April 2012 issue

Wha' Happened To Winter?

Got Snow?
brown skilift

They're skiing on gravel this year! Seriously. Some die-hard skiiers have taken to shussing down the sides of loose gravel piles in some snowless parts of the nation. It probably is a lot like skiing on snow... until you make a mistake.

Personally, I'm just as happy to have not had to do shovel duty this season. Of course, allergy season will probably go into overtime and we'll have to hear all the hand wringing about global warming and melting ice caps again. But my lower utility bills take the sting out of it.

Got That Sinking Feeling...

Everyday, in my travels around this part of New York's Hudson Valley, I wind up passing through a riverside industrial area in New Windsor: storage tanks where river barges unload huge amounts of gas and oil for transfer to tanker trucks serving neighboring counties, old vacant factory buildings waiting for entreprenurial salvation, and what appears to be a sheet metal recycling facility specializing in dismantling old ships, ferrys, etc. Or, it could be a repair yard, I suppose, but the old hulks docked there seem to be on their last legs. I get the urge to leave a funeral floral arrangement at the front gate.

The curious shipyard became especially interesting lately as an old, rusty ferry boat, that has been tied up to the pier for some time, suddenly listed to one side and slid to the bottom of the river! sinking ferry lt's pretty shallow there, so most of it is still sticking above water. Very little fuel was left in the tanks, so there was no ecological disaster brewing, just what seems an ingnominious end to a once stately means of transportation.

Curiosity aroused, I began digging into the history of this sad craft. It turns out that this rusty shell was formerly a proud member of the famed Staten Island Ferry fleet, and was named the "MV Governor Herbert H. Lehman"; one of only three Kennedy class ferry's. Commissioned in 1965, she once carried as many as 3500 passengers and 40 cars on the five mile working ferryjourney between the southernmost tip of Manhattan, near Battery Park, and Staten Island. The trip lasted about 25 minutes. Decomissioned in 2007 and sold at auction by the city of New York in 2008, "The Gov" was supposedly anchored here to undergo renovations, but now has a more uncertain future, resting on the river bottom.

The remaining two Kennedy class ferrys, the "MV John F. Kenndy" and the "MV Amerian Legion" are still in service a few miles down the river, in New York harbor.

Basic Training

Another destination… Another engagement for my wife, the doctor.  Note: She’s not a medical doctor. She is a professor; what my grandfather (a medical doctor) used to call a “talkin’ doctor”. Anyway, it meant more travel to yet another international conference or convention.  In January it was Miami. That trip was a financial disaster, as chronicled in the last issue of this e-rag. But it was worthwhile, regarding Irene’s pursuit in educating educators about educating  kids with autism. This time we were off to Denver, Colorado. 

Since things didn’t go so well when we drove to the last one, and we don’t like flying, we decided to take the train to this one.  It also looked like the most economical option, with round trip train fare amounting to much less than air fare, and even less than fuel and motel expenses would be if we drove our car.

We decided to catch the train in Albany instead of New York City.  Same distance from home, same train (just one a day on this route) but much easier access and parking than in Manhattan, and the fare was slightly lower. With a stopover in Chicago, we spent two nights on the rails and were due to arrive in Denver just two hours before Irene’s scheduled presentation.  So I elected to upgrade us to a sleeper car for the Chicago-Denver leg.

Good move! Our first night of sleeping in coach seats on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Ltd. was a horror story! Sure the seats recline, but we still couldn’t get comfortable. A baby kept us all informed of his colic episodes, several people maintained a steady cacophony of Springtime sneezes and snuffles, a conductor with no squelch or volume control on his 2-way radio kept clumping through our car leaving a trail of “roger”s and “10-4”s in his wake. The Marquis De Sade couldn’t have programmed the thermostat any better; first toasting the passengers to the point of sweating, then cranking down the A/C until you could hang meat from the luggage racks! This pattern was repeated all night long.  I kept expecting clouds to develop at one end of the car.sleeper shot

Hours later, sitting in the sleeper suite I ordered for the second half of our trip to Denver, I was reminded that life is good: Irene was speaking to me again, it was quiet, comfortable, relatively spacious, and the meals were complementary! The private bathroom felt a bit like the inside of a 55 gallon drum, but at least it was clean. My better half smiled and declared that she didn’t care what it cost, it was worth every penny!

So, of course, I broke out the checkbook and modified our reservations to include a sleeper car for the return trip.
Dinner was interesting. With limited space, guests are asked to share their tables with strangers.  The couple we met fit the term “stranger” perfectly!  She was decked out with several pounds of plastic jewelry resembling adult pop-it beads, and he experienced frequent involuntary tics that jerked his head as if he’d been tased. We’d heard only half of their life story when the food arrived and she whipped out a pair of lanyards with alligator clips. They deftly flipped these around their necks, clipping the dinner napkins in place as bibs.  I’m sure Irene and I must’ve been gaping as we stared, stunned, at the result. Mary Kay meets American Gothic!mall

Arrival in Denver was much later than scheduled, and we had to scramble to get Irene to the Convention Center in time for her presentation. But we made it.  Her partner in the presentation, Dr. Suzanne Trueblood, ran into similar problems as she nearly missed her flight and also had to go into a panic scramble to get there on time. Still, the presentation was a huge success, making the trip well worth it. 

Left with plenty of sightseeing time on our hands after the event, I rented a car and the three of us drove for about a half hour to Boulder, CO, for a good, close-up view of the Rockies. We weaved through the Boulder Canyon Road, climbing past waterfalls and foaming rapids that cut through the jagged rocks jutting towards the sky.  Spectacular!photo

Suzanne’s son, Jake, lives in Boulder and met us with his fiancée for dinner. We were struck by how the pace of life in general seems so much more relaxed, the people so much healthier-looking and genuinely friendly, and the city so much cleaner than most. No wonder it’s a popular destination.

After a good night’s sleep in a downtown motel, Irene and I awoke to a crisp, clear Denver morning, feeling refreshed and in considerably improved spirits.  Then the phone rang and Amtrak notified us that our train, due to leave a few hours later, would be delayed for an undetermined time. Early that morning (Friday the 13th), just outside Provo, Utah, Jose Gamboa, 67, wandered past the lowered barrier arms at a railroad crossing and into the path of our train. He did not survive.

Killed by a passenger train?!? Suddenly whatever problems we thought we had became insignificant by comparison! Amazingly, the Amtrak California Zephyr, train #6, arrived in Denver just a little over three hours late to pick us up and continue on to Chicago. We made our connection with time to spare.

The rest of the trip was very pleasant.  The Lake Shore Ltd. isn’t the most modern train in Amtrak’s stable, but the staff was absolutely wonderful! The sleeper accommodations were a lot smaller, but comfortable.. We arrived in Albany, NY, the next afternoon, paid the parking lot ransom demands, and piled in the car for a 90 minute drive home.

All things considered, I think we may do more basic “training” for distance travelling in the future.  It takes some preparation, tolerance, and inconvenience at times, but the train can still be a great way to get where you want to go. Just don’t be in a hurry.

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