back to relying on power generated by others

after traveling for more than a month on your own power, getting anywhere you wanted to get by virtue of your own two, weary, worn-out feet, it is a singular experience to return to the world of motorized transportation. you mean I can get more than 15 miles in one day?! how spectacular!

while in hindsight it might have been easier to fly in and out of Madrid and taken a train to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and from Santiago de Compostela, it was a treat to take even a short trip by train from Santiago to Vigo (and to visit with Felix & Kate at the beginning of the trip as they kindly transported us to our point of departure). when one lives someplace with limited (to use a staggering understatement) train travel opportunities, the prospect of taking shelling out a few bucks to ride an hour down the tracks is a wondrous prospect. I’ve traveled a fair bit by trains on my travels and I’m still impressed each time I walk into a station as to how seamlessly one can procure a ticket, walk out onto the platform and hop on a train. (of course, there’s a small chance I went about it all wrong in the Czech Republic and just lucked out not getting nabbed by transport police … but I think I did ok.)

our last day in Spain dawned drizzly though not unpleasant. after a slow start and a leisurely exploration of the old town, lunch at a tasty Italian cafe in sight of the cathedral spires, (and an ultimately unsuccessful quest to send some wine home) we grabbed our packs and headed for an earlier-than-planned train to Vigo and its airport. the ride south was uneventful and odd in both its novelty and normality. lots of young people heading from one town to anther for a Saturday, couple of people with suitcases also heading to or from an airport.

rather than figure out a means of getting to the airport by public transportation from the Vigo train station, we opted for the luxury of a taxi, which whipped us up the hill — and into fog bank blanketing the coast — in record time. our flight to Madrid wasn’t scheduled to depart Vigo until after 9:00 p.m., but we took a gamble leaving early in the hopes we’d be able to catch something earlier; we arrived at the airport in just enough time to catch a 5:00ish flight that would get us in about three hours early.

… if the fog hadn’t been bad enough to cancel all flights in and out of Vigo for the duration of the day! they put all of us Madrid-bound passengers on a bus (back) to Santiago and the airport there, which wasn’t completely fogged in. we still ended up in Madrid two hours earlier than scheduled and managed to find some food and experience something of a real night out in a Spanish metropolis on our 34th night in the country.

Stewart Tunnel

20130608_143553slowly working up the length of our hikes in preparation for the Camino, last weekend we walked from Belleville to Monticello on the Badger State Trail. the recreational trail is part of a national “Rails to Trails” program that converts disused railroad tracks into functional hiking/biking/running/walking trails. the Badger State trail runs from Madison to Monroe and the highlight of the trip is the Stewart Tunnel, located a few miles south of Belleville. it curves as it goes under the hill, so even though it’s only about a quarter mile long, the darkness is complete — and spooky or awesome depending on how your sentiments lean — as you make your way along its length. you can, technically, make it through without a light but after our first trip through the tunnel last spring (when the ice inside had yet to melt completely and there were mounds all over the floor and walls), I’m not inclined to try it out blind myself.

work on the Stewart Tunnel began in December of 1886 to extend the Illinois Central Railroad’s CM&N line from Freeport, Illinois, to Madison. crews, made up of local farmers and other contractors, started hacking into the hill from both the north and the south using hand drills to create holes for dynamite. over the next year, the project became a popular destination for sightseers and picnickers, who would sometimes have to take off running to avoid falling debris.

by the end of October, the teams had dug 391 feet from the north end and 321 feet from the south end of the tunnel. perhaps in part because of a strike that occurred in September, the company was anxious to spur work along and the two teams got into competition over which could clear more of the remaining rock faster. during the first week of November, they cleared 65 feet and 70 feet, respectively, which some claimed was a record for distance drilled in a week’s time. crews were forced to halt work for several days in the middle of November because they hit an underground stream and the roof had became unstable and required reinforcement, but in spite of this delay the two ends met exactly in the middle on December 1, 1887.

passenger trains ran daily up until the 1960s, while freight trains ran until 1976. taking over from Illinois Central Railroad, the Wisconsin and Calumet Railroad resumed passenger service from Freeport to Madison in 1981. the last train on the line ran in 1992 and the entire segment was embargoed due to unsafe operating conditions in December 1993. I had no idea they were running so recently, but it jives with my hazy memory of when they started converting the train tracks I crossed on my way to middle school into what is now the Southwest Commuter trail (and extension of the Badger State Trail).

(more info –including maps and current conditions — from the DNR website)

public transportation

I’ve had a draft post on public transportation waiting for me to expound on it for months — I use it whenever I travel and it has a sameness/ foreignness from place to place that begs comparison. the more I travel, the easier it become to adapt to different systems and, whether because of that or not, the public transportation systems of the Czech Republic were the easiest I have ever navigated. despite the occasional language barrier (most window clerks understood English), I always got to my destination — more or less leaving and arriving on time.

the systems are a public-private hybrid that offer a quite a variance in speed, comfort, and accessibility. the ones most heavily patronized by tourists were often much nicer (the train to Karlstejn versus the local I rode from Olomouc to Prague, as seen to the left, illustrates my point), which makes sense for an economy that relies as much on tourism as that of Czech. the one to Karlstejn reminded me of riding the Metra into Chicago from the nicer suburbs on a Saturday; on the ride from Olomouc I had the car to myself until a Czech woman with a fully-stocked traveller’s backpack joined me. (she chatted to people on the platform before the train departed, and then picked up a Czech romance novel once we got going.)

in the two larger towns I visited — Prague and Olomouc — there is a combination of buses, trams, and (in the case of Prague) metro. for the trams and subways, fares are collected on a kind of honor system. passengers are expected to purchase tickets from tabacs or yellow fare machines in stations for the correct fare, and then validate them upon boarding the tram or train. there aren’t any turnstyles in the metro stations, just validation machines, which struck me as rather odd after experiencing the lengths to which other cities go to prevent people from skipping turnstyles.

I say it’s regulated by a kind of honor system, though, because there are routine checks by transport police, who stop passengers and demand to see validated tickets. I encountered them twice while I was traveling, once on the Prague metro and once on the tram in Olomouc. the guys in Prague were standing in the exit tunnel in obvious police garb, trying to catch as many people as they could streaming up from the station platform. in Olomouc, a couple of (rather ratty-looking) plainclothes officers got on the tram before a long stretch between stops to check tickets, then got off. that pair even dutifully validated their tickets on boarding the tram, then tucked them away as they got off. (tickets are usually good for 60-75 minutes, to allow for transfers — I wonder if these transport cops validated new tickets every time they got onto a new bus or tram?)


apparently there have been problems (whether past or present) with non-police types taking it upon themselves to check passengers for tickets — and then collecting the fine of upwards of 500 crowns (around $30) for not having a validated ticket. to rectify that, legit officers carry silver-dollar sized, red shields that identify them as such. I had no idea what the guy who stopped me in Prague wanted, until I realized that he was half-heartedly holding up his transport badge, not just holding his arm at an awkward angle by his belt.
(the issue of transport police doesn’t arise on longer-distance buses, as you purchase your ticket from the driver, and then it’s on your honor to get off at the destination that you paid for.)

is the honor-system profitable? probably not as much as the tightly regulated systems of London or New York, but it does make for easier ingress and egress and an overall faster metro or tram ride.

railroad trestle in Drogheda

the railroad trestle in Drogheda crosses the mouth of the Boyne River, a “great feat of 19th century engineering” as Louth Hospitality Ltd would like you to know. completed in 1855, it is 1,400ft long an comprises 18 arches with 60ft spans. as elsewhere in Europe, rail travel is rather big in Ireland (though I’d argue that Bus Eireann does an even better job of connecting locations; the train is just faster) and the completion of this railroad bridge made rail travel north from Dublin much easier. until the viaduct was built, passengers had to disembark in Drogheda and travel six miles (on their own) to meet up with the train again on the other side of the Boyne.

the importance of viaducts like this came into sharp relief while I was traveling. in the second week of my travels, the viaduct at Malahide (just north of Dublin) collapsed into the sea just after a train passed over it. the driver of the train noticed the problem and alerted appropriate authorities, who suspended operations before the bridge actually collapsed or resulted in real disaster. small consolation to those on board the train that nearly ended up in the sea, and even smaller for the regular commuters that use the line. officials were predicting that service on the line, which runs from Dublin to Belfast and transports some 20,000 passengers a day, would be disrupted for three months. around 90 trains pass over that bridge, some freight, but many carrying passengers.

when Katerina was getting ready to leave Drogheda, she was advised against taking the train from Drogheda to Dublin, as the bridge collapse at Malahide complicated things. (instead, take the bus to Dublin and the train across to Galway.)

here’s the Independent’s article on the bridge collapse (the title is the best bit: ‘My legs turned to jelly as I saw the bridge collapse’)