Thursday, March 14, 2013

One Track Mind

Back in August 2011 I took the California Zephyr (that's train #5 if you're keeping score at home) out to northern California to conduct Weekend II of my eight-part Integrative Facilitation training. The host group was Yulupa Cohousing in Santa Rosa.

Ordinarily I try to arrive at least 24 hours ahead of time, to settle in at the training site and fully recover from travel before going on stage, but I was in a time squeeze by virtue of having participated in the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference the weekend before, and it takes three days to cross the country by train. Leaving Monday morning, Thursday afternoon was the quickest I could get to the Golden State (given that I was sticking with my decided preference to avoid air travel whenever possible). As training weekends start with a check-in Thursday evening, I was cutting it close.

As it turned out, I cut it too close. My train was due into Emeryville at 4:10 pm , but it didn't arrive until 4:10
the next day—12 hours late. So much for check-ins. I was lucky to make it on site by 9 am the next morning, just in time to start teaching. That was the most spectacularly late train ride I've ever experienced (although the one I took earlier this week competed for that dubious honor), and wouldn't you know that it occurred when I had almost no cushion to work with. Murphy's Law. Fortunately, the facilitation class was able to roll with my travel misadventure and the weekend went fine. (Isn't that what coffee is for?)

Now fast forward (or perhaps slow forward is more like it) 19 months to this week, where I was once again on board train #5, was again en route to a facilitation training weekend being hosted by Yulupa Cohousing (the seventh in the series), and I was again woefully late. What is it with late trains and Yulupa trainings?

By the time we got halfway across Colorado—which meant about halfway to the West Coast—the train was already more than four hours in arrears and sliding further with each stop. 

Fortunately, I allowed for more wiggle room this time, and bought a ticket to arrive on Wednesday instead of Thursday. However, not one to let grass grow between my toes, I scheduled six hours of work today in nearby Sebastopol, starting at 9 am, and can't be too late without putting at risk a good night's sleep (in a bed that isn't rumbling along at 50 mph).

So why are trains so often late? Part of it is the route I was taking, which I believe has the worst on-time performance of any in the Amtrak system. There are two reasons for that. First, it's one of the longest routes, giving it more chances to get into trouble. Second, it crosses two mountain ranges (the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas) and operates at the highest altitude of any train in the US, which translates into more chances for snow adventures, frozen switches, and freight train derailments blocking the path.

In addition, there are only so many stretches of double track, where trains can pass each other. If a passenger train is trying to overtake a slow freight, or pass one going in the opposite direction, it has to wait until there's a siding or a stretch of double track. Sometimes the freight train gets there first and the passenger train has to cool its heels—which, when you think about it, is much preferable to trains playing chicken with each other to see who can race through single track sections first. Wheee!

Siding hopscotch accounted for our losing a couple hours Monday night as we chugged across Nebraska (we were on time reaching Omaha). The other half of our delay was caused by our engine clunking into a boulder that appeared on the track in Gore Canyon Tuesday—somewhere between Granby and Glenwood Springs. Oops! While the engineer saw it coming and it was more of a fender bender than a collision, we apparently sustained enough damage that the engine couldn't run at more than 20 mph. As that wasn't going to get the job done—we were still 1200 miles from the Pacific Ocean and wanted to get there sooner than Thursday afternoon—they pulled over at a siding and dos-i-dosed the engines (they regularly assign pairs to long hauls like this, just so they'll have a back-up), putting the frisky one in front and the dingled one second (bad engine, no biscuit).

After that, things started running better... until we got to Grand Junction (which is only one stop beyond Glenwood Springs). There we developed a new malaise, such that we didn't get more than 200 yards out of the station before we stopped and they shut the power down to poke around. After an inconclusive diagnostic, they decided to put it in reverse and limp back into Grand Junction. I feel asleep while they were sorting out what to do.

I woke up Wednesday amidst the beautiful snow-tipped Wasatch Mountains… and learned that our delay had doubled again. Ugh. (I was getting the impression that closing my eyes is hazardous to on-time performance.) Amtrak officials finally resorted to pulling the bad engine and swapping it out with a Union Pacific freight engine—which while no doubt a gamer, was red lined at 50 mph, essentially insuring that no ground would be made up on the straightaways. What all of that added up to was our sashaying into Salt Lake City a fashionable 10 hours behind schedule, and just in time to enjoy a balmy spring morning. Even though I had a guaranteed Amtrak bus connection from Martinez to Santa Rosa, I didn't get there until a little after 1 am and Amtrak hired a taxi to schlep me and two other weary passengers to Santa Rosa. Boy, did bed ever look good.

• • •

As much fun as I had on the train ride, that's not the only adventure I had on this journey. Here's the back story about how I almost didn't make the train in the first place...

Ten days ago I had been approached by folks at Dancing Rabbit to facilitate a community meeting Sunday, March 10, where the single topic would be how the community wanted to respond to cost research that revealed that they couldn't build everything they wanted in their new common house for what they'd budgeted. Did they want to stick with the budget and strip down the features; increase the budget (and the attendant member fees) to keep all the desired features; or something in between? They were facing tough choices that involved balancing affordability, functionality, and the desire to be an inspirational model for sustainability (both in how the building is constructed and the economics about how it would be paid for and maintained).

Because my son, Ceilee, asked me to visit him south of St Louis that weekend and family comes first, I turned down DR, but tossed them a bone—I'd be willing to facilitate a community meeting Monday afternoon, in the narrow window between my return from Ceilee's and my departure to board the Zephyr in Ottumwa IA. As the train was due in at 6:53 pm, and it's normally a 75-minute drive to Ottumwa, I'd be fine if I left Rutledge by 5 pm. However, I wanted to leave at 4 pm in order to get to the Milton Creamery (en route to Ottumwa) before it closed at 5 pm, to secure a bag of their delicious cheese curds for the trip. Thus I told DR I'd be willing to do a 1-3 pm meeting, which offer they took me up on.

Waking up on Ceilee's couch at 6:15 am (at which hour there was no hint of dawn), I made coffee, drank a couple cups, hugged my son goodbye, and hit the road. I made it to DR around 11:30, went immediately into meeting prep, and then did the meeting, ending a bit after 3 pm. Hugging my wife goodbye (I won't see her for three weeks, until we rendezvous in Prescott AZ for the FIC spring organizational meetings), I jumped in my car, raced home, threw clothes in my suitcase, crammed paperwork into my tote sack, quickly handled some accounting, mailed bill payments, gave Sandhillians a Cliff's Notes version of my visit with Ceilee, and forewent a shower in the greater pursuit of cheese curds.

Unfortunately, after all that fast-paced action I couldn't find my driver. I knew it had been narrowed down to either Joe (from Sandhill) or Amanda (my FIC Development Assistant, who lives at DR but was working at the FIC Office that day) but I couldn't find either one. There was a rumor that Joe was in another building, but when I went over there I was told that he'd taken Kathy (our Allis Chalmers D-17) to pull Amanda out of the mud after she made an ill-advised attempt to get to Rutledge via the back road, which was a sea of mud after two days of heavy rain.

So I tossed my gear into one of Sandhill's cars and slewed up the back road as far as the gravel went to see if I could find them. When I got there (about half a mile), there was no car or tractor in sight. Sigh. So I zigzagged back through the muddy road to the house, to try another tack. When I got out of the car Joe saw me right away and let me know that Amanda was my driver (good to get that cleared up) but that she'd gone to DR to get me. Ufda.

Unfortunately, after driving the three miles over to DR, there was no Amanda to be had. Someone called around and learned that she was in Rutledge washing the mud off the DR car that she'd been driving. Haring after her into Rutledge I found the DR vehicle parked outside Zimmerman's cafe, where Amanda was inside getting an order of cheesy fries. At least I'd found her!

As her car was full of supplies needed to assemble screening kits for a movie she's promoting, she wanted to first transfer everything into the SH car (in case someone else wanted the DR car while she was taking me to Ottumwa), but the boxes were too big to fit. Grr. (I'm telling you, this was better than the Keystone Kops.) Giving up on the box transfer, we both drive back to DR so that she could drop off that car and ride with me to Ottumwa. By now it was after 5 pm and I'd completely given up on cheese curds. I was just hoping to catch the train.

Luckily, we encountered no further delays, she and I had a productive conversation in the car about various FIC tasks we handle together, and the Zephyr pulled into the Ottumwa station 10 minutes after I did. Whew!

When people ask what I do for excitement living so far out in the boondocks, I answer with a smile and a single word: "Travel."

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