Fish the Dime?

Time is short, and so is this article


If life has taught me anything at all, it’s that time is fluid.  Stretchy.  Compressible.  Short moments that last forever, and years that pass in a blink.  As The Doctor (in Doctor Who, the weird British sci-fi series that itself has become somewhat eternal) would say, it’s a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing.  But mostly, for those of us who lack a time machine, time basically accelerates… with time… and before you know it, your whole life is behind you.

Now, technically, everyone’s whole life is always behind them.  Since, you see, the future has not happened yet, therefore it does not exist, therefore all the life that anyone has is that which they’ve already had, therefore their whole life is behind them, always.  But– that’s an argument against myself, and as a rule I don’t allow that, so we’ll dispense with the technicalities and move on!

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  So, there’s this thing, this trap, that many of us fall into.  This trap where we say, “When I get all this other stuff sorted, I’ll take the trip.  I’ll remodel the spare room.  I’ll learn the piano.  I’ll write that book.  I’ll bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  After I get all this other stuff sorted.”  (I’m using “sorted” in the British sense, which means that I’ve been watching too much of The Crown and Doctor Who and The Chronicles of Narnia again.  Maybe it’s British entertainment that’s my personal trap?)  In other words, we allow the mundane to control our existence, and we allow that which is special to slip away.

I’ll use my wife’s aunt and uncle as an example.  During their entire marriage, he worked long hours and put everything into his job, not spending much time with his wife (except just enough moments to generate a bunch of kids).  Saving all the fun for when he retired.  Sacrificing the present for the future, which I suspect included their relationship, which I also suspect may be why she smoked and drank.  So, one day, the future finally arrived, it was time for him to retire, and he did so– just in time for her to be found with cancer.  In a matter of a few short months, she was gone.  So remind me: why was it that he worked so hard all those years and spent all that time away from her?

Well, maybe Uncle Jack preferred to spend time at work than with Aunt Kitty.  If so, then good for him, although I bet Aunt Kitty didn’t prefer that.  Not unless she liked to drink alone or something.  Even if he was living his preferred life, she wasn’t, and suddenly it was gone.  So maybe the lesson to learn here is, take charge of your own dang life.

I think that Jack and Kitty’s story provide a multifaceted object lesson, but the overall summation might be, don’t let time slip away.

Well, that’s all very cheery stuff, Jim (you say).  I come here to read about hobbies and modeling, and you’re laying this heavy philosophical crap on us?

Stay with me.  This has application of a positive nature, and I’ll give you an example from my own hobby set, railroading.  You see, I dearly love to ride trains, especially in scenic places like the mountains of Colorado.  The top of that heap is the line west of Denver on the Moffat Line (now owned by Union Pacific and served by Amtrak).  Starting in 1993 I started dragging the family up from New Mexico to ride the erstwhile Ski Train up the mountain and back, at least once a year.  Eventually I started getting the dreaded “not again!” response from people, and I reluctantly gave up on the idea.  Then in 2009 the Ski Train was abruptly cancelled and I lost that opportunity, forever.  So, let’s list the regrets from this.  Do I regret the 10 or 12 trips we made to ride the train?  No.  Do I regret giving up the trips while they were still possible?  Yes.

But now, I can remedy the situation!  Thanks to Amtrak– and I can’t believe I’m thanking Amtrak for anything– there’s a new service over the same route, called the Winter Park Express.  This (2018) is the second full year of service, and I took the initiative to book a trip.  And yes, we’re making a family event of it.  After a hiatus of 14 years, we will be riding through the Tunnel District once again.  Hopefully not for the last time, either.

I’m making an effort to apply this principle to other areas in my life.  I realize that I have wasted literally decades in needless frustration staying with depressing organizations, simply because I felt too guilty or duty-bound or just plain loyal to find a better situation.  No more.  Next time, and the next, I will simply, and without bitterness, move on.  I refuse to get sucked into the drama of other people’s bad choices.  I choose to decide where the boundaries are, and to respect them.  Love is one thing; needless self-imposed misery is another!  Getting a little far afield from riding trains here, but it’s connected in the sense that I just don’t want to waste any more of my time on pointless futility.  The larger share of my life is behind me now (even if you ignore the second paragraph in this essay).  My time is precious.

But, in the main, Time is an unsympathetic teacher, a terrible taskmaster, and a cunning trickster.  As we age it quietly speeds up on us.  If you’re not careful, you can fritter it all away.  You have to remember to actively look for chances, else they will simply… pass you by.

Some smart Roman dude once said, Carpe Diem.  Seize the day.  Avail yourself of opportunities.  Don’t let the moment pass by.  Take the trip.  Remodel the spare room.  Learn to play the piano.  Write that book.  Bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  You can sort the laundry when you get home.  There’s all the time in the world to take care of the mundane stuff.


Stories from Trackside

Sometimes, memories without cameras to help preserve them are the most vivid of all

In an earlier post I discussed of memories and nostalgia as it relates to our leisure pastimes.  It turns out I’ve had several such moments related to railfanning in which I found myself sans camera, and all I had to remember them with was my own senses.  Here’s a selection of a few such events.  Maybe this will inspire you to dust off your own recollections and relive some of those magic moments of your own.

Sledding and Surprises

It was the winter of 1978 and I was a senior in high school.  I had a good friend, Curt, and the two of us were oddly obsessed with snow– and sledding on it.  One Saturday morning we decided to load up his VW and go west until we found something white to slide on.  Not our first such attempt; on a previous occasion we had gotten clear up into the Indian Peaks wilderness west of Boulder in a (vain) attempt to find snow.  Now, a couple of months later, we reckoned that we had a better shot at it.  I guided the expedition to a place west of Rollinsville, in the upper reaches of South Boulder Canyon.  We followed the snowy gravel road through the steadily-falling snow past Tolland and pulled over just east of a railroad overpass.  I knew the area pretty well, since even as a child I’d been obsessed with the Moffat Tunnel.  We were just a couple miles east of the tunnel and it was a good hillside for sledding.

[Google earth: 39°54’08.21″ N 105°36’50.30″ W]

Being both in the prime of youth and reasonably fit, we steadily built a toboggan run from the top of the hill down towards the road.  This was no mean task considering the deep and drifting snow, the cold air, and the elevation– right at 9,000 feet.  By the way, I use the term “toboggan” only loosely; our only equipment was a couple of Mini-boggans.  Remember those?  A rolled-up piece of stiff plastic with a hole for a handle in one end, suitable for getting oneself intimately acquainted with the ground, and getting killed during the introductions.  They were almost large enough to hold a fourth-grader, or to cover everything between my collarbone and my knees, if I were careful.  Anyway, the snow was falling in huge flakes and we were completely covered in it.  The day was dim due to the thickness of the clouds and density of the snowfall.  And yet, not long after our arrival, I was able to plainly hear the muffled call of train horns down the valley to the east.  I’d secretly hoped we would see a train or two, and my wish was to be fulfilled in the most unexpected way.

The tracks here follow a sweeping S curve that brings them from the south to the north side of the broad valley, climbing all the while to reach the upper bench where the tunnel is located. Much of that climb is hidden back in the trees, so when the headlights finally shone through the snowflakes I was amazed to see that the train was led by an F unit.  A string of F units!  In beautiful golden orange paint.

(As an aside, keep in mind that I was not a “connected” railfan, or a railfan in any real sense of the word, at this time.  I hadn’t seen an F unit in a decade, since I was a child, and had no idea that any still existed.)

I can see the scene now, some forty years later, like a movie playing in my head.  The train in its matching golden paint rounding the curve below us through the dim light, diesels muttering, snowflakes glowing in the headlights.  Mixed in with the power was something that looked like a steam locomotive tender. Behind this was a passenger train, painted to match the locomotives, and even then I recognized them as being old heavyweight cars.  I stood dumbfounded at this relic from the past, and recorded the scene in memory as it clattered around the curve towards Moffat and was lost from sight.

Later I learned that this was the Ski Train; the F units were the F9 trio normally assigned to the Rio Grande Zephyr; that the strange car shaped like a tender was in fact a steam generator car.  Furthermore, I’m 90% sure that this was February 26th, the day of the Moffat Tunnel 50th Anniversary ceremonies being held just up the hill from us. This is why the F units were on the Ski Train that day.  If only we’d known!

But that snowy morning during my last semester of high school, all I knew was that I’d gotten to watch a rare and beautiful railroading scene.



When we were newlyweds in Boulder, night-time drives in the mountains were often a thing.  Not infrequently these would put us in the proximity of railroad tracks.  (This is hard to believe of me, I know, but nonetheless true.)  Two such excursions come to my mind, brief little episodes that I still see in my memory.  Considering that it was completely dark and no photograph would have worked had I even tried it, my memory is all the recording device we have on it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Nocturne the First: One such evening, guessing early 1983, we drove up above Boulder and onto the Gross Dam road. This gravel road winds around and crosses South Boulder Creek below the eponymous dam, climbing the south side of the canyon where it crosses the Rio Grande’s right-of-way and ultimately emerges on Colo. 72 below Wondervu.

[Google Earth: 39°55’45.25″ N 105°20’36.51″ W]

This particular night we parked north of the tracks to see if there might be a train coming by.  Shockingly (considering my luck most of the time), a we soon heard a westbound train approaching in the darkness.  Even more shockingly, I remember most of the details.  It had several locomotives up front, 38 piggyback flatcars, and a helper shoving on the rear.  A lot of power for not much train, I remember thinking.  Too dark to see much of anything, but the scene conveyed the message that the business and drama of railroading goes on continuously, even in dark, remote places.

Nocturne the Second: Another meeting was more deliberately designed.  It is entirely possible that it was the same night as the story above, but I really can’t tell you one way or the other!  We (I) wanted to watch the Rio Grande Zephyr on its descent into Denver.  This is definitely early 1983, probably February.  At the time we were borrowing my parents’ 1972 Suburban, as our own Mustang II hatchback had recently bent a rod one cold morning.  This night we drove the gas-guzzler down to the Blue Mountain Road crossing, on the south shoulder of Coal Creek Canyon’s mouth.  South cheek of the mouth?  Right canine tooth of the mouth?  Sorry, I got lost in the mixed metaphors.

Same location, same locomotive, different train, different time and date. Here No. 5771 leads the Ski Train past Blue Mountain crossing in March 1984, during daylight.

Rabbit trail!

OK, back to Blue Mountain road.  From there you can watch trains descending from Tunnel One and loop around the canyon mouth until they pass you and round the corner towards Clay siding.  We parked on the south side of the track and watched the show.  Finally the train passed close by us– headlights on, Mars light flashing, and white class lights illuminated on F9 No. 5771’s cheeks (there’s that word again).  Why the class lights were on I do not know, but I swear they were.  Maybe just to get more illumination on the front of the train?   At any rate, this night’s train was incredibly short.  All three F units and the steam generator were up front, followed only by a combine, one dome coach, the diner, and the dome/obs.  It was a mid-week run during winter so I suppose this wasn’t too surprising, but I usually observed the train on Saturdays when it was filled out with most or all the cars available.

Within a couple of months the Rio Grande Zephyr was no more.

Nocturne the Third: It’s now Spring 1984.  Though we lived in Boulder, we had won some contest on a radio station for free ice cream cones down in Westminster at a shop I no longer remember.  As dead broke as we were, any chance for something to do was welcome.  By now we were driving an incredibly unreliable 1971 Renault R10.  This car is worthy of a blog post of its own– the adventures we had in that vehicle when it broke down at the most inconvenient times would fill a book.  It was French, and looked French, and it attacked us without warning, so we dubbed it Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in the Pink Panther movies.  Adopt a Peter Sellers accent and shout “Not NOW, Kateau!”  and you get the idea.  It would break down and we’d yell “Not NOW, Kateau!”

Yes, I know, technically the Kato character was Asian.  Don’t quibble with me.

Well, this night Kato was operating within parameters and we collected our free ice cream cones without incident.  The night was young so I decided to go visit North Yard.  [Google Earth: 39°47’26.84″ N 104°59’57.81″ W]  At that time, access was not nearly as restricted as now.  I drove right up onto the gravel road along the west side of the yard and we just watched and listened to the activity for a while.  The sun was down but the yard was brightly lit by the floodlight towers; the steady throb of diesels and the rattle and pop of yard activity formed a constant background of sounds. As we sat there, we noticed a caboose rolling along to the north, all by its lonesome (the switcher must have kicked it down the track).  This looks interesting, we thought, so I began pacing it next to the tracks.  The caboose was perhaps a dozen tracks from our side of the yard, not terribly close to us; the yard was fairly clear of cars and obstructions that night.  We followed our quarry for quite a ways at about 15 MPH, when suddenly BANG! the caboose slammed into the back of a string of cars.  I mean, it was really moving when it reached its train.  Now, I realize that rolling stock is pretty durable and all that, but this seemed a bit… sloppy… on the part of the switch crew.  But, no matter.  I’ve seen baggage handlers who treated my suitcases no better, and those aren’t made of heavy gauge steel.

Business Train at Coal Creek

Have you ever made a decision that later had you asking yourself, What the heck was I thinking?

April 1989– We were visiting family in Boulder again.  I invited my cousin “Dan” for an obligatory train-chasing morning. This time I decided not to take a camera– “I’m spending too much on film on this stuff” I told myself.  We went up to Coal Creek as usual, parked and walked up near Tunnel One.

[39°52’44.87″ N 105°16’37.97″ W]

Well, guess what?  An officer’s special was operated by the railroad that morning.  I stood there dumbfounded and watched a pair of GP40-series locomotives lead a train consisting of three gold-painted streamlined passenger cars.  A vista dome, a flattop car [I now know it was a diner], and a very familiar-looking observation car.  These were, in order, lettered CALIFORNIA, UTAH, and KANSAS.  And there I stood, thirty feet from trackside, watching this priceless photo-op roll past me, with no freaking camera!

What the HELL was I thinking?  #KicksSelfInTheButt!

Pretty sure “Dan” gave me a pretty thorough heckling over it, too.  Thanks for rubbing in the salt, Cuz.

Yeah, sure, I saw this trio many times on the Ski Train in subsequent years.  But not like this.  Not alone.  Not in 1989.

I learned my lesson about taking a camera with me, after that.

Post-Merger Lash-up

Searchlight signals on the Joint Line in north Colorado Springs. The rails were very, very quiet that day. That’s Cheyenne Mountain poking through the clouds in the background.

A brief vignette, this.  We were in Colorado Springs to attend a Phil Keaggy concert in October 1996.  This was about a month after the Union Pacific – Southern Pacific merger, and we were staying in the La Quinta just off Austin Bluffs / Garden of the Gods Road.  Being adjacent to the Joint Line, one would expect that there would be constant trains going by, but that was not the case.  I haunted the tracks for a half hour one day when I had some free time, with no success.  Then, the final morning of our stay, I happened to hear the rumble of approaching diesels, and ran for the car where I thought the camera was.  Turned out I had left it in the room on the second floor.  I knew I did not have time to retrieve it before the train arrived from the south, so I simply ran across the street and watched the train.

[Google Earth: 38°53’43.21″ N 104°49’36.93″ W]

The head end consisted of eleven– count ’em, eleven– locomotives.  Nine were Southern Pacific and mostly pretty tattered-looking.  The other two were D&RGW tunnel motors.  I noted their numbers: 5390, 5411.  The SP units were far too numerous (and frankly not interesting enough) for me to note all their numbers or even their types, other than being pretty much all EMD products.  The Rio Grande being my first railroad love, I paid more attention to these two.

After this time those two units spent most of their time around Helper, Utah, where I managed to photograph the 5390 in November 2001, five years later.

Nothing but memory to help me remember the roll-by, but it’s still fresh in my head.  The last days of the Espee / Grande combo, or the first chaotic days of the UP regime, depending on how one looks at it.

Now I have a very nice digital camera– have have some kind of digital camera for 10 years now– plus there’s always a cell phone camera if one gets caught completely unprepared.  Such camera-less moments happen rarely these days.  Back when incomes were less and film was a real cost to consider, it was far more likely for one to get caught short.  As it is, I am hoping that I actually remember all these stories aright.  But on the other hand– who’s going to prove me wrong? <wink>


When Natural Disasters Strike…

Sometimes, a proper Risk Management plan will call for the eradication of a species

I hereby interrupt my extensive hiatus from blog posting with this digression.  Last time I was talking about backdrops and how to convincingly create them.  This time I am discussing the proposition that sometimes, a proper Risk Management plan will call for the eradication of a species.

In this case: the common house cat.

By way of background, we are actually “dog people”.  We had dogs, exclusively, from 1985 through 2011.  That’s a reasonable track record.  Not that I necessarily had anything against other species, but allergies to cat hair on the part of wife and daughter prevented us from ever getting any of the species felinus terriblus.  Plus, the dogs found cats to be a tasty pre-supper treat.  They even come with their own floss for post-prandial hygiene.  This is important to the well-groomed dog.

But, things change.  As time went by, all the members of the canine tribe died off one by one, the last in 2011. Contemporaneously, the spouse found that she had lost the cat allergy, and the daughter was no longer living at home and so granted her permission for us to acquire cats.  So we got one.  A small, beautiful, cuddly black short-hair kitty who sleeps on my neck at night.  No problem.

BIG problem.  What hasn’t been mentioned is the other daughter and her enormous ball of fuzz that joined her household while away at college.  This would be Mister Darcy, a 19-pound Maine Coon cat with a vast halo of fur.  Why does this cat matter?  Because he’s now living with us, that’s why.  Now, with a name like Mister Darcy, one might expect him to be a perfect gentleman, if initially  skeptical of Elizabeth Bennett.  But what Jane Austin didn’t bother to tell us is that Mister Darcy has a penchant for sneaking into the garage and wandering around, jumping up on work benches and model railroads.

Yes, dear readers: my model railroad inhabits the garage.  It’s rather large, and extensively scenicked, and rather beautiful.  But, oddly, when I built the landforms around tunnel 30, I I didn’t think to build them to withstand direct asteroid impact nor to survive the pressure of a 19-pound cat.  Silly me.

What’s the one proverbial truth that everyone knows about cats?  Answer: that they should never be let out of a bag.  Which, if one does, is a blunder only slightly less well-known as not getting involved in land wars in Asia, because there’s a second proverbial truth about cats having to do with curiosity.  The funny thing is, I had always thought that it went as follows: “Curiosity killed the cat.”  However, I have recently learned that it’s more accurately rendered as “Curiosity destroyed the model railroad,” followed by “… and then its owner killed the cat.”

You can see where this is headed, can’t you.  I have a terrible habit of foreshadowing.  Well, one fine day after an interval of inactivity I was starting to run some trains.  The first train downhill from Winter Park encountered some kind of obstacle in the hidden helix.  When I investigated, I discovered that the entire hillside above Tunnel 30 was collapsed into the helix!  Plaster chips and model trees littered the landscape.  Disaster!  Mayhem!  How did this happen?  Could I fix it?  And most importantly, who could I accuse of the crime?

And that’s when I saw it.  A tuft of fur, gray fluffy fur, snagged on the top edge of the masonite backdrop.  J’accuse!  The CAT did it!  All 19 pounds of him, that innocent-looking Mister Darcy with the deceptive moniker had destroyed my 1/87 kingdom!  A towering rage seized me and I went in search of the culprit, murder in my eye, bent on exacting retribution.  Well, a cat this size can’t hide very long in a house like ours, and within moments I located the villainous creature!  I reared back to deliver judgment, and– and– aw, look, he’s so cute and fuzzy!  Hi, buddy!  Here, let me pet you under your chin.  Can I get you a treat?  Feed you, perhaps?  Let you back out in the garage to play?  Sign over the deed to the house to you?

Yeah, that’s right.  I’m a chump.  Besides, the evidence of this specific crime was merely circumstantial; the hair could have been left on a previous visit and not been related to the earthquake.  Plus, I had taken a bit of a nasty fall right in that area while taking down boxes of Christmas decorations, and Mister Darcy’s Chief of Staff (my daughter) maintains that I was the culprit and not her dear cat.  The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.

Don’t let the innocent expression fool you.  This cat is his own class of natural disaster.

How did it all turn out?  Well, happily I was able to re-install the broken mountainside with much greater success than I initially assumed.  One can barely even see the damage now.

But I’m still installing security cameras.  And electrified fencing. actionroadlogobang

So He Must Have Used Up His Website’s Free Disk Allocation?

Well, kinda.

So, I was updating my website the other day. It’s a basic, self-maintained, technologically-obsolete place that I use to display my train photos. You know, railfan stuff? (For the Brits: trainspotting pictures…)  There’s a section there all about my model railroad. And in that section there’s an index page.  And on the index page is… well, a collection of short ramblings.

Kinda like a blog section, but… shorter.  Like I said.

Well, as Gru would say:  “Light bulb.”  If it’s a-gonna act like a blog, then by gums it oughta BE a blog.

Which brings us to this.  This, being the screen you’re reading at the moment, dear readers.  (See how I pluralized that?  I have great faith that at least two people will eventually read this!)  This is the inaugural entry for my blog.  A blog about model trains and possibly the big ones too.  I guess it depends on how I’m feeling on whatever future day I sit down to write about this stuff.

As with any good project, it’s good to have a think at the get-go about scope.  After all, if the Hubble guys had had a better approach up front, maybe their scope would not have required corrective lenses. I want to see everything 20:20 before I launch this sucker! Focus, end-user!  So, here’s a shot at describing scope.


See?  That was easy!

Now, on to the Mission Statement.

“A model railroad in every basement or garage”

(Dang, I’m knocking ’em out of the park like the Cubbies today.)

Well, if it worked for Bill Gates with computers, why not for miniature railroad enthusiasts?

… but then, speaking of Brits and trainspotting, I have a thought about that movie, The Railway Man.  You know, the one with Colin Firth?  Excellent show, but there’s a cautionary tale if I ever saw one.  If you haven’t seen it, the basic idea is this: You have this nice young feller / bloke in His Majesty’s Army, who is a self-described railway enthusiast.  (It’s a true story, more or less).  He has the bad luck to be captured at Singapore by the Imperial Japanese. He’s herded off to captivity, but he ends up with a relatively-unbrutalized job as a POW.  All until his railway enthusiasm gets the best of him.  Here’s a suggestion: if you’re ever a POW, don’t ask too many questions about the local rail lines and then draw a MAP about it!  They might misunderstand your intent.  When they do, and the Japanese did, that whole unbrutalized situation can turn around fast.  Yep, the Railway Man became brutalized, extensively.  Bad luck, indeed.

And why am I bringing that up?  Because it’s like this.  We model railroaders / train enthusiasts / railfans / foamers are not a well-understood species by the populace at large. You may have noticed this yourself. A few people might be mildly interested in your obsession, but most will stand at a distance and roll their eyes and mock.  Your mission is to recognize the glazed look in their eyes and move on.  Trying too hard to infect them with your flanged-wheel zeal could get you waterboarded.  Just saying.  It happened to Colin Firth, and you’re no better than he is.