Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Status Report

Hello Folks,

Hope all you readers are coping with this pandemic and staying healthy.  Twinkles and I are doing fine, staying very busy, but somehow not accomplishing very much.  We were suppossed to be returning from our London trip today but that trip was cancelled, maybe next year ?

I thought I should look at this blog site, see if it still existed and if I could remember how it works.  To my surprise, nothing has changed, although I kind of wished there was some improvement, but I was surprised to see quite a few views.  People are still visiting ?  As a result, I'm checking in to warn everyone that I will soon (June) be going back on the road, Twinkles has had about enough of me hanging around the house.

I have made a few modifications to the van; a solar panel to charge my house battery, a small 12V refrigerator to replace the former ice cooler (hope to works out), have raised my bed a couple of inches for added storage space.  That's not all, I have added a hand pump sink spigot connected to an under sink water bottle, (practically running water) !  I changed the spark plugs and ignition wires, the oil and filter, the rear differential lube and all is ready to go.

Now, the main question is where to go ?  Due to the pandemic, It's advisable to stay away from congested towns and cities, so I suppose I'll be doing much more boondocking.  As usual, I have no real definite plan or destination except that Montana is calling.  When I look at a map trying to plan a route, I see that I've been almost everywhere in the west before, so I'm trying to focus on places I've missed or quickly passed through.

So there you have the latest, keep watching,


Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Side Pony Express music festival - 2019

I take off on another cargo van adventure to Bisbee, Arizona for the Side Pony music festival on November 8th.   I believe this is the 3rd year I have attended this festival which is now in their eighth season, and actually I am surprised that it isn't mobbed with concert goers by now.  it's a unique event as it is in Bisbee to start and takes place all over town at various venues with many diverse bands and is free.  I suppose it doesn't draw the huge crowds as there are no big media names, no stars, most of the bands are local, the venues are all small and it's in a remote location.  These are the reasons I like this festival and I hope it doesn't change.  Actually I shouldn't be promoting this festival, popularity may destroy it ?

This isn't really much of a van adventure although it is a scenic ride to Bisbee.  I do a stealth overnight on a nearby street in the new Bisbee area near the Warren ball field.   There is a great Saturday farmers market across the street in the park and the ball park is one of the oldest continuously operated ball fields in the country.

I attend many music sessions from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, but there is no way to se everyone. The performers play short sets and then rotate to different venues around town so if you want to see specific people you get considerable exercise hustling around town.  That can also involve considerable step climbing as anyone who has been to Bisbee will know.

The music venues

The Saturday schedule - so many choices 

Part of the fun here is people watching, Bisbee attracts a strange element and the ambiance of the downtown, particularly the Brewery Gulch area, puts one at risk for some debauchery.  The other part for me is taking photos, Bisbee is extremely photogenic even when nothing is going on.

The St Elmo is a "dive bar" that that lives up to the reputation

I won't attempt to detail my daily events, the photos will speak to that, hope you can visualize the rest and enjoy.

I usually get a parking spot in front of this building which
starts the day on a positive note

I love this downtown view

The Pythian Castle is an awkward building to get a decent photo, I like this angle

Bisbee is weird !

That Agave in the foreground is incredible

Bisbee is beautiful

The Silver King Hotel entrance

Blind mountain Holler in the patio at the Silver King

Carol Pacey rocking it up at St Elmo's

Ancient Egypt at the Stock Exchange


Great mining mural in parking lot

This mural gives you a sense of the mountains surrounding town

That's about the way the Monsoon rains fall

Which way to go ?

Bisbee Womans Club diversity mural

One of the most interesting musicians was West Phal Slim

Attractive member of La Luz de La Luna

The stage filling Whiskey Lickers Band

The Los Jones Band

Ghost Cat Attack Band

A woman with a backbone

Local Bisbee band that I enjoyed as much as anyone at the festival

Inside the nostalgic Stock Exchange Bar

Safety first

There was much more, but you get the idea ?

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Chasing the Big Boy Locomotive

For those not in the know, the "Big Boy" is the name given to the largest and most powerful steam locomotive fleet in the world.  There were (25) Big Boy Locomotives built between 1941 and 1944 by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO).  Of the original 25 locomotives built, eight remain in existence with the others scrapped.  The recently restored # 4414, built in November 1941, is the only one currently operational, with the others preserved in museums around the country.  These Locomotives were to be identified as Wasatch Class Locomotives until an unknown factory worker wrote in caulk “Big Boy” on the front and the name stuck. They were specifically engineered to pull freight trains over the Wasatch Mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming.     

Big Boy # 4414 Locomotive ran for 1,031,205 miles in freight service before its retirement in 1961-1962.  It eventually found a home at the Railgiants Train museum in Pomona, California where it was preserved from 1962 to 2013.  The Union Pacific  Railroad then purchased the Locomotive from the museum and set about doing a thorough restoration of it at their Cheyenne Wyoming shop.  They set an ambitious goal of getting it operational again in time for the 150th anniversary of the opening of the transcontinental railroad.  A motivated crew was assembled for this project which met the goal and this locomotive is currently running on a grand tour around the southwest to rave reviews and capacity crowds wherever it goes.  Many rail fans thought they would never see this locomotive run again and it certainly is impressive.  The UP has a website which gives the current run schedule showing station stops and several locations where it is in display.  You can also join the free “UP Steam Club” and view thousands of photos and videos of the Big Boy taken by fans during this tour.  Tons of stuff is also available on You Tube.


As a former management employee of New Jersey Transit, my job involved the quality assurance and project management of new rail cars / locomotives and the overhaul of existing equipment.  As a result, I can appreciate what was involved in this restoration and am most impressed.  As someone who used to set up test trains in New Jersey, the logistics alone of this rail tour are mind boggling.

I learned about the tour sometime in the summer, but didn’t think much about it until I learned it was making a stop in Tucson on October 17th.  I had a frustrating day seeing the train in Tucson, the crowds were immense and my idea of seeing the train at a rail crossing were ruined by a passing freight train at the most inopportune time. I then found a parking garage where I could get a distant view, but nothing up close.  The following day which was a scheduled display day in a Tucson rail yard also went sour.  We were in a lengthy traffic jam, decided to park the car and walk into the rail yard instead and then were advised by several irate fans that they wouldn’t allow you to walk in.  You could drive through only, ride in past the train and drive back out.  That didn’t work for me ! 

I am at the crossing across from Borderlands Brewing in Tucson with the
Big Boy train approaching

When a freight train enters the view for the opposite direction

There are many unhappy people in this scene

I was able to catch the end of the train which is a decent view

I then hustle to the Depot to find a huge crowd and find
an open stairway on adjacent parking garage with a view

The Big Boy departing the Depot

It was then that my lovely wife, Twinkles said, “ Why don’t you jump in your van and follow the train for a couple of days” ?  I though, “What a great idea”, and why didn’t I think of that ?  Besides, I have nothing better to do since completing the redo of her bathroom.  So I throw a few things in the van and off I go early Saturday morning heading on I-10 towards Benson, Arizona.

So here I am heading off on something referred to as “train chasing”. It’s a rail fan adventure where you pass the train and make a stop ahead, usually at a road crossing, run out to take a photo or video of the passing train, run back to your car, speed down the road passing the train again and then repeat this cycle as long as possible.   I remember these guys from my railroad career, when they were referred to as FTN’s, or  "F.......ing Train Nuts".  FTN’s can often be trouble, especially if you are in rail management, as you must always obey and promote safety rules, (a top priority) and these people are usually violating all the rules.

Over the course of this adventure I saw people doing very dangerous stuff, standing next to, or on the rails as the train was approaching at speed.  I will be surprised if someone isn’t killed before this tour ends.  I can still visualize the man in the locomotive cab behind the engineer hanging out the cab window waving his arms frantically for the fans to move back.  It’s also traumatic for the train engineer and crew members, it’s not a pretty picture when you hit someone.    

The Big Boy was scheduled to depart Tucson at 8 AM for Benson, Arizona and I had timed my departure to enable me to catch the train somewhere enroute.  I had checked a map for a couple of potential road crossings and exited the highway at one in Vail, Arizona.  They were already a few cars and people setting up at the crossing and I joined them.  It soon started getting congested so I then walked a quarter mile down the tracks to an open spot.  The train was obviously late out of Tucson because it didn't arrive until about 10 AM.  

Big Boy has arrived

Supermans' claim ; More powerful than a Locomotive comes to mind when Big Boy thunders past

The next stop is Benson, Arizona, but I miss the correct exit for downtown Benson and instead end up on East 4th Avenue, but accidentally it is close to the train tracks. I see an interesting old trestle rail bridge there and cars parked on the shoulder of the road.  I walk over to look and find a nice viewing area which by the minute becomes more and more crowded.  I eventually walk across the tracks as someone tells me that the train should be coming on that side.  I'm remembering the missed opportunity blocked by the freight train back in Tucson when I was on the wrong side.  These are busy tracks, there are many freight trains running at close intervals.  

A diesel locomotive runs through spewing more smoke
than a steam locomotive 

Big Boy is approaching  and people are practically on the tracks

It's moving fast

That looks awfully close, but I was actually standing in the weeds

As it comes past I didn't see that water blast about to hit me

This is the Art Lockman Maintenance Tool Car.  Art was a long time railroad worker who was the roundhouse foreman in Cheyenne and admired for his knowledge of steam locomotive maintenance

I quickly look for the quarter I had laid on the tracks and actually find it and it is nicely flattened, this will be a prized souvenir.  It's then back to the van and back onto I-10 heading for Wilcox, Arizona.  Wilcox had a wine tasting event going on on railroad Avenue in conjunction with Big Boys arrival which attracted a large crowd of spectators.  Wilcox has an historic old train station and the Rex Allen Cowboy Hall of Fame.

The Big Boy coming to a stop

I spent as much time people watching as train watching

Pulling out of Wilcox:

The Rex Allen Museum is a great one, Rex and his horse are buried across the street

The Wilcox Depot

I kind of thought this rail nut thing was a mans world, but I was surprised at viewing stops at the female fans who would push their way up front to take close up photos of the locomotives driving rods, wheels and associated mechanical parts.  Someone could do a phycology study on the interaction between a steam locomotive and people.  People were so happy and thrilled to see and hear the machine up close.  The crowds also seemed to cross all social, economic and age boundaries.  In todays digital age we are no longer accustomed to seeing large mechanical objects.  The steam locomotives complex mechanical parts which are right out in the open, dripping with oil and grease mixed with periodic blasts of water and steam and the groaning / gurgling steam sound of steam and the blast of the horn and the exhaust smoke tends to send people into sensory overload.

The next stop is Bowie, Arizona, home of Fort Bowie, and that is about all, or all I saw near the railroad tracks.  Hopefully I was on the wrong side side of the tracks because it looked much like a ghost town. 

The Big Boy streached across the tracks at Bowie, Arizona

The crew lubes critical mechanical bearings at this stop

The moving mechanical parts, valves and pipes are amazing, but I wonder what happens if one
moving piece comes unglued.  I wouldn't want to be in the area.

All ages here

The engineer will periodically blow out accumulated soot which
also makes for a more interesting photo

The Big Boy taking power

Like this view best

The VIP observation car at trains rear

I heard people tell their children; This is history. I heard people say; This is a once in a lifetime moment, or I never thought I would see this.  I saw people waving at the engineer, Ed Dickens, like he was a rock star, he actually has become a real celebrity.  I think I even saw a few old railroaders with tears in their eyes.  As the train started to move away the crowd sometimes started to woop it up like the Rolling Stones had just come on stage.  It’s a nostalgic thing that touches peoples hearts.

Continuing on I-10 towards Lordsburg, New Mexico there are stretches where the train runs in close proximity to the highway.  A lot of rail fans and other drivers see the train and slow down, the I-10 speed limit being 75 MPH and train running about 50 MPH causing a traffic buildup and of course people have their cell phones out. 

Even the big rigs slow down to watch Big Boy

Arriving at Lordsburg only a few minutes prior to the train, I find a sizable crowd in place and a cowboy duo performing on a trailer across the tracks.  As the train came into view they started to play, rather poorly,  what else but the Folsom Prison Blues. 

Big Boy coming to a stop in Lordsburg

Big Boy at rest

The police have a rough job at times keeping people out of harms way

Big Boy ready to make a reverse move

There it goes for the night

The Big Boy is spending the night on a siding a short distance away, but the area is roped off and guarded to keep the public away.  There is maintenance to be done and water being delivered by a tank truck.  A steam train required a tremendous quantity of water and can hold many thousands of gallons, but as there are no trackside water tanks these days a water tanker truck follows the train.  The Big Boy originally burned coal, but has been converted to No 5 fuel oil which also needs to be delivered at intervals.  

I spend my night in the Lordsburg Truck Stop on the outskirts of town.  

The Big Boy is scheduled to depart Lordsburg, NM at 8 AM Sunday morning and I could have taken good photos of it rolling by right in front of the truck stop.  Instead I decided to get on the road ahead of it and stop somewhere with a better landscape view where I would catch it at speed.  I found a good spot at a crossing off I-10 across from Bowlin's Continental Divide Trading Post which my GPS is calling Separ, NM.  As usual I try to get away from the crowd and walk down the right of way road a thousand feet or so.  I have a beautiful spot  where I can frame the shot to include a nice Yucca.  I end up waiting and waiting, the train as usual is late, but I get a good freight Locomotive shot in the meantime.  

One of several trading posts along I-10

A diesel coming through, a preview of the shot I want

This is the real deal with Big Boy coming nicely into my camera frame

I then see an approaching shadow coming into view, NO, it's another train coming on the inside track

It sort of wiped out the optimum photo, but it's still pretty cool.  If you tried to do this it would be near impossible? 

I then get back in the van and on the road racing down I-10 to catch the train again.  13 minutes latter, I pass the train, exit at the next road overpass, almost run to the overlook arriving just in time.

It takes me 13 minutes to catch the train on I-10

Another 8 minutes gets me on the overpass to get the shot

I actually prefer this frame best, one of my best

The secret is to scout out the terrain ahead of time for the best locations and be there early to set up

Okay, that was close but I got a decent shot, now back in the van, no time to waste, It's only about 14 miles to the next stop in Deming, NM. I need to catch the train and then get far enough ahead to find the arrival location, park the van and get to the track before it does.  I just make it again !  

I move far down the track away from the crowd to get a clear view

I like this angle

These cars hold a ridiculous quantity of water

They are again lubing the mechanical bearing and joints

Ed Dinkens the manager of the UP Restoration Shop and Locomotive Engineer in the cab

I thought the hat added to the photo

He looked like a big boy rail fan, bib overalls and all

Everybody is excited

The Big Boy pulling out

There is also a human side that's not so complimentary such as when you have a good viewing spot with a clear camera angle to the passing train and then someone just hops right in front of you.  I stood near a line of people with cameras out with a clear track view thinking that it would be a decent shot when another single man jumped directly in front of them.  Someone yelled; Hey move it we are trying to take a photo and you’re blocking it, he yelled back; That’s what I’m doing too and he stayed.   

The next and final stop of the day is El Paso, Texas.  The train runs for about 20 miles along I-10 but then crosses I-10 and heads on a cross country route to El Paso, Texas with no adjacent road shown on my map.  As a result, no more train chasing for me, I take a lunch break and relax a bit.  It's over a hundred miles to El Paso but I have over three hours, plenty of time to get there.

I arrive at Union Station in El Paso at about 2:30 PM, with lots of time to kill.  I only see a few people who look like rail fans.  This remains a working Amtrak Station and a few people are inside the station.  It a beautiful old building, but rather sparse and boring inside, I expected more.  They don'y have anything to even showcase the arrival of the Big Boy.  I decide to wander around the city adjacent to the train station and find that it has been turned into a really nice arts district.  There is actually much to do here, It's in the redevelopment stage, but I  believe it soon will be a vibrant area to visit.

I return around 3 PM to find the area filling quickly with rail fans for the arrival of the Big Boy.  The train will arrive on a station platform which is behind a locked gate and a high metal fence.  Many people have parked their trucks against the fence and are sitting on top to get a view over the fence.  A man there invites me to stand on his truck which doesn't help much, but the thought was nice.  Eventually just before the train arrives, the gate is opened and everyone floods onto the platform.  I soon head there as well for a closer view.

View from the pickup truck bed

View form the platform

Steam Punk fanatics show up

The running gear is something to see and watch

The big man in red was loving it

Quite crowded platform, almost as bad as rush hour at Penn Station New York

The Big Boy pulling out

Pulling away

The Big Boy is moved to a rail Yard across town where it will stay for the next week or so, but it will be on display for public viewing tomorrow, Monday October 21st.  I stay overnight in a Walmart and go over to the viewing in the morning at 9 AM.  It's a light crowd, first time, and by 11 AM I have seen everything there is to see and start to head back to Tucson.  

The freight cars were scenic

A clear front view of the Big Boy is hard to get

Those two men on the right stood and studied everything for the full two hours I was there

This is no museum piece, this is a working steam locomotive covered with oil and grease

There was something about this retainer wire, nut and washer that I thought was attractive, but
possibly not the best mechanically

The fast facts

The museum car was a well done promotional advertisement for the Union Pacific, but mostly true

The idea of this restoration was to celebrate this historic event

The museum car interior

No doubt about it, an amazing project done mostly by hand labor

I saw hardly anyone take photos of the beautiful observation car, no one could leave the Big Boy

It was an interesting weekend adventure, one I will never forget. I kind of like this theme tour idea.  What's next ?