Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Steaming my way to BARGE 2019

On the afternoon of July 31, 2019, Big Boy 4014 passes through Enterprise, IA
This is the story of my abbreviated trip to BARGE 2019. I've attended this event every year since 1993 and organized it, with a partner, between 1995 and 2008. It occurs in Las Vegas over most of the week culminating in the first weekend of August and involves playing poker, gambling, dining, and just plain having fun with friends I've known for years. This year was supposed to be no different. In fact I had airline reservations to fly to Las Vegas on July 30 and return on August 4--my usual schedule. Then something happened which changed everything.

The "something" was that the Union Pacific railroad announced that their Big Boy 4014 steam locomotive would be touring the eastern part of its system from mid-July to early August. The UP had taken this, the worlds largest steam locomotive, from a display in a museum in Southern California and over several years restored it to running order in time for the sesquicentennial celebration of the first transcontinental railroad last May. A fair number of my friends went out for that celebration but I elected not to because I expected it would be too crowded--it was, but I've since regretted that decision. So when this tour was announced I looked at how I might participate.

I contacted frequent traveling companion Rick Moser of Naperville, Illinois and we settled on the two day leg from West Chicago, Illinois to Des Moines, Iowa with an overnight in Cedar Rapids. This was the best time for both of us but it necessitated a change in my Las Vegas plans. At Rick's suggestion I changed my flights so that I would fly to Las Vegas directly from Des Moines on Thursday, August 1 instead of Tuesday, July 30. I then spent a fair number of evenings using Google Earth to help identify potential locations for pictures. I was guided by the schedule of the train (it would make several stops during the day for as long as 45 minutes which gave us time to get ahead of it.) This gave us a better chance to get ahead of it to shoot it from multiple locations. Our general idea was to get one shot somewhere on each side of a stop.

On Sunday, July 28 I flew to Chicago on a mid-afternoon United flight. The flight left on time, but the ride on the "L" to downtown Chicago took almost as long as the flight...the CTA was doing maintenance between Jefferson Park and Montrose and this necessitated a bus shuttle between those two stations. The trip took nearly two hours instead of less than one. But, hey, it only cost me $1.50. I checked into my hotel, the Conrad at Erie and Rush. The hotel was really nice. A while later I walked about six blocks to the Wildfire restaurant (also on Erie) where I enjoyed dinner with Debby Shapiro her partner Larry Goldberg, and John Warsaw. I went to school with Debby and John (6th-12th grades) and the Shapiros and Weinstocks have been friends dating back at least to my early childhood.

In spite of a comfortable room, I did not sleep well and was up earlier than I needed to be. I dressed and had breakfast at the hotel with Scott Frazin, did some work in my room and then had lunch with Al and Marlene Marks at a dim sum restaurant in the uptown area of Chicago. Al and I have been friends since my family moved across the street from his when we were both four years old. During lunch it poured, but by the time we finished it was sunny again. I picked up my bags and caught a bus to Union Station where I caught the 3:57pm departure for Naperville (which ran nonstop to Downers a very fast trip.)

Rick met me at the station and dropped me at the Courtyard in Naperville. I cleaned up and pretty soon Rick and his wife Jane and Alison (their oldest daughter) picked me up to go to dinner at a place unfortunately named The White Chocolate Grill. (Unfortunate because I dislike white chocolate and would not have picked the restaurant on my own based on the name.) It was excellent...if noisy. I met Rick in 1983 and met his wife Jane and two year old Alison for the first time perhaps a year later on memorable New Years Eve rail trip to St. Louis. Barb and I have traveled with Rick and Jane multiple times of the intervening years.

Through Creston, IL, July 30, 2019
Tuesday morning, Rick picked me up at the hotel at 7:30am and we headed to Creston, IL, our first photo location. This was fairly far from the starting location of West Chicago, but we were pretty sure we would have only one opportunity before its station stop in Rochelle, IL and we feared that close in locations would be mobbed. When we arrived the sun was dead on to the track (meaning full backlight no matter where we shot from) so we chose at Creston in a nice open area on the north side of the tracks. The wait was long enough that the sun shifted a bit before the train arrived and we would have been better off, I guess, on the south side. But we made of it what we could.

A freight and Big Boy 4014 approaching Sterling, IL as seen across the Rock River
From there while the train was stopped in Rochelle we headed to Rock Falls, IL. The train would proceed along the opposite shore of the Rock river into Sterling, but we expected to be able to get a good shot of it across the river. When scouting the trip I had identified a well situated marina and had tracked down the owner who gave us verbal permission to stand on his docks as the train came through. When we arrived there was an eastbound freight stopped on the southernmost track (meaning that if the steam train came through on the northernmost track we wouldn't be able to see it.) It eventually moved and was soon followed by another eastbound before, eventually, the 4014 and its train arrived. We got our pictures and I called the owner and thanked him and offered to send him a picture if he gave me his email address. It arrived by text shortly after the call. I sent the picture I took to him later that day.

Big Boy 4014 crossing the Cedar River, July 30, 2019
From there the plan had been to try to beat the train into Clinton, its next stop but traffic was so bad that we made a decision to head to the planned location. But then we looked at that, a place called DeWitt, IA. Given the traffic we had just seen and the fact that there was only a single viable road (US 30) to get from there to the planned location the other side of Wheatland we decided to have a quick lunch at a Portillo's in Davenport and drove on to the location at the Cedar River bridge in Cedar Rapids. There we had to make a choice...a near straight-on shot from a trail bridge over the tracks, or another broadside from the park along the river. We chose the latter and were able to park our car in the shade and enjoy the afternoon as we awaited the train's arrival. A note about this: the Union Pacific had thoughtfully provided a website that provided location updates throughout the day. So we knew roughly when it was time to get out of the car and choose our shooting location. Shortly the train came through, we took our pictures and drove to the Tru by Hilton on the west side of Cedar Rapids. The Tru is a "new concept" hotel that has a vibe similar to Starwood's (now Marriott's) trendy Aloft, but is more spartan and not as well executed. But it was comfortable enough and after a quick (too-quick) dinner at a nearby Texas Roadhouse with an acquaintance, Nick Thoralson who lived near by, we retired to our rooms for the night.

Through Watkins, IA on July 31, 2019
Wednesday morning the train was due to leave Cedar Rapids at 9am, so we left our hotel at 8:15am to get in position in Watkins, IA. There was already a reasonable crowd there but plenty of room at our chosen location along a road crossing the tracks. Our next location was in Le Grand, IA, on the other side of the train's Belleplaine IA stop. This was a shot from a highway bridge and we had no trouble getting there since US 30 did not actually run along the track at this point.

Through Le Grand, IA
Using Google Earth I had scoped out a location along a nature trail near Highland Acres road after the Marshalltown, IA stop but it turned out to be overgrown. The obvious choice of the Highland Acres road bridge was too crowded so we headed for an alternate broadside that I had also scoped out...but it was too constrained. Instead we went to Nevada, IA (Nev-ay-da) grabbed a sandwich for lunch and went to our next location which was at a place called Chicago Junction just south of where the train left the Chicago to Omaha line to head south to Des Moines its stopping place for the next several days. This was a fine location, but while we waited the sky became overcast. The pictures were still very worthwhile.

Through Nevada, IA
From Nevada we drove to Enterprise, a location not too far from Des Moines. We liked this location very much as well in spite of the overcast (which actually allowed us to shoot from the east side of the tracks which were vastly less crowded than the west side). From there I had found a location where the train made a turn to the east to enter the Des Moines yard, but when we got there it was 1) raining, and 2) incredibly crowded, so we called it a "chase" and headed to our hotel, the Doubletree at the airport for the night. We relaxed in our respective rooms for about two hours before going to dinner at a great local place called Skips. After returning to the hotel I said goodbye to Rick (who I wouldn't see until October) and watched a movie before bed.

Ending the 4014 chase as it comes through Enterprise, IA, July 31, 2019
By the time I was ready for breakfast on Thursday, Rick had already left on his drive back to the Chicago area. When planning the trip I had offered to drive back with him and continue onto Las Vegas from there, but he said I should just fly from Des Moines...that the 4+ hour drive back for him alone was no problem. So that's what I did. The only reasonable flight to Las Vegas was a noon nonstop departure on Southwest. The flight arrived on time at 1pm, I called for a Lyft and I was soon at the shared-ride pickup area looking for my friend Nolan to pick me up. Instead I was picked up by Ignacia who proceeded to tunnel me even though my Henderson destination was nowhere near that part of town. Since Lyft sets the fees ahead of time the only thing I lost was about 15 minutes, but I was still at the business meeting I had to attend in plenty of time.

After a quick lunch meeting, my colleagues drove me to the Green Valley Ranch Resort where I checked into a wonderful room with a view of the pool area, and my BARGE 2019 began. I immediately headed for the poker room getting lost on the way and met up with a whole lot of friends who were deep into poker games. I had organized a group of nine of us (it became 10) to go see the Las Vegas Aviators play the New Orleans Baby Cakes (AAA minor league baseball) at the brand new Las Vegas Ball Park. The ball park is in Summerlin...about as far from the GVR as possible, but some of us had cars so getting there was easy. Lori Miller had been promising me a ride in her Tesla Model S for several years. She agreed to take me to the ball park, showing off all of the cars autonomous features in the heavy rush hour traffic.

We arrived at the ball park, and parked in the free parking lot (the only bargain) just as the gates were opening for $2 beer night. The ball park is an amazing place, especially when compared with the old one, Cashman Field, which was a bit of a dump the last time we saw a game there. We had comfortable seats in the shade, and had plenty of time to explore the various gift shops, and food and beverage vendors. Here is where I got my big surprise: the prices were major league, with simple hot dogs around $6, refillable soft drinks around $8, premium hot dogs at $9 or higher, etc. Water was over $5 so I opted for a $5 bag of peanuts (same price at PNC Park in Pittsburgh) and a $2 Dos Equis. (When I went back for a second later in the game all they had left is Coors Light--you know, water.) The game itself was poorly played (a dropped pop up? In AAA ball?) and clocked in at over 3 hours. My return ride, Linda Lewis (Lori lives near the ball park) was ready to leave before the ninth inning as were all of her passengers. She graciously stopped at a Walgreens on the way back to GVR so that we could stock up on water, Diet Coke, etc. I was in bed around midnight.

Friday dawned and because of time zones I was wide awake at 7am. The BARGE Board of Directors and the Organizers had scheduled a breakfast meeting at 9:30am and Peter Secor and I were invited (we remain Emeritus Directors.) The first poker tournament I participated in, the Tournament of Champions, began at 11am. This tournament consists of three different limit poker games: Texas Hold'em, Seven Card Stud, and Omaha Hi-Lo Split. I played ok but not great and finished in the top half of the field as best I can tell. It was 3pm and I had not eaten since breakfast so I grabbed a hamburger at the on-site Fatburger. As was my poker performance, it was ok but not great, but at least I finished it. At 5pm the BARGE Symposium started. The Symposium involves food and a player auction. This year the food was practically banquet quality ... perhaps even better. The downside was that drinks at the bar were quite expensive. For the auction I participated in a small syndicate. Five of us contributed $100. After the auction we heard a talk by Adam Pliska, the CEO of the World Poker Tour about its past and future and then the Board had its annual meeting.

For many years, Kevin Un and I have gone off to share shrimp cocktails during BARGE, with the buyer usually being the loser of a bet on baseball. In the good old days it was 99 cent shrimp cocktails at the Golden Gate. This year we paid 10 times as much for much better shrimp. Since our baseball bet ended in a push we played credit card roulette for the bill. Of course the real attraction of this is not the shrimp, or paying off a bet...rather it's a chance for two friends to spend time catching up. So it really didn't matter who paid (but thanks Kevin!) After shrimp it was time to go to another BARGE tradition (albeit unofficial) Karaoke. This year the Karaoke was sponsored by Dan Goldman's company Virtue Poker and it was great. One of the highlights was seeing Nolan in a tux and Becca in a gown singing "Shallow" from A Star is Born.

A tradition I had missed by arriving late on Thursday was a Thursday morning breakfast with a small group of friends, typically including at least Randy, Goldie, Bruce, George, Chic, and JK. They held the event without me, but then the group (without Randy and with JRX) had another breakfast on Saturday morning at the Egg Works about a mile or so away. We were back in plenty of time for the start of the 11am No-Limit Hold'em tournament. I outlasted at least half the field in this tournament as well and had a stack commensurate with the number of players left when I went out with my A-K against a pair of tens held by Dann Nussbaum (who went on to finish third I believe.) I had a great time and at least I won my Go for Goldie event (won because I lasted longer than Goldie, though I went out within about 30 minutes of him.) By the way, I was an underdog on the hand pre-flop (42% to 58%) but I felt good about my play throughout the day. This was about 3:30pm.

At 6:30pm JK, David K., Goldie, Chic, JRX, and I went to King's Fish House for a great dinner and then back to the poker room for the Reindeer Games (wherein crazy BARGErs take over the poker room with wild poker games that go on to the wee hours.) Me, I played a little video poker and won $20. As I was heading back to the poker room to say goodbye to my many friends and watch as much of the final table as I could I heard "Hello stranger!" and turned around and there was Diane Lable and Gina English, a pair of dealers the whole BARGE community has known for years from Binion's. She had come out to GVR to say hello to her old friends. I watched the final table until it was down to about seven at which point I went up to my room to finish packing and get ready for bed and watched the live stream of the final table a bit longer (thanks Rodney) until our syndicate's last two players busted (netting us a $40.50 a person profit.)

I had a non-stop flight booked back to Pittsburgh on Sunday morning, but because of the 737 MAX problems Southwest had canceled that flight and I ended up connecting through Nashville. That flight was due to leave at 10:25am with a 50 minute connecting time. On both flights the middle seat was empty which made for a first class Southwest experience. By the way, I have a near foolproof way for ensuring an empty seat assuming a non-full flight: 1) pick a row near the front of the aircraft where a large individual is sitting alone, 2) be large yourself. People will skip your middle seat in hopes of finding a roomier one further back. I caught a Lyft home from the airport and arrived before 8:30pm after a successful rail/BARGE combination trip.

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