it, but there is also an assisted living as well as memory care unit on the grounds as well. They advertise that when you move here you never have to leave again. They even have special programs and funds in case you run out of money along the way. (To be fair, there is a stiff up-front buy-in that ensures a resident at least starts off in decent financial shape. That buy-in goes into escrow and either you or your heirs get it back when you leave. )

Speaking of large, this place is big! A walk around the perimeter sidewalk, which skirts several wet-lands and some woods, will cover just about a mile.

In fact the size of the place was one of Mom's concerns before choosing this community.

OK, truth is, Mom didn't have "concerns" --- she went bat-shit crazy during the whole selection, sell, move process. Even though it was 100% her choice to make this change she fretted and gnawed and worried and lost sleep, and an alarming amount of weight, over every little aspect of the process. Which in the end, after all the sleepless nights, all the imagined disasters, and countless phone-calls to talk her down off the ledge, went smoother than even us kids expected.

All is well now and it didn't take all that long for her to make her one bedroom, one bath apartment with laundry and big-ass walk-in closet, her own and get the feel of the place and become comfortable with moving around its many buildings.

To assist with this every new resident is assigned a 'buddy' from a pool of volunteer residents who acts as a guide until you get the hang of the place

To facilitate the moving around the property part, in addition to impeccably maintained sidewalks, even in the winter, all the buildings are connected with walkways so a person can get anywhere on the campus without having to go outside. If you've ever been to Calgary and used the Plus-15 you know what I'm talking about.)

Which is good because part of the deal here is that you get 30 meal chits a month (More on the meal experience in another post) and there are two sit-down restaurants, one in each clubhouse, as well as a number of snack-bars, pubs, and even a miniature grocery with fresh hand-picked produce brought in once a week from a wholesaler. (Oh, and there's also a compact but complete kitchen in your apartment. Well, I say compact but Mom and I decided it's actually about the size of the kitchen she raised us 3 kids in-except we didn't have a dishwasher, other than us kids that is.)

Hell, Mom's bank even has a branch here on the property!

See the new strip of sod? In keeping the sidewalks absolutely snow and ice-free through the winter they remove that strip in the fall so ice doesn't build up against it and salt won't kill the grass, then in the spring they come along and replace it again.
If you do ever need to go out, all the shopping you could wish for is within a couple of miles and you have your choice of either your car sitting in its assigned slot (The covered slots cost extra but there's also an on-site team that will clean your uncovered car of snow and ice for a fee.) or the property's shuttles that make both scheduled runs to popular spots such as grocery, drug, and department stores, as well as acting like a call-up taxi service, (as long as you plan a day or two ahead.)

There are two separate clubhouses, game-rooms, an auditorium with fancy seats, nightly movies, frequent concerts and guest speakers covering a wide variety of subjects. a couple of gyms, an indoor pool, a beauty parlor, craft rooms, including a wood-shop and a whole lot of other stuff, such as on-site home nursing and an interior design studio to help you with decorating during move-in. (Each apartment is completely redone before every move-in with fresh paint and new carpets, and in Mom's case anyway, new appliances, though it took her several tries and at least once trip to the communal laundry to learn how to use that fancy new washing-machine.)

They even have their own TV studio and station on the property and while visiting I watched the annual board meeting which was filmed a few days before I got there. Monday's you can sit down for coffee with the executive director and share thoughts, concerns, whatever.

The schedule of available events is mind boggling and Mom has jumped right in with both feet. In fact she called my brother's wife and told her to tell him to stop trying to call her before 7PM because she is busy!

So, although being made homeless sucks, this was a great move for Mom and neither she nor us kids have any regrets.

Oh, and you see that over there across the wetlands along the west side of the property? The First Wife and I lived over there in that mobile home park for a year or so during my brief foray back to Michigan in the late 70's. Back then where I'm standing to take this photo was just woods, swamps,  and fields.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Now What?!

The easiest way to size a replacement V-belt is to read the number off the back of the original. Of course by the time you feel the need for a replacement the numbers are usually worn off by the idler. . .

An alternative strategy is to check the manual for the part number and try to cross-reference that nonsensical number back to the real world of V-belts. Of course that's assuming you can find the parts manual for a mower over 15 years old. . .

Or, you can just measure the existing belt.

Make a chalk-mark on the outside, set the mark at 0 on a tape measure, and roll the belt down the tape until you get back to the mark, then round down to the nearest inch to account for stretch to get the length. Measure across the outside of the belt and add a bit to account for wear to get the width. (measures 9/16's? Then it was a 5/8ths belt.)


Unlessss . . .

Your belt is now just a few shreds of rubber and some clouds of fluff that blew out from under the mower mid-mow.

OK, I figured out what size belt I needed (The blue one is the new one) but to get it wrapped around the pulleys and settled onto the idler, the one with a really heavy spring on it, I had to pull a half-inch diameter, 20 inch long stabilizing pin at the front of the mower deck completely out and let the deck pivot backwards on the three hangers that hold it up off the ground at the desired cutting level. Now I could get this belt routed around all three pulleys.

But to put it all back together the slot in the mower deck, the bit closest to you with the hook in it, needs to line up with a slot on the mower (Kinda visible through the top half of the deck-slot here but you have to look close to figure that out.) Only problem is that to move the two slots into alignment I had to overcome the spring-action of the drive-belt idler, and The Rock I am not! (I briefly tried to strong-arm it, but yeah, no way. . .)

So I parked the mower between a couple of sturdy trees, hooked a strap from one tree to the front of the mower deck, (The red strap on the right and the hook in the previous photo.) attached another strap from the other tree to the mower's chassis, and started ratcheting. Eventually I got enough pull going to get the first set of slots to line up and was able to jam the pin through, but only through the one side.

To get it through the other side I had to move the red strap over to to the other side of the mower deck where, with some more ratcheting, and ratcheting, and ratcheting, I was able to get the final two slots to line up so I could drive the pin the rest of the way through with a drift and a dead-blow.


Because it makes me look like an idiot, I probably won't tell you that I ended up doing this three times.

The first time I had the deck out to measure for a new drive-belt I failed to pay attention to the belt that drives the three blades and when I put everything back together it started slipping so bad the blades weren't cutting (At least that's what I thought the issue was.)

After dropping the deck out from under the mower one more time I inspected the blade belt and it didn't look too bad, so I figured that the idler, which adjusts with a bolt and not a spring for this belt, was just too loose. I got that taken care of by tightening the bolt on the idler, reducing belt-deflection on the longest leg down to a quarter inch, put the deck back on the mower for the second time and the blade slip was even worse!

With the mower shut down and the key in my pocket, I reached under the deck, something I hadn't done yet so far, and found that the two outside blades were just spinning on their shafts.

One more time I dropped the deck, (I'm starting to get pretty good at that. Drive the big pin out, remove the clip and washer from the three hanger bolts, drop the deck to the ground, remove the drive belt, grab one end of the deck and drag it out from under the mower.) got my impact wrench out, tightened the blade-bolts as tight as 120 pounds of air pressure would go, and for the third time hung the deck back under the mower ---again.

A test cut showed that all was working now and I wasn't gong to have to drop that mower-deck again, at least not tomorrow. (I was done for today!) I guess next time I'd be doing myself a favor by checking everything the first time. If only I can remember that until next time. . .

Monday, June 24, 2019

Downhill: 14:53 – 17:51 (Part 2)

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

October 20 1954: 14:53 – 17:51

“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.


“For instance, unlike a big Johnson-Bar sticking up from the foot-plate, the reverser (14) sticks out the side of the control stand and only has three positions, forward, neutral, and reverse. It actually looks like nothing more than an overgrown light-switch sticking out there.

“Since there’s no valve cutoff to worry about you control train-speed with only the throttle, (17) also sticking out the side of the control stand, which has 9 positions. All the way forward is idle which keeps the diesel running at about 350 RPM but puts no power to the traction motors. After that there’s Run 1 through Run-8 and you can tell where the lever is by the number showing in a little indicator window (16). The higher the number the faster the diesel runs and the more power the traction motors get.

“And also unlike a steamer, these Alco’s could pull a building off its foundation from a dead stop! You just pull the throttle back as far as you need to, all the way to run-8 if necessary, and in a few seconds the engine revs up and juice starts flowing into these things called traction motors, four of them, one on each axle.”

“Juice?” Jake askes. “You mean like electricity?”

“Yea, electricity and lots of it! With the train at a dead stop you can rev that big 12 cylinder diesel engine all the way up to about 1000 RPM and put all 1600 HP into the generator that drives the traction motors. These things have so much starting power most the time you can start a train with the slack already stretched out.  But you have to make sure the train starts moving right away because stuffing all that electricity through the motors when they aren’t turning is bad for them. That’s called a stall condition, when electricity is flowing but the motors aren’t turning. The guys tell me that if you do that too long the wires in the motors start heating up and they can actually catch fire! But once the motors are turning they can suck the juice right up no problem. So you have to make double-sure the brakes are off before you pull throttle like that, and that you start moving pretty quick.”

“So why risk burning the motors up?” Jake asks. “Why not just start the train easy and not have to worry about burning things up?”

“I asked the same thing. What they said is that putting a little bit of juice into the motors, too little to get them turning, is still a stall condition and can burn the motors up too. In fact the operating manual says the way to start a train with an Alco is to pull as much throttle as you can without pulling drawbars, busting knuckles, or slipping the wheels and get it moving and up to speed as quick as you can. By the way, you can’t tell if the wheels are slipping by the exhaust, since there isn’t any, not like on a steamer anyway, so there’s a warning light (26) to tell you if the wheels are slipping.

To make sure you don’t cook the motors you kinda have to watch something called a load-meter (25) and make sure it comes down out of the red pretty quick.  And you have to remember to notch the throttle back in to keep from going too fast once you do get moving. They tell me these things could do 65 if we had good enough track to keep it from flying off!

“But to complicate things a bit more these engines also have something called transition.”

“A transmission?” Otis asks incredulously.

“No, no, not a transmission, though it’s kind of the same in a way. This is called transition, which means you’re changing how the electricity from the generator flows through the traction motors, something about parallel and series but don’t ask me any details because trying to figure out that electricity stuff was still making my head hurt even after three trips.”

“So, what?” Jake chimed in. “You have a clutch and shifter or something?”

“No, it’s actually simpler than that, though it does bring up a whole new control called the selector lever (13). It’s kinda in the same slot as the throttle but on the back of the control stand instead of the side.

“When this lever is pointing straight back it’s in the off position – you can tell by another indicator window, (15) and no matter what you do with the throttle when the selector is in off, no electricity can get to the traction motors. In fact this is one more step when safeing these engines for the trainmen. You put the throttle in idle, the reverser in neutral, and the selector in off.  

“But anyway, when you start one of these engines from a stop, in either direction, you first put the selector lever one notch to the left, or towards the fireman’s side.  That’s transition 1 and it feeds electricity to the traction motors one way. Then when you have a little speed on, about 17 MPH, you have to move the selector one more notch to the left to position 2, which changes how the electricity runs through the motors. There’s also transition 3 (23 MPH) & 4 (49 MPH) too, but fortunately the Ore never gets going fast enough to need them, and rarely fast enough to need transition 2. But if you do have it in transition 2 you have to remember to pull it back to transition 1 when you slow down below 17 MPH.

“There’s little white marks on the speedometer (4) that tell you what transition you should be in. And speaking of speedometer, I’ll be using that a lot because sitting so close to the front the tracks look like they’re coming at you much faster than they actually are, and, unlike listening to the exhaust chuffs of a steamer, it’s impossible to judge from the sound of the Alco’s diesel just how fast you’re going.

“Why’s that?” Otis was about to ask but Jake beat him to it.

“Well, because the speed the diesel engine is running sorta has nothing to do with the speed the train is moving.”

Tom could see that this confused his fellow crew members.

“OK, for instance, climbing the grade just out of Goat Crossing with a bunch of empties, it might only take run-4 on the throttle to keep moving at 20 MPH, so the diesel is running at about 700 RPM. But when pulling East Pass Grade out of Three Creeks with a string of loads behind you will have to be in run-8 with the diesel spinning at 1000 RPM, but just barely making 8 MPH over the ground. So that’s why the sound of the diesel is no help in judging your speed.”

Otis and Jake sat and tried to wrap their heads around that while Tom got up, gathered their mugs, and went over to the bar for refills.

“So what’s with this dynamic brake stuff?” Otis asked after he returned.

“Oh that’s probably the part I like about the Alco’s best!” Tom replied.

“First off, these engines still have both service and independent brakes just like 1428 out there, but they also have these things called dynamic brakes that somehow use the traction motors to slow the train. Remember that selector lever? The one used to select the transition level? Well if you pull it to the right instead of the left you go into dynamic braking.

“First you idle the throttle then put the selector into off, then you pull it to the right into what’s called the big B. From there you ease the lever just a little bit more towards you. This gives you a little bit of dynamic braking to gather up the slack, then you move the lever further. This adds more braking and you’ll hear the fans in the short hood just in front of you start speeding up. That’s where all the electricity the traction motors are now generating goes, into something called a braking grid, though I’m not exactly sure what that is even though they showed it to me. The grid gets hot and the fans cool it down. They tell me that if you use too much dynamic, – there’s a green and a red zone on the load meter and if you are in the red zone that’s too much  – or the cooling fans fail, you can actually melt that braking grid thing.

“To reduce the amount of dynamic braking and get it back into the green you just pull the selector lever back a little bit.

“And the best part is that as long as you keep the needle in the green zone on the load meter you can use the dynamics all you want without heating up wheels or using up air.

“Of course you can also use the automatic brakes at the same time but you have to remember to bail off the independent when you do or else the combination of dynamic and air brakes can lock-up the wheels on the engine and flatten them.”

“Sounds complicated,” Jake said.

“Well, yes, I suppose it is, especially at first, especially since the slower you go the less dynamic braking is available, but at anything above 10 MPH the dynamics are strong enough that you can come down the easier grades without touching the automatics at all, and even when coming down West Pass or Mesa Hill you only need about half as much automatic brake as you would need on old 1428 out there, except when you slow down for Wild Woman Loop. Then there isn’t much dynamic braking at all and you need the automatics to make up for it. But truth is, once I got used to it, it was really sweet coming down the grades without having to worry so much about how much air I had left.”

“No, not just the brakes. The whole thing,” Jake replied. “Sound like running these new engines is really complicated.”

“At first sure, and I won’t lie to you, I’m not sure three qualifying runs is enough, but then again if you’ve never been on a foot-plate before a steamer is a pretty dang complicated piece of machinery too.

“And on the plus side, the Alco cab is completely closed in, no drafty canvas curtains constantly letting the cold and rain or snow in, and no fire cooking you. And speaking of rain, there’s honest-to-God window wipers on the Alco’s! Four air-powered wipers, each controlled with its own needle-valve, though for some strange reason the main valve that feeds air to the wipers is located under the cab floor and can only be reached from outside.

“And compared to the kidney-scrambling slamming around of the Consolidations, the Alco’s ride like a magic carpet. OK, maybe not that smooth, but a heck of a lot smoother than most steamers I’ve been on. Why, if a guy wanted to, he could sit there and drink coffee from a china cup while the thing is going down the road!”

There is a pause in the conversation as the three railroaders contemplate, with varying degrees of uneasiness, life without steamers.

“Oh yeah,” Tom says, plucking at the front of his coveralls, suddenly aware of the faint stink of oil, both fresh and burned, and sweat wafting up from them. “Another thing about operating the Alco’s is how clean they are. No need for coveralls, not even gloves.”

“Might as well be sittin’ in an office,” Jake grouses.

“Maybe so,” Tom fires back, becoming a little frustrated with Jake’s attitude. “But come February you’re going to be nursing frostbite on your ears, burns on your hands, cussing those drafty curtains and the cold water dripping down your neck,* wishing for a nice snug place away from the cold. Besides, I don’t know any office that rolls on through places like Wild Woman Canyon!”

*With the heavy curtains closed the steam that is constantly leaking into the cab condenses on the inside of the roof and tends to rain down on the occupants.

‘On the other hand,’ Tom thinks to himself while looking pensively out at 1428 sitting there patiently waiting to get moving again and mentally apologizing to her for his disloyalty, ‘I sure am going to miss the steamers. They are as close to a living thing as any machine can be. Right now she’s out there panting and murmuring and gurgling, sucking in air and breathing out her hot breath. She asks only to be fed and watered and cared for just like any other beast of burden, and in return she’ll work her guts out for me.’

With a furtive glance to make sure the others haven’t caught him in these almost poetic but maudlin thoughts, he mentally shakes himself back to the real world of the twentieth century working man.

By now it is getting on towards 5 o’clock, the after-work crowd is starting to filter into Hap’s, and the backless wood benches they are sitting on, even though they are stationary and not pounding down the rails, are getting uncomfortable, so the three men, after buying a slice of gummy looking apple pie to feed Ronald’s sweet-tooth, wander on out the door.

Having missed their window in the schedule because the track gang is holding the track, they still have a lot of time to wait yet before the Downbound Express clears Downhill, even assuming the track is repaired on time, so after dropping a slice of fresh pie off for Ronald all three of them step across the tracks and go into the depot.

“That track-gang happen to come back while we were away?” Otis asks Ed, somewhat hopefully.

“No, and if doze guys don’ show up soon da Express is goin’ ta be ‘eld up and I’ll be here ‘alf da night writing up TO’s ta sort da mess out and reports ta ‘slpain ta da bosses wat ‘appened.”

“I thought you went off shift at 6,” Jake says.

“Normally, but dat Robert (The night shift agent) went down ta T’ree Creek on the morning Express so til the Downbound come back trough wit ‘im on it I’m stuck ‘ere.”

The new depot, built with paying customers in mind, has a good view of the track, is bright, has a decent stove, and the benches, despite being wood, are contoured and comfortable, so the three railroaders decide to wait there for whatever is coming.

They have just barely settled when Ed, from the vantage point of his desk in the bay on the front of the depot that lets him look up and down the track from his seat, calls out that he can see the speeder coming back up the track.

They get back up to see for themselves, a phenomenon closely related to the need to push the elevator button or ring the bell on the desk even though someone else has already done it.

The speeder is running forward so the crew obviously picked it up and turned it around at some point. The trailers, which are now loaded with two short pieces of rail with ragged ends on them are tagging along behind. As it passes the depot one man jumps off and walks in. Tom doesn’t know him by name but recognizes him as the track-gang supervisor.

“OK Ed, you can call down to dispatch and let them know the track is fixed and they can release the Express on schedule. I’ll write it up in my report but it looks to me like someone was taking pot-shots at the rail with some sort of heavy hunting rifle and managed to crack the web with one or two of them. Must have been a while ago since the cracks, at least around the divots the bullets made, are rusty. There was also some depressed ties right underneath that spot so I expect that the rail has been flexing under load for some time and extending the cracks. Today one of those heavy ore jennys probably finally snapped the rail right through. We brought both pieces back and the boys are sticking them in the old depot in case someone from down below wants to inspect them.”

“I wonder ‘ow dat train didn’t end up on da ground.” Ed mussed.

“Well it was near the center of the rail so both pieces were held somewhat in place by tie-plates back away from the break. Which means it wasn’t a bit of rail that hit the house-car, but there were some loose tie-plates just flapping in the breeze under the busted ends of the rail and we found one of them way on down the tracks. Maybe that was what flew up and rang old Griff’s bell.”

While Ed gets on the phone to dispatch and the supervisor heads down to where his gang is wrestling the broken rail off the trailers, Otis pulls out his watch. “Well if it’s on time the Express will be here in in about 35 minutes.* I can heat up the pot (He’s talking about the indispensable coffee pot he keeps on the stove in the house-car) if anyone’s interested.”

*The Express isn’t scheduled to leave Three Rivers for another 15 minutes yet, but at the speeds it reaches, even up grades, it will take less than 20 minutes to reach Downhill.

“Not me,” Jake says. “I shut the blower down earlier so I think I’ll just go turn the fire up a little so we’re ready to go when the time comes.”

“Me either,” Tom kicks in. “I’ve had about all the coffee I need for the day.”*

*As a consequence of the crazy hours, infrequent, and often less than ideal, meals, and endless pots of coffee, old railroaders often end up with dicy stomachs, now that his hours, and many of his meals, are more predictable Tom has been feeling better, but the down side of that is that he now really notices it when he overdoes the coffee. Not that he’s going to cut it out altogether though!

“Alright guys. See you at the other end then,” Otis says to his crew and Ed alike. “Oh, and Tom, if Dean isn’t back by the time we leave do me a favor and skip calling in the flag.”*

*Pulling the 5-longs on the whistle that would signal the rear flagman to return to the train.

“You’re the boss Otis. No signals until I whistle-off. “

Some railroaders are notorious pranksters. Otis isn’t one of them. But he makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t approve of Dean’s promiscuous, partying ways. If Dean is not back by the time they start rolling, those two blasts as Tom whistles-off will put the fear of God into him since missing your train will have you ‘dancing on the carpet’ as you get called in for an official investigation which will result in brownies,* or, if you already have too many brownies, could get you struck off the board for a while, if not forever.

*Demerits are called brownies on the railroad because in 1885 George Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway thought the summary suspensions common back then put undue hardships on the families.  Under his system you were given a number of demerits for an infraction. After one year the demerits expire, but if you collect 90 or more ‘brownies’ at any given time you will be shown the sidewalk, at least for a while. Most railroads have adopted this system or a variant of it.

Not to be confused with ‘brownie points’ which has the opposite meaning and seems to have originated with the Girl Scout Brownies that got badges or points as rewards for good work or deeds, or possibly it came from war-time rationing where people were issued various colored ‘points’ each month, the most coveted being brown points which were used to obtain meat.

“I wonder if that guy is ever going to settle down,” Jake muses.

“The only way that’s going to happen,” Otis comes back. “Is if a woman latches onto him so tight she has to loosen her grip so he can pee.”

There is a brief moment of shock as Tom and Jake process the words that just came out of the mouth of the grandfatherly Otis, before they both burst out laughing. Not only because it is Otis that said it, but because it’s true.

With a sly little grin Otis turns and heads for his end of the train.

“Damn! That was a good one Otis,” Tom calls out when he stops laughing.

“Hey Tom,” Jake says, his seriousness in sharp contrast to the reaction to Otis’ statement. “You think it’ll be alright if I take the right seat down to Three Creeks?”

“Well sure Jake. I’ll take the left side right now and get the fire going.”

“OK then,” Jake says, excited but nervous at the same time. “I’ll do the oiling and set up the retainer on that box car.”

Personally Tom would set the retainer on the house-car instead to get them down the 1% grade into Three Creeks, that would give Otis the smoothest ride, but he understands Jake’s thinking. The boxcar is certainly the heavier of the two and will provide better braking power, so he says nothing that might make Jake second-guess himself.

The sun has set and twilight is deepening when, right on time, the Express, the third to go by them today, drifts up almost silently as it slows for the depot.

Since they still can’t move until the Express finishes it’s 5 minute stop and rolls on out again, Ronald, who went up to line the east switch for their departure once the Express passed, has plenty of time to walk back and climb on the engine where he can get away from the increasing chill and warm himself next to the backhead.

Unfortunately for Dean, the little horn on the Express, that already isn’t all that loud, is muffled even more by the short freight train sitting on the track between it and the north-side buildings.

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.