2011 Train Trip — Union Station

I recently had one of my best vacations ever, travelling by Amtrak from Los Angeles to Chicago and back (with some side trips by car thrown in). It was lovely, though of course it chewed up a couple of extra travel days. Totally worth it!

I rode out on the Amtrak Southwest Chief, from Los Angeles’s Union Station (LAX) towards Chicago’s Union Station (CHI), and the first nice thing about it was that I didn’t have to go to the “other LAX”, Los Angeles International Airport, a well-known hellmouth. In fact, I just had my friend and cat-sitter Beverly drop me off at LA’s North Hollywood Metro Station (about 10 miles from my house), and took the Metro Red Line in to Union Station, along with my bags.

Ah, the bags. Let’s start with those. Amtrak allows you up to 3 bags checked luggage, up to 50 pounds each, and two carry-on bags (also 50 pounds each), as well as any personal items such as a laptop bag. I knew that I’d be walking with my bags, so I bought two light, cheap rollers bags (one of them a garment bag), and a large light duffel bag. That meant that I could roll along with the duffel on top of the garment roller bag, and the laptop bag on top of the smaller roller bag. All pretty easy to cope with, so long as it didn’t rain (as someone from L.A., I did not plan for rain). I’ll have to think about a solution for that in future; as it was, I lucked out.

Arriving at Union Station about an hour before departure (cutting it a bit close), I could see several long lines, but these appeared to be coach check-ins for specific trains. Hey, a booth for general Amtrak Info, and ooh, no line!

Me (indicating luggage, showing ticket): “Checking bags for Southwest Chief?”

Information Clerk: “Yes, you should still have time to check bags for that train. Go to the Amtrak Ticket Office, right around there.”

So that made sense: If you have to check any luggage, you do that at the ticket office, just as for plane travel. Well, I was only going to being checking my large duffel bag. And yay, almost no line!

Ticket Clerk: “Ok, checking one bag. No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me: “That’s right.”

She does some bag-checking stuff, and has me put my bag on the scale. It’s a bit heavy.

Ticket Clerk (skeptically): “No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me (huh?): “Right.”

Ticket Clerk (sternly): “What’s in the bag, sir?”
Me (must be the beard): “Um, books…why, is it too heavy?”

She gives me a look like, “What the hell, you’re harmless — why are you wasting my time?”

Ticket Clerk (dismissively): “No, you’re fine, sir.”

And that was that. No metal detectors, no naked-body scanners, no blue-gloved groping. When I returned to LA later I noticed some cops with sniffer dogs in various other parts of the station, but they never hassled me.

I had reserved a room in a Sleeper Car for my journey, and it turns out that Sleeper Car passengers are considered to be traveling First Class. The first evidence of this was when I asked what track my train was coming in on.

“Are you traveling by sleeper?”
“Why, yes I am.”
“Just wait right here, sir. A tram will be by in just a moment to take you to your track.”

And sure enough, a nice lady drove up, grabbed my bags and those of several others travelling by sleeper in the same train, checked our tickets, collected a few coach passengers to fill up the tram, and whisked us away, down the corridors, up a ramp, and out onto the platform.

Of course, she had to drive through a crowd of people heading for their trains, but the crowd parted magically before her, none of them having to work any harder than pigeons have to work to avoid your car — step, step, step.

She stopped the tram, turned to me and said, “You sit tight, sir. I’m going to let these people off, and then I’ll take you right to your car.” And so she did, backing up the tram along the crowded platform until she arrived at the chosen spot. My train wasn’t even there yet (it was just pulling up as she dropped me off), but sure enough, she literally dropped me off right in front of my very train car, got my bags, accepted my tip, and took off to take the next group of people to be literally in front of their car. Nice!

Each sleeper car on a train has a number for that trip, so there’s an electronic display on each sleeper car showing the number (mine was 0430).

We were each greeted by our car’s attendant (each sleeper car has its own, who is with you for the entire trip), and were told where to find our rooms. I put my big garment bag in the communal carry-on baggage storage area (each sleeper car has its own), but took my smaller roller bag to my room, on the advice of the attendant — “It’ll fit really well on that ledge: that’s what I do!” In the end, I put my roller bag in my room where they expect you to hang your suit and jacket. I like my way because there’s a strap to secure it, and because it left the other ledge free. My laptop bag fit neatly on a shelf beneath that ledge, too — snug!

My roomette was bathed in air-conditioned comfort, and I was off!

Solvang Century 2008 – Official Photos

Here are some professional photos of the event, featuring some of the key players.

Yes, the pictures are large, but these men are larger-than-life.

Note also that I do not have copyright to these photos, even though I have purchased them. I’m free to use them for my personal use, though, whatever that means.

In any event, I’d certainly advise you not to attempt to use these photos for profit. No wagering, for example.

(Click on the photos to make them even larger)

(Me, #44: It’s still incredibly cold and foggy, even though I have already, at this point, spent 10 minutes with my fingers in my armpits. Also, note the wilyness: I’ve got the bike number wrapped tightly around the headset, for decreased wind resistance)



(Ron, #161: Colder and foggier, since he was way ahead of me at this point. He didn’t try the wrapped-tight trick with his number, which was probably the crucial competitive error)



(#861, my nemesis. Finally left me in the dust on Foxen Canyon Road. Look, he left his number off his bike entirely! There’s a lesson for next time!)

Solvang Century 2008

The weekend started well. We avoided sliding into a ravine at the Gaviota pass, where half of the road was washed out, and had a delicious night-before dinner at Mattei’s Tavern. Wined and dined, sleek and satisfied, we were ready to ride 100 miles on our trusty bicycles.

The next morning, Ron and I both got up early without trouble, and were ready to go almost on time. This time, it was Ron who made us slightly late! Oh, I was happy. Not that being slightly late was bad — it was foggy, and cold, and I hadn’t successfully purchased riding gloves with fingertips. Neither had Ron, for that matter, but it didn’t seem to bother him:

(Click on the photos to make them larger)

(Note how poor the visibility is: Ron is in focus, but I’m a shadowy, mysterious figure)

And actually, I lied just now about Ron making us late. He would have made us late, but then I had forgotten my little paper wristband, which might have been (but which was not, in fact) important, perhaps for being fed, for example, and so we went back to get it, and then there was a brief, terrible search, until it was found in the motel room’s second trash can. Ron had his, but wouldn’t wear it until he found out whether or not it was required.

Hoo, boy, it was cold! The first 25 miles of the Solvang Century is just a big downhill, interspersed with a few uphills to wake you up, and I couldn’t warm up to save my life, or my fingers. Eventually I had to stop and just stand there with my hands in my armpits, trying to keep my fingertips from falling off. They still felt a bit frostbitey this morning, actually. Later, hearing this, John Blackburn commented, “What is it with you and gloves?”

Cyclists glided by while I stood there, helpless to avoid their concern and/or scorn:
There they go, thinking, “Wow, that guy’s already having trouble? I mean, what does he want?”

After a solid ten minutes of armpit-warming, my fingers felt brave enough to carry on, and shortly thereafter, Mr. Sun made some brief forays into our sphere. At one point, I came upon an entire fog-shrouded valley, seen from above:

Sunny riders, about to descend into a Foggy Doom.

Panning right, showing the extent of the foggy wasteland.

Those peaks peeking out of the fog are far, far away. Everyone down below is in foggy despair.

But as we continue to pan right, we see that Change is Coming. The fog practically lifted as I panned.

Valley’s end. Someone should stitch these photos together for a panorama! Not me, of course.

Right after I took the last of these pictures, my camera sadly complained about a low battery, and refused to take any more. I had just charged it the day before! I looked at it in disgust, but also in commiseration: “I know what your real problem is, darn you — it’s just so cold! Well, just see if I try to take any more pictures until it warms up.”

I made it to the first SAG (Support And Gear) stop in Lompoc. The nice thing about going on a “supported” ride like this is that they have regular stops such as these, stocked with food, water, toilets, and repair staff.

Ron was really wondering what the heck had happened to me, and even just in pure seat time (not counting armpit-warming stops), he was ahead by five minutes. But apart from that, the ride was going great. We had both noticed that, although this leg of the ride had not changed since the first time I had ridden it in 1995, its few uphills, once notable, were now inconsequential.

This particular SAG stop was at a huge barn with a pretty mural on the side.

All the SAG Stops were as jammed as this, a tribute to the way Ron and I infested the middle of the bell curve.

The views were idyllic, and I really mean it. Solvang is in the middle of central California wine country
(perfect for Pinot Noir, but about 125 miles too far south for delicious red Zinfandel):

A totally-typical view. There were many better than this, but I mostly felt like cycling.

Our co-workers Carlos and Vincent had found us at the first SAG stop, and Vincent and I ended up sailing in to SAG stop #2 together. I should make clear that Carlos and Vincent are much faster than we are, but they had driven up from Los Angeles on the day, starting later than we had. And plus, they were bedeviled by some equipment problems:

A helpful fix-it guy gets ready to examine Vicent’s crank, while Vincent looks on.

Ron had picked up another few minutes on me by SAG stop #2. He might have been 6.5 minutes ahead at this point, in seat time.

But I was feeling pretty great, actually, and this next section was supposed to have quite a bad headwind, which Ron doesn’t care for (yeah, I know — who does?). I got in line behind Ron, and another fellow, in red and yellow, but no number, got behind me, and our little train headed out into the wind. Whoa, it was kind of awful. Ron later said that it had been much worse in 2007, but it was bad enough, believe me. Nothing like mixing a headwind and a climb. But I had my little altimeter watch, and it was reassuring me that we weren’t that many hundred feet below our starting point. We hadn’t gotten too much of a free ride.

Oh, the wind. Ron was pulling away from me, and the guy behind me pulled ahead so as not to lose Ron, because you really have to follow the guy in front of you rather closely to get the benefit of drafting. There they went, choo-choo, the train had left the station, and I wasn’t on board.

And I might have trouble catching them: somewhere around mile 35 or so, I had already started noticing a bit of saddle-soreness, and right-knee pain. Great, no problem there, only 66 miles to go.

But here’s the funny thing. In my other rides in the last six months or so, I had either tried ignoring the pain, and it hadn’t worked (“Oh yeah? OK, how about this then?”) or else I had been careful, not wanting to put my training schedule in jeopardy, kind of like someone preparing for the Olympics: if you screw yourself up, you’ll miss it, and then it’ll be another 4 years. An exaggeration in my case, but a good analogy nevertheless. But here I was, at the Olympics, figuratively speaking, and I didn’t care if my knees were going to be sore for the next month or not, and it just didn’t feel like I was putting them at risk for anything longer term.

So I went for it, ignoring my knee pain, and catching up with the drafting train. And my knees never said anything more for the whole rest of the ride. They just continued their low-level soreness, muttering to themselves, bitterly. But here I was, keeping up.

After a while, I felt that Ron had had his share of being in front. The headwind was only supposed to last for 10 miles or so, and he’d been in front for a mile or two at least. So I pulled in front to take my turn. Wow, it was staggering, no fun at all, but I soldiered on.

And here’s one of the great things about riding in an event like Solvang, in about the middle of the pack. There are always people who are passing you, and people who you’re passing. If you look carefully, you should be able to find a pack of riders who fit you perfectly, and you shouldn’t have to wait too long, either. The train behind me was growing, but another pack of riders was pulling ahead of me, and it seemed to me that keeping up with them wouldn’t be any harder than leading my own train. And hey, they had a guy, about my age, about my weight (and consequently an excellent wind break!), and who seemed to be pretty aggressive and just slightly better than I. Let’s try to keep up with that guy!

So I latched on to the passing train, behind rider #861, and off we went. I could feel my own train fracture behind me, as some riders moved to join the faster pack with me, and some hung back.

I liked this train of riders. There were about 10 of them, and they were all very followable. I had led my own train for a few miles, and didn’t mind hanging in the back of the pack for a while. Man, this was great, we were really hauling!

This whole riding-with-a-pack thing is kind of tricky. When it works, it’s the greatest thing there is. If it’s a little too fast, you can totally burn out trying to keep up with the too-fast pack. Whoops, #861 had lost the thread, we had been jettisoned. I pulled alongside him, announced that according to the technology, we were +10 feet above Solvang, and shortly afterwards said, “Let’s go catch those guys again.”

I pulled ahead, and felt #861 pull in behind me, just us two. We charged along, and…eventually…here’s our old friends, the previous pack, we’re slotted in, it’s great. And so we went. Occasionally I would see #861 pull ahead, and I’d tag along, and at one point the red and yellow guy who was my original follower caught up as part of another train, laughed, and said, “You’re still hanging in there, eh?”

He went ahead, and I latched on after him, vowing to enter SAG stop #3, the Santa Maria airport, mile 58 or so, alongside him.

Which I did.

Ok, that was an outstanding segment, and I knew I had caught up with Ron quite a bit on that one.

But I haven’t mentioned the onlookers, and that’s one lovely thing about Solvang: there are well-wishers scattered all along the course, ringing cowbells, shouting encouragement:

A gaggle of bell-wishers at the Santa Maria airport. Note the small dog being held by the lady in yellow. I tried to get a picture of them cheering and ringing their bells, but was thwarted by my smaller camera’s horrible shutter lag and the near constant intrusion of some cyclist passing by.

Wow, we had covered over half the distance, and I had a 15.1 mph average, seat time — not bad! I was waiting around for Ron to be ready to go, but he had disappeared into the mob, and…my knees, oh, my knees were seizing up, I could feel them. I had really started to notice, on our training rides, that the breaks didn’t seem to help me at all; towards the second half of the ride, I was always better if I could just continue pedaling than if I was stuck standing somewhere.

Man, where was Ron? Hey, he’s got an iPhone! I tried calling him a few times, and finally left a message, saying that I just had to take off, the knees had spoken. And off I went, pedaling not so very fast, waiting for everything to smooth out again. Ah, and here’s Ron, excellent!

We chugged along, and almost immediately found ourselves at Clark St., a long, terrible uphill where I had seriously bonked in 1996, and where I first discovered the healing power of Skittles. (It was like magic: I had been completely drained, and after downing a bag of Skittles, just went charging up 500′ of Clark St. like nothing had ever been wrong). I didn’t need them yet, though. This year, I had been sipping on Hammer’s Sustained Energy throughout, with a 1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich and 2 or 3 cookies at each SAG stop as a supplement.

Ron left me in the dust, though now that I think about it, I had stopped to wash the salt off my face. Man, I have to remember to do that at the SAG stops, where it won’t slow me down. But Clark St., and the 250′ or so hill following, held no terrors for me — couldn’t have been easier.

And so I arrived at the Sisquoc SAG stop, the SAG stop immediately before Foxen Canyon Rd., which features a relentless 10-15 mile uphill of 1,100 feet or so. Oh yes, I’ve bonked there, as well. I refilled my CamelBak with two bottles worth of water and Sustained Energy, thanked the small local boys who were helping out with the water, gave them each a small Halloween bag of Skittles, and took a dose of Skittles to fortify myself for the climb to come.

Off we went. And I’ve got to say, I just love having an altimeter watch. Because what you really need in this world, what you need more than anything, is a progress meter: “You are 74% done climbing this horrible hill.” I just pedaled along, and every so often I’d check and see that, ah, yes, a little more progress, excellent.

This was so great! I wasn’t running out of energy at all! I jammed along, hitting the big gears on the occasional slight downhill, riding the higher gears on the following uphill, climbing, climbing, just excellent. Half-way up I stopped to wash the salt off my face. Man, when am I going to remember to do that at the SAG stops? Ron pulled in a few minutes afterward, and we chatted briefly, agreeing to meet again right before the much-steeper 200-300 foot climb approaching the Foxen Canyon summit.

I took off again, still feeling great. About half-way to the meeting point, #861 passed me. I cried out, “#861! You’re an animal!” He laughed, and allowed as how he’d noticed that we’d been trading off for the last 40-odd miles. Nice guy. Never saw him again.

At the meeting point, I stopped and awaited Ron, who arrived within a minute. Hey, I was surely getting closer to Ron’s time! Ach, no, he’s still 1.5 minutes faster, and there’s less than 1,000 feet of climbing left to go — bah. And there goes Vincent; his crank’s either all better, or better enough that he can pass the likes of us. Carlos stopped to chat for a minute, but quickly pulled ahead of me on the steep part of the Foxen Canyon summit climb.

And it slowed us down, of course, but we were still passing people, just as we were being passed. I was standing up a lot more often on the steep hills, which allowed me to use an entirely different set of muscles, and by the time they were wasted, which wasn’t very long, maybe a minute, the regular muscles used by the regular position felt as if they had gotten a wonderful vacation. Long enough, but not too long. Up I went. The gears were super quick and sure, after being fixed just a week earlier at the terrific Win’s Wheels (360941 W. Agoura Rd., Suite #302, Westlake Village, CA 91361).

Oh, the top. That wacky, wacky Foxen Canyon Road. Abruptly down, and down. I lost 180 feet in two minutes. That’s fast.

I pulled in to the final SAG stop, just short of mile 90. Hey, there are Vincent and Carlos! And…about 1.5 minutes later, here was Ron! Could it be???

“Ron, my seat time is 6:02:02 — what’s yours?”

“Let’s see, mine is…6:02:05.”

“Yes! I’m beating you! Three seconds!” I literally pumped both fists in the air.

A girl sitting at the side of the road was quite amused at my joy: “That’s brutal!” Yeah, but it’s 3 seconds.

Still, despite the fact that I carried my bike around the SAG stop with its front wheel in the air for most of the time, I’d picked up another 23 seconds on the meter by the time we left again.

Down we dropped, and I really didn’t like this road. I dropped 280 feet in two minutes, that’s more than two vertical feet every second for two minutes straight! Bumpy, with some blind turns, nice. Well, here’s the 154 coming up, and there goes Ron, passing me, gleefully: “Ha! Three seconds!”

There was one steep, but short, hill left, about 200′, and then a last hill shortly before Solvang. I took off, passing Ron. The police, who had been at many major intersections along the route, waved us through the stop sign, while holding back the highway traffic. Never mind, that stop sign doesn’t apply to you today.

I zipped up the steep hill, never ran out of steam, and just tore through the rest of the course. What was my average speed? Oooh, 14.9 miles per hour, not bad at all considering that it had been at 15.1 at the 58-mile mark, and considering how back-loaded the climbing is on this ride. Oh, surely I can get it up to 15.0 before the end!

And I did, and sailed through the stop light (thank you officer) on Mission Road, and was now just a few fairly level surface streets from the end. And it was at this point that I hit the dark side of traveling in the middle of the bell curve, which was…the incredible bicycle congestion. There are 5,000 cyclists at Solvang, and they were all coming back now, it seemed like. I fought my ride through the finish line, picked up my finisher’s bag of goodies, and locked my wheel down. Rats, 14.9 mph! Darn congestion. But wait…I’ve noticed before that, incredibly, my dopey cycling computer doesn’t report average speed accurately. It tends to read very-slightly-low. Do the math yourself, in your head. Oh, it really seems like it’s going to be at least 15mph! Ooh, here comes Ron, get a picture:

Ron sails in. 3:21pm.

So, how did we do? We totally crushed our six-years-ago selves! New personal bests all around!

Ron beat his six-years-ago self by 18 minutes. That’s good crushing!

And me? I was almost 35 minutes faster than 2002 Tom, which was only fitting, since 2002 Tom was 30 minutes faster than his six-years-ago self, 1996 Tom. That’ll show him. As John Blackburn said, when I told him, “Good for the goose, chump! Maybe you’ll beat me next time…oh wait, YOU CAN’T because you’re in the past! Second-best forever. Eat it, boy.” Wow, that John Blackburn really has no trouble at all pretending to be as competitive as I am.

And I finally beat Ron, in a long ride:

Oh, and the knees seem fine — not actually happy, mind you, but definitely fully functional.

Tom's Cycle Computer and Altimeter Watch:
      distance:  101.25 miles
        ascent:   4,440 ft.
   saddle time: 6:44:57       (not counting stops. 35 minutes faster than 2002!)
 average speed:    15.0 mph   (not counting stops)

Ron's Cycle Computer:
  saddle time:  6:47:50       (not counting stops. 18 minutes faster than 2002!)
average speed:     14.9 mph   (not counting stops)

From Start to Finish:
 elapsed time:  8:50:00       (counting everything: 06:27:00 - 15:17:00)
average speed:     11.5 mph   (counting everything)  

“Hey, Ron, there’s a Solvang Double Century! Ron?”

Solvang Century 2008 Countdown

A 104-mile route from Solvang to Santa Maria and back, featuring 5,000 feet of accumulated climbing.

T-minus 6 days:
Egad, look at that thing. Especially that Wacky, Wacky Foxen Canyon Road — that’s the 1,100-foot climb from mile 75 to mile 85. It just keeps getting steeper the higher you climb! It took me 75 minutes to climb it in 2002, my best performance ever: I was fatter, but younger. Industry Figure Stephen Newell says that I’m Younger This Year, but I’m pretty sure that that was supposed to be Next Year.

“I’m doomed as doomed can be, you know.”

T-minus 5 days:
I took a break from my current pastime of staring at the Foxen Canyon Road segment like Ed Grimley staring into the gaze of a cobra, to wonder about my past times at Solvang.

Because they seem strangely, even weirdly, fast.

In 1995, I did the old 102-mile course in about 8 hours of seat time, that’s 12.75 mph.
In 1996, I shaved off 10 minutes, completing it in 7:50:00 seat time, 13.0 mph.
I don’t have a record of the Y2K time; I was probably happy just to finish it.
And in 2002, I was a full half-hour faster, for 7:19:50 seat time, 13.9 mph.

Compare and contrast to last Saturday’s pre-Solvang ride: though only 92 miles, it was only 12.7 mph.

That has really been gnawing at me; it feels like I’m much slower again.

But maybe Solvang is different, somehow. At Solvang, I’m often riding in a pack, and you get quite a break from any headwind by doing that. Or perhaps it’s something about the design of the course: the whole last 15 miles is essentially a big ferocious downhill, with a few notable uphills (e.g. ‘The Wall’), but mostly you’re just sailing home.

“Maybe it’s the windmills, or the kringle? Or even the aebleskiver?”

T-minus 4 days:
But that’s not even the Important Thing! Of course I’ll finish the darn course — I’ve always finished it! The Important Thing is: can I get a reservation at Mattei’s Tavern? Or if they’re full, should we haul ourselves all the way to the Cold Spring Tavern? Where, in short, shall we eat?

“I’ll have the center-cut pork chops, please! And the tomato bisque!”

T-minus 3 days:
Industry Figure Stephen Newell contributed the following. Mind you, I read the book myself, and have quite often recalled this exact same excellent advice, but only when walking up mountains. Funny.

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible, and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end, but a unique event itself.

–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

T-minus 2 days:
Our dinner reservations at Mattei’s Tavern are locked down with a credit card, and better yet, were made online!

The fabulous lunch on the way home at Cold Spring Tavern will be a less-structured affair, as they don’t take reservations for parties of fewer than six diners.

“Hm, no tomato bisque tonight? But you are serving a Puree of Broccoli Soup? Sounds delicious!”

T-minus 1 day:
Industry Figure Leah Newell says that I’d be crazy to let my insane competitiveness (vs. my six-year-ago self, or vs. Industry Figure Ron Traver) ruin Solvang for me this year.

And she has a point.

But the thing is: (a) It’s me, (b) I’m willing to just enjoy the ride, and let it happen, and not bring my desires to the mountains and all. And I’m sure that Ron won’t lord it over me when he (inevitably) crushes me.

But that six-years-ago Tom Chappell, if he beats me, there will be no end to the gloating — I know that guy, and he’s an absolute bastard that way; just ask anybody.

“Wait, wait, you’re telling me that you’re 30 pounds lighter than I was, and I still beat you? That’s just…so awesome! No no, don’t feel bad; you know, you’re old! (Oh man, wait’ll I tell the Internet!)”

Industry Figures Descend On Indianapolis (5 Missing, Presumed Dead)

My old college buddies, Industry Figures Leah and Stephen Newell, drove 3 hours from Illinois out to see me while I was visiting my mother and my sister’s family near Indianapolis, and they wouldn’t even let me buy them lunch.

We had the best visit ever, and the time just flew by: as we were pulling out of the restaurant parking lot, I called Stephen on his cell phone:
    “Man, that was 3 1/2 hours, just now!”
    “I know, I was just doing the math!”

Click on the picture to see the whole horrible affair. And be sure to follow the link on that page to see us all 28 years ago, too.
Tom Chappell and Stephen Newell
Industry Figures Tom Chappell and Stephen Newell

We Train (But Not In Vain)

My buddy Larry Helmerich lured me into going on some mass-transit adventures in Los Angeles recently. It’s fun, and we’ve enjoyed learning the ropes of the system.

Today, we tried getting from his house in Sylmar (maybe 25 miles NW of downtown Los Angeles) to Old Town Pasadena (maybe 15 miles north of Los Angeles). It’s about a 35-minute or 40-minute drive from Larry’s house. We made it in 70 minutes, on mass transit, for $8 per person, round-trip.

(I should mention that Larry took all of the pictures that don’t actually feature him as a subject)

Here we are at the Sylmar MetroLink Station. First there’s me, because it’s my blog:
Tom, at the Sylmar MetroLink Station

…and here’s Larry. He has basically always been this thin. And, yes, if you’re curious, he’s had to work at it all his life — he doesn’t just get it for free. At a recent reunion of his former Interactive Systems Software colleagues, they speculated that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but I know Larry, and he would have gotten a better deal than just just being thin and young — he’s one of those hagglers. Still thin, though, almost as if he’d been working out, pretty much daily, for the last nine months:
Larry, at the Sylmar MetroLink Station

The train arrived dead on time:
MetroLink train arriving at Sylmar station.

…and in practically no time, we were down at Union Station, in downtown Los Angeles:
Union Station, Los Angeles, Seen from Track 5

The transfer to the Gold Line was included in our MetroLink ticket, and before we knew it, we were up in Old Town Pasadena, at the Del Mar station (where my old friend John Blackburn and I once smoked cigars, not knowing that it wasn’t allowed — we figured it out when we saw a sign with a bunch of NO’s!, and I said, “Oh, a sign with that many NO!’s has got to include smoking cigars.” We high-tailed it out of there, only to run smack-dab into a night guard. It would have been ironic to have been ticketed for my twice-yearly cigar, but fortunately, he just bade us a cheery good evening.)

Here’s the Del Mar station. Each station is visually distinct, which is both pleasing, and helpful for wool-gathering passengers to notice their stop:
Del Mar Station, Gold Line, Pasadena, California

And really, what the heck is this thing for? Just to say, “Yep, this is Del Mar Station, where the crazy thing is?”:
Del Mar Station, Gold Line, Pasadena, California

I told Larry that I thought I’d seen a restaurant that John and I used to frequent, though I wasn’t really sure, because face-blind people are also bad at recognizing landmarks.

But I was right, it was the wonderful Crown City Brewery (where they give you a special T-shirt after you’ve drunk 100 different beers):
Entrance, The China Factory Mall, Pasadena, California

Entrance, Crown City Brewery, The China Factory Mall, Pasadena, California

We feasted on beer and sundries, and returned to the outside world, passing both the Del Mar station:
Entrance, Del Mar Station, Gold Line, Pasadena, California
Tom Chappell in Pasadena, California

…and the Castle-Green compound:

Castle-Green, Pasadena, California
Castle-Green, Pasadena, California

We wandered around, stopping in a travel store, where I bought a Tilley LT6B Breathable Nylon Hat (Canadian, with a lifetime guarantee). I was pleased to find that not only did they have hats in my freakishly-large head size (7 3/4), but even had, in stock mind you, size 7 7/8 — presumably for encephalitis victims.

I don’t have pictures of me buying the hat, or of Larry making a purchase at the lovely Pasadena Apple Store, but I do have a picture of this rooftop reindeer ball:
Reindeer Ball, Decoration on top of building at Christmas, 2007, Pasadena, California

Then, because fewer MetroLink trains run on Sunday than on Saturday, it was time for us to head back to the lovely Del Mar station…
Del Mar Station, Gold Line, Pasadena, California
Sign, Del Mar Station, Gold Line, Pasadena, California

…and from there, back to Union Station…
Ceiling, Union Station, Los Angeles

Ceiling, Union Station, Los Angeles

…where we caught the return MetroLink.

Look at this first photo: that could be any shrunken old geezer. “Hey, you kids get off of that scaffolding!”:
Tom Chappell, on Train, Los Angeles, wearing a Tilley Hat

…but no! Apparently, I’m actually jolly!:
Tom Chappell, on Train, Los Angeles, wearing a Tilley Hat

Here’s my old friend, Industry Figure Larry Helmerich, also reasonably jolly:
Larry Helmerich, on Train, Los Angeles

Larry Helmerich, on Train, Los Angeles

Back safely in Sylmar, victorious, with our swag!
MetroLink train arriving at Sylmar station.

Happy Boxing Day! (A Christmas Travel Story)

Happy Boxing Day (still true on the West Coast, though I’m writing from North Carolina),

My departure to and from LAX couldn’t have been more hectic. I got up at 3:30am, because we really needed to leave by 4:30am if we wanted to be at the airport 1 1/2 hours before departure time. When my alarm went off, I started gathering together the last few things that I needed and putting them in the suitcase, but then I went to check my e-mail and found that my e-mail server, which runs in my house, had crashed for the second time in a day, and it should never crash. So, I lost vital minutes trying to figure out what was wrong there. I may have fixed it, because it hasn’t crashed since, but we’ll see.

Anyway, between that and everything else, we were really running late, and didn’t actually leave the house until after 5:00am, and didn’t arrive at the airport until 5:50am, and this for a 6:50am flight. But, I went into the airport, and the e-Ticket line was moving quickly — excellent! I said to the guy in front of me, “This doesn’t look too bad!” He swiveled around and pointed at another, much longer and slower line: “Yeah, but then we have to get our luggage checked in the security line.” Yikes.

I ran up to the e-Ticket dispenser. There were big signs: “If your flight leaves sooner than 40 minutes from now, you’ll have to get another flight — we won’t print out your boarding pass.” Quick, look at the watch: Ack, 45 minutes until my flight. I entered my information, “Checking two pieces of luggage,” got my boarding passes, and ran over to the security line, which miraculously was much shorter, now — excellent! But wait: where were my sticky suitcase routing labels? I’d forgotten to get them! They are printed out at the same time as when you print your boarding pass, but must be attached to your luggage by the airline personnel. I ran back to the e-Ticket machines, where they were calling my name. Two minutes later I was back in the security line, but much, much sadder, because the security line had nearly doubled in length since I was in it just a few minutes before. Rats!

I called Mom to let her know that I might not make the flight, and told her that I’d call her back with a status update. 30 minutes to go. What to do? There was a nice young Asian couple in front of me; the woman didn’t seem to speak very much English, but the man spoke good English. They were looking at their watches, and obviously discussing what to do. The guy went up to the federal marshals and asked them, pointing to his ticket, and a few seconds later he was running back to get his wife and their luggage. “Hey, when does your flight leave?” I asked him. “6:50am, to St. Louis.” He was on the same flight that I was! I figured if he could go up, then surely I could, too, so I followed them up to the head of the line. They were really looking at people’s luggage carefully, but the marshal just asked me, “Is your luggage locked? No? Ok, you can go on — we’ll check it out.”

20 minutes to go. I walked over to the stairs which would take me to gate 40, but another marshal was there, telling me to go to another stairway about a football field away, where a line was coming all the way down the stairs. I was behind the Asian couple again, and again he went off to ask a marshal about letting us go forward. He waved to us, and I cleared a way through the crowd for his wife. Up the stairs we ran. We’d probably cut out over 150 yards of this line, but now there was another lot of line curling around and around like Disney World. Again he checked with a marshal — sure, come ahead. 15 minutes to go. We’re going to make it! I was emptying my pockets for the scanner, but then I wondered — should I send my Apple iPod through the scanner, or not? It might hurt it, and it’s expensive. The guy at the scanner smiled and said, “Oh yeah, just put that on the conveyor belt — it won’t hurt it. And don’t worry about emptying your pockets, it’s OK.”

This last was bad, bad advice. The body scanner beeped when I walked through it (cell phone!), and I was immediately sent to a velvet-roped Penalty Box. This was Not Good. A marshal came over, grim-faced. “Sit down over there, Sir.” Worse, worse. I was thoroughly scanned, and then, “Stand there, with your feet on the pictures of feet. Where are you from, Sir? Los Angeles, you say? That’s funny, you don’t sound like you — oh, you grew up in the South? I see…” He turned away for a moment.

Meanwhile, my iPod is just sitting over there, unattended, and did I mention that it’s expensive? But wait, I’m tall! I reeeeach over to pick it up — see I didn’t even have to move my feet! He turns back, sees the iPod in my hand; I’m not trying to hide it or anything. “Was that scanned? You’re not supposed to pick anything up until I’m through with you. Now I’ve got to go scan it super-thoroughly. Wait there.” Ack, ack, ack.

My iPod and I are given the green light. We run to the gate; less than 10 minutes to go. All of the passengers are already in the little tunnel that connects to the plane, and at the end of the line, there is my Asian couple again. They smile when they see me: “You made it!” But the woman points at a bag that both of them are holding, and the man says, “Oh, go back and get your Bistro bag.” Apparently, airlines are now weaseling out of meals wherever they can, and instead there is just a goody bag in a big cooler. You’re meant to just pick it up as you walk by. I went and got mine; I had been helped by the Asian couple 4 times in one flight! A woman arrived in line, even later than myself. “Oh, hey, don’t forget your Bistro bag,” I was able to say. She smiled at me as if to say, “Thanks, Super-Competent Person!” and went and got hers.

Perhaps you saw on the news, it turned out that there was what the U.S. felt was a credible threat of an attack on a flight from Paris to LAX, though some French officials thought that it was all overblown. As I understand it, they had intercepted a lot of chatter about this Flight 68 from Paris to LAX, and then on the flight manifest they found 3 passenger names matching known Al Queda or Taliban, one of whom was in pilot training). I guess they made some arrests, but most of those guys didn’t show up for the flight. I don’t know much about any upshot. But that’s why security was so tight at LAX.

I suppose that next time I’ll be sure to arrive many hours in advance, but in the case of the other night, all that I think would have happened would be that I would have stood in line a lot longer before being sent to the head of the line. Still would have been less stressful, though. I guess the real thing to do is to arrive way, way, early, maybe three hours early, and just go get some food and so forth after getting past security.

Hope that everybody had a good holiday.


Journey to France (#4: Qu’est-ce que c’est «l’autocar?»)

[The story so far: Our Heroes have secured snug transport, scary and delicious food, and comfortable lodgings at Novotel in the La Défense section on the outskirts of Paris.]

Monday morning Ron and I got up early (6:30 AM local time) and walked through sector 1 of La Défense, basically walking to the Grande Arche and back.  Explored the storefronts, most of which were still closed, of course, and bought some items from one of the many bakeries that were opening up.   I swear, we only walked about 1 kilometer as the crow flies, and we hit three bakeries, all packed with Parisians.  Everything that I tried was wonderful — hot and fresh and delicious.

After our walk, the four of us regrouped at the hotel for the buffet-style breakfast, which I didn’t really need after the bakery goods, but which I bravely enjoyed nevertheless.  Apart from the bacon and soft-boiled eggs that were available as a nod to the English and Americans, it also featured an assortment of pastry, an assortment of bread and jam, and an assortment of cheese, as well as orange juice, grapefruit juice, Danone yogurt (our “Dannon” yogurt is their subsidiary), and something called fromage blanc (“white cheese”).  And, of course, plenty of Café au lait.

To my surprise and delight, the toaster that was set out for our use was a Dualit! I’ve always had a secret lust for this toaster, but at $459 for quantity one, it remains firmly outside my reach, unless I can snag a used one for a reduced price on eBay.  You can see the Williams-Sonoma catalog listing here.

So, imagine my joy at seeing it awaiting my every command.  Sadly, my first command was apparently, Brulée le pain! (“Convert the bread into ash.”)  While the bread didn’t actually catch on fire, it was an incredible simulation — certainly good enough to suit everyone present.

We’d paid good money for a extraordinarily large motorcar, and thought we’d better get the use of it and drive ourselves to Versailles.  The results were mixed, although not actually tragic.  Later we found that we could have gone straight there by taking one of the R.E.R. outskirts trains — there was even an R.E.R. station at the Grande Arche.

Still, it was fun, even exciting, to drive.  Most exciting of all were the roundabouts (the traffic circles).  I’m sure that you’ve heard about them, perhaps you’ve seen them in Boston or London.  I can’t remember what they were like in those other places, but the ones in France have no lanes; you simply head in (people who are heading in have a tiny bit more right-of-way than people who are already in) and then you move forward, edging people out and being edged out in turn.  The tiny cars were a clear advantage here.  A coworker later told us a story about taking a taxi in Paris and watching in terror as the taxi driver drove straight into the roundabout (actually perpendicular to the other traffic) until reaching the innermost border, then following that border around the circle, then heading straight out again, again completely perpendicular to the rest of the traffic in the roundabout.

At any rate, Versailles is only 15 to 25 miles away from Paris, so it wasn’t long before we arrived at the town. Yes, Versailles is an entire town — at one point, during the height of the palace construction effort about 300 years ago, there were over 15,000 workers who were employed to create the palace and its grounds.  The palace is easy to find, however – once in the town, you simply follow signs that point to the “Chateau”.

We found a large self-park parking lot, with a sign that we (or indeed, anyone) could almost entirely translate: “Parking reserved exclusively for «autocars».”  Now, “automobile” in French is la voiture, and “bus” is l’autobus — this autocar business was, seemingly, some other way of saying the same thing.  There is quite a bit of this in French, especially where an English or American word has crept into common use, even though the Académie Française does not approve.  We looked at one another and said, “Surely we are in an ‘auto car’?” and drove into the (entirely empty) automated self-park.  As we were getting out of our car, we noticed several other cars parked in a different lot, further away.  Hm.

Versailles, it turned out, was closed — they’re always closed on Mondays.  We had, at a conservative count, maybe ten guidebooks to Paris between us, and no one had thought to check.  Well, we could perhaps still examine the grounds, which are unbelievably lush and enormous.  Alas, it was not to be — the grounds were closed for repairs due to damage from the recent storm.  We took a few photos and walked back to the car.

When Ron went to the parking lot’s vending machine to get a ticket that would open the gate and let us out, he was horrified to see a sign demanding 180 French Francs – that’s $30!  I found out later that an autocar is exactly the same as an autobus (they even use the same vehicles for both), except that an autobus takes you around within a town, and an autocar takes you to another town.

Woof, thirty dollars for thirty minutes of parking! Plus, the machine was being truculent about accepting paper money.  Have you ever tried to come up with $30 in coins while far from home?  Take my word for it, it’s a challenge.  We were darn lucky that all of us had exchanged a bunch of dollars for francs only the day before — we were able to pay the ransom and make good our escape.  For the rest of the day, Ron was driving in the bus-only lanes, figuring that he’d paid his dues.  (Well, just the one time, actually, and it happened by mistake, and he only drove in the lane for the one block that he was trapped in it, but that’s how we like to tell the story.)

You can see some photos of Versailles (the one tiny part of it that we could see) by clicking here.

[Next:: “Cherchez Les Truffes!”]

Journey to France (#3: “Parisians!”)

[The story thus far: our heroes have navigated their way safely through the minefields of car rentals and viciously-designed European washrooms and have emerged: washed, tanned (we’re from California), and hungry – above all, hungry.]

We met at 7:30 on Sunday night and strolled through La Défense, making our way up to La Grande Arche.  For some reason it was not lit up during our stay — no one was sure why not, although we didn’t ask anyone who actually worked there.  From there, we turned around and walked back through La Défense 1 and across Pont De Nuilly into Nuilly itself.  We could have taken the Metro, of course (in Paris, you’re never more than 1/2 kilometer from a Metro station) but we felt that the exercise might help combat any jet lag, and anyway, it’s fun to walk through Paris, even on its outskirts.

We stopped at a restaurant more or less at random, trying to avoid any apparent chain resaturants or any foreign cuisine.  On that night, we wanted French food!  The one that we selected, like several others that we saw later, had both a “bar/pub”-like area, and a more formal “pure restaurant”-like area.  We sat down in the bar/pub area and asked for a menu, and were immediately confronted with the fact that none of us knew French, even though I took four years of it at school and have been studying it again recently.  It turns out that names of foods are not high on the vocabulary list of words that they teach you in school, despite their importance in real life.  After our waiter felt that we had struggled with the French for a decent amount of time, he offered us the English Menu, which was admittedly a great help, but which you have to be careful of relying upon, because it often has fewer and less interesting items on it.

I had already decided that I would try The Scary Foods while in France, and so tonight settled on the Boeuf Tartare.  If you’ve never had it, it’s a raw hamburger patty (by which I mean completely uncooked – grind up your meat, and you’re done!) mixed with a raw egg, various spices, etc.  Larry Helmerich had had Steak Tartare back in the states, back when you could get it here, and pronounced this one to be superior.  Yes, I know, I was taking my life in my hands, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about Mad Cow disease swimming over from across the Engish Channel, unless, of course, there were illegal pirate cows being dumped on the European market – that does give one pause.  It was pretty tasty, actually, but not something that I imagine that I could develop a craving for, at least, not in the same way that I crave Hot Fudge Brownie Specials from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shops.

As the bar/pub area became full, some Parisians were seated at our table with us.  Even though I’m somewhat shy, or perhaps because I am, I liked this – it’s a great way to meet new folks, and to have an excuse to talk to them, even though they’re stangers.  They said hello very pleasantly, and later on, when Larry noticed one of them using the same nerdly personal digital assistant that the three of us from Alcatel use (the Palm V), we chatted with we them about that for a bit.  As Larry observed later: no rude French people so far.

For dessert, I ordered crème brulée (a custard that has been scorched with a blow-torch — it’s become quite popular in America in the last 10 years or so).  Although it was extremely good, and subtly different from the American versions in ways that I cannot describe, I almost immediately suffered from Buyer’s Remorse when I saw that one of my tablemates had ordered something called Profiteroles, which I can not describe adequately, other than to say that they involved pastry, chantilly cream, chocolate, and being super-delicious.

Actually, because we’re all on the web, I can point you to a web page that has a nice picture them, along with a recipe for the pastry:


The text reads, in part: “Henri IV had, among his favorites, a mistress named Profiterole. To please her, he invented a light pastry, filled with chantilly and sprinkled with hot chocolate sauce.  Nowadays, the pastry is often filled with vanilla ice cream, but that recipe is not original.”

After a short stroll back to our hotel, we retired to our rooms and slept uniformly well, and awakened easily.  Where was the fearsome jet lag that we had heard so much about?  It seemed that this would not be a problem — and how wrong, how horribly and foolishly wrong I was, to think this.

[Next Installment: “Qu’est-ce c’est l’autocar?”]