Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Break 2008: Flatonia Bound

Our Saturday goal: Flatonia, home of the well-preserved SP Tower 3.

Saturday, we headed off towards Houston, where we would spend most of spring break entertaining the kids. Since I was never too crazy about driving Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston, where drivers are bumper to bumper at 85 miles per hour south of Madison--talk about your NASCAR driving expericene--I sent us on a mostly rural, two-lane route, coincidentally (yeah sure!) roads that would parallel railroads: I30 to Temple, US190/TX 36 along the Santa Fe to Caldwell, and then along the former Southern Pacific Dalsa (Dallas-San Antonio) line along several roads to Flatonia, where we'd spend the night.

Northbound grain empty passing roadside memorial near Heidenheimer, east of Temple.

Lots of trains on the Santa Fe, as you'd expect, but we only stopped to photograph one of them. We were traveling without a radio scanner, so what we'd see would be strictly what we'd stumble onto. By around 6pm, we arrived in Flatonia, where we'd made reservations at the locally-owned Carefree Inn motel. This was my first visit to this small town halfway between Houston and San Antonio, and a strategic junction on the former Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific), where the east-west Sunset Route crossed the Dalsa from the north and the line south to Victoria and Corpus Christi. Among Texas railfans, the place is a Must-See for its preservation of the 1903 interlocking tower #3 next to the tracks in town and at the junction, 1/2 miles west of the business district, a "photo pavillion" where one can watch the action without trespassing.

Flatonia is capitalizing on its attraction to the railfan. . .

The pavillion was the brain-child of Tommy Shults, who'd moved to Flatonia in 2000 from the coast so he could retire next to the tracks. Aware of the attraction of the place to visiting railfans--who spend money on food, gas and lodging while on these excursions--Tommy convinced the Chamber of Commerce to spend money to build a place for fans to congregate and watch trains. The city put up the rest of the money and donated the land, and it's been a good deal for the community. Tommy is a regular presence at the junction. He made sure we signed his visitor's log book, and met us the next morning to take us up in the preserved tower for a look around. He's a wonderful ambassador for both Flatonia as well as the railfan community.

BNSF mechandise train from Mexico via Eagle pass turns the corner onto the Dalsa cutoff. . .

But first--the trains! Flatonia is quite the busy place. In addition to the east-west UP transcontinental traffic, there's trackage-rights trains from the BNSF as well as Kansas City Southern using the junction. We saw a west and an east UP in the 90 minutes before sunset, but the trackage-rights traffic was busy as well: an eastbound BNSF train from Eagle Pass, taking the long trip through San Antonio and then north onto the Dalsa en route to Temple (coming back to home rails at Caldwell). Right before sunset, a KCS train out of Laredo came up from Victoria and waited for a UP west before throttling off towards Houston and eventually over to Beaumont and home rails once again. Everyone seemingly uses everyone else's tracks in south east Texas.

I. gives the eagle eye at the photo platform to the Eagle Pass train. . .

Right at Sunset, a westbound UP rock train. . .

and after he cleared, an eastbound KCS swings off the Victoria sub towards Houston. . .

Sunday morning, eastbound passes preserved Tower 3 at Flatonia. . .

Sunday, after a little more photography, we met Tommy at the tower and fiddled around with the Armstrong levers upstairs and looked inside their preserved International Car bay-window SP caboose. Then, it was east towards Houston under skies getting cloudier by the mile--along the secondary highways paralleling the old Espee, of course. We paid a visit to the railroad museum in Rosenburg, where another 1903 SP tower, tower 17 retired just a few years ago, is also on display (this one, an electro-mechanical interlocking machine which once guarded the crossing with the Santa Fe), then stopped in Sugar Land for a shot I'd always wanted: a westbound train passing the defunct Imperial Sugar processing plant. We didn't have to wait long, as a KSC grain train soon appeared. Then it was off to get our motel room in Webster, not far from NASA's Johnson Space Center, our home for the next few days.

E. breaks in as a towerman at Flatonia, under the watchful eye of M. and Tommy Shults.

Another eastbound UP train passes the preserved SP caboose at Flatonia, as seen from Tower 3.

I. and E. try out the pistol grips on the interlocker at Tower 17, Rosenberg.

The weather started to suck, but KCS grey still looks nice, westbound past the Imperial Sugar plant at Sugar Land, west of Houston.

NEXT: Spring Break for the Kids. . .

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring Break 2008, Day One: Dirt Track Racin'

Roaring out of turn four. . .

Spring break for the kids--and for us adults--started last week, so rather than head out of town on a Friday night for Houston, we decided to head up to Boyd for an evening of Dirt Track stock car racing. Houston could wait til Saturday.

In the grand scheme of things, little Boyd Raceway and its 1/4-mile banked dirt oval is nothing spectacular--just a friendly, family-owned and operated local race track that is part of "the heart and soul of NASCAR," as those television ads on race day remind us.

Friday Night at Boyd: like a thousand other places across America. . .

A small track lets you get up-close and personal with the race cars. . .

Though I'm sure none of the racers we saw will ever move up to a sponsored ride in a NASCAR racing series, you certainly've got to have a passion for racing to hit the small-town track on a Friday night for a few hot laps. Either that, or perhaps there are just more stock-car drivers in Wise County. After all, the place is the Methamphetamine lab capitol of Texas, so perhaps, like the moonshine runners in North Carolina 50 years ago, there are just more, uh, career opportunities for young men with fast cars there than other places.

After a gourmet Dairy Queen dinner at Rhome, we arrived in time for the folksy commentary over the public address system, the cheesey Leeann Rimes recording of the National Anthem to play over the speakers, and for the racetrack lights to finally turn on. . .boy, that place is dark!

If you want to really see the races, go later in the year when the sun sets a bit later. But, we'll cut em some slack up there, as that night was the first race of the season. The place is family-friendly (we sat in the Family section, where alcohol was prohibited but Ass Antlers on the young moms in attendance were apparently a requirement) and a cheap place to spend a Friday night. The kids ran out of gas before the cars did, so we didn't stay to the end, but we saw a few wrecks and we had a blast picking favorites for each qualifying heat. I couldn't decide on a favorite--either the souped-up Pintor or the solid green late-model sedan sporting the duct-tape numbers on the side.

It doesn't matter to E. that it's not NASCAR--he'll cheer any race, any time. . .

On the way to Boyd, I stopped to photograph a Union Pacific coal train stopped behind a BNSF train on the Wichita Falls sub near Hicks Road. The engineer passed the time using a sling to toss rocks into a puddle of water. I'd never shot this angle before and with the DP power on the rear, it's not too bad a spot.

NEXT: Flatonia or Bust. . .

Slinging rocks at Hicks. . .

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Australian Humor (or Humour). . .

A couple stolen from One Railfan's Fight Against Society:

Three footy fans were walking back from the MCG when one noticed afoot sticking out of the bushes by the side of Jolimont Road.They stopped and discovered a nude female unconscious and near death, so one of them phoned the police and also requested an ambulance. Out of respect and propriety, the Melbourne fan took off his cap and placed it over one of the female's breasts. The Kangaroos fan took off his cap and placed it over her other breast. Following their lead, but with great reluctance, the Collingwood fan took off his cap and placed it over her girly part. The police arrived first and an officer began to conduct his investigation.First he lifted up the Demons cap, replaced it and made an entry in his notebook. Next, he lifted the Kangaroos cap and replaced it; making more notes in his book. Then the officer lifted the Collingwood cap, replaced it, lifted it again, replaced it, lifted it a third time and replaced it one last time -shaking his head in disbelief. The Collingwood fan was extremely annoyed and challenged him, "What are you, a pervert or something mate? Why do you keep lifting and looking, lifting and looking?""Well," said the officer, "I'm a little surprised and confused."Normally, when you look under a Collingwood cap ... you'll find an ass hole."

And one more:
Ahmed and Hamid are both beggars at several traffic lights in Sydney. Ahmed drives a Mercedes, lives in a mortgage-free house, and has a lot of money to spend. Hamid only brings in 2 to 3 dollars a day. Hamid asks Ahmed how he manages to bring home a suitcase full of $10 notes every day. Ahmed says; " Look at your sign, it says, I have n owork, a wife and six kids to support." "Aussies who see that do not feel as if they accomplish anything by giving you money. You will still have no job and a large family whether they give you money or not!" "Now look at my sign!"So Hamid looks and Ahmed's sign reads, "I only need another $10 to move back to Lebanon!

Have a special day!

Friday, March 7, 2008

We interrupt Oprah to give you winter. ..

Footprints in the first snowfall of the season. . .

The Storm of the Century. Not really. But when the approaching "winter storm" pre-empts BOTH "Ellen" and "Oprah," well, you know at least the local media are taking it seriously. Or at least getting typically hysterial about it

As winter storms go, Thursday's blast of winter wasn't really much. But, being in Texas, you must add in the "unfamilar" quotient as well as the "unprepared" quotient. . .then you begin to realize that 3" of slushy snow in Fort Worth is about the same as 24" of wind-driven fury in the Twin Cities.

A taste of winter. . .

And I. gets a chance as well.

The biggest hassles of course were traffic, but we left an hour earlier than usual to pick up I. from his Mom's Day Out program, and the precipitation was merely heavy rain. By the time we got back to the neighborhood to pick up E. from his school, the flakes had turned big and wet and there was a few inches of slush on the road.

Once back from school the kids could not be deterred from getting reacquainted with snow. For I., it was the first real snow he could recall, and after a few minutes outside with cold hands, he'd had enough.

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on Blue Mound Rd. . .

I, of course, had to find an excuse to get back out on the road and just maybe get a snowy train photo or two. Out of sodas? No comfort food in the house? Nothing to watch on the DVD player? Of course I'll brave the elements to replenish the house.

Union Pacific northbound on the Duncan subdivision leaving Saginaw. . .

BNSF 6815 in the yard at Saginaw. . .

I photographed a northbound BNSF grain empty, a UP train on the Duncan subdivision, and then a BNSF switch engine in the yard at Saginaw. By then, the big snow had ended and the roads were merely wet, the slush melting away a bit. I headed for home. The shots weren't much, but at least I got out for a few snow shots. Without four-wheel drive and proper snow and cold-weather clothing (hey, I live in Texas!) I wasn't going to go too gonzo.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Did Ya Vote?

Well, I did.

And for once, I felt like my vote in Texas mattered.

I'd struggled greatly with my decision, but when it came time to mark the little box, I filled in Hillary Clinton.

Not that I don't think Barack Obama would not make a great Democratic presidential candidate.

Not that I don't think John McCain would invite compromise between Republicans and Democrats if he was elected president.

I just felt that it was too soon to vote against Clinton and end her campaign relatively early.

I watched the past few debates as the primary election date neared, and fundamentally, I didn't see any huge difference between the democratic candidates in terms of policy platforms. I did see differences in experience, however. And I felt that Obama, while a great speaker and motivator, seemed shorter on concrete proposals than Ms. Clinton. That's not to say that Mr. Obama wouldn't that much better with a bit more experience--he'd be a helluva asset to the ticket, should Clinton gain the nomination and tap him as a running mate. But I don't see it the other way around. Obama, I feel, needs a bit more seasoning before I can commit to his candidacy (I find it ironic that while Democrats in 1988 savaged Bush 41 for choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate, at the time Quayle had far more experience in national politics than Obama has today). And I fear that the idealistic supporters of Mr. Obama, especially those who are young and have no real exposure to the bloody-knuckle style of United States politics, may well become disenchanted with the process if Mr. Obama does indeed become president and is unable to massage the lawmaking process into enacting his "change."

I do have a few misgivings about Ms. Clinton as well. The "phone call at three a.m.?" Well, Hillary, you answered the phone with your vote on the Iraq war--and made the wrong decision. But that's in the past, and we've got to move forward.

Early in the primary cycle, I vowed that I'd vote for John McCain--a guy I've always admired as a true hero and straight-shooting maverick moderate republican--before I'd vote for Hillary. But when the real possibility presents itself that this MAY indeed be the choice I will have to make, I'll choose Ms. Clinton. But, I've got to say that I like how McCain has pissed off the Christian conservative wing of the Republican party. If you can get Rush Limbaugh and Ann "Horse Face/Man Hands" Coulter to endorse a Democrat, you must be doing something right!

The primaries are over, and it still ain't over yet. It will continue to be an interesting spring as we head towards the national Democratic convention in Denver this summer. We're fortunate to have two great Democratic choices and a Republican candidate that is palatable as well.