Monday, September 8, 2014

A Year with a High Performance Vehicle

About a year ago, Sarah and I purchased a vehicle.  It was on June 20, 2013 that we drove our Mercedes Benz SLK55 AMG to her new home. While it was a used vehicle, it was new to us. It had low miles and had been babied by the previous owner, so it was in exceptionally good condition. When we bought the car, it had just over 12,000 miles on it, despite being a 2006 model year car. The interior and exterior were immaculate, despite the age. Considering we purchased it for around $80,000 less than a new one would cost, I really had nothing to complain about!

When we bought the vehicle, I really only knew a few things about it. I knew it looked nice, handled extremely well, and had a ridiculous amount of horsepower. The horsepower to weight ratio meant it would go fast. I also knew that it was expensive, and that being an AMG model, Mercedes considers it one of their high performance models.

In the past year since I bought it, I have learned a lot more about it. Some of what I have learned is simply statistics. The engine is a 5.5 liter V8, which produces 450 horsepower. On paper, the zero to 60 time is 4.2 seconds. It is electronically limited to 155 mph, supposedly. I have never really had any opportunity to test that. I also learned that AMG is not simply a model designation for Mercedes, but actually a separate corporate subsidiary of Mercedes. The cars they build are their own models. While they usually correspond to existing Mercedes models, they come from a different plant and have different parts. All AMG vehicles are also hand built, and there is a placard on the engine with the name and signature of the person who built our vehicle.

Some of what I have learned has been more experience based. On dry pavement, it is possible to navigate a traffic circle at 50 miles per hour and only make the tires squeal a little. At 40 mph they do not squeal at all. I have also found that with 450 horses under the hood, you can feel like you are driving fairly hard and never get the engine over 3,000 rpm. However if you push the pedal a little farther into the floor and let the engine get to 4,000 rpm, the cars in the mirror get very small very quickly! If you go to the floor with the gas pedal and get the engine up around 6,500 rpm, you feel like your eyeballs are at the back of your head, cars in the mirror look like toys before you even have a chance to glance in the mirror, and you very quickly exceed the speed limit, regardless of how high it may be. I have also found that 100 mph in the Mercedes is surprisingly unremarkable. In all previous cars that I have owned, 100 felt like an achievement. Usually the vehicles would be making a lot of noise, the wind noise would be deafening, there would be at least a little shake or shudder in the suspension, and the handling was slightly questionable at best. In the Mercedes there is no change in the handling from half the speed, only slightly more wind noise, and no shaking at all. 100 mph feels kind of insignificant actually. But you sure cover a lot of ground fast!

I have also learned that, despite having a reputation for being gas guzzlers, the big AMG V8 up front is not as bad as you might think. Of course, it does depend a lot on how the vehicle is driven. Just by way of comparison, our Volvo has a 2.5 liter turbocharged, five cylinder engine. On a really good day on the highway, at about 65 mph, it gets about 29 miles per gallon. For that we get roughly 250 horsepower, which is more than sufficient for getting around town. (Sarah can give you all the exact specifications for Volvo products.) Driving around town, the Volvo averages around 22 to 24 mpg. The AMG, by comparison, when I drive really conservatively on the highway around the speed limit, gets about 22 miles per gallon. That said, I have found that the AMG is more fuel efficient, in terms of miles per gallon, at higher speeds. In the Volvo, driving at very high speeds really kills fuel economy, because the vehicle has to use nearly all of its horsepower to maintain the high speed. When we used to drive to Billings, we set cruise control at 85 mph, and we did good if we got anything over about 22 mpg. By contrast, when I drive at 100 mph in the AMG, I actually get better fuel economy than at typical highway speeds! The car was designed to go fast, and consequently at 100 mph, it is not using nearly as much horsepower as is available. It may burn a little more fuel in an hour at that speed, but it covers a lot more distance in an hour! I found I can get better than 24 mpg at 100 mph in the Mercedes! In town the numbers are not amazing, although that is where driving habits can have the most effect on fuel economy. Driving conservatively, I can get about 18 to 19 mpg. If I drive pretty hard around town, getting up to the speed limit very quickly at every green light, it does burn a bit more fuel, but even with that, I have never been able to push the fuel economy below 16 mpg. The only explanation I can come up with is that when you drive it hard, it really does not last long, because you get up to speed in no time at all, and then you have no choice but to simply keep driving at that speed.

I have found that the Mercedes has a few little quirks about it that you might not expect from other vehicles. I do not think this has much to do with it being a Mercedes product specifically, but rather has more to do with it being a high performance vehicle and a hand built vehicle. The thing is when a machine builds car after car after car, like any economy car on the road, it builds each one exactly as it built the last one. There is no variation from one vehicle to the next that is not specifically programmed into the machine that builds them. With a hand built car, you get little variations in the build that are hard to notice at first, but you start to see small things when you look closely. For example, in the trunk there is one plastic rivet that just will not stay in place. There are three others just like it which stay in fine, but this one falls out. It is not a critical component, it just holds a piece of plastic molding in place. If you look at the rivet and the hole it belongs in, they are not broken or deformed at all, they just do not quite line up as well as the other three do. Also the rubber seal around the top of the driver's window has one little spot where it pops to the outside of the glass when you close the door. The passenger door does not do it, just the driver's door. One of the stickers under the hood is slightly crooked compared to the one next to it. The AMG badge near the top of the passenger seat pops out once in a while. Little things like that have no effect on the overall performance of the vehicle, but they do remind you that it was a human that built the vehicle, and not a machine. When a person builds vehicles, they all have some slight variations, no matter how many he or she builds.

Economy cars are designed with a different mentality than any performance vehicles. They are built as consumer products, for a market where features like having a fancy radio display, iPhone connectivity, or backup cameras are more likely to sell the car than engine performance figures or handling qualities. Most drivers are looking for comfort and gadgets first, and specific engine and performance characteristics second, if at all. AMG has a completely different approach, but they also build vehicles for a completely different group of customers. First and foremost, AMG products are designed with specific engine performance and handling characteristics as the primary objective. Creature comforts are always secondary to performance. As a result there are occasionally weird little quirks with the car. For example, the passenger window has been a bit uncooperative lately. It still works, it just seems to have a mind of its own. If you roll it down, it may not want to go up later. But if you shut the car off and leave it alone for a while, chances are when you come back, the window will roll back up with no problem. It may not want to roll back down right away, but again, if you give it a while, it might change its mind. It is not a major problem at all, and it really does not effect the performance of the car, but it can be a little frustrating. Sometimes when you make a nice slow stop, the brakes squeal a little. They are not worn out and there is nothing wrong with them, they just squeal. I guess they use different braking materials on high performance cars than on economy cars, and they are just known to squeal on slow stops. If you come racing to a stop and hit the brakes hard at the last minute, they do not make a sound. When it comes to the stuff that matters though, the handling and mechanical performance, the car functions great! It seems that no matter how hard you drive it, it stays just as responsive and performs exactly as expected. It fires right up when you start it, and then right from the moment you put the transmission in gear, it handles great.

We only drive the AMG in the summer. She takes the winters off and stays in a climate controlled garage, waiting for the return of warm weather. The temperature is not really the problem, and we do drive the AMG in the cold, but once snow and ice hit the roads, we put the car away for the winter. During the winter months it can be easy to ask ourselves whether owning such a car is really worth it. We have to share the other car in the winter, which is not impossible but can be a little inconvenient at times. We only really get to drive our AMG about half of the year. In the spring, when we drive the AMG for the first time that year, it only takes about a second to decide that it is totally worth sharing the other car half the year! Alaska may not be the ideal place to own a high performance vehicle, California, Arizona, or Florida would be much better, but it is still a great car to drive, and I enjoy owning such a vehicle, even with its quirks.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Since I moved to Montana, I've always had the idea that it would be temporary. While I like Glendive and my coworkers, I have no connection to the place and it was farther from an airport or train station than I liked. During my time there, I applied for a few different jobs with Amtrak. They called me back once for an engineer job in St. Cloud, MN, but I declined because of the pay. I've always wanted to work around passenger trains, but Amtrak pays quite a bit less than freight railroads typically do. That left me thinking about other possibilities. There are few passenger railroads in the USA that are more than a tourist or commuter line, and even fewer that pay like freight railroads. A transfer with BNSF looked unlikely, at least as long as there is an oil boom in Montana and the Dakotas. They are pretty understaffed there to begin with, and unless something changes, the last thing they would do is willingly let people move to other parts of the system. Admittedly, I had not put in a transfer request, but since I took the engineer program, it would have been denied for three years anyway. That's part of the agreement when taking the engineer program.

Back in October, I started thinking that the Alaska Railroad might be a good option, if I wanted to work around passenger trains. I was not really sure what they paid, but I thought I would look into it a bit. I also looked at a few others, like South Shore Line, Florida East Coast, and the Long Island Railroad, though Alaska was more appealing. I sent a few emails, and basically found out that the Alaska Railroad was not hiring then and they were not sure if they would in the spring.

Over the next few months, I checked the Alaska Railroad website regularly to see if anything would open up. Towards the end of February, they posted an opening for a "Locomotive Engineer/Conductor Trainee," and I decided to apply. Several weeks went by, and I was beginning to figure they had found someone else. Towards the end of March, they called me back, and asked if I could be at an interview the following week, just six days later. The interview would be in Anchorage, and would have to be conducted in person. I told them I would be there, and then I booked a flight and asked for a few days off. Fortunately, I had three paid leave days left, so I took those last minute.

The interview was scheduled for a Thursday, so I flew to Anchorage on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, I went over to the railroad offices for the interview. There were a total of nine people there. They started with a four minute reading comprehension test. At first, I thought hat was a mistake, and it must be forty minutes, but it actually was only four minutes. At the end of that, they pulled one person out of the room, and that was the last we saw of him. After that, someone brought a box of safety gear in the room and we were told to grab a pair of gloves, safety glasses, and an orange vest. The next part would be our strength test. We all had to sign liability waivers before we could do that part.

For the strength test, they took us out behind the offices, to the yard. First they showed us how to line a switch, and then had each of us take a turn at it. Next they had us each climb on and off of a freight car. Then they wanted us all to climb on a car and hang off the side for ten minutes. Once we had done that, they showed us how to apply and release hand brakes, and they had us all take a turn at that. Next we all had to lace air hoses, and then we all had to pick up and set down a coupler knuckle. After that, we went back in the office and they scheduled our interviews.

Interviews were scheduled for the same day, with people who had earlier flights home going first. Interviews took about 20 to 30 minutes each. Most of the questions were geared up for people with no previous railroad experience. The fact that I have railroad experience answered all but a couple of the questions. The interview was pretty casual and informal actually, so we had a nice chat and went over everything. At the end of the interview, much to my surprise, the person conducting the interviews told me I had the job if I wanted it. He hesitated for a minute and then told me he wasn't really supposed to tell me that, but he had done all the interviews up to that point, and I was the most qualified person they had had in there so far. He also told me they would be making calls the following week to officially extend job offers.

After the interview, I walked around downtown Anchorage for a little while. The weather was nice, although a little chilly. The next day, I had an early morning flight back to the Lower 48. I returned to Montana and went back to work over the weekend.

The following week, my vacation started. That had been scheduled six months earlier, and ended up being perfectly timed, as we found out later. Originally we had been planning another cruise during that time, but we cancelled that back in December. That Tuesday, the Alaska Railroad called and offered me the job, and I accepted it. We began making plans to move to Alaska. We would have liked to pack everything in a shipping container and meet it in Anchorage, but that was not very affordable. So, we planned to rent a truck, load it with all of our stuff, and drive to Anchorage. It would take four days to drive from Montana to Anchorage. While that whole week was a bit of a blur, several things did happen last minute that really worked out well for us.

We actually found a truck in Glendive to buy. So instead of renting the truck, we ought it, with the plan to sell it in Alaska. The guy we bought it from was just happy to get rid of it, so we may even be able to make a little money on it, and offset the cost of gasoline to drive up here. We had quite a bit of help loading the truck, and so our move went as smoothly as could be expected, especially considering the short notice. Despite the short notice, we were able to get the truck registered, and some new tires put on it.

On Monday, the 8th, we departed Montana, in a snowstorm, ironically. We drove out of the snow in the first couple of hours though. Our goal for the day was Edmonton, 708 miles away. The border crossing, into Canada, turned out to be easier than I expected. I gave them the list of everything that was in the truck. They looked it over, scanned my passport, and that was it. They did not ask to search the truck or anything. It was very easy. We spent less than ten minutes at customs. From there we continued driving all the way to Edmonton. We stopped in Moose Jaw, SK, Borden, SK, and Lloydminster, SK, for gas, and finally arrived at our hotel in Edmonton just after sunset. We were both exhausted from a long day driving, so we got a quick meal and headed off to bed. It seemed like the drive would never end at that point, when we thought about having to do that for three more days.

On Tuesday we got up and hit the road again. That would be slightly shorter of a day. Our goal was to make it to Fort Nelson, Bc, a distance of 656 miles. We filled up with gas just outside of Edmonton, and then followed signs for the Alaska Highway. We stopped again in Valley View, AB, and Dawson Creek, BC, for gas, before getting on the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway begins in Dawson Creek, BC, and once on it, we knew we would be on that road until Thursday afternoon. Once on the Alaska Highway, there are few other places to go. Only a couple of highways meet the Alaska Highway. Unlike most highways in the US and Canada, the Alaska Highway is a two lane, undivided highway. It is paved the whole way, but it is much smaller than what most people thing about when they think of a highway. The stretch between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson is pretty well traveled, though primarily by truckers. From Fort Nelson it is possible to get to Alaska and Yukon, or to Northwest Territories, so trucks going to both places use that segment of the highway. We topped off the fuel one last time in Fort Saint John, BC, and then drove for hours along the Northern Rockies, until we got to Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson is a pretty small place, but has a surprising amount of services for a place as small as it is. It is a major stopping point on the road to Alaska or to Northwest Territories, which probably explains the numerous restaurants, hotels, and gas stations. In fact, the hotels there were considerably larger than those in Glendive, which is three times the size of Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson was about 20 miles beyond the halfway point in the trip.

On Wednesday, we got another early start. Our goal was to get to Whitehorse, YT, which, at 594 miles, would be our shortest day. We filled up with gas and hit the road. We found that to be the quietest stretch of highway. There were times when more than an hour would pass from when we had last seen any other traffic. We made a brief stop in Toad River, BC, to top off the fuel tank. That was the most expensive fuel on the trip, equivalent to approximately $7.50 USD per gallon. After that, the highway headed into Yukon, and left areas covered by 911 service. Up until that day, I had thought 911 was everywhere in the US and Canada, but I was wrong. There are remote locations in Yukon where there is no 911 service. Fortunately, we did not need 911 service. Our trip went quite smoothly. We made a lunch and fuel stop in Watson Lake, YT, and another fuel stop in Teslin, YT. As we got closer to Whitehorse, we ran into some short lived snow flurries. Traffic picked up a little just outside of Whitehorse, as that is the capital of Yukon and the territory's largest city. Yukon Territory is about the same geographic size as the state of California, but Whitehorse only has about 25,000 residents. It is a popular tourist town in the summer, being only about 100 miles from Skagway, AK, which is a busy cruise terminal. Whitehorse also figured heavily into the Klondike Gold Rush, in 1899, and because of that was an industrial city. It is the north end of the White Pass and Yukon Route, a railroad that was built during the gold rush, and being on the Yukon River, it had a fairly extensive shipyard at one time that built paddle ships that sailed up and down the Yukon River. The Yukon River, which is the longest and largest river in North America, runs right through downtown Whitehorse. Whitehorse is over 1,000 miles up the river from its mouth, but even that far up, the river is navigable. The river was an important transportation link during the gold rush, and still sees a little traffic today.

On Thursday, we got up early again, got gas, and hit the road. The goal was Anchorage, some 704 miles away. We stopped for gas one last time before crossing the border, in Haines, Junction, YT. I hoped the border crossing would go as easily as getting into Canada had. Before we got to the border however, we had to navigate the worst frost heaves I had ever seen. They stretched on for over 150 miles, and they were huge. Most of the time, it felt like being at sea on a particularly rough day. Vehicles behind me, which I could see in the mirrors, would completely disappear behind frost heaves and then reappear a minute later. Despite their size, the only casualty of the frost heaves was the sun visor in the truck, which fell off. Fortunately, that was easy to fix. When we arrived at the border, we noticed that there was no one in sight anywhere, other than the one person in the booth. He seemed lonely more than anything else. I asked him if he needed a list of what was in the truck, and he said he did not. All he asked was if I had any firearms, which we did not. He asked nothing else about the contents of the truck, or anything about the cat with Sarah, in the car. He asked where we were headed, and what brought us to Alaska, and told us weather and road conditions between there and Anchorage. I guess when you work more than 90 miles from the nearest town, you are happy to see anyone! He just wanted to chat. Much to my surprise, crossing into the USA had been even easier than getting into Canada had been!

After crossing the border, we continued on the Alaska Highway to our next fuel stop and lunch stop, in Tok, AK. After paying high gas prices in British Columbia and Yukon, the $4.50 per gallon we payed there seemed like a bargain! Tok is also where we left the Alaska Highway, after 1,314 miles. The Alaska Highway continues to the northwest from there, to Delta Junction, about 90 miles from Fairbanks. In Tok however, we turned to the south, on the Tok Cutoff, to head towards Anchorage. We made one last stop in Glennallen, along the famous Trans Alaska Pipeline, to get gas. There we got on the Glenn Highway, which was the final leg to Anchorage. The Glenn Highway, in my opinion, was the most scenic part of the whole trip. It follows the Chugach Mountains for its entire length, and they get more spectacular as you get closer to Palmer. There are mountains, glaciers, and a beautiful glacier blue river all along that road. Once we got to Palmer, traffic picked up considerably, and the highway became a divided highway, more like an interstate. That was the first divided highway we had seen in over 2,500 miles. We got into Anchorage at about 10:00pm, which is when the sun was setting. We were glad to finally be done the driving, although it had been a beautiful drive. I would recommend that drive to anyone. I think everyone should do it, but because of its length, I don't think anyone should have to do it more than once!

Since arriving in Anchorage, a week ago, we have found an apartment and started unpacking. We are waiting for the title to the truck to catch up with us, and when it does, we will sell it. I start work with the Alaska Railroad on the 22nd, which is Monday. Wile there is still a little snow on the ground here, I have to say, it sure is nice to be back! And Montana has had snow more recently than Anchorage anyway!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bucket List

If you follow this blog, you know by now that this is not the place to be if you are expecting frequent, regular posts. I think I average about two a year!

Since I last wrote, in September, I have had a few noteworthy things happen, which I will discuss before getting into the main thoughts of this post. The most noteworthy is that I have received my Locomotive Engineer certification. I began the Engineer Program last June. It started with three weeks of classroom training, at the BNSF Technical Training Center, in Overland Park, KS. After those three weeks, they turned me loose to drive trains, although not by myself. For the next five months, I got to work with different engineers, who taught me all the important things about running different kinds of freight trains. Turns out it is a lot more involved than just making it go fast or slow! At the end of that five month on the job training, I went back to Kansas for a final review and exams. There were three exams, all multiple choice, and two graded simulator runs. The passing grade for everything was 90% or higher. I passed everything on the first try, and returned home afterwards. Once back home, I had to do one final checkride with the Road Foreman of Engines. He apparently thought I did a satisfactory job, and signed my card at the end. Since passing the checkride, I have been qualified to work as either an Engineer or a Conductor.

In February, Sarah and I celebrated our first anniversary. It is hard to believe that we have been married a year. It is also hard to believe that it has now been more than a year since we spent a week on the Nieuw Amsterdam. That voyage was wonderful, but far too short. Hopefully we will be able to go on another cruise later this year or next year at some point. We do enjoy being at sea very much, and going to new places.

Anyway, I got thinking about "bucket lists" the other day after a couple recent conversations I have had with friends, acquaintances, and some coworkers, many of whom have commented on some of the unusual things I have experienced, even in the relatively short time I have been on the planet. One coworker in particular was quite envious of how much time I spent on and around the ocean growing up. He has lived his whole life in Montana, except for vacations, despite his love for the ocean.

For those who have never heard the term, a "bucket list" is usually an informal, and often unwritten list of accomplishments a person wants to have in a lifetime. The qualifications for a bucket list item are rather vague, but they usually consist of things that are not routine or day to day. There does not need to be any significance to them to anyone other than the person making the list. Often they include places a person would like to visit, certain achievements they would like to realize, and various other goals. Most bucket lists items are addressed with an attitude of "when I get around to it," so for many people, placing something on their bucket list means it will probably wait until they have nothing even a little bit more important to do and no other immediate desires for their free time. Usually bucket list items do not include day to day chores and tasks, current projects, or items to be purchased.

What I go thinking about is all the "bucket list" items I have already checked off my bucket list. For a person of 25, I actually have done a surprising amount of "bucket list" things. For example, as a kid I always wanted to go to the Olympics. Well, in 2010, I worked at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and got to go to several events. As long as I can remember, I have wanted to go to the Panama Canal, and I did that just a few weeks before the Olympics, also in 2010. Now I'd like to go back to the Panama Canal, it was quite fascinating. Ever since I was very young, I wanted to be a train engineer, which, as I described above, I am now. It is not nearly as glorious as I imagined as a kid, actually it is considerably more of a mental exercise than I ever imagined, but that is another goal accomplished. Many of my coworkers know that I'm the guy who lived in Alaska for a couple years, and almost every time I go to work, Alaska comes up in our conversation. Many of them have talked about wanting to go there to visit, fish, hunt, see the Northern Lights, or any number of other things. I want to move back there, and I know several of my coworkers and friends will be jealous if I ever manage to make that a reality!

Of course, there are many things I still want to do. I still would like to visit Europe. In fact, I could probably put together a fairly extensive list of just things I want to do in Europe! And I am sure when I do eventually get there, I will find there is enough to do and see to keep busy for several lifetimes. I also want to return to many of the places I have been, such as Panama, Newfoundland, and British Columbia, just to name a few. Even more locally, there are places I would like to go see and explore, such as the old railroad right of way between Terry and Miles City. I want to go to Medora, to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I've been through there on the train and eaten dinner there, but I'd like to go see the park. The Beartooth Mountains are another spot nearby that I'd like to go see again. Beartooth Pass is quite incredible. It is one of few places on this continent where the road goes over 10,000 feet above sea level! From Beartooth Pass, Yellowstone Park is not too much farther, and there is plenty to see and do there. It would be easy to spend weeks in the park. I'd also like to get up to Glacier Park, in western Montana, again. I have not been up that way since 2008.

I have often been asked how I have done what I have done, for being as young as I am. My response is always the same. I tell people that you just have to get out and do the things on your bucket list. Obviously, you have to eat and so you have to work, at least a little, but most employers give vacation allowances and days off throughout the year. You just have to sit down and decide what you want to do, and then make the plans to make it happen during one of those vacations. There are tons of cool things to do out there, but if you want to do things like go to the Panama Canal, you need to plan for that. Don't go on vacation to Billings, MT, if you really want to be in the Bahamas! Start planning early to make what you really want a reality. Of course, there is always a little bit of luck involved. It is highly unlikely that I would have gone to the Olympics in 2010 if I had not been browsing for jobs and stumbled upon the driving job I had there. But at the same time, it is not all luck. I was lucky enough to have a job in Alaska for as many summers as I wanted, but before I even heard about that job, I was making plans to go to Alaska for a month in 2009. The job came along a little later, and I got to stay for several months instead, but either way, I would have gone to Alaska in 2009.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Solution to the National Budget Problem

This post will be somewhat political in nature, and I do not expect everyone to agree with me, but I am going to write it anyway. It has been bouncing around in my head for too long. I am not trying to offend or promote any specific party views, I am simply expressing my own.

Many of us have heard quite a lot about the upcoming Presidential election, and one of the hot topics is the national budget. So far I have heard very few ideas for fixing it that make much sense. Most are far too little, way too late. First of all, I am tired of hearing about how the budget problems are all Obama's fault. While he is responsible for some of the spending, keep in mind that the budget has to be passed by Congress. If you don't like the current budget situation, consider who you are voting into Congress. Also, it should be noted that government spending since Obama took office is actually lower than projections made based on spending trends of past presidents. Much of the spending blamed on Obama early in his term, specifically some of the bailouts, actually occurred before he came to office. The reason he is blamed is because they took place during fiscal year 2009, which began in October 2008, about five weeks before the elections. Much of the spending that took place the year Obama was elected was due to policies that were already in place before his inauguration. You can find a much more detailed report of government spending over the last few years by going to But today I am not going to talk a lot about past spending, but rather the future budget.

Over the last several months, I have heard countless solutions to the national budget deficit. The problem is, none of them will work. They are far too small to have any effect, much the same way paying a few cents on a half million dollar mortgage would be pretty pointless. The deficit is trillions of dollars, and even the best solutions I have heard would only save a few billion. Most would only save a few million. Most solutions eliminate or downsize a government program on the basis that it is not profitable. Since most government programs are not even designed to be profitable, I believe that is a pretty weak argument. By that reasoning alone, we should simply eliminate the government, because it is not profitable! The flaw in that solution is obvious though.

First of all, I believe there are certain programs that will never be profitable, but need to exist for the betterment of our economy, quality of life, and general well being as a nation. The post office is one of those programs. The post office does not make a profit, despite having competitors in the industry that are able to do so, yet most people would agree that we need to keep the postal service around. The social security system was never designed to make a profit, but rather to help people save for the future. While most people supplement their retirement with other programs, such as a 401k, mutual funds, or other investments, I think it would be unfair to the American people to eliminate the Social Security system, especially for the people that have paid into it for most of their lives. I agree that the system does not work exactly as it was designed, but I thought that we, as Americans, fixed things that were broken. The Social Security system is broken, so we need to fix it, not throw it out! Speaking of retirement, the government ought to stay out of private retirement accounts. The Railroad Retirement system has been a target this election, which makes no sense at all. The Railroad Retirement System is 100% privately funded by the railroads and railroad workers of the United States. It has no connection to the Social Security program, and costs the American people exactly nothing. Actually, the Railroad Retirement is a source of income for the government, because the Railroad Retirement Board actually pays the government to administer the system and send out the checks. Eliminating the system would leave over 250,000 people without a retirement, and would eliminate a small source of income for the government, without saving Americans any money at all.

Since we are talking about railroads, I think Amtrak needs to stay. I realize that it costs money to operate, but that cost is small compared to other transportation systems. Amtrak employs nearly 20,000 Americans, in positions that cannot be outsourced to foreign labor for the most part. While I do think the money spent on Amtrak could be spent more efficiently, I doubt that will happen unless we let businessmen run Amtrak instead of Congressmen. Also, I believe Amtrak is too small to make any significant profits anyway. They are expected to be a national system, yet they do not have the equipment or resources to really provide enough service to make money on it in most places. There are no for profit transportation systems out there that try to cover the entire country with as little equipment, infrastructure, and service as Amtrak, and I think Amtrak will continue to be unprofitable as long as the budget forbids any significant growth. In order to make money, I think Amtrak would have to run several daily passenger trains on nearly every current freight rail line out there. Not all routes would be profitable, but I believe the system as a whole would make money, and the economic impact would be big. Just to give an example, the Empire Builder, which connects Chicago with Portland and Seattle, directly employs 3,000 people, in seven states, and contributes over $100 million annually to local economies along the route. That is just one route, which makes a rather small profit. Other long distance routes have similar statistics. Imagine how much Amtrak could do for our economy if it operated more trains to more places. Aren't we looking for programs that stimulate the economy, seeing as we are currently in a recession? If we were to eliminate Amtrak on the justification that it does not make a profit, we would be crippling the economy in many small towns across America and removing a service that over 30 million people use every year. Eliminating transportation programs because they are unprofitable begs the question, what about the highway system? That costs significantly more than Amtrak and is a lot farther from making a profit! I think short hop federally subsidized flights to small towns ought to be replaced with intercity trains. One train can serve dozens of towns easily, where one airplane can only serve a few towns at the most. As an example, in Glendive, we have two daily flights to Billings. The service is lousy, and the flight is cancelled nearly half the time for mysterious reasons. That's flight is barely used, because even with the federal subsidy, tickets are outrageously expensive. The Glendive airport is several miles out of town, and has exactly four parking spots, so even if people were to use the flight more, it is not particular Larry convenient. The train depot in Glendive is in the middle of town, within walking distance for most people, and has over a hundred parking spots. If a passenger train connected Glendive to Billings, people could easily take the train in, and that train could serve other towns along the way, such as Terry, Miles City, Forsyth, Hysham, and Lockwood, and then go on past Billings to serve Bozeman, Helena, Missoula, Spokane, Seattle, and all the small towns in between. Going east would be similar. It would be far more convenient and affordable than the current federally subsidized flight is.

On an unrelated note, I think the federal healthcare system has to go. Health care coverage should be determined by the states individually, like any other welfare program. I believe the motive is good, but the application needs a bit of work still. As far as welfare programs (including public health care programs) in general go, I think we need to keep them in place. I think it is our duty, as human beings, to help those in need. Now, I believe that the person, group, organization, or government providing the help has the right to provide it only if the recipient is willing to meet certain conditions. Obviously, there would need to be a legitimate need. I also think welfare and healthcare recipients should need to go through both regular and random drug screenings. Their blood alcohol level should be monitored during those screenings as well. Showing up drunk once should not eliminate them from receiving benefits, but alcoholism should be addressed and eliminated. Basically, I do not have a problem with a welfare recipient going out with friends to a bar once in a while, but a welfare recipient should not be regularly buying things they really cannot afford, such as drugs or alcohol. I think the welfare program should be organized more as a rehabilitation program than a handout program. In addition to helping people buy food and pay bills, the welfare program should help people to get education and training needed to get a job and become self sufficient. I do not think a welfare program needs to write out checks every month, but I think the goal with any welfare program should be to help individuals and families get what they need to become self reliant, whether that is education or a job, or just a check to pay the electric bill for a few months that are tight. People who do have problems with alcohol, drugs, or other addictions should get help overcoming them so that they can better contribute to their own lives and to society.

Now we talked about retirement earlier, and I think there is one retirement that out to be changed a bit. That is the retirement of our politicians. Congressmen and the President get their salary for the rest of their life, regardless of how long they serve. I could serve a two year term in the House of Representatives and get that salary for the rest of my life. I think this, combined with high pay has corrupted politics by making it a career. The way I understand it, politicians are supposed to be public servants, and I think their salary and retirement should reflect that. I think politicians should get more of a stipend for their travel and living expenses incurred while fulfilling their duties of office. Going to a world class resort in the Bahamas for a meeting with lobbyists does not constitute an expense of office. Renting a conference at a modest local hotel to meet with other leaders does though. I do not think politicians should be expected to pay the expenses of office out of pocket, but I think they should be expected to be frugal with the taxpayer's money they are spending to get their job done. I think a stipend for travel to and from Washington, a small, modest apartment, and reasonable food and transportation expenses while on the job is fair, but the enormous, inflated salaries they currently get is just encouraging people to consider politics for their own benefit, and not for the betterment of society. Also, I think retirement for politicians should be more similar to any job. If you only put in a couple of years, you do not get as much of a retirement at most jobs. I think getting their salary for life is ridiculous honestly! I would not take it away from past and current politicians, because that is unfair, but for future politicians, I think the retirement should be drastically scaled back.  I think the government should contribute to their retirement plans, such as a 401k, just like any other employer, and to Social Security, like any other employer, and that should be about where it ends. I also think that politicians should be subject to the same tax laws as everyone else. They should not be getting big tax breaks just because of their office. They should pay the same taxes as anyone else in America. Maybe if politicians were paid more like the public servants they are supposed to be, fewer people would get into politics just for themselves, and we would have better leaders.

Speaking of taxes, I think the tax cuts that were authorizes by President Bush should be allowed to expire, or repealed. While it is nice to get a break, I believe the money would be better spent getting people back to work. If people are working for a living, and jobs are being created, people will spend more money, and the economy will recover faster. It is like that proverb, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." While it is nice to get a hefty tax refund, that money will eventually be used up and the recipient will be back to the same situation. If programs are created or expanded to employ more people, those people will have a continuous source of income, and their situation will improve.

Even with all of these changes in spending, the budget deficit will not go away overnight, and maybe not at all. Other options ought to be considered, and I think the government ought to seek other sources of income, besides taxes and government bonds and investments. In Alaska, corporations and people who extract natural resources pay the state for their removal, and then the money is invested. The state budget is based off the dividend income from those investments. While the amount of income varies from year to year, based on the economy and the stock market, the income is always there. In fact, that system works so well in Alaska that residents pay no state taxes, and yet the state is one of the only ones operating with a surplus in the budget, despite the recession. Perhaps options, similar to Alaska's system, as well as others, ought to be considered by the federal government, to supplement the tax income and close the gap between income and spending.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blog Update

No really...this is actually an update on the blog, not just a lame title crafted at 1:39am!

I am working on a few updates, and adding pages to the blog.  I'll try not to published stuff until it is finished, at least enough to make sense, but bear with me if funny stuff happens over the next few weeks.  It is a work in progress.  Basically, what is happening, is I am combining two sites.  I have had this blog for quite a while, and I have had a second website, hosted by Google, and I have decided to put the two together.  The main reason for this is because I have thought many times that it would be nice to have a blog with that website, and a website with this blog.  Well, I really do not have the time to maintain two sties, as you can see by the infrequency with which I update this blog, so it makes the most sense to just combine them here.  Why here?  Simple, I like the tools and layout better!

I'll publish a more relevant life update later, hopefully this week.  In a nutshell however, things are going well. I still work for the railroad, and I am in training to be an engineer, which means right now I am actually operating freight trains.  That has been keeping me pretty busy, and I anticipate it will keep me busy through the rest of the summer and into the fall.  I will be done training at the beginning of November.  Anyway, because of the late hour, I will talk more about that later.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shiny New Stuff!

On an unrelated note, happy 100th post!

This weekend, Sarah and I had a first in our relationship/marriage.  We bought a car!  On Friday, we were walking around town, as usual, and we noticed a car for sale that looked nice.  It was a Volvo S60, which is their mid sized sedan.  We took a look at it, and even though we were not really looking for a new car, the price was good, and it appeared to be in good shape, so we took the phone numbers down and gave them a call the next day.  We had been talking about a new car for later in the year, but had not given it much thought besides that.

We talked to the owners on the phone the next day, and they gave some more detailed information about the car and its history.  It sounded good, so we looked up the Carfax on it to see if it had anything else we should know about.  The carfax report came out clean.  Actually, they have always taken it to the dealer for service, so it had an entire maintenance history on there, which matched what we had been told on the phone.  Things were still looking good.  So we contacted our insurance company to get a quote on what it would cost to insure such a car.  It came out lower than I was expecting, which is always nice!

On Monday, we met the owners of the vehicle and took it for a test drive.  I was reminded again that people in Glendive are pretty chill and trusting.  The lady gave us the key and told us to take it wherever we wanted.  I was expecting her to want to ride along, but she had brought a DVD and got back in her car and watched a movie while we tested the Volvo.  So Sarah and I drove the car around town, through residential areas with lots of turns and stops and starts, and out on the highway, at 80mph.  The car ran smoothly and quietly everywhere and handled like a dream, like a Volvo.  When we got back, we conducted a thorough examination of the car, inside and out, and even under the hood, and had the whole thing inspected, and it all checked out.  So we decided to buy it.

Today we were able to finish all the paperwork with the bank and the state of Montana.  We met the owners again and transferred the title and registered the car.  We put the new license plates on and gave the old ones to the previous owners.  We called the insurance company and had them activate the quote we had gotten the other day, and by 5:00pm, the car was officially ours.

For anyone interested, here are a few statistics:
2006 Volvo S60
2.5 Litre turbocharged engine
5-cylinders, in line configuration
EPA says 19mpg city, 24mpg highway, previous owners say they got higher
5-speed automatic transmission
Front Wheel Drive
208 horsepower at 5,000 rpm
236 ft-lb torque at 1,500 rpm
0-60 in 7.4 seconds
3,393 lbs empty
Built in Ghent, Belgium, imported to the USA in Port Hueneme, CA.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Next Great Adventure

I promised I would talk more about our next trip, so here it is.  When we were on the Nieuw Amsterdam, about a month ago now, we had the option of booking a future cruise.  The price would be the same as booking it from home, but the incentive was a low deposit and some free shipboard credit to use on the next voyage.  The other perk was that if the price did go down after booking, they would actually give us the new, lower price, since we had booked on the ship.  They had several brochures with various itineraries all over the world.  We really wanted to do a Mediterranean cruise, but they usually only run those in the summer and the fall.  Since I am still low on the seniority roster at work, it is easier for me to get vacations in the winter.  We looked through some of the other brochures and found several Australia and New Zealand cruises that looked interesting, and so we asked the future cruise representatives about those.

Cruise itinerary.  Image by Holland America Line.
The cruise we ultimately settled on is a 14-day New Zealand cruise, on the Oosterdam, which will sail from Auckland, New Zealand, to Sydney, Australia.  Stops include Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Lyttelton (near Christchurch), Port Chalmers, then some scenic cruising in Fjordlands National Park, before heading west, to Australia.  In Australia we stop in Hobart, on Tazmania, and Melbourne, before our final destination of Sydney.  We made sure to book a room on the starboard side of the ship so that we will be able to look at the coast as we travel down the west coast and around the southern end of New Zealand.  We are both very excited for this trip, although right now neither one of us knows what to expect really, since we have never been anywhere even reasonably close to New Zealand or Australia!  It is about as far from home as we could possibly go, and still stay on the planet!

Flying there is going to be a bit of an adventure in and of itself, because of how far away New Zealand and Australia are.  Right now, we cannot book plane tickets that far out.  Most airlines do not take reservations more than 300 days in advance, but we have been using arbitrary dates in the beginning of next year to get an idea of prices and itineraries available.  The shortest series of flights, as far as time is concerned, would take us from Billings to the west coast, and then to an eastern Asia city, and then to Auckland, with a similar itinerary on the return trip.  Most trans-Pacific flights leave from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, and go to either Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Seoul.  From any of those cities, it is another flight to get to Auckland.  The return flights available from Sydney are similar.  But the big disadvantage is that all those flights are extremely long.  It would be nice to have a first class seat, just because economy for three hours is not enjoyable, never mind 15!  So we looked at first class tickets, and just as we expected, they are so expensive it is a wonder anyone flies that way!

After looking at flights on several websites, I got to thinking, which is usually dangerous, but I remembered an old friend, who often went to the Middle East for work, telling me he only flew on Emirates Airlines.  I had never heard of them, but the way he talked about them, it sounded pretty nice.  He always went to places like Dubai and Baghdad and Islamabad though.  Just for kicks, we looked at their website, to see where they flew from the US, and to see if they went to Sydney or Auckland.  As it turns out, they will be flying out of Seattle at the start of next year, and they fly to both Sydney and Auckland.  Their only hub is in Dubai, as they are the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, so we put in our itinerary, just out of curiosity, using arbitrary dates again.  They are undoubtedly a luxury airline, so much so that economy passengers get a complimentary four course meal and free snacks and drinks.  Even the alcohol they serve is free, which is unusual!  They also have free phone service and email and television and movies, for everyone on the plane, as well as separate lounges and bars, on the plane.  Figuring it would be as much as a first class ticket on any other airline, we put in the itinerary on the website, not really expecting much.  It processed for a few seconds, and then found us an itinerary from Seattle to Auckland, with an overnight layover in Dubai, and a return itinerary from Sydney to Seattle, with a shorter layover in Dubai.  As we looked through the itinerary, we figured the price at the bottom would be five figures.  As you can imagine, we were quite surprised when we got to the bottom of the page, and it was $2,000 lower than the next cheapest airline!  So, provided those prices hold up, which they have so far, we will be flying Emirates on this trip.  We may come back feeling like other airlines are pretty lame!

After looking over the itinerary and realizing that we will most likely be flying Emirates, we realized we will have about 18 hours to kill in Dubai.  Going to Auckland, the plane lands in Dubai in the late afternoon, and then the flight to Auckland does not depart until the middle of the next morning.  I have always wanted to go to Dubai, and now we will have a little time to look around.  We will get a hotel near the airport, which weirdly is also right downtown, but we should have some time to go exploring.  I have known a few people who have traveled to Dubai, and they have all said as long as you stay in the city, it is pretty safe, but it can be expensive.  Once you get outside the city, it is the middle of the desert though.  I've been studying Arabic in my free time, so that I'll at least understand the basics, even if I am not a fluent speaker by the time we arrive in Dubai.  Also of interest, we will be flying over the North Pole on our way to and from Dubai, from Seattle.  That flight will depart Seattle northbound, and go almost directly over the geographic North Pole, then head south over Siberia and the Middle East, before landing in Dubai.  The total flight distance from Billings to Auckland will be just over 16,000 miles and take a total of 35 hours of flight time.  Having a night to break it up a bit ought to make it more bearable though, and having the Emirates economy, with all the amenities, food, and a little more space, ought to make it easier to deal with being on an airplane that long.  Still, I am sure by the time we get to New Zealand, I'll be glad to be back on the ground!

Milford Sound, which we will see on the cruise.  Image from Wikipedia.
As far as the cruise itself goes, we honestly do not know what to expect.  I know surprisingly little about New Zealand, and only a little more about Australia.  All the pictures I have seen are beautiful, so we are excited for that.  We have been told that Fjordlands National Park, where a day of the cruise will be spent, is the second most beautiful place on earth, after coastal Antarctica.  There were some pretty impressive photographs of that area in the cruise brochures on the Nieuw Amsterdam.  For Australia, I do know we need visas, and we will be tying up across the harbor from the landmark Sydney Opera House.  I'll probably be up early taking pictures of all the sights as we enter the harbor there.  Actually, I really cannot imagine we will get back to that part of the world often, so I'll probably be up most of the trip, taking pictures and enjoying it!

Sydney skyline.  Image from Wikipedia.
As far as Australia goes, I do not know much about that either.  It is fairly well known, ad a destination goes, but I still do not know a lot about the place.  The cruise stops in Hobart and Melbourne, and ends in Sydney, which are three of the larger cities in Australia.  Sydney is obviously the biggest.  Just as with New Zealand, Australia was also once a British colony, but beyond that, my knowledge is a bit lacking!  I have been reading up on Wikipedia and looking at maps to try to get a feel for where we are going, but I know that just is not the same as actually going there and experiencing it.  Reading about cultures just does not compare to being there and actually experiencing them.  No doubt, it will be a very interesting trip, and we are both looking forward to it a lot!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Back from Vacation!

Well, vacation was a blast.  My only complaint was that it was too short!  There were a few, relatively minor hiccups, but for the most part, it went off without a hitch.

Last Friday evening, we drove to Billings, and stayed at a hotel, so that we could sleep a few hours longer and still catch our Saturday morning flight.  The hotel let us park the car there all week for free, so in the morning, we took their shuttle to the airport, and got underway.  The flight to Denver went fine, but the airline had made changes to the schedule after we booked the flight, giving us an extraordinarily short layover in Denver.  Naturally this meant the connection would be at the other end of the airport.  Sure enough, that is exactly how it played out.  We made the connection, though with only a minute or two to spare, and the flight to Fort Lauderdale went without incident.  It was a bumpy flight, but otherwise not noteworthy.

When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Sarah's Dad met us, and we went to the baggage claim area.  However, our luggage did not make it to the baggage claim area, which we suspected to be the result of that short layover in Denver.  We talked to the baggage people, and they assured us it was on its way, and it would most likely be arriving on a flight later that night.  It sounded like something that happened frequently, and we were not the only ones reporting delayed luggage.  The only thing that really annoyed me about the luggage situation is that we had given this airline $50 to get our luggage there, and they had not, yet a refund was also not possible.  I do not mind paying to check luggage, it does cost the airline money to move it too, but I feel like I should see my luggage at the other end or I should have that fee refunded.

Anyway, we went to the hotel, got checked in and settled in as best we could with what we had packed in our carry on items, and started to catch up with friends and family arriving in the area.  We checked the status of our luggage periodically on the computer, and sure enough, it was on its way to us, although a bit slower than we might have liked!  We got some dinner, and walked around Fort Lauderdale a little in the evening.  It is not exactly a scenic town, it is mostly urban sprawl, and is actually rather ugly.  But the weather was warm, so we did not mind too much what the scenery looked like!  We met a few more people at the hotel later, who had later arrivals, and then our luggage finally arrived just after midnight.

Sunday morning was busy, with preparations for the wedding and the cruise.  Sarah had an early morning hair and makeup appointment, and it seemed like my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking what time they needed to be at the pier to get on the ship.  I guess telling everyone 10:30am just was not clear enough!  Once the hair and makeup was done, we packed everything up and got ready to go.  Since we were getting married on the ship, Holland America Line sent a limo to pick us up.  When it arrived at the hotel, we hopped in, and we were off to the port.

We were the first in the group to arrive in Port Everglades.  We met our wedding coordinator there, who explained how we would board as a group, and then certain rooms would be available for everyone to change in.  She was in contact with the hotel staff on the Nieuw Amsterdam, and kept us up to date on the status of the rooms.  We waited in the main lobby as everyone in our group arrived at the port, so that they would be able to find people they recognized.  Once everyone had arrived, we proceeded through the security checkpoint, and on to the check in area.  There was a little computer glitch as we got to check in, so that took longer than usual, but we still made it onto the ship with plenty of time to spare.

Once on the Nieuw Amsterdam, we found the rooms for changing, and got into our wedding clothes.  Sarah had a dress, so big around no one could walk nearer than a few feet from her, and I had a tuxedo, complete with a tailcoat.  When we were dressed and ready to go, we headed up to the Observation Deck, to the Crows Nest lounge, where we would all meet before going up to the outdoor area above the lounge, for the wedding ceremony.  It was rather entertaining as we made our way to the lounge, because everyone involved was more dressed up than anyone else on the ship, and so comments from other cruise guests were common.  I went to the lounge with Steven, Michael, and Tim, and Sarah came along with her bridesmaids later, but even just four guys in suits made a little bit of a stir.  Apparently Sarah caused quite the scene as she walked through the ship, in her wedding dress!

The ceremony was held in an outdoor area above the Crows Nest lounge, at the top of the ship.  It was sunny, and as dressed up as we all were, that made it rather hot.  The ceremony was short, but quite nice.  An employee of Royal Ocean Events, the company that organizes events, such as weddings, for Holland America Line, was the officiant at the wedding, and we had a small crowd of family and close friends watching.  In total, there were just over 20 people present, including ourselves.  Apparently someone had not informed the cruise director of the wedding taking place, and he chose the middle of our ceremony to make a seemingly long winded announcement about the buffet available on the Lido Deck.  When he got of the PA system, we continued with the ceremony!

After the wedding ceremony, we had a short break for photos, followed by the reception.  As we were taking pictures, Sarah and I found it entertaining that we had complete strangers taking pictures of us, in addition to the ship's photographer.  We took some photos outside, and we took more in the lounge, and in the atrium.  The atrium is a three deck high lobby in the middle of the ship.  As we made our way down there, quite a few people came to see what was going on, and as we were standing at the bottom of the stairs, to have our picture taken, our photographer had to motion to the people on the two balconies above to move, so they would not be in the pictures!  We just laughed, because we had become celebrities on the ship without even trying to!

The reception was also very nice, and as usual, Holland America took good care of everyone there.  There was plenty of food and drinks to go around, and the cake they had made for us was delicious.  The Crows Nest was a great place for the reception, because it was not a huge lounge, but very comfortably accommodated everyone in the group.  We did all the usual ceremonial things, cutting the cake, feeding it to each other, toasts, and the first dance.  During the first dance, our cruise director decided to make another announcement, this time regarding the lifeboat drill.  Again, it seemed much longer winded than it probably was.  His timing really was something else!  A few people who had come to the wedding were not sailing with us, and at the end of the reception we said goodbye to them.  They were escorted off the ship, and we went and changed for the lifeboat drill.  The rest of the evening was more casual after that.

The cruise was very nice.  At about 5:00pm on Sunday, the mooring lines were cast off, and the Nieuw Amsterdam eased away from her berth in Port Everglades.  This process was almost unnoticeable, until the blast on the ships horn let everyone know that she was making her way towards the Atlantic Ocean.  The first stop would be Grant Turk, Turks and Caicos, in the British West Indies.

Cruise Itinerary.  Image by Holland America Line.
We spent all of Monday at sea.  To those that have never sailed anywhere, a day looking at water may sound quite boring, but I find it goes by too fast.  There is plenty to do on the ship, but I also find that sitting on deck, watching and listening to the water go by, is actually very relaxing.  The only set thing we had for Monday was a massage, in the spa, which was also quite relaxing.  Overall it was a completely stress free, relaxing day, which was very nice!  In the evening we had a leisurely dinner, and then we went to the Captain's welcome aboard toast, followed by that evening's show.

On Tuesday, we arrived in Grand Turk.  Grant Turk is a small island in the Turks Islands, part of Turks and Caicos, which is part of the colony called the British West Indies.  We had a couple of shore excursions lined up there, including a dune buggy trip and some kayaking.  The dune buggy trip was interesting because we did get to see the whole island.  Most of it was actually on paved streets.  Since Grand Turk is a British colony, they drive on the left.  That took a little getting used to!  Every time I saw another vehicle down the road a ways, coming towards us, I would think, "Oh crap, I'd better get out of the way...oh wait, I am out of the way, this is weird!"  Every time I turned onto a different road, I instinctively aimed for the right lane, which is actually the wrong lane.  I found I was looking in all the wrong places when I had to make turns, because I was just not accustomed to driving that way.  Driving on the left side of the road was really the most interesting aspect of that excursion.  The kayaking excursion, on the other hand, was quite a bit more interesting.  We went to an inlet at the north end of the island and explored the mangrove trees, as well as an old, wrecked dredging barge.  We also went looking for jellyfish and native birds.  It was quite a bit more interesting than the dune buggy trip.  Once both of our excursions were over, we went back to the Nieuw Amsterdam.  We had seen the entire island, and while it was a nice spot, it was pretty isolated, and there is not a whole lot to do there, besides the tours and excursions offered by the cruise line.  I would not want to live there!  In the evening, we sailed, and continued heading east.

On Wednesday, we stopped in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Nieuw Amsterdam tied up right downtown, within walking distance of the old city and fortifications built by the Spanish about 500  years ago.  It was an interesting city, because of the obvious history.  Many of the streets near the port were very narrow, built on steep hills, and still had cobblestones.  Shops in the area were typically very tiny, and very few places had air conditioning.  Most places were simply open, allowing the breeze to blow in from the ocean.  We did an excursion that took us out to the Bacardi Rum Distillery, which was a few miles outside of San Juan, in Cucharilla.  We spent a couple of hours touring the distillery, which included free rum at the end.  Some people had more than others, but our group stayed mostly sober.  During the trip back to San Juan, we took a more roundabout route, and we also had a very nice tour of the area and San Juan.  It was quite interesting, and overall I think it was a good tour.  When we returned to the pier from the tour, we still had a bit of time to kill before the ship departed, so we walked around the old part of San Juan.  It was a really interesting city, and I would love to go back there and spend about a week next time.  At dinner time, the ship eased away from the pier, exited the harbor, and set a course east, to St. Maarten.

On Thursday morning, we arrived in Philipsburg, Netherland Antilles, on the island of St. Maarten.  St. Maarten is an interesting island, because the southern half of it is part of the Netherland Antilles, while the northern half of it is owned by France.  St. Maarten is also home to Princess Juliana International Airport, which is a well known spot for aviation enthusiasts, because of its extremely close proximity to a public beach.  I would have liked to get out to the airport, but there was not time.  Instead, Sarah and I did a sailing excursion.  They have a few retired America's Cup Regatta boats in St. Maarten, and we went on one, the Canada II, and had a race against a few of the other yachts.  Sarah was appointed to be the captain, and she led us to a victory in the race.  It was a lot of fun.  Everyone in the excursion had a job to do on the boat, and the actual crew of the boat spent time teaching everyone what to do and why they were doing it.  It was quite interesting, and it was a beautiful day for sailing.  We had a great time on that excursion, and decided afterwards that we need to get a sailboat!  That was our favorite excursion of the trip.  After the excursion, we had a little time before the ship departed, so we walked around Philipsburg a little, and then made our way back to the Nieuw Amsterdam.  In the middle of the afternoon, we departed, and began heading west.

Friday we were scheduled to be at sea all day.  Our next scheduled stop was Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, but that was Saturday.  We had another very relaxing day on Friday.  By that morning, all our wedding pictures were ready for us to look at, so we spent a little time looking over those and deciding which ones we wanted to get printed.  Our photographer had taken over 200 of them, but had picked out the best ones and touched them up a little, leaving us with 123 to go through.  We had about 40 of them printed for the album, and a few others printed a bit larger, for framing.  Besides that, it was another relaxing day at sea, as we looked forward to being in the Bahamas the next day.  The weather was good, but apparently that changed the following night.

On Saturday morning, we arrived at the anchorage off the shore of Half Moon Cay.  The weather was overcast and windy, although on a ship as big as the Nieuw Amsterdam, it did not feel very rough.  Half Moon Cay is a very small island, and as such has no deep water docks, so the ships mush anchor off shore, and then send people ashore on a small boat called a tender.  The tender pulls alongside the ship, and people are able to transfer back and forth.  The tender is obviously significantly smaller than ship.  Because of the condition of the seas, as the result of 35+ mile per hour winds, tendering operations were not possible.  After monitoring the situation, and checking the weather predictions for the day, the captain decided to cancel the stop at Half Moon Cay.  Transferring people between the ship and a bouncing tender would be difficult and dangerous, and the captain decided it was better to not take any risks, and so we ended up with another leisurely day at sea.  While it would have been nice to go to the Bahamas again, it was also nice to have another day to sit around and relax on the ship.  Since cancelling the stop meant that the ship was headed to Fort Lauderdale nearly eight hours earlier than planned, they slowed down considerably, and we moved at a only about 13 knots for the day.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in Fort Lauderdale, wondering how the week could have possibly passed so quickly!  It was time to disembark, and catch the plane back to Billings.  Our trip back to Billings went just fine.  We had a fairly quick layover in Salt Lake City, but our luggage managed to make the connection, and we only had to wait a couple of minutes for it to arrive on the carousel.  Once in Billings, we got some dinner, and headed home to Glendive.  Now we are planning our next cruise, which will happen in March 2013, but more on that later.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Can it be, two posts in one week?!  True story, enjoy it while it lasts!

In about 24 hours, Sarah and I will be heading out of Glendive for a little vacation.  Tomorrow night we drive to Billings, and on Saturday morning we board a really little jet to Denver.  After an intimidatingly short layover in Denver, we board a much larger jet for Fort Lauderdale.  Flying will be fun, and because it is Billings, the security should not be so much of a bother as to ruin an entire good month.

Once in Fort Lauderdale, we will again spend the night, although we will probably be trying to catch up with various family members that are also going to be arriving in Fort Lauderdale throughout the day.  Everyone seems to get in at different times, although primarily in the afternoon, and by different modes of transportation.  We have at least one person in the group driving, a few taking the train, and most flying, from pretty much everywhere.  Off the top of my head, I know people will be arriving from Oregon, Alaska, Boston, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah, and Orlando.

The next morning, we will get up early, and get the amazing breakfast that the Hampton Inn always has, and then get in a limo to Port Everglades.  Yeah, they got us a limo!  I've never gone anywhere in a limo, so that should be interesting, although it will be a fairly short drive from downtown to the port.  At the port, we board Holland America Line's ms Nieuw Amsterdam, which will be sailing on a week long cruise later that day.  But before we get to the cruise, a few other things are happening.  Once the whole group manages to get on the ship, Sarah and I are getting married!  That will be around lunch time, and then the reception will follow, in one of the lounges on board.  That reminds me, I have to put the reception music on an iPod.  A few people will be attending the wedding, but will not be sailing.  After the reception we will say goodbye to them, and then it will be about time for the lifeboat drill.  Once that is complete, they will let go the mooring lines, and we will be sailing away!

The cruise is seven days, going to Grand Turk, San Juan, Philipsburg, and Half Moon Cay.  The only port of call we have been to before is Half Moon Cay, which is in the Bahamas.  The rest will all be new to us.  We are really looking forward to the cruise.  It will be our second cruise together, and we are both very excited.

We will return to Fort Lauderdale next Sunday, and from there fly back to Billings and conclude our vacation.  No doubt it will go too fast.  When we get back, we should have some fun stories, and lots of pictures.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Living the Dream, and a few Nightmares

If you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, most will tell you that they want to be a firefighter, police officer, train engineer, or pilot.  I was the same way when I was a kid, and most adults will admit to having wanted one of those careers at some point in their lives too.  However, most people "grow up" and get "real jobs," sitting in a boring old office in front of a computer screen, which I guess that is fine if they like what they do.  But some of us never really grow up, and we go and get the job we wanted as a kid.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a railroader most of the time, although at different times I also wanted to be all of the above, plus a garbage man, doctor, veterinarian, mailman, construction worker, car mechanic, and numerous other things.  I still want to be a pilot, although just a recreational one, but that is a different story.  As a kid, when I thought about all the various careers I thought I wanted, they all seemed pretty glamorous and interesting.  People who worked in those jobs seemed like they really led an interesting life.

As I got older, I began to realize that there was reality besides all the glory.  Firefighters, for example, put their life on the line regularly, and really are quite underpaid for their services.  That career, as much as I appreciate those that do it, began to look less appealing to me.  Doctor and veterinarian seemed nice, except they required more schooling than I could comprehend, and they involved blood.  I never have liked either of those!  Police officers keep the community safe, but they too take risks to ensure the well being of often ungrateful people who curse about the officer who wrote their last traffic citation.  Being the guy everyone hates, but also the guy everyone depends on and expects to help them started to seem less attractive.  Being a mechanic still seemed interesting, but more as a hobby.  I took a few classes on mechanics in high school and quite enjoyed them, but primarily as a hobby.  By high school, working for the post office or sanitation department sounded rather dull, and construction management was what I finally decided to study in college.  I still thought railroading and flying sounded interesting, but getting a pilot's license seemed prohibitively expensive.

Twenty years ago, though I said I wanted to work for the railroad, I had a hard time imagining it would ever happen.  Actually, I was pretty sure I would never grow up, and that grown ups had never been kids.  I never completely believed my dad when he told me stories from his childhood.  I was pretty sure he had always been an adult!  The stories were good, and I believed them, just not the fact that he had been a kid once!  As I got older, I did realize that flying or railroading, as awesome as they seemed as a kid, would still have good days and bad days.  Every job is like that.  Occasionally, as I see kids wave to me in the engine, I think about when I was quite young, and Dad used to take us to the local railroad yard, or just the tracks at the end of the street, and we would wave to the train crews, who always seemed so friendly up in the cab.  Those train crews always seemed to be living the dream.

As life would have it, I ended up in the cab, and now I am the one waving to kids and their dads along the tracks.  I am the one "living the dream" now.  Some days it really feels like I am living the dream, as I go to work on warm, sunny, summer days, and put my feet up and open the window and get a pleasant breeze through the cab.  Other days I wonder what I was dreaming, as I do walking inspections of trains in muddy yards, as the rain falls sideways and a cold wind blows!  In any case, I certainly cannot complain that I do the same thing every day!  That is one of my favorite things about working for the railroad, every day has new challenges and surprises, and it really never gets boring, even if the weather does get lousy.

I get asked a lot, by my non railroader friends, and often their children, what it is like to work for the railroad.  Most of them see me as the guy that does what every kid in the world wants to.  In some of the quiet, night time hours, when little is happening and I have a little time to think, I have thought about all the things I could possibly tell them about railroad life.  There are so many things that go on besides the "dream" that kids imagine it is.  In many ways it is one of the scariest, most stressful jobs I have ever had.

I could tell them what it is like when you are running on some really beat up old track, and the locomotive is rocking rather badly.  I could tell them what it is like when that rickety old track finally gives under the weight of a 392,000 pound engine, and it leaves the rails, and the ride really starts to get wild.  Even at a low speed, the first thing you think about is how out of control the situation is.  You feel completely helpless, because there is no way to stop the engine or control where it goes.  The seconds seem like hours, and all you do is wonder when it will stop.  When everything does finally stop, and the dust settles, you look around for a second, and then hop off the engine to see what the damage looks like.  Even though the engines are still upright and in the track area, something just looks very wrong, kind of like looking at a beached whale.  It looks out of place and awkward.  The rails are bent and twisted in all sorts of weird angles, making them resemble paperclips more than railroad tracks, and all that is left of ties is a whole lot of splinters.  As you take in the situation, you just think how happy you are that it is not your responsibility to clean up the mess!

Derailments are just one of the extras to "living the dream," and fortunately I have managed to miss most of them, and none have been serious at all.  A much scarier and more stressful extra involves grade crossings.  As the train approaches a crossing, the gates light up and descend across the road, and bells ring.  Additionally the horn and bell are sounded on the locomotive.  Yet it is relatively commonplace to see vehicles dart around the crossing gates, right in front of an oncoming train.  Some dart around as the gates start down, and there is still enough time for them to get by before the train gets to the crossing.  Others dart across at the last second.  Sometimes larger vehicles surprise you, and dart across the tracks.  I could tell people about the time the driver of a tanker truck decided he could make it across the tracks and badly misjudged the timing.  The cab of the truck made it across, which is perhaps the only reason he survived, because a 17,000 ton coal train takes well over a mile to stop from 50mph when it is headed downhill.  When you see a tanker in the crossing, you think the worst.  Fortunately it was full of water.  The trailer was hit and split in half, sending the rear two thirds spinning off into a field.  The front third, still coupled to the tractor portion went flying and landed in a ditch.  Much to everyone's surprise, the driver not only survived, but only had a few minor scratches and bruises.  He was one of the lucky ones.  It is people like him, and the many others that dart around the gates, that give most train crews regular nightmares about their job, and mostly about crossing incidents.

I could also tell people about the crossing with an elementary school nearby, and about the time we watched in horror as a teacher led her class of about 25 second graders across the tracks after seeing the gates start down.  At 30 mph, a train simply does not stop before the crossing once it is close enough to activate the gates.  In desperation we did the only things we could do: keep blowing the horn, ringing the bell, shout at them knowing they could not hear us, and go to emergency braking.  Fortunately those children were a lot smarter than their teacher and most of them waited, and actually waved to us.  We had to stop to pick up cars there anyway, and when we did come to a stop, both the engineer and I had a several choice words for that teacher. She seemed slightly embarrassed about having two people, who looked young enough to be her sons, yelling at her in front of her whole class and a coworker, but otherwise she really did not seem phased by the incident.

When people, especially kids see us, and think we must be living the dream, they never think of the "extras" we get for it.  I never thought of it when I was a kid.  Sometimes people ask what railroading is like.  Usually a few thoughts run through my head on what I could say, but ultimately I tell them it is great.  I really enjoy my job, and I usually make that pretty obvious.  I mean, they pay me to play with trains!  It just does not get much better than that!  I encourage kids to pursue it if it is something they really like, and I always fail to mention the "extras."  I think it is better to let them keep dreaming.  Reality will catch up with them sooner or later anyway.