Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Quasi-Epic Colorado Mountain Ride


If you’re looking for a report about an epic Colorado mountain ride (like this one, this one, or this one), think again:  the only thing epic about my recent ride was how badly my friend Peter and I got our asses kicked.  Just now I was recounting to my wife the stats of our 2014 effort—146 miles with over 11,000 feet of climbing, including a 12,400-foot pass—and comparing it to the paltry stats we piled up this time (less than half the distance, with a 25% lower average speed).  “What’s going on?” my wife asked.  “Menopause?”

If you hate me, and/or enjoy reality TV and/or other glaring depictions of human frailty and misery, this may be the ride report you’ve been waiting for.

Executive summary

“We got what we deserved.”

Short version

After not training properly in like a year, Pete and I went into this ride woefully unprepared, and I suffered terribly on a series of brutally steep dirt climbs.  We decided to change the route due to rainstorms, but then reversed this decision in an act of hubris.  I completely ran out of steam by the end of the longest climb, just in time for a 90-minute drenching downpour that washed away the rest of my resolve, along with my dignity, my circulation, and my humanity.  Unable and unwilling to recover from the severe chill, we cut the ride short and descended home with our tails between our legs.

Long version

I should have prepared for this ride by doing lots of long, hard road rides, with gobs of climbing, in the company of the superior athletes on my bike club.  Instead, I spent most of the last year doing short, easy rides with my young daughter while (unadvisedly) continuing to eat like a real athlete.  (At least, this is my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

My friend Peter, a former professional road racer, prepared in pretty much the same way—he’s been riding with his son, who’s even younger than my daughter.  One day these kids will kick our butts, but for now they’re just giving us an excuse to loaf our way through rides.  (This is well worth it, of course, because these kids improve every time they ride and are achieving the gradual apotheosis from regular human to elite athlete, as opposed to their wretched fathers who are trying, mostly in vain, just to slow the ravages of age.)

In an act of craven capitulation, Pete and I set out to ride a mere 100 miles, albeit with more than 10,000 feet of climbing.  We got a late start because I’d spent the previous day in the car, returning from a road trip to Telluride, and got to bed after midnight. 

Breakfast was cheese omelet, toast, braised tomatoes, toast, cruelty-free local sausages, and toast.  (I inherit a lot of my kids’ toast.  See how this blaming thing works?)

Here is the “before” shot.  That’s my brother Max with us, who came for breakfast but wisely opted out of the ride.

My  family was staying at a lodge at the base of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder.  This meant only half a mile of warm-up before the climbing began.  Due mainly to poor fitness but also to the altitude, right away I was huffing and puffing like the Little Train That Could.  I was able to smile for this early photo because of muscle memory in my face.

Note that all that white on my face isn’t salt from dried sweat—it wasn’t that hot out.  Nor is that white beard stubble—I’m not (quite) that old.  It’s this new-fangled sunscreen that’s as viscous as toothpaste.  My family opted not to tell me I hadn’t rubbed it in well enough, because (just like you) they prefer to laugh at me behind my back.

Instead of turning and heading over to the Flagstaff “summit” (i.e., the place where the flag pole is), we went straight, to tackle the climb that locals call “Superflag.”  This is always a brutal one, but especially so this time around.  I had to weave a lot even though I was using shamefully low gearing (27-tooth rear cog plus a compact crank).  At the summit my hands were shaking too badly to snap a photo; fortunately a couple of tourists helped us out.  The treeless hump in the background left of me is Sugarloaf Mountain (just under 9,000 feet elevation) and the pale peak behind that (with the snow) is Mount Audubon (just over 13,000 feet).

We  did a nice dirt descent to Gross Reservoir. 

From here we proceeded south and west, and I lost track of geography somewhat because Peter—who is a fricking madman—had designed a route over a number of grotesquely steep dirt climbs that essentially shut down my normal brain function.  There was a lot of washboard—that is, stretches of dirt warped like corrugated steel by car tires braking or accelerating too hard—which is almost impossible to ride on; it feels like riding over the rumble strip on the edge of a highway.  The steepest sections (~16%) didn’t offer enough traction for me to ride out of the saddle, nor to take photos.  Here’s a shallower section where I could do both (though not simultaneously—duh!). 

This shit went on and on, as if designed to completely wear me down in every way.  Meanwhile, the sky darkened and threatened the kind of downpour that, though not forecast on this day, is always a possibility in these parts.

Our original route had us riding the Peak to Peak Highway north for many dozens of miles, taking us well north of Boulder over a number of serious climbs.  But we could see a big storm in that direction and really didn’t feel like getting caught out.  So we rerouted, figuring we’d tool around near Idaho Springs and Golden.  We started yet another dirt climb, toward Ely Hill, and had made some good (but hard-fought) progress before seeing the skies clearing in the distance over the Peak to Peak.  Now we had to decide if the detour was really necessary.

“Maybe it’s clearing up over there,” Pete said.  “We could play it safe and stay south, or go back and do the original ride.”  We hemmed and hawed before he said, “The ▒▒▒▒▒ thing to do would be to stay south, but the manly thing would be to head north.”  (I’ve omitted a word there because I’m not sure Pete would want to go on record having used it.)

Well, that pretty much settled it.  As I’ve explained before, it’s hard to resist choosing the harder route because it’s so easy to just point your bike in that direction and suffer the consequences later.  And so that’s what we did.  “If we get rained on, we’ll be getting what we deserve,” Pete declared.

I thought I knew right away what he meant—that we’d pay the price for the last year of slacking off and letting ourselves get so out of shape.  But he went on to tell a bike race tale that put his comment in a more specific context.  “It was the Tour of Somerville, a big box-shaped criterium where the last corner is more like a curve so you can sprint through it if you’re at the front, but it’s really dangerous if you’re mid-pack.  Kent Bostick and I led out Jamie Carney, who won.  There were all these guys sprinting for like 50th place, which caused a huge crash.  I was ahead of it, but Kent—who’d started the lead-out—was behind it, and he said to us later, ‘When I went by those [crashing] guys, I yelled, ‘You’re getting what you deserve!’”

We hit a steep dirt descent with lots of ruts, bumps, and more washboard, and it was a bit muddy from a recent rain.  Soon enough I got a rear flat.  I didn’t think I’d hit anything hard enough to get a pinch-flat, but when I practically burned myself on my rim—which was red-hot from all the braking—I wondered if my tube had melted.  (Pete was riding tubeless.)  I got that fixed, and then two minutes later got a front flat.  In case my melting-tube theory was correct, I tried to brake a lot less after that, which was a little hairy … I was glad when the descent was over.

We headed through Blackhawk, where legend has it a woman once married her motorcycle, toward Central City, a gambling mecca.  Traffic kind of sucked here, plus we had a pretty serious headwind and the longest single climb of the ride, from Central City to where Highway 119 hits Highway 46 (look at the map at the end of this post).  The average grade is only 4% and it’s only 5 miles, so it’s pretty sad how badly it kicked my ass.

Thunder rumbled all around us.  Actually, this had been happening for most of the day.  I really love thunder, but my excitement is greater when I have a house to retreat to.  On this day I was trying to forget it each time.  I wanted to ignore what it might obviously portend.

God, the climbing went on and on.  I can’t remember where all the worst bits were but I was just grinding myself down, my speed dropping along with my morale, my legs getting progressively more sluggish like I was a wind-up toy reaching the end of its spring.  I stood on the pedals, I sat back down, I kept trying to shift only to find I was already in my lowest gear … it was like a nightmare, only boring.  Pete kept accidentally dropping me (having only a 25-tooth cog to my 27).  I have no more action photos of this ride because I was no longer capable of, nor interested in, snapping photos.

I’d known full well this ride would suck—no, actually, that the ride would be fine but I would suck—but that didn’t make the reality any easier to take.  Of course this was a comeuppance for Pete and me, attempting an epic ride without actually training for it, but I’d somehow hoped muscle memory and finesse would carry the day.  Instead we got Mother Nature bitch-slapping us continuously as a warning not to trifle with her.  We were getting what we deserved.

My psyche began trending toward despondence.  I hadn’t felt this awful in the bike in almost two years.  I had no idea how many miles still lay ahead, or how many passes, or how long Pete’s patience with my especial feebleness would last.  I wondered:  could I just stop?  Obviously that wouldn’t help anything; resting just erodes the morale when it’s time to pedal again.  And my legs weren’t completely spent—the problem was psychological in that I just didn’t want to do this anymore.  Could I just pull over and say screw it?  Go on strike?  “Occupy Road Shoulder”?  The cycling equivalent of a hunger strike?  No, of course not.  How would I get home?  How would I tolerate Pete giving me shit over this for the rest of my life?  And how would I live with myself?  Cripes, we’d only gone like 45 miles!  This was shaping up to be, possibly, the most pathetic bike ride of my life.

I looked down at my legs.  Amazingly, they just kept pedaling, as though my crankset was attached to some external power source and was turning the legs rather than the other way around.  Sheer inertia was keeping them going.  My legs were just stupidly pumping away because they simply didn’t know what else to do.  And my brain?  Other than registering misery, it wasn’t doing anything.  It wasn’t in charge.  From the legs up I was just a wretched human payload.  And my arms?  They could barely hold me up.  My back was also trashed, probably from all the low-cadence in-the-saddle grinding I’d been doing on the dirt climbs.  I was pretty much screwed from head to toe.

The road, though straight, disappeared up ahead:  could be a summit, but possibly just a fake one.  I yelled up to Pete, “I’m stopping up here whether it’s the top or not.”  It ended up being the top—for now.  I even had an excuse to stop:  it was raining.  Had I noticed this already?  I can’t remember.  I put on my jacket, knowing it would be soaked through and useless within minutes, but appreciating the vague sense of doing something useful.  We started to descend, at long last.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with us, though.  The rain picked up until it was just hammering us.  My bike computer said it was 45 degrees now, but it felt a lot colder.  Maybe the raindrops were colder than that.  In fact, they felt like hail.  Each drop striking my body felt like a needle stabbing me, and my entire epidermis felt like your mouth does after a bite of too-spicy food.

Oddly, throughout this the whole experience I felt something like relief.  After worrying about being rained on for so long, I didn’t have to worry anymore—it was happening.  And at least the climbing was over for now.  I just sat on my bike, coasting, letting the rain wash over me.  And I felt this strange sense of airy spiritual lightness, deriving perhaps from the knowledge that a) things couldn’t get much worse, and yet b) this wouldn’t go on forever, and moreover c) at some point, in the next several hours, after a hot shower, I would return to a life that itself is not miserable.  This ride was not a microcosm of my overall experience in this world; for all its crushing reality this experience was an anomaly, a self-inflicted punishment for an existence that has become all too comfortable.  I am not, I reflected, a miserable person:  I’m just having a miserable time.  (And actually, looking back, it wasn’t pure misery ... it was kind of fun in a way.  I seem to have a fondness for this kind of suffering, and the memory of this ride will surely get sweeter over time.)

My hands became useless flippers due to the cold.  More accurately they were like lobster claws; I could work the brakes, and even shift the gears here and there if I really worked at it.  As we descended toward Nederland, I started to worry about another flat tire, because the road was flooding and all kinds of gravel and little stones were washing into the road.  The descent wasn’t technical so we took it pretty fast, perhaps instinctively saving some brake pad for later.

We got to the same convenience store in Nederland we always stop at.  I was hoping it’d be warm in there, but either the cashier has no control over the thermostat, or was keeping the AC jacked up to serve the dry and better insulated customers.  We filled large foam cups with hot cocoa and warmed our hands on them.  I grabbed a Hostess fruit pie (420 calories).  I gazed dreamily at the hot dog case:  not at the oily, endlessly rotating dogs but at the bun warmer below, wondering if Pete and I could pool our cash and buy the whole stock of buns, just to press them against our frigid, aching limbs.

It took a long time to pay because our hands wouldn’t work.  My arms were almost too weak to reach my jersey pockets.  Pete was just standing there shaking from head to toe … I’ve never seen him so cold.  My teeth were chattering so hard I couldn’t stop them—my jaw wouldn’t respond.  We looked at the clock:  quarter to five.  “If we freakin’ hammer down Boulder Canyon—I mean, hammer—we could be done by 5:30,” Pete said.  I stared at him.  He must be insane, I thought.  Pedaling a bicycle at all—in fact, doing anything at all—seemed almost impossible … how could I possibly hammer?

Amazingly, though the sun never came out, the rain had stopped when we stepped back outside, and as we cranked down Boulder Canyon in too low a gear—so as to spin the highest cadence we could—we started to warm up.  Eventually the blood in our legs got to circulating properly, and we actually did find ourselves hammering somewhat.  At about 5:40 p.m., our painful, humiliating ordeal finally came to an end. 

Sure, I’m managing to fake a smile in the above photo, but look at how tired and baggy and red my eyes are (red from the grit that had been sprayed into my contact lenses since the rain had made sunglasses impossible): 

And though Pete is mugging for the camera, look at his eyes … you can see the suffering there.  It cannot be hidden.

My  hot shower wasn’t as delightful as I’d hoped, because my skin just felt so thoroughly messed with and irritated, nothing could return it to normal.  Still, it was good to rinse off all that road grime:

Speaking of grime, our bikes’ drivetrains took a beating.  Check it out:  absolutely nothing left on this chain:

And Pete’s brake pads were worn to the point of near-uselessness:

Dinner #1 was a whole box of pasta with an indifferent marinara sauce from a jar.  This had no effect whatsoever on our appetites.  My stomach no more registered the three plates than had I eaten a single cracker. 

Then we limped down to the dining hall and had a beer (Odell IPA, from nearby Fort Collins), which hit the spot, along with a couple big glasses of water the bartender must have sensed we needed.

While my wife conjured up Dinner #2, I sat in bed, doing nothing other than feeling stunned by the whole ordeal.  My brother Max, who had come for dinner, looked at me aghast:  “You really don’t look so good.”  He turned to my daughter Alexa and said, “Look at him!  Look at his eyes!”  Alexa, not missing a beat, said, “Yes, he’s got that dead look in his eyes, ‘cause he’s seen so many horrors that he’s sort of immune to them.”

Dinner #2 was grass-fed beef marinara (without pasta—Pete and I had eaten it all), a cobbled-together tartiflette, and—shoot, what was the third thing?  I don’t recall, but I well remember the ice cream cone Max made.  He stuffed two flavors—dulche de leche and chocolate-chocolate-chip—in alternating layers all the way down the cone, then over the top.

I asked my wife and kids if they’d had a good day.  “Yeah, we got our toenails done!” they replied.

Stats and maps

Unfortunately, Pete is on Strava so I can’t make excuses about my bike computer getting reset, and am honor-bound to share the dismal stats of our Ride of Shame: 
  • 74.4 miles
  • 7:34:58 elapsed time (could we have spent an hour in that convenience store??)
  • 6:02:31 ride time
  • 12.3 mph average speed (!)
  • 9,918 feet cumulative elevation gain
Pretty sad, eh?  But I’ll tell you what:  age and sloth may have deprived us of speed, power, endurance, and verve, but they haven’t robbed us of character.  I think we might have actually shored that up a bit with this ride.  And one thing is for certain:  we got what we deserved.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Train Travel Is Better

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and subtle insinuations of mild sensuality.


 Six years ago I blogged (here, here, and here) about my family’s trip on Amtrak from the Bay Area to Chicago.  Well, we’re at it again.  I’m typing away from the observation car as the train makes its way through the mountains east of Grand Junction, Colorado.  Our destination this time is Denver.

(As far as you know I posted this after the fact and/or we’re flying straight home from there so by the time you read this it will be too late to burglarize our home.  Or maybe not … maybe this is the beginning of a long vacation, in which case you’re welcome to try to steal our sentimentally valuable but commercially useless family heirlooms, though you’ll have to deal with our psychotic gun-nut house-sitter and his meth-fueled pit bull, who never knew his father.)

Having tackled the overall train travel experience in my previous posts, today I’m going to give you the top 10 reasons why train travel is the best way to go. 

Reason #1:  Train travel is novel

Train travel is novel.  Flying has become as routine as taking a bus, more so actually, as has driving, and both activities get old pretty quickly (unless you’re driving on a cool highway like US 50).  And on the train if you get tired of your coach seat or sleeper car berth, you can mosey on up to the observation deck, or down to the lounge, and at mealtime you get to sit in the dining car (and actually, the Amtrak food is pretty darn good).  At bedtime if you’re in a sleeper you fold down one bed from above and turn the seats into another bed, which is really fun for kids (I think this gave my younger daughter goose bumps the first time).

The train stops from time to time, in places more rustic and less bland than the convenience stores along an interstate.  You can step off the train for a little fresh air.

Reason #2:  Flashers

Also, if you take the California Zephyr route you’ll cruise along the Truckee and Colorado rivers, where there are lots of rafters, and your chances of being mooned or flashed are very high.  It’s a long-standing tradition, apparently, for young men to moon the train, or young women to pull up their shirts or bikini tops for the benefit of Amtrak sightseers.  When my brother took his kids on this train back in ’05 they were flashed by rafters, as was my wife in ’06 (while my head was, alas, turned the wrong way).  And while I was sitting here peering into my laptop just now, a rafter flashed the passengers to my right.  I’m so bummed to have missed that.  Serves me right for writing this instead of just gazing out the window and watching life go by.  I hope you’re happy.

Reason #3:  Better for the planet

Wikipedia reckons that “a train seems to be on average 20 times more efficient than automobile for transportation of passengers, if we consider energy spent per passenger-km.”  They base this on an assumption of the car getting 39 mpg, which is far better than most cars get, especially with a bunch of luggage and/or bikes fastened to the roof rack.  In contrast, Wikipedia estimates that a passenger train gets 468 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel.

I’m not sure how Wikipedia gets their “20 times more efficient” figure because they don’t show their work.  My Volvo gets about 28 mpg on the highway, so with 4 passengers that’s 28*4 = 112 passenger-miles per gallon, which—compared to the train’s 468 passenger-miles/gallon—makes the train look only 4.2 times as efficient as a fully-loaded automobile.  I’m not going to ponder this disparity at length, because I’m more interested in comparing a train to a plane.

Wikipedia estimates that an Airbus 380 (the dumpy plane most of us tend to fly) gets 78 passenger-miles per gallon.  That means the train is 6 times more efficient (per passenger) than the plane. On top of that, the plane is polluting up in the atmosphere where the emissions do the most damage.  The so-called “climatic forcing” effect of jet aircraft means that although “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1,574 lb) of CO2,” this is “equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2.”  That is, the fact of the aircraft emissions being high in the atmosphere increases the environmental damage by a factor of 2.7.  So the train is actually about 16 times less bad for the environment than a plane.  In other words, for the environmental cost of one family vacation involving air travel, we could take 16 train trips of equal length.

If these numbers start to make your head swim or your eyes glaze over, here’s a more interesting way to express the efficiency of trains:  in 2007 a man dragged a 7-coach train weighing almost 300 tons along its track for more than 9 feet, using his teeth.  This is possible because the steel-on-steel interface between the train wheels and the track incurs so little friction.  (You think that guy could lift even a small single-engine aircraft off the ground with his teeth?)

A final environmental consideration:  the benefit of your choice doesn’t end with your train trip.  Amtrak pays freight train companies for the use of their tracks, so by supporting Amtrak you’re also supporting the railroad freight industry, which is far greener than long haul trucking.

Reason #4:  Can be cheaper

If you can tolerate coach class—where the seats are way bigger than an airplane’s, by the way, with far more legroom—Amtrak can be very inexpensive.  I’m sharing a table in this observation car with an lady who is traveling from Winnemucca, NV to some town just outside Chicago for under $280, round-trip.  The gal across the aisle is going from the Bay Area to Denver and the total tab, one-way, is $222 … which covers herself and her two kids.  (Full disclosure:  this was her original cost, but a couple days before her trip, Amtrak ran a special on the sleeper car so she upgraded for “not much money.”)

The sleeper car is generally a lot more expensive than coach, but I sprung for the sleeper car because this is our big vacation for the year.  It was worth paying extra just to be able to tell my kids, “We’re livin’ large as possible, posse unstoppable, style topical, vividly optical.”  I can’t make this boast with air travel because first class there is way too much money to even consider, and the seats are still smaller than even the coach seats on Amtrak.  (Each seat in the sleeper cabin is wide enough for two.)

Reason #5:  None of the airline bullshit!

I hate flying.  Going through the security check, and having to take off my shoes (even though the one guy who tried to smuggle explosives in his shoe got caught), and having to drink up or forfeit my water, and let some guy pat me down so closely I expect him to ask for my phone number afterward, and then having to take my bag over to some table where somebody runs a little cloth swab all over it to check for explosives—as if!—and then, once I’m finally on the plane, being deprived of legroom, food, even peanuts, and invariably being seated right above the wing with the jet engine shrieking in my ear, and having the baggage policy get ever stingier practically every time I fly, and being asked to pay—get this—$150 each way to bring my 17-pound bicycle on the plane … it’s all just such bullshit I can’t even describe it without the “-shit” part.  I tried to use “BS” but it just wasn’t enough.

On Amtrak, there is no security check.  None.  I mean, what are you going to do, hijack the train and make them take you to the Flagstaff, AZ station instead of Denver?  The Amtrak process is so simple:  you make your reservation, print out your single sheet of paper which serves as the boarding pass for your whole family, show up at the station 45 minutes in advance (no check-in required), and bring practically as many bags as you want, for free, and take them right to the train where you’ll have access to them the whole trip and never have to wait for them to come off the carousel.

And you know what?  If you’re not that organized, and you get a late start riding bikes to the station with your teenage daughter, and if Google Maps totally screws you by leading you not to the station but to a barren place across the tracks and more importantly across a giant fence from the station, so you have to spend an extra ten minutes racing around on surface streets, you can literally roll up with your bike less than 15 minutes before the train leaves.  At least, my daughter and I did, and incurred only a very mild, brief tongue-lashing at the ticket counter, where I paid $10 each to take our bikes on the train.  And the bikes, un-boxed (because Amtrak had run out of boxes), didn’t have to go through some system of conveyor belts like at an airport, which present some danger to the bikes, which danger the airlines—being dicks about this, like everything—accept no liability for.  I put the bikes on a luggage cart, and the conductor said they’d just be leaned on a wall and lashed down.  Simple.

Reason #6:  Less stressful than driving

Driving is a leading cause of accidental death.  Even if you’re the best driver ever, you’re sharing the road with drunks, and irresponsible young men who think driving fast is a game, and drivers who just plain suck.  And you have no control over the weather, which can turn your road trip into a nightmare.

With a train, you’re responsible for  getting yourself to the station and that’s about it.  Then you can read, sleep, look out the window, play a board game, blog, or take advantage of the seventh reason why trains are better.

Reason #7:  Friendly fellow passengers

It is technically possible to have a good conversation on an airplane with a fellow passenger, but highly unlikely.  First of all, your only opportunity is with the person in the next seat, vs. wandering around a train with the opportunity to chat up anybody who seems friendly.  Second, most air travelers are too angry, too tense, and/or (if they’re on business) too preoccupied to want to chat.  In my experience, everybody in the Amtrak observation car is there to soak up the view and relax.  I’ve conversed with several friendly passengers today.

Conversely, if you don’t feel like chatting, you don’t have to be rude to the person in the (assigned airline) seat next to you who keeps asking what you’re reading instead of letting you read.  On a train, you can just return to your seat, or into your sleeper car where you can close the curtain and/or door.

Now, if you’re sharing an automobile with your favorite people, of course you can chat with them, but only to a point.  If you’re the one driving, you shouldn’t get too caught up in the conversation or you’ll become that “distracted driver” that is such a menace to society.  (Once, at the end of a 6-hour drive, I missed the exit to my mom’s town because I was so caught up in reciting the poem “Kill My Landlord.”)  If you’re not driving, you need to take care to not distract the driver too much.  And you can’t have a good conversation with your kids because they’re too busy fighting in the backseat, and dispensing toilet paper out the window to make comets, and fussing, and squirming, and asking, “Are we there yet?”  On the train you can split them up, banish them to their sleeping room, or tell them to go pester the conductor about the ETA.

Reason #8:  Better scenery

The view from the tiny plastic airplane window is okay during takeoff and landing, but once you’re at cruising altitude you’re usually too far up to see much.  Occasionally the pilot will get on the PA and say, “Those of you on the right side of the aircraft can see the Grand Canyon down there … looks a little like a cracked lip.”  Often there’s cloud cover below the plane so you can’t see anything at all.

The view from an automobile is better, but you still don’t see as much.  Train tracks sometimes go through places that don’t have roads.  I’ve been looking out at the Colorado River and the gorge it winds through, and it’s pretty impressive.  The tracks go through less developed areas so the landscape is often especially impressive.

Right now the train is threading its way between Routt National Forest and Arapaho National Forest, near the towns of Kremmling, Heeny, and Sheephorn.  Have you heard of these places?  Of course not, and that’s the point.  (“I used to live in Kremmling,” a friendly fellow passenger just piped up, having perhaps read that over my shoulder.  “One saloon and one cabin.”)

Even familiar scenery can be completely changed by the unique vantage point of the train.  I’ve seen the Carquinez Bridge hundreds of times, but never from below, as I did yesterday.

There are even volunteer docents on some stretches, who will give you history about an area (such as the gold country or the gorge we’re going through now).  They don’t just drone on either; they’re pretty funny.  “Look at that white thing way up on the bank there—that’s a Suburban,” one just said.  “That’s a teenager’s driving lesson.”

You also get to see cooler animals via the train.  On this trip my family has seen antelope; prairie dogs; some strange animal we’re calling a desert badger; a jackrabbit; mule deer; and even a T-Rex scarfing baby Ewoks like they were croutons.  (I made that last bit up to see if you’re still awake.)  Some animals seem curious about the train whereas no living creature has any interest in cars (except certain humans).

On top of all this, you’re not going that fast on the train, so you get a better look at everything.  (And you still get where you’re going sooner than a car because the train doesn’t stop for the night.)

Reason #9:  Don’t have to look at people

There comes a time during a conventional voyage when you get so bored, you may be unable to resist looking at other people.  How often have you been on a 6-hour flight and you get so stir-crazy you decide to head over to the lavatory, even though you know there’ll be a line, and you stand there looking out over all the other bored, irritated people, packed in like cattle, and you just hate them all?  Or you’re so bored during a drive that you start to look at every driver you pass, and in every single case they’re looking back at you, and you’re both thinking, “What are you lookin’ it?!” and it’s just kind of creepy?

I guess if the answer to those (albeit rhetorical) questions is “No,” then you’re a better person than I am, and you can have your boring interstate highways and jam-packed airplanes.  For me, boredom just isn’t a problem on a train, and there’s so much to look at, and everybody looks better to me because, like them, I’m so much more cheerful.

Reason #10:  No deep vein thrombosis or perforated eardrums

Okay, I’ll concede that deep vein thrombosis isn’t exactly an epidemic.  It’s the rare person who, due to being too cramped and still for too long, suffers a blood clot that moves through his/her system and causes a pulmonary embolism.  But it can happen.  What if you got one and died on a plane or in your car?  Wouldn’t that be a rotten way to go?  (“He died as he lived … stuck in coach” or “He didn’t die alone … his car veered over several lanes and took out a school bus.”)

Meanwhile, train travel is easier on your ears.  The pressure changes on a train are very gradual.  As you cross the Continental Divide, you might notice the foil on a single-serving coffee creamer start to bulge, but you won’t feel much in your ears.  This train is at over 7,000 feet elevation right now and I’ve barely felt a thing.  Airplanes are different.  Cabin pressure is at cruising altitude is equivalent to 5,000 feet of elevation, and can decrease to zero in a matter of minutes when you land.  Once, I had a minor cold resulting in a clogged Eustachian tube, so when the plane descended I suffered a perforated eardrum.  This was absolutely excruciating and turned my ear into a geyser of blood and pus for several days, and required several follow-up visits with a doctor.

Bonus Reason:  Hand-to-hand combat

If you try to give somebody a real beat-down in the aisle of a passenger jet, you’ll probably get arrested when you land.  And an automobile is just too confined a space for a good fistfight—your elbows keep hitting things.  The sleeping cabin of a train, however, is private and spacious.  I could hear my daughters going at it from across the aisle.  They don’t pack a good punch, those girls, so neither was injured, but I think they had a good, satisfying tussle.

This was confirmed when I interviewed my daughters for this post.  Among the reasons my older daughter gave for preferring train travel was “Can finally fight it out with your sister once and for all.”  She even admitted that she was fantasizing a bit about being James Bond, who never boarded a train without having one final battle with this or that nemesis.  (And for the record, upon reading over my shoulder just now, she has assured me that she was pulling her punches and actually could have done serious damage.  Maybe on the way home?)

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Monday, August 8, 2016

From the Archives - Sleeping Through College


Having hosted teenagers in my home recently, I was astonished by how late they stayed up and how late they slept in, and particularly how late they slept in even if they hadn’t stayed up late.  I try to sleep in sometimes but it just doesn’t work.  In fact, even sleeping through the night is becoming a challenge.  I don’t sleep soundly enough, so the cat disturbs me, or the morning sunlight leaking in past the blind, or a distant passing train.  Plus, I can’t get my temperature right.  Often, the soundtrack to my dreams is one heavy metal song for like four hours, so the sheer repetition bores me awake.

The following essay, written 27 years ago during my college days, is about sleeping.  Back then I often wrote little essays much like my modern blog posts (but not, I hope, as good) and photocopied them, shrinking four pages to fit on one sheet of paper, to mail around to friends and family.  This essay is from a series called “How to Be a UCSB Student.”  (By the time I transferred to Berkeley, I’d become wiser—realizing I didn’t know anything—and stopped writing how-to guides.)

How to Sleep Away Your College Days - October 27, 1989

Part One:  Choosing a major

While this may not seem like a normal category to be listed under “sleep,” it actually makes perfect sense.  Just check the chart below, locate the number of hours of sleep you’d prefer, and choose your major accordingly.

Expected Sleep
N/A – nobody really majors in this
4-7 hours per night
Art Studio
12-18 hours per night
Electrical Engineering
12-18 hours per week
6-8 hours per night
0 hours per night because you toss and turn debating yourself
Any other major
I don’t actually know ... go do your own research

Part Two:  When is bedtime?

While I have tried to study a variety of majors, my current data is limited to my college household:  English, Art Studio, and Electrical Engineering.

English major:  You can pretty much go to bed when you want to.  I wouldn’t bother trying to sleep before midnight, though.  Until then, the ambient noise in your bedroom will be in the “ear-splitting” range anyway, either due to a party outside or your art studio roommate trying to teach himself the clarinet.

Art Studio major:  There are few guidelines; the only hard-and-fast rule is that you must never retire before 2:00 a.m.  What you do until this time is up to you:  check out a show, paint, try to teach yourself the clarinet, or even nap.  TIP:  If you nap enough during the day, it’ll be easy to stay up late, so on those days you have morning studio you’ll be falling asleep at the easel.  This can only help your work.

Electrical Engineering major:  Bedtime?  Are you kidding?  Try to hit the sack sometime before you collapse from exhaustion — hopefully as close to this point as possible.  Also, try to turn in before your roommate wakes up so you don’t have to compete for the shower.

Part Three:  Snoring

The only advice I can give you about snoring is the same advice your roommates will give you:  roll over and shut the hell up!  But if you’re suffering from a snoring roommate, you have a more difficult task.

An occasional snorer can be silenced with a shove, a thump on the wall, or being awakened and told to roll over and shut the hell up.  But these techniques are useless on a hard-core snorer.  I have studied this case thoroughly, and I’ve found that there is a passive-aggressive motivation behind repeated snoring.  Usually, the snorer is the one who gets the least sleep, and who must get ready for bed in the dark while his roommates sleep peacefully.  Though he may not realize it, the snorer feels a deep-seated hostility for those who have more time to sleep, and subconsciously decides to ruin their slumber by impersonating a one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton 2-stroke.  The more tired he is, the worse his snoring will be.

Obviously, normal techniques are futile, even harmful, when you’re dealing with a hard-core snorer.  If you wake him up, his subconscious hostility will only increase.  Therefore, you have to startle him to a state of semi-consciousness without revealing yourself.  I have found marbles to work beautifully.  I keep a jar by my bed, and when T.T., my E.E. roommate, snores, I throw a marble at him.  The zinging noise it makes on its trajectory, the harmless sting it gives on impact, and the cracking noise it makes as it ricochets into the wall are all excellent snore-deterrents.  The real beauty of this technique is that after a few assaults, T.T. has learned to automatically associate the sound of marbles clinking against a glass jar with pain and noise.  Now, I only have to clink my marbles and the snoring instantly stops—so I can avoid the guilt of having assaulted my roommate.  Fortunately, this Pavlovian effect took hold before T.T. figured out why he kept waking up with marbles in his bed.

Part Four:  Talking in your sleep

I guess this is technically optional, but it sure is fun.  Having one roommate stay up all night to monitor nocturnal speech is sometimes difficult, but luckily T.T. is almost always awake, and C.S., my Art Studio roommate, was thoughtful enough to equip T.T. with a notebook titled “Secret Sayings from the Kingdom of Sleep.” 

Now, you might think we’d want to leave our unconscious utterances unrecorded, in case we say something incriminating.  But we’re all far too nerdy for that.  The classic incriminating utterance would be “Oh, Wendy” as overheard by your girlfriend, Julie.  But we don’t have girlfriends, and if we did, and they heard us say “Oh, Wendy,” they’d be like, “In your dreams!”  They’d never believe us suave enough to cheat, these hypothetical girlfriends.

Here are some actual utterances from our apartment.  I didn’t make these up—they’re taken right from the bedside journal.

“Ladle!  Ladle!  Ladle!”  (yelling)
“No!  I wont!  Oh, I don’t care anyway.”
“More stories... I don’t have the energy.” 
“What number did you pick?”
“Orange.  It will really shake the very foundation  of the earth.  Plus, uh, Geoff:  the shirt took sanction.”
“Somewhere, someone, the wheels are rolling.”
“What a feeling.”
(Hysterical laughter)
“Question:  I’m asking you...?  My phone’s all screwed up.”
“Grey, brown, dark blue, gloomy... Walk around, saying things like Sartre.”
“Check me out!”

Part Five:  Dreams

Achieving the most interesting dream is linked closely to diet.  If you eat a lot of garlic right before bed, or a spicy burrito, that should help.  Of course, the real key to memorable dreams is to have a really twisted mind.  I wish I did because my stories would be better, and C.S. wishes he did because his art would be better.  Only T.T. has disturbing dreams, usually involving a midterm he forgot to study for (which of course would never happen in real life). 

Part Six:  Catching up on sleep

For some reason, night isn’t always the best time for sleeping.  The other day, C.S. and I both awoke at 3:00 am for no apparent reason.  After an hour of talking, laughing, and throwing marbles at our resident snorer, we decided sleep was futile.  I studied while C.S. zoned out.  Of course, this sleep must be made up at some point — usually as soon as possible.  For me, the hours between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm are best suited for catch-up sleep.  It just so happens, my classes fall within the same time interval! 

If you can time it right, you’ll only sleep during lectures.  Typically there are so many students, the professor won’t notice.  Sit pretty far back because most of the professors are nearsighted from a career spent staring at a book, equation, or painting.  But then, targeting lectures is not always possible; after all, sleep makes its own rules.  

I fell asleep in French class last week, my elbow on the desk and my head propped in my hand, and Molly, the cute blonde next to me, knocked my elbow out so I went sprawling, knocking my books to the floor.  Amazingly, the instructor didn’t chew me out or anything.  Either she’s a romantic, and took Molly’s treachery for flirting, or assumed I was up all night phoning my relatives in earthquake-ridden San Francisco.  Or maybe it’s because this instructor is young, and thinks back fondly on how, not so long ago, she herself slept through college. 

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