Thursday, October 29, 2009

Better than Teflon

Ever notice how waxy new-fallen leaves feel? Well, when they break off the tree and when they hit the ground, minute amounts of that wax are broken loose to cover every thing. Multiply that by millions of leaves and pretty soon you're talking about quite a waxy buildup.

Now trains obviously run with steel wheels on steel rails, which sounds like there wouldn't be a lot of friction to create traction. But with the high concentration of weight on a very small point of contact, it works. Older diesel locomotives have an adhesion ratio of about 25%, meaning that the wheels won't slip until the tractive force reaches about 25% of the weight on the wheels. Newer locomotives with more sophistocated anti-wheelslip systems can reach an adhesion ration of as much as 40%. But in the fall, add a little water to that waxy buildup on the rails, and adhesion can drop below 10%. It can get real fun trying to haul a freight train up a hill this time of year. I've had instances where just putting the locomotive in gear, without even opening the throttle, has caused runaway wheelslips. Look out the window and you're barely moving, but look at the speedometer and it says 40 or 50 or more. Kind of like trying to drive a car on glare ice.

Leaf wax plus a little rain or frost. I'm telling you, it's better than Teflon.

Now the funny part is that every year, this comes as a surprise to the railroad. Every year, the leaves fall. Every year, some time during that 2-3 week period when the leaves are falling, it's either gonna be mild and rainy or cold and frosty. And every year, for the first couple days like this, trains stall on the hills. Every year, the railroad reacts by adding more locomotives to the trains. But even so, the engineers have to be light on the throttle, as too much torque just causes more wheelslip. So every year, the dispatching office wants to know why we're losing time in the hilly sections. The only part about this that surprises me is that it surprises the railroad ... EVERY YEAR!

Wait 'til they see what falls out of the sky in December! And that will be just as much of a surprise!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cn u rd ths?

In my line of work, I spend a LOT of time in hotels. Probably 90% of that time is during the day. It's not easy but I've gotten used to sleeping during the day. Sometimes there are a lot of noises that try to wake me up.

I can deal with guests who talk in the hallways, not thinking that there might be some people trying to sleep. After all, 99% of the world actually does something crazy, like sleep at night! I can deal with the traffic on the street. I can deal with occasional work projects, both in and out of the hotel. I can deal with a high school cheerleading squad practicing in the parking lot on Saturday morning before a state tournament.

I CAN'T deal with guests who are still partying at 4 AM when I am checking in. I CAN'T deal with a pack of junior high school age boys playing hide-and-seek unsupervised in the hallways of all three wings of the hotel. I can't deal with housekeeping staff that can't keep their voices down in the hallways.

And I ESPECIALLY can't deal with housekeeping staff that knock on my door at noon to ask if I need housekeeping services when I have a 'Do Not Disturb' sign hanging on the door! And then knocking three or four times if I don't answer. What part of 'Do Not Disturb' don't you understand!!!!!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back to the grind...

Last week was my annual October vacation week. Since we are assigned vacation requests in seniority order, the first year I worked for the railroad, I was assigned the first full week in October for vacation. Because I love the weather this time of year, I have taken, by choice, this week every year since.

This year we chose to head north to the far reaches of New Hampshire for a couple days. We stayed at a lodge that overlooks First Connecticut Lake in Pittsburg. While the weather wasn't the greatest, the leaves were right at their peak in that area.

We did a little letterboxing on the way up while going through Franconia Notch. By the time we got to Pittsburg, it was already getting dark, which made it a little late for moose-watching. (They're still out after dark, but they're much harder to spot... and much easier to hit with a car: not a good thing for ALL involved.) So after checking in at the lodge, we headed north on US3 to an area known as Moose Alley, between First and Second Connecticut Lakes.

Before long, we saw the first sign we were in a high-moose-activity area: two pair of long, black skid marks at the top of a rise in the road. Only a trucker standing on the brakes after suddenly finding a moose in the road can make that mark. Sure enough, right after that, we saw the next sign: a car headed in the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the road (even though there are signs stating "No stopping on pavement" every couple hundred feet) with the high-beams on. Now the first rule of moose-watching is that when you see this, you slow WAY down or even stop, until you find out where the moose they are looking at is. I stopped, and after my eyes adjusted to the ultra-high-intensity high beams the nimnul heading south refused to dim, I realized it was the right thing to do. Not 20 feet in front of the car were the silhouettes of both bull and cow moose in our lane, just standing there people watching. I occasionally saw a flash of light from the other car, so I imagine they got some good photographs of my headlights. We were not able to get any photos, but here is one of a young bull we took a few hundred yards north of this same spot three summers ago.
After those two moose headed off into the woods, we drove on a couple miles, turned around and headed back into town for supper.

Next morning, we were a little slow getting started, but then again, that's what vacations are for, right? We went to breakfast at the Happy Corner Cozy Cafe. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was the specials board, which listed Pumpkin Waffles. Now, if you know Patty, you know she likes anything pumpkin, so this was going to make for a very short read of the menu for her. So after the waitress poured our coffee, conversation quickly turned to the specials. But the waitress couldn't remember if she had written Pumpkin Waffles or Pumpkin Pancakes on the blackboard. As she walked away to check, I jokingly made the comment that it wouldn't really matter as Patty would have eaten the pumpkin if it was just smeared on the plate plain. The waitress returned saying it was indeed Pumplkin Waffles on the menu. Patty said that made it all the better, so that's what she wanted. I could see it coming and sure enough, the waitress responded, "Oh, that's too bad. We're all out." Just as Patty's jaw dropped, the waitress said, "Gotcha!" They were huge and they were delicious. As for me, I had a handful of cholesterol: a corned beef hash, egg and cheese sandwich on toasted home-made whole wheat bread. That made us both good until suppertime.

Just down the road is the original family house of the family that runs the general store, Cozy Cafe and the cabins across the road. Behind that house is a lovely covered bridge over Perry Stream, which feeds into the Connecticut River just out of view.

We then just prowled around Pittsburg and Dixville and a couple other little towns in northern Coos County. Of course, there were some letterboxes to look for, including two of a series about the 45th parallel. Half-way to see Santa!

In Dixville, just east of the notch, we pulled off into a nature viewing area just after a rain shower. The mist coming up out of the woods was really neat.
Just up the road from there, we found a little waterfall called the Baby Flume.

From there, we headed west into Colebrook, where there is another waterfall, Beaver Brook Falls

and we stopped in a gift shop for a little while. Mostly shirts, but run by a very nice woman who just moved up there from Marblehead, MA. After that, just some more touring around through Island Pond, VT and then back up to Norton, where met our friends, Kathy and Dick, for dinner. On the way, we saw a huge flock of turkeys in the middle of a field, but they're not ones for staying around for pictures very long.

Norton, VT is where the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railway crosses the US/Canada border and just as we met Kathy and Dick, the southbound was arriving at the border. Of course, our patient wives let us go watch.

That large angled wand on a pole on the far side of the train in this photo is actually some sort of high-powered scanner that they use while the train pulls slowly by. This, of course, is after the customs agents check the papers for the train and the crew.

After a very nice dinner, we headed off back to Pittsburg for the evening, but saw no more moose.

The third day, we checked out of the lodge, talked with several other guests (and their dogs) as they were all getting ready to go out hunting. It turns out that grouse (which northerners call partridge) and woodcock season had opened the day before. We went into the center of Pittsburg and had breakfast at the general store there. Where else? Of course, that meant a lot of browsing after, but we had no set schedule.

Eventually we headed south, stopping at Franconia Notch again for some more letterboxes we had passed up on the way north.

From there we drove part the way across the Kancamagus Highway from Lincoln, NH looking both at the leaves and for letterboxes. Naturally, the sun started coming out just before we had to start heading home.

All in all, a nice few days away. The rest of the week was just little things, both relaxing and chore-like around the house. Then, yesterday, the cruelest part of all: back to work.

Oh, well. Next vacation is only 3 weeks away.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Looking for Tupperware in the woods

One of my hobbies is letterboxing. For those that do not know what that is, let me explain a little.

"Letterboxing, at its basic, is a like a treasure hunt type game. Small boxes are hidden in various locations—usually outdoors, though many are planted indoors as well—and the creator of the box will release clues so others can go out and find them later. The box is expected to have a logbook that finders can log into and a unique stamp, usually hand-carved, that the finder can stamp into their own personal logbook as a record of all the letterboxes they've found. Most letterboxers have a unique stamp to represent themselves, called a signature stamp, they stamp into the logbooks found inside letterboxes so others who find the letterbox later know they found it." Atlas Quest web-site

There are many web-sites devoted to this hobby, but two of the most popular are Atlas Quest ( and Letterboxing North America (usually referred to as LbNA)( The two web-sites co-exist and, as is usual among hobbyists, both have their followings. In fact, many letterboxes are listed on both sites or cross-referenced from one site to the other. Much useful information about the hobby can be gleaned from those two sites.

Letterboxing actually evolved from a man named James Perrot leaving his calling card in a bottle at Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor in England in late 1854, and invited friends to find it. Later someone replaced the bottle with a tin box where visitors could leave self-addressed post-cards for subsequent visitors to mail back. Hence, the name letterboxing. Since then, Dartmoor has become the 'Mecca' of the letterboxing world. It really began to take off in the United States when the Smithsonian Magazine ran an article about the Dartmoor boxers in 1994.

While there are some purists for whom letterboxing refers only to the actual planting or finding of hidden boxes, there are others off-shoot activities such as letterboxer gatherings, exchanges, letterbox trading cards, postal rings and even virtual letterboxes.

Many letterboxers are also stamp carvers. Some of the letterboxers I have met both in person and on-line are 'blow-your-mind-away' artists. Recently, I've tried my hand at carving some stamps, and while I don't consider myself an artist at it yet, I do admit I'm getting better at it. Here is an image of the latest stamp I completed:

The tools I used are an X-acto knife and a set of Speed-Ball linoleum carving gouges. In fact, other than the hollow plastic handle instead of the wood handle, these are the same gouges that my brother used to do linoleum block carving back when he was in junior high (He let me make one with his stuff back then.). As I keep working at it, I'll post some more images later.

The other thing about letterboxing that attracts me is that the search for these hidden boxes (and actually, Tupperware is not the preferred brand of containers for hiding the stamps and logbooks in; the title phrase is from a discussion on one of the sites) often takes me to places I'd never go to otherwise. A few months ago, my wife Patty and I went on vacation in Arizona and New Mexico. We thought we'd take along the clues to find "one or two" boxes. It turned out we did nothing but look for boxes and ended up finding almost 50 in the one week we were there. We went on a lot of back roads and saw a lot of things we wouldn't have seen if we had just stuck with the books from the Dept. of Tourism. We also met eight very nice letterboxers that were only just bytes in cyberspace to us before this trip.

I've only been involved with this hobby for about a year and a half, but I can see that my interest in it will last for quite a while.