Thursday, October 13, 2016

Coastal Starlight: Part 2

This is a continuation of a 2 day train trip from Portland to Santa Barbara. As we left off, our heroes were daring the challenges of on train sleeping in the Amtrak Roomette...

Sometime around 5:00 am I was up to use the bathroom and my lovely partner volunteered to switch beds with me for the rest of the night. The bottom bunk is MUCH more comfortable (4" wider). But I realized that top or bottom, what I really needed to be more comfortable was a second and larger pillow. So put that on your list of things to bring on the train. Or Perhaps…. if we had asked, the attendant could have scared up a couple more of those puppies.

Now here is something to think about. We were cruising through the country side all night. The middle part of the trip, essentially from the time you hit the Oregon High Desert until you coast into Sacramento, is one long downhill run. It takes like 8 hours. During that time you stop at around four towns and you decrease in altitude by 5000 feet. One of the results of being asleep during such a slow descent is that when you wake up you have a killer case of over pressure in your inner ears and you really need to pop your ears. Both my partner and I had a problem with that for the first half hour after waking up. I guess you should wake up every hour or so and yawn.

We got up pretty early and went hunting for coffee. We had been worried about that, but it turns out there is an urn of the stuff at the center of every sleeping car and more in the parlor and dining cars. We were going to eat breakfast in the dining car this morning, but first we wanted some coffee and a shower.

Yes, I said shower.

Time to explain the accommodations on the Coastal Starlight.
As far as I can tell, all of the sleeping cars in American are operated by Amtrak and all of them are the same design (as I have described in my previous post here). In addition to the half Roomettes/half Suites layout of the car there is also one bathroom on the half with the Roomettes. The on-train bathroom is only slightly larger than the ones on an airplane. They were nice and clean and pleasant in Portland, but by the time we hit Oakland they were getting a bit ripe. Downstairs from our rooms is the entry doors, the luggage racks, and a few more special rooms. By special I mean a handicap access room and a ‘family’ room. The family room has 4 cots in it, 2 of which can only fit very small people. It is set at the end of the hall and so has a window on both sides of the train.  Also on the bottom floor are 3 additional bathrooms and a shower. My partner and I took advantage of the shower since it was unoccupied. It was actually pretty decent. Big enough for 2 (if you like each other) and had plenty of hot water (though it was sort of hard to figure out how to get it to work). Sort of tight for changing clothes in the adjoining changing space. A funny part was the drain below us was just a hole in the bottom of the train. You could see the ground going past below us. Clickety Clack Clikety Clack the wheels are rolling on the railroad track. Where you go you can’t go back. Where you go you can’t go back.

The Dining Car. I like to face forward
Napkins! Such Glamour!

We couldn't go back, but we could have breakfast. We went to the dining car when they called the time for our sitting. We had a table to ourselves (because the waitress heard me worry about being woosy with facing backward and moved us. She doesn’t want woosy). The meals on the train are covered by the Sleeping car fee. We had a perfectly decent set of pancakes and scrambled eggs. And more coffee.

Since we were back in that part of the train we decided to go all the way to the back and see what else was there. Lets see if I can still remember. I think that actual disposition of the cars changes with the demand for travel. We had two engines and they certainly could have pulled more cars than we had going this trip (which I know because they are going to add a couple later in this blog (I read ahead)). So right after the  dining car was the Business Class car. Big seats that leaned way back and had nice foot rests that came up. Lots of room all around. Actually looked like it might be a more comfy sleep that the top bunk of a roomette. People in this car have assigned seats and get to use the Parlor Car. The next car was the observation car. This is the car with wrap around windows for the economy passengers. There were a bunch of swivel chairs and couches and big windows and it was very full of people. Down stairs on that car was a little snack bar and a couple of tables to eat your snacks.  After that was an economy car. Seats a little smaller than Business Class, but still HUGE Compared to an airline seat. HUGE even compared to a first class airline seat. Downstairs were smaller rooms with more seats (and the bathrooms). There were 2 economy cars and then, the end of the train. No Caboose. What a rip off. (on doing more research on cars, I find that there is only one kind of "coach" car. So the Business Class and the Economy class cars must be identical. My perception that one was bigger is evidently wrong. you heard it here first)

The Comfy Chairs are the way to go

We went back up to the Parlor car and scored a couple of the big plush captains chairs where we could look out the window and enjoy the trip. We were just hitting the Sacramento Delta area.

The rail now winds its way out of what remains of the highlands and so across the rivers and deltas that make up the north east end of the San Francisco Bay. The track here is all built up over the surrounding lowlands, which I am sure get damp if California ever has any rain. We hit the bay and turned South and ran along the shore for a while. We were approaching the Oakland station. My partner and I have still have our seats in the big comfy chairs. We have an excellent view of the creations of man that are stacked up along the right of way outside of our luxury-on-wheels. It is sort of like riding a luxury cruise ship through a ghetto. I am ambivalent about that. I am ambivalent about even using the word "Ghetto".


Because the train curves around a lot, it creates irregular shapes as it cuts through the surrounding property. These irregular shapes form together and leave a lot of unused thin triangles and random deadends. Places too small and hard to access to use efficiently to stack stuff. That is where the homeless live. They can wheel in with their shopping carts filled with blue tarps and old tents and colorful kids umbrellas and build their own little world. The pictures show a few of the typical installations that we saw as we rolled through. These encampments seem to be in competition with the staggering amount of urban graffiti art that covers every horizontal surface over 4 feet high. The Graffiti was very interesting. Much of it was just the standard boring balloon letter tribal territory marking, but a lot of other work seemed to be humorous, political, or perhaps product placement.  Quite a few of the signs were very artistic. And why is art sitting out there facing the railroad tracks? I guess these particular tracks carry not only freight and the Coastal Starlight but also the commuter between San Francisco and Sacramento (the Capitol Corridor). But either as visiting artists or as permanent residents, there sure seem to be a lot of people out and about on the Railroad's right of way.

We had a slightly longer stop in Oakland to pick up a couple of additional cars. These were private party cars. I have a couple of pictures of them. They are these cars owned by this society that you can rent for private parties and journeys. They contract with Amtrak to pick them up and haul them around to different places. They are restored historic cars from the California Zephyr line. Here is a link.

These are the new (old)(classic) cars we added

We left the Oakland station and traveled for around 30 seconds and then stopped again. Here we sat admiring the nice blue tarp structures and urban graffiti for around 10 minutes until the Conductor came on the PA: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are stopped here for a while because of a Trespasser Strike blocking the track ahead”.

A Trespasser Strike. How confusing. Seems like in California, everyone is unionized.

Then she (the conductor) came back on to give more details. “They have called in the Coroner and we are going to have to wait until the investigation is finished. This could take 3 or 4 hours”.

3 or 4 hours? We will miss our connections !! We will miss our Dinner !! Wait a second. Coroner? Someone is dead on the tracks up ahead? It turns out that Trespasser Strike is Railroad speak for “We just killed someone. But they shouldn’t have been on our tracks so it is their fault”.

Were we thinking about this snuffed out life? No we were all worrying about our connections, and the nerve of some trespasser for putting us out like this, and also feeling incredibly guilty for having these thoughts. As my partner put it, “Up ahead, someones brother, husband, daughter or partner is dead. And we worry about being late for dinner?”

I blame the Amtrak Wording. More thought reveals that the wording implies that this sort of thing must happen fairly often. And then I remember all of the people living on the right of way. These are homeless people, quite likely depressed and with mental or drug related issues. Walking on the track by accident could be very likely. Walking on it on purpose isn’t so unlikely either.

The conductor came on again about 10 minutes later, “Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a first in my 24 years of Amtrak work. We are being routed around the incident onto another section of track. Should be back and moving any minute now.”

And we were. So not only did we have terrible thoughts about being late, but we weren’t late. Where is my humble pie? I am so hungry.

I want to say one more thing about the scenery whist rolling through Oakland and the lower bay area. Behind the walls that support the Graffitti and don’t keep the homeless off the tracks are yards full of stacks of stuff. Not piles of random assorted junk, mind you. Very Specific huge stacks, each of one particular type of stuff. Stacks of Tires. Stacks of Rusted Car Drive Wheels. Stacks of crumpled cubed aluminum. Green Plastic Buckets. Blue Plastic Buckets. Cars. Concrete blocks. Bails of Wire. Lumber. A stack for pretty much everything that could be stacked. And all of these stacks are lined up down the  much less valuable right of way of the Union Pacific Rail Road. Here are some pictures of stacks of stuff.

bailed Aluminum

Blue Plastic Barrels

And now we are rolling rolling rolling. Down the valley beside route 101 through one of the hearts of Central California. A big drought ridden sea of natural brown heavily interspersed with irrigated green fields. On and on we chug.

Time for another true Passenger Story.

My partner and I are sitting in the comfy chairs in the Parlor Car. The land is slipping by outside and I am trying once again to make it through Richard Feynman’s classical set of lectures on Quantum Theory for the layman called (in Book Form) “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter”.

This book doesn’t use many equations, but he does present a simple mathematical manner (involving counting time and spinning a bunch of arrows (well, an infinite number of arrows)) that one can use to explain ALL of the phenomena of light. All of them. Pretty colors from a drop of oil on a pool of water? Explained with spinning arrows. Light appear to be sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave? Explained with spinning arrows (Hint: light is ALWAYS a particle). Why a thin piece of the same kind of glass can block more light than a thick piece? Explained with spinning arrows !! Anyway. I have never quite been able to get myself through all of the lectures. On this particular reading, I had gotten about 2/3 of the way through. I put the book down and stair off into the distance (trying to envision this whole glass thickness thing) when an older gentlewoman across the aisle from me puts down here knitting, looks at me, and says “How are you doing with Feynman? I always had problems with him. I do much better with Hawking”.

I think I sort of gaped at her for a moment. Then I realized that something equally urbane and insightful was required from me. “I always had trouble with Hawking’s closed Universe. I can’t quite come to grips with that”. She nods in agreement and she goes back to her knitting and I go back to my reading.

I wonder if the trains would have more or less passengers if they had a bit of a re-design and moved into the 2000s. The parlor car, for instance, is a 50’s design. The attendant said that only the Coastal Starlight has a parlor car. Not having a Parlor car would make the Journey to Chicago on the Empire Builder a lot less enjoyable. Best look that up before I try and talk my partner into it. (I looked it up, no Parlor Car).

I really like the 50’s luxury feel of the Parlor Car, but I think even it could use some redo. It had a lot of wasted space. For instance, in the middle of the car, standing next to the stairs down, there is a stainless steal cart setup that looks to be used for hosted a breakfast buffet setup. It takes up space that could be used for at least 2 comfy chairs and certainly wasn’t employed on this journey (and if not this what. Then Which one?) Get rid of it. Put in some more chairs.
The Parlor Car again, You can just see the Couches back there

The little couches are a question to me. The seem pretty nice, but were drastically under utilized. I think it is because they don’t face out. They face in and so are less interesting. Perhaps they would get more use at night. I never did go the the parlor car to check things out at night when you can’t see the scenery. Perhaps the place was a hopping party at night. Then there is the downstairs. There may have been a bathroom down there. Not sure. But there was a movie room. This room faced the rear of the train (at least in this train configuration). It had a large flat screen TV and a few rows of 50’s era foldable movie seats (bolted to the floor). I bet that back in the day there was an actual projector down there. Today, what we had was some broken electronics that no one knew how to fix. So no one was watching one of the scheduled movies (“The Martian” ) because... well because it wasn't on. But in this day and age, everyone is carrying around a movie display device in their backpack. They don’t need a room  set up for this. So what to do? Perhaps the economy observation car is the answer to this. The attendant did say it was much more modern. It has more out facing couches up top. A few tables to sit at, and then downstairs it has a snack booth and some more tables. More of a Disney Land Train of the Future (from the 50s) feel. Hmm. I don’t want that either. I want to keep the luxury but just convert some of the obsolete space.

The thing that really needs some redesign is the sleeper. The Roomettes just don’t hack it. And the big suites seem to also be lacking in appeal, at least to me. For instance, I really don’t want a private shower and bathroom in my suite. Why? Because I don’t need that chemical smell. “But, Bob,” I hear you say (probably because you have forgotten my name), “Wouldn’t an RV have pretty much the same Bathroom to Bed Room configuration? The same Chemical Smell? You say that you want one of those, don't you?" To which I reply, "Shut up!"


Ok, But given that. What would be a better sleeper arrangement? The problem is that you are greatly constrained by some of the physics of the train. You need a corridor, first of all. A way to get down the length of the car. So you can’t have any big rooms that give views out both sides of the car unless you are going to have people walking through them (the exception is the 2 end rooms on the lower level. Like the Movie room in the parlor car, those can be the width of the train with no corridor). This is what forces the size of the Roomette. We have a corridor. This has a minimum safe size (and it is not very wide). Then you can put a room on each side of the corridor. Bingo. Roomette. I am going to do some research on train cars. If nothing else, I think I owe you some better pictures of the layouts of all of these cars.

Here is a page with layouts of the various cars: here

But enough of that. Something interesting seems to be happening outside.

Is that..... California?

It is like we are in an airplane

We are on the West side of highway 101, we go through a tunnel and suddenly we are on the opposite side of a Ravine from the highway. The highway is taking a steep hill down to the ocean, but the train can’t go down that steep a grade. We are going to stay over here in the foot hills and wind our way slowly down and through this side. Yes, through. We are in an area with lots of fingers of mountain sticking out from the hills. So, bridge or fill across the ravine, then tunnel through the finger. Repeat about 10 times. Then head away from the highway to do a switchback. At this point we had to stop on a siding for 30 minutes. Our sister train (the North Bound Coastal Starlight) is just coming up the hill from San Louis Obispo. Sort of cool to see our twin laid out below us like that. Round the bend it comes and woosh right past us. Now we are moving again.

We travel along past a LOT of RV’s. This may be because we are in Pismo Beach. We pass one sign that reads “Monarch Butterfly Grove”. I visited that place once a while back. It is a stand of Eucalyptus trees that is a regular migratory stop for Monarch Butterflies.
There can be thousands of them in that little stand of trees.

We are now traveling through the “Coastal” part of the Coastal Starlight. This section of the California coast is semi desert with high soaring sandstone cliffs feeding down to the ocean. You see the occasional house or camp ground, but mostly it is empty. Oh, is that a rocket launching platform over there? I forgot that West Coast Nasa and Air Force launch facility is along here. And there is a SpaceX launch platform. Cool. The timing for this stretch of the beach is pretty nice (at least for this time of year, and being 1 hour late). The sun is getting down toward setting and the lighting off the water is fine. We zip along the coastline until we start to get back into inhabited areas once again. We have to pull into a siding once more to let a local coastal commuter train go by going North. Since we are so far behind schedule because of our “Trespasser Strike” we are the odd man out on all of these encounters with “on time” trains. I guess if you are in a hurry, that can be a bummer. Might want to try the plane.

A so we come coasting into Santa Barbara. This is where we get off on this trip. Palm Tree’s and outdoor buildings. Sunshine and Sand. The train goes on without us. On to a few more stops and then to the terminus as the Los Angelos station. And then turn around and do it again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Coastal Starlight - Portland to Santa Barbara Part 1

All Aboard.

For our end of the summer trip, my Partner and I are going to visit our Southern California family for a few days. We want to make some sort of adventure out of it.

I am thinking.

She agreed. She is so wonderful.

I booked us a room in First Class on the luxurious Coastal Starlight Express. This train travels in hedonistic luxury from Seattle’s King Street Station to the magnificent Union Station in the city of Los Angles. During the two day trip the premiere west coast track winds through such historic sites as Portland, Klamath Falls, Oakland, and Oxnard. We are joining the train in Portland and riding to Santa Barbara, a 28 hour voyage through classic cultural Americana.

Well, at least that is what the guide books say.

The Portland Union Station Main Lobby. (trains behind us)

Entering Union Station is like a step back into the 40s (the 1940s). Everything is Marble and brass and oiled wood. Designed to impress those visitors coming in from the far flung reaches of the world traveling on the only high speed travel route along the West Coast of the most up and coming nation in the world. There are rows of hard wood benches all around the main lobby. Not really enough seating for the number of people that can get on a train. However, you don't have to arrive 2 hours early and go through security for your flight. Just show up 10 minutes before your scheduled departure time. If the train doesn't run on time, elect a different governor.

There were these funny little rooms with no doors and a little desk.
The sign above them said "Telephones". In the 1950's I guess
They expected people to stand in there with their Cell phones and make calls.

We are traveling in the “sleeping” accommodations but we don’t really know what that entails. We don’t really know how important we actually are.

So….. we waited in line. In the main lobby. With the economy class patrons. Silly us.
Though the nice man we met in line was very kind and explained what train the line was for (ours).

I should post-explain that my partner had been desperate for the last hour for a cup of coffee. She really needed one. And the coffee center in the station had a line that was just too long to wait in. So, in need of Coffee. Not a good start to a vacation.

The conductor looks at our tickets. “oh”, he says, “you are in sleeping class. You can go right past that line and into the First Class waiting lounge. They have coffee and sofas in there.

“No need to wait in line?”

“Oh no. You could have gone in there an hour ago.”

Ah. See, one really needs a way to be able to discern these little important details.

The First Class waiting room is really quite nice. Many couches and chairs and such arranged in intimate little groupings. As soon as we entered the lounge, the attendant tells us, “Oh, you can go right on the train, if you want. They are serving lunch until 3:00."

We grabbed our bags and went out the door. (I sort of interrupted my Partner from scoring coffee in the lounge. Perhaps not my best idea). We walked out across the tracks to our train. Hey, this puppy is BIG. It is like a two story train. That is a lot taller than the commuter we rode to Seattle last year. We have to walk a few cars back to find our car (#31). There is an attendant there that looks at our ticket and takes our bags and directs us to our room. “Upstairs, and then right. Room 6. You should hurry. They are serving lunch until 3:00”.

I figure lunch must be a good thing. Everyone was talking about it. Though we did just have that burrito before we left home.

Still. Up the narrow semi-spiral staircase. Turn right at the top. Down the very narrow corridor and watch the room numbers as we pass.  Two, four, six.
Hey, there we are.
The curtain is closed and I throw it open to admire our domain for the next two days.
OK. In all fairness, Amtrak calls this a two person roomette. Not a room. A roomette.

And I must admit that towelette: towel ratio is about the same as roomette: room ratio.

Our Roomette
A corridor lined with Roomettes

What we have is two reasonable 28" wide reclining chairs. They face each other with a couple of feet space between. You have to negotiate where your legs go so as to not kick each other. Plenty of head room and up there above us is a folded up bunk that may eventually be a bed for someone. Right now it is a place we can tuck some extra stuff. There is a sliding glass door and a rather interesting tiny shelf on one side that you can put even more stuff on (I realized later that this is actually the stair up to the top bunk). There is also a little 5 inch wide closet and a table that comes up between the chairs that you can use for playing cards or (perhaps) in-room dining. We also have a huge window looking out on the train station…. and, soon, the rapidly passing world outside.

Right now, however, I am remembering the attendant's warning that the dining car is still serving lunch until 3:00. Hey, I have never been in a dining car before! How do we get there? The first temptation is to go back down the stairs and down the corridor on the ground level. But this is not how it works. The cars are all connected by one long hallway but it runs along the second floor.  The ground floor (track level?) is reserved for mainly support services, more bathrooms, the kitchen, some additional seating. Closer inspection reveals that you would not be able to have a thru connection at that level because the train trucks (the actual object that the wheels mount to) would block you. So, off toward the rear of the train we go.

The central corridor on the train turns out to be a curvy thing. In the sleeping cars, one half of the car is the roomettes; these are divided on each side of the train and so the corridor runs right down the middle. We boarded in the lengthwise center of the car so we went through half a sleeper before we came to the first car to car connection. There are electric doors at these junctions. You push a button (or kick a button at foot level) to have the door swoosh sideways. Just like Star Trek. Then you are in the connection space and then another door that admits you to the next car. This is another sleeper, but the first half of the sleeper is filled with real bedrooms. Not a Roomette. The Real Room takes up about 2X the space of a roomette and so they are all over on the Port side (left side facing forward) of the car. This means that the corridor takes a left jog and is now going down the Starboard side of the train. At least until the lengthwise middle of the car. Here is another stairwell and now another identical set of Roomettes. At the end of this car (after the airlock) we enter into a new car. This is the Parlor car, which is going to turn out to my Partner's and my favorite place to hang out. It is already the favorite place of other denizens of sleeping cars as the six cushy armchairs in the start of this special observation lounge are already taken. The rest of the parlor car is taken up with a couple of wall couches and then a set of six dining tables (3 on a side) and a little bar. The corridor snakes around the left again and then jogs back through the center air lock and you are in the Dining Car. Lots of tables in there, extending the entire length of the car with just a little serving staging area in the center (as well as stairs down to the kitchen).

We were greeted politely and set down to a table where we were told that on a train, they fill the tables with strangers and everyone is polite and likes to meet each other. We were told this by the gentleman that sat down with us. We had some fizzy water and looked at the menus and that is when I remembered that we had just eaten and I wasn’t hungry. My partner was laughing at me because she knew we weren’t hungry and was wondering why I was so focused on getting to the dining car for lunch. I think she realized that I was just excited. Now, some of you are wondering why I am behaving just like a child. What you should really wonder is why a child would have the incredible foresight to behave just like a highly trained and talented Engineer. Really. Spend a couple of moments wondering that, it will do you a world of good.

I think I will mention our first train personality. This was the gentleman sitting with us at lunch. He was a very tall older gentleman with two prosthetics legs. He said he only travels by train and he saved up his money so he could get a Roomette for himself for when he traveled to LA to visit a friend about once a year.

I later conjectured to my Partner that he had a fear of flying because his legs had been blown off in the war in a plane accident. She told me that it didn’t have to be so dramatic. He is a tall person and it is probably uncomfortable to try and fit into a plane seat. Also going through security would be a hassle with metal legs.  Or maybe he was an Engineer.

We headed back to our rooms to sit down and wait. And then. Quietly. Smoothly. Without any fuss at all. We were moving. WE WERE MOVING.

Wouldn't you love a nice Downtown Portland Condo? One side faces the river, the other faces Union Station

Down The Willamette Valley

Out of the station, and right across the Steel Bridge over the Willamette River. We were gliding along through Portland. And I immediately realized that we were on the Wrong Friggin Side of the Train. We were facing East and a lot of stuff, at least for the first half hour, was passing by to the West. Dang.

We later talked to one of the Railroad attendants about what we should do to get a room with a view to one side or the other the next time we travel. He said it was a crap shoot. “These cars are bi-directional. They could hook them up either way. We don’t know from one trip to the next which direction the cars are going to be facing when they build the train”.

Hmmm. I am a little suspicious about this. All of the sleeping cars had the same alignment on this trip…. Perhaps it is an all or nothing sort of thing. And And…. the parlor car had a definite alignment preference (I think) and the economy passenger car DEFINITELY had a direction preference (all of the seats faced the front). How can I verify? Perhaps the internets will know. (update: Internets agree with attendant)

But leave that aside for the nonce. We are moving and there is cool stuff going on. And I can sort of see some stuff out the right side by looking out through the corridor and through the window of the Roomette across the way. We roll through Oregon City. We are right up against the cliffs on the East bank of the river and you can see the industrial mess that is there pretty good. Oregon City is where the Willamette Falls are. A pretty hefty river fall. This is a big industrial zone because back in the early 1900’s the river power was adapted for electricity and to power a paper pulp mill and the like. Now it is a famous Super Fund Site; Willamette Falls Dam Sullivan Power Plant.

The view from the Parlor Car

Soon after we pull out of the rocky part of the Willamette river valley and enter into the big flat expanse of agricultural land. The train line was built before the highways (or the Interstates) and so little towns that had sprung up along the valley 200 years ago were originally centered around the train lines. It's cool to pull through the little towns (we are sort of an express, so we are not stopping) and see the quaint old train stations, and perhaps a cool old street with some big old houses. But that is a rare view of the past. The reality of today is that living close to the railroad is not a desirable location. The rails depress the value of the land (at least for human occupation) and most of the sights along the larger towns end up being ramshackle affairs or old industrial use buildings and sidings. Lots of trash. Lots of old buildings and vehicles. More on that when we get to California.

It ain't all pretty views

Right now it is time for our first stop. In Oregon, well at least in the Willamette valley, the Coastal Starlight only stops in the big cities. So Portland, Salem, Eugene (one of those is the Capitol!!). A stop is not a big deal. The train slows to a stop, you can just barely feel it, it is so smooth. If it is a scheduled “stretch your legs and smoke” stop, you sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Otherwise, they get going as soon as the people at the station have boarded. Then the train starts going again and once more you pretty much feel nothing.

Thinking Things

Rolling through the backlands of the Willamette Valley again. After Eugene, we turn east and start our climb up through the Cascade Mountains. This is the same pass that takes you past Waldo Lake, the clearest lake in Oregon, and also a long stretch of damned lakes which are the headwaters of the Willamette river. We are passing through slightly more rugged country now and are slowing down as we begin to make our ascent. Time for a little train physics. A while ago I heard an article on NPR about modern trains and the Intermodal Freight System. This is those big cargo containers that can fit on a ship, a truck, or a train (many modes of travel, thus Intermodal). The rep from the railroad said that with their low cost of moving freight, they can beat out trucks on cost for anything but a very short haul (inside a city). Now, the secret to a train being able to haul a lot of cargo cheap is the efficiency of using rails. And the efficiency of using rails is the really low friction between the steal wheels and the steal rails. However, this same low coefficient of friction greatly limits the steepness (grade) of incline that a standard train can climb. Two much grade and your drive wheels spin. This means that when the rails wind up through the passes, they often cannot follow the tracks that the roads follow. They go different, more windy ways. They can also follow a more narrow ledge and are free to make greater use of little tressel bridges and short tunnels. That is one of the things I like about riding the train. You go places cars don’t go and see things that cars don’t see. I mean. If cars could see. Which they can’t. Yet.

So what sort of things are we seeing? We are passing through the mountains away from the developed roads. There is usually something of a dirt road running along the track (I assume for track maintenance) and there are quite a few homes with acreage. And as we pass through the mountains there are many little water falls, right there by the track, since the track is right there hugging the steep mountain side.

I also saw a lot of vegetation. Two kinds of vegetation were very prevalent and I would like to mention them. They were Scotch Broom and Himalayan Blackberry. Both of these plants are exotic invasives of slightly different ilk. The Scotch Broom is native to… Scotland !! You know what they call it there? Broom. I used to listen to an NPR music broadcast with Celtic music called “Thistle and Shamrock” and one time that they had a song called “When the Gold is on The Broom”. It is a love song about the spring, because one of the signs of spring in the highlands is the beautiful yellow flowers that grow on the Broom at that time of year. Well, Scotch Broom likes to get into anyplace where there is a lot of sun. It pushes out other plants and isn’t very well liked by the plant eating denizens around here. So you find it everywhere there is strip lumbering (what is that really called?) and highways and train tracks. Himalayan Blackberry is a whole different story. Where Broom might be considered an invasive, blackberry is a down right invasion. The pesky plant is sort of designed to come in and take over. It grows very fast. It has very strong, hard to cut canes. It has nasty thorns. And it makes these perfectly delicious berries. Everything loves those berries. And the plant is designed to be mainly accessible to small birds. So the birds eat the berries with the seeds, fly away, and poop. Bingo, a little seed in that poop has a little fertilizer and a place to grow. And the stuff will grow just anywhere there is a little sun. Along the rails it is growing everywhere. It its really hard to get rid of. And people work to get rid of it. People pay money to get rid of it. It eats your back yard when you aren’t looking. It brings down property values. No matter how tasty those berries are, the stuff is polluting the landscape.

Eternal Vigilance is the cost of Train Riding

So I got to thinking (hey, it was a long train ride, conducive to thinking). Wouldn’t something like this Blackberry make a dandy Organic Weapon? You find something that grows quickly and has arguable value. You put it in a city that is your competitor. It grows up and takes over things and starts to make trouble and it lowers the value of the land by 10% and costs millions of dollars a year to clean up. Millions of Dollars that you spend making your city more pretty. Of course, later in the book you invent a plant where the berries turn toxic after 10 years and it kills everyone in your enemy city, but that is for the novel.

And someplace along the track, usually right where there is a steep rocky wall that the railroad guys have blasted to make a place wide enough for the rails, there is this high electric fence. How strange. There is one like this on the line out by Multnomah Falls and I could never figure out what it is for. Out at Multnomah, I thought it may be to keep people off of the tracks. It is around 20 feet high with these parallel-to-ground wires running each about 8 inches apart from each other. At the fence posts (every, say, 30 feet) there are big obvious insulators holding the wires to the posts. So, clearly an electrified fence. But what are they keeping out? People that can jump 20 feet high? Deer? Hell, if a deer jumped into that wire from the cliff side it would be turned into little slices of deer meat, all over the track. But what else can it be?

(Jon Inserts a Great Picture here that he took in the future out near Multnomah Falls. But not today. Perhaps check back later)

Well, the internet knows.
I was thinking to aggressive.
This isn’t a Barrier Fence.
It is a Sensor Fence.

In particular, it is a rock slide sensor. If rock falls off that rock wall, it will break a wire. The break in the electric circuit is sensed and it lights up a light on the track that the Engineer can see and stop the train. An early warning system. How cool is that? They are set up such that you need the power turned on and running to make the signal not show. So any break or malfunction or power failure will activate the signal. Electrical Engineering. Did I mention that I have a degree?

Dinner and Dancing

On and On we travel. It is starting to get late. And it is Dinner Time !!
We signed up for Dinner in the Parlor Car. Just because we could. Because we are Sleeper Car Passengers.

I like the Parlor Car. If you sit in the bench tables near the bar, facing the front of the train, you have a wonder full out the sweeping windows on both sides and the skylights on the top of both sides. Very nice. The Parlor attendant brings your pre-prepared food for you (you order earlier when the conductor comes by and you are making your reservations). My partner and I are having the Lamb Shank. She also had a frufru no-alcohol drink and I had a beer. What a great experience. The scenery was lovely, the food was great, the parlor car was pretty quiet during these dinner times (the attendant only serves a few couples at a time and has it spaced out, so not crowded).

A meal in the Parlor Car

We were the last sitting that night, so we just stayed at the table for a while and watched the land role by. We had gotten through the pass and were now chugging through the lodge pole pine of the high desert. We should be in Klamath Falls in a couple of hours.

It is getting dark. Pretty soon it will be too dark to see anything outside. We decide to go back to our Roomette and enjoy our view in private. I have to admit that there are times when you want to get away from all of the noise and through-way traffic of the train cars. Everyone that wants to go someplace has to pass you, but the halls are single wide, like an airplane isle. So you duck into corners and wait for each other to pass. There is a lot of bustle. But if you retire to your Roomette you can sit (pretty) quietly with your door closed and your shades to the corridor pulled and just enjoy the sights of the landscape slipping past you. (Editor's note): It should be noted that only one person can really enjoy the view out the window in your Rommette.  One person is riding backwards, and looking out the window is sure to make you feel queasy.  In the dining car, they have trouble finding people to ride facing backwards, all the seats fill first facing front, for the same reason.

Eventually it gets so dark outside that all you see in the window is your own reflection looking back at you. Man, I thought I would be awake when we went through Klamath Falls or would get to see some of the Red Woods in Northern California when we passed through there. But it is going to be dead dark and in the wee hours of the morning when those sites roll by. What a bummer. I checked the routing, coming North you also pass through the middle of the trip at the same middle of the night. That must be math. My partner and I are tired, so we asked the Sleeping Car Attendant to make our bed for us. It is a pretty easy operation. The two chairs collapse down into a bed and then there is a bed topper with sheets already waiting folded up in the top bunk. He just pulls that down and spreads it over the lower bunk. The top bunk is pre-made. So everything is ready to go in like 45 seconds. We sit back down on the bottom bed. At this point there isn’t any place to be except in bed. Very little space between the bed and the door and the upper bunk being down limits your head room in the lower berth. My partner asked me what my thoughts are for sleeping arrangements. I smiled and told her that I figured that since the train trip was my idea, the top bunk was my place to be. So we changed into our jammies and I climbed up on that funny piece of furniture that is really a step up to the bunk. The top bunk is pretty small. Not very wide (24" to be exact). Not much head room. You sort of roll into it and then fasten the safety netting to the ceiling to hold you in (I kid you not). You don’t have any window view up there, but you do have a little night light and a little reading light. and a little netting where you can put stuff. Like perhaps a sock or a piece of paper. We are not reading tonight. At least I am not. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

Lower Bunk
Upper Bunk. And yes, these flannels drive the women folk mad

I am am pretty good sleeper. If I don’t have anything terrible weighing on my mind (like a engineering problem I can’t solve) I can usually just reach for my dream place and tumble quickly off. But it wasn’t that easy on the train. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that we seemed to be in a rough part of the track and we were swaying and creaking and jostling a lot. Or the picture in my head of a half mile of train cars piled up on each other when they derailed. Or perhaps it was just that I had my feet pointed at the front of the train and my head jammed up in the ceiling that made this sensation. Any rate I just could not drop off. Then we stopped someplace. We were probably waiting for north bound traffic to pass. During that lull, I fell asleep.

(The rest of this Trip in Part 2. Right  now, I am too tired)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

River Changes: Willamette River Summer 2016

River Changes

My Kayak Partner and I have done several floats down the Willamette now, but we have focused on this one section from Mission Park (Wheatland Ferry) to San Salvador Park (in St. Paul). We like it a lot because:

A) There is no public access between the 2 points, so river traffic is sparse.
B) On account of (A) there is little Human Noise coming from the surrounding environs.
C) Quite a few un-owned islands (that it is legal to camp on).
D) Lots of Agates !! (Oh My).
E) Close to Portland (our home).

I am sure there are lots of stretches like this further up river, and we intend to travel them some day, but for now this stretch close to home is great for a quick weekend overnight getaway. Which is what we are doing today.

Our plan is to launch around noon and do a casual rock hunt float down the river till we get to this one certain island that we have seen on previous explorations. Usually we get to this island around 2:00 or 3:00, and since it is 2-3 hours away from the take out, we never get to hunt for agates there when the sun is low in the sky. To us, this means that we have never really gotten a good chance to do adequate rock hunting on this island. The best rock hunting happens when the sun is bright and slanty. That lets the sun come down and shine through the agates and light them up for you. You walk away from the sun to the end of the rocks and then turn and hunt sunward. Sometimes you can see a really big guy just shining up there 30 feet away. Of course, other times that great find is right at your feet and the sun doesn’t quite hit it until you are right on top of it. Either way, the sun at an angle really changes the nature of the hunting.  So, how are we going to get good slanty sun on this island? We are going to camp on it. That will give us evening sun and morning sun!! We can hunt from both directions and have a nice camp out in between.

The first time that we did a camp out trip down this stretch it was Mother’s Day 2015. There had been a lot of rain over the winter, the river was still pretty high, the air was very hot (90) and the water was very cold (17). (Ok, I have no idea. But SHOCKINGLY COLD). We found this island (which I see from the map is called ‘Lambert Bar’) and searched for rocks up on it. The sun wasn’t very good for hunting, but I did find a good agate right on the beach. We hunted inland and there was good sized rock everywhere. But we didn’t find many agates. There also wasn’t much vegetation. Everything was scoured by the river and the thing really looked more like a rock Bar instead of an Island.

Well, on today we went around to the back side of the Bar where there is little grove of trees (Aspen? Alder?) and pulled in right where a nice 10 foot bluff hits the river. I think this is the more or less permanent (not washed away most winters) part of the island (mind you, the trees are younger than 20 years old). We found a place to put our tent and set it up to mark our spot and then we headed out to find the rocks. This was a bit harder than I thought it was going to be. There was a lot of vegetation. A lot of a short local grass, and lots of Himalayan Blackberry. It was an interesting place to find blackberry. Hard to make a living out on that island, I guess. Instead of the usual massive and impassible jumble of blackberry that you find in other places, this tended to be single plants coming up out of the rocks (or sand) and trying to spread out. I am sure that given a few years these plants would grow into that impenetration, but they aren’t going to get that much time. The river is going to rise up and have its way with those blackberries and everything else on that island. Because that island isn’t an island, it is a rock bar right at a turn in the river where two branches of the Willamette hit with massive flood force during the winter storms and scour that sucker clean. The water hits the rocks so hard that it aligns them. It pushes them and sculpts them until the very ground is an artwork of natural shapes, colors, and textures. I was telling my partner that I wish I could make a pattern like that in a feature in my back yard. She suggested that the neighbors might object to the amount of water flow I would have to direct at their yard. True that.

But that high flooding is in the winter. The river would be up 10 feet from its current level, the current would be massive and filled with trees and bushes and what not. And no matter how hard you looked. Now matter what equipment you brought to bear, you still wouldn’t see me out there. Cause I would be at home watching “Game of Thrones” reruns.

But right now, at High Summer? The air is hot, the water is chill and slow, and I am all over that puppy. Adventure is my middle name!!

It is a bit deceptive to have a “favorite” spot on the river. Things really change around from year to year. On Candiana Bar we had this nice huge log that was way up on the smooth rocky beach. We used it for a lunch spot and a trail marker. “Hey, meet us at the big log on Candiana Bar, we will have lunch”. It would have taken a HUGE bulldozer to move it. 3 feet in diameter. 40 feet long. a couple of tons. It is gone. Without a trace.

There was this rock bar down stream from Lambert Bar, the one that we beached on last year.
And we jumped into the swift river flow from the top of the bar, and went laughing downstream until we were swept back to the boats at the bottom. That bar is gone. There is a new and different bar about 100 feet upstream, but that other one is gone.

And this one other place where there are these big cliffs. Big silt cliffs, maybe 50 feet high, with Alders growing tall on the steep slopes. They collapsed. Still 50 foot cliffs there, but a big slide of dirt and Alders into the river. And that house up at the top is MUCH closer to the view than last year.

So.. Changes by year.

When you go out in the spring, the river is high, swift, and cold. Oh So Cold. This is the kind of cold that kills someone every year in Oregon. They go out to some swimming hole they have read about on the first 80 degree day of the spring and they jump off the cliff and go from the gorgeous 85 degree sunlight into the 40 degree water. And they just fracking die of shock. Really. Let me go find a recent one in the Oregonian for you. There.

In the Winter, in really high, swift water, you don’t go hunting Agates. The Agates and their associated rock bars are all underwater. Under deep cold swift moving water. The kind of water that scours away the sand, dirt and vegetable matter and stirs the hell out of the ancient stones. So when the spring comes, and the water recedes enough to expose the rocks, everything exposed is fresh, new and clean. New rocks pushed up from where they have hidden on the river bottom for thousands of years, and all of the old grass and bushes torn and and tossed aside.  A great time to go agate hunting, though the islands and rock bars a small.

Then, in summer, the water warms and the flow slows and the river exposes more of the islands and shores.  The early summer just seems like a time of more rock beds. You can go back to the same bar you searched a month ago and find 10 more feet of shoreline to peruse. But as the summer wears on, and the water warms more and recedes more, the exposed stone takes on a different appearance. The river now has a lot of green scum growing in it. The water receding is now exposing things very slowly. so slowly that the scum doesn’t wash off of the rocks before it dries out. This makes it very hard to see the agates you are search for. In some places, the scum is so thick that when it dries it is like a layer of cardboard has been placed over the rocks. (see the picture).

Scum Paper

Then, further away from shore, in the middle of your huge rock bar that you had search just last month, there are now plants. Grasses and small bushes have given way to head tall barriers. They don’t just block your view of the rocks, they block your way as you try to bushwhack into the interior of your favorite islands. And blackberry has taken root. Blackberry plants that are loners, looking like they have grown from a single cast aside seed, feet away from their brothers. This is what you think most plants would look like their first season. In the city, you don’t see things like this because all of the plants are on their 10th season and just slowly increase their domain by runners coming out from the Mother Mass. But here, the single plants can be seen. No mother mass because the inundation of the winter will reset the island to its pristine splendor come December.

Changes by Season.

So our island is about halfway down a long day agate hunt run of the river. On our previous excursions we have gotten here around high noon and have not had much luck with agates even though the rocks beds are extensive and beautiful and Agates just HAVE TO BE THERE.
It is the sunlight, of course. When you hunt at high sun, you don’t have the angle of the sunlight working for you. You can’t cast up sun looking for the wonderful orange glow of your much sought Carnelian as it glints in the loving, setting sun.

And so, we planned our trip such that we would camp on the island. No need to hurry down to the take out to get to our car before dark. We would have plenty of time.
Good thing, cause it is a big Rock Bar.

We got to the island around 3:00. Sunset is around 9:00. We would also be there in the morning. We got to work.

We pulled our boats out on the back side of the island. There is an area of relatively high land that hasn’t been washed away in a decade or so. There are some Alders and other brush and some places that even have enough dirt to set up a tent. We set up our little REI half dome in a clump of grass and head out through the thicket toward the open rock to hunt. I was a little concerned about our tent. I had neglected to tack it down or put anything heavy in it and the wind was blowing up a little. But the stones were calling. My partner and I trusted to fate.

The bar we are on runs pretty much east-west (the river is making a hard turn there, which is what makes the bar) so we headed to the east end of the island, near some huge logs that had been washed up, perhaps last winter. Then we hunted into the sun. It was slow going at first. It takes a while to get your agate eyes tuned up. But we were still pulling in a nice selection of medium and medium-large stones. Say the size of golf balls.  My partner really wanted to hunt the far upstream shoreline. We couldn’t find a way to get there without tracking through the river or through a rather scummy pond. But she was very determined and so lead us on a little bushwhacking adventure through the very dense vegetation that has established itself on the up-river edge of the bar. It isn’t too hard to push your way through the shrubs there.  We were in shorts and we did have to avoid the occasional blackberry.  We finally whacked our way back to the river bank at the very end of the bar. While standing there and congratulating ourselves on our jungle adventure (we do so enjoy each other), I saw it. Sitting there as pretty as you could ask in the only slightly slanting sun. All lit up and beautiful; the biggest agate either of us had ever found. Perhaps the biggest we have ever seen.  And we never would have found it if my partner hadn’t been feeling adventurous.

Out in the middle of the bar

The Big One (in my backyard, after I washed it up some)

We hunted around some more, but the day was making and I really wanted to get back to the campsite. We had dinner to cook and a fire to build and stuff like that. We didn’t really want to bushwhack back the way we had come. I mean, once we walked around the tip we were only like 100 feet from the tree’s where we knew our campsite to be. We could see the trees. We just couldn’t quite get there. We could have swum. Would only have been like a one minute float. But, dammit, we had these 20 pounds of rocks and just didn’t want to get all that wet.

There is an Agate in the Sunshine!!

So we took off back through the brush. The brush on this side of the island was much more jungle like. 10 feet high shrubbery with finger size sticks, all interwoven with some vine, probably morning glory (that tree killing bitch). There was also some long bladed grass growing low to the ground that really surprised us. The long flat blades of the grass would hit your shins… and like. stick. I mean, really stick. Such that when you pulled away it pulled some of your skin with it. We both ended up with these long skinny welts all over our legs. But our direction was true and the distance was small and soon enough we came out in the clearing on the hillock right next to our camp. And there was our tent. What??? our tent was upside down and 40 feet downwind from where I had put it. It had gotten tangled up in some blackberry. Good thing too. Or we would have been sleeping out under the stars with our tent downriver someplace laughing at us.

Tent is supposed to be here. But it is over there. In the Blackberry

The next morning, we were out as soon as the morning cloud cleared. We were hunting again. This time starting on the up river end of the rocks and hunting toward the NorthEast into the rising sun. Each time seeing the island and river in ….. a new light.

Changes by Day.

I guess this is why I enjoy going back to a place over and over again throughout the years. Hiking or Kayaking. Different weather, Different Seasons, Different Plants, Different Views. Different Flowers and Different rocks. The same place, but new and different with the changing times. An old friend, but a new discovery.