Archives for June 2010

New Gear: Trangia 28-T

June 23, 2010 by cynick | Posted in gear

Well, the bake-off (har, har!) of camp cook sets boiled down to (har, har!) (that’s the last time) a choice between the JetBoil and one of the Trangia kits. Being something of a novice at all of this, I stuck with the facts:

  • I would only be cooking for myself

  • It needed to be as light as possible

  • I don’t really care about performance

The JetBoils are extremely light, to be sure, and anyone trying to use one to cook for multiple people is crazy (they really are made more for the solo hiker), but a large black mark in my book is their (claimed) need for JetBoil’s proprietary fuel mix. This reminds me of the old days back at the Radio Shack when the annoying, slovenly nerds behind the counter would insist that their crappy electronic gizmos would run best with Tandy batteries. In the _very _old days, customers of Radio Shack were probably smart enough to know that 1.5 volts is 1.5 volts.. but I digress. No, somehow – and I admit this is probably slightly irrational – I just don’t like the idea of carrying pressurized gas around, or even white gas. Another black mark is the high cost: $99 everywhere (does Steve Jobs handle their price controls?), plus more if you want accessories like coffee presses and such.

On the other hand, the Trangia kits are designed around an alcohol burner whose design goes back to 1925. Sure, denatured alcohol has fewer BTUs than the other fuels, which means cooking takes longer, but in my case, this isn’t a factor, not to mention that suitable alcohol can be obtained almost anywhere.

And indeed, as the title of this post implies, I bought a Trangia kit that is also known as the “Mini Trangia”: it is simply the burner, a pot, and a non-stick pan. Only for $35. Since the burner is sealable, I can fill it with fuel before a trip, and get multiple burns from it before having to use any of the extra fuel I’ll carry in a small plastic bottle.

My tests on a perfectly frictionless surface (okay, my stovetop) show that this thing can boil water in ten minutes. Hey, I don’t think boiling water in the kettle on my stove is any faster! Of course, out in, shall we say.. imperfect conditions, performance might be quite worse. I’m going to try a real test very soon.

Here is what it looks like in the throes of making oatmeal:

Hoffman Avenue Software

June 15, 2010 by cynick | Posted in rail , software

I just returned from filing the paperwork to start my own software company: Hoffman Avenue Software, LLC.

I must say, it was an exceedingly painless interaction with government. There are places on the Internet, eg.,, that try to make you think that that starting a company is a big, complicated task that should be left in the hands of professionals. And for $250, they will take care of all of that for you.

I suppose some people have a hard time filling out forms, but in this case, it is a single form, with only eight fields to fill out! Three of those fields are optional. Two of the mandatory fields are your name/street address, another is your phone/email. Another is a check box that indicates whether or not the new business will have any interest in any lands used for agriculture. And the final mandatory field? The company name!

I took about a minute to fill it out, biked over to the Secretary of State office, waited another two minutes for my number to be called, wrote them a check for $160 (sigh, it’s 2010 and they still don’t take credit cards), got a stamped copy of the form I was filing, and within five minutes I was back out the door.

Wow, and people will pay $250 to to do that for them? I’m in the wrong business!

A couple words about the name of my company. Hoffman Avenue is another in a long line of lost Saint Paul streets. I’m not entirely sure when it vanished, and I have found some conflicting information as to its existence. According to Don Empson’s wonderful book, “The Street Where You Live”, Hoffman Ave. was originally called Dayton Avenue, presumably in honor of Lyman Dayton, the man for whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, but was renamed in 1872.  This was the year of the first major street renaming in St. Paul, and since there had also been a Dayton Ave. running parallel to Grand Avenue since 1854, the Dayton Ave. on Dayton’s Bluff was renamed to Hoffman Avenue to honor James K. Hoffman, who, in addition to being the owner of several sawmills in the area of Dayton’s Bluff, was also on the City Council at the time that the street was renamed.

The conflicting part is that Empson says that the street vanished into the construction of I-94 in 1960. However, the only reference I can see of Hoffman Ave. on the old plat maps is a tiny piece that seems to jut off Mounds Blvd. near the intersection of Mounds, Bates Ave. and Clermont St., and head toward the bluff edge, picking up again at the bottom of the bluff along the property line of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, now BNSF.

This may now give a hint as to my interest in this name. At the point where the road started at the bottom of the bluff is a railroad interlocking plant that is identified as Hoffman Ave. by the railroad. Five tracks go through the plant, and turnouts are available to cross from any of the outer four tracks to any other, in any direction. Due to space considerations, the tower housing the interlocking equipment was situated over the track nearest to the bluff, as seen here. The tower was demolished in 1986; only the retaining wall above it remains. Hoffman Ave. is now remotely controlled from Fort Worth, Texas.

The image on the top of this page is of the signal bridge that controls eastbound movement through the interlocking.

One of my long term project ideas (ie., I had the idea back in 2001, and I still haven’t gotten around to implementing it) is to develop a reliable webcam live video delivery architecture, and as a proving ground, point a camera out my window over to Hoffman Avenue, package it up into a iPhone app, and see if I can’t get enough train nerds to pay, say, a few dollars a year to watch the video. If I could generate enough interest to pay for the bandwidth, why, I’d be pleased as punch.

Circle Trip Digest

June 9, 2010 by cynick | Posted in circle-trip

[This is a backdated, edited version of the trip digest I emailed out to people last April]

After “retiring” from Swarmcast earlier this Spring, I decided that I had run completely out of steam, and I needed to take a break somewhat longer and different than a conventional “vacation”. It seemed like a road trip of undefined duration was exactly what the doctor ordered.

I hit the road at exactly 5pm of my last official day at SC. I had been deferring invites from some friends for some time; I decided to take them all up in one big loop, and try to hit as many sites of railroad and historical import as I could along the way.

Recognizing that nobody wants to read a lengthy, tiresome travelogue, I present instead a statistical digest of my trip – with one or two accompanying comments.

  • Total time: 28 days, 23 hours, 55 minutes. (Just five minutes shy of 29 days)

  • Miles driven: 8870

  • Gallons of gas burned: 352

  • Avg MPG: 25.19

  • Carbon released: 3.4 tons

This number uses the EPA’s estimate that 19.4 pounds of carbon is released for every gallon of gas burned. I’m sure that there are many tradeoffs related to this number; indeed, I wonder the effects of high-altitude air?

  • States traversed: 18: MN, WI, IL, KY, TN, GA, FL, AL, MI, LA, TX, NM, CO, WY, UT, ID, MT, SD – in that order (I could have hit more, but that wasn’t what the trip was about)

  • States carefully avoided: 4 (IN, AR, OK, KS)

  • Lowest Point: 0ft (Florida)

  • Highest Point: about 11800ft (the treeline on Pikes Peak) (I thought I had achieved a negative elevation, but the internet says that the French Quarter is actually three feet above sea level)

  • Mental Low Point: When I realized that the UP 844 (an engine I’ve never seen) and train had steamed out of Cheyenne on the morning of the day I arrived there, and I had NO IDEA. That burns!

  • Crossings of the Continental Divide: 9

  • Snow storms driven through: 3 (Winter Park is called Winter Park for a reason)

  • Bike rides: 5

On the last ride, all four elements were against me:

  • Earth: the steepness of the canyon road I was on

  • Air: the air was fairly thin

  • Water: the road was covered in snow that had almost turned to slush

  • Fire: the fire in my lungs and throat as I tried to breathe

The only true excuse is that I am ridiculously out of shape.

  • Movies attended: 3

“Goldberg”, “Chloe”, and “Date Night”, only two of which I can recommend. As to the latter film: hey, there was nothing else to do in Sheridan, WY once the sun had gone down.

  • Photos taken: 3600+

  • Photos taken of complete strangers using their cameras: 3

  • Museums/Historic Sites visited: 15

The most interesting was the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, sited in the former Texas Book Depository, but I’d have to say that the most profound and moving site, for me anyway, was the location of the Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah.

The worst was in Pensacola: Broken door chain, fire alarm making low-battery chirp, heater partially disassembled with loose screws all over the floor, no pillows; on the other hand, hands down my cheapest hotel stay, implying that you do get what you pay for.

  • Nights spent sleeping in car: 7

  • Nights rousted while sleeping in car: 0

This is a testament to my nightly painstaking efforts to find a spot that’s out of the way, but not so far out of the way as to attract attention.

This count would have been nine, except that, I realized only after driving 20 miles out of the way to find one – and finding it deserted – that the current day was Sunday, and, as you know, the Chik-Fil-A people have decreed that their sandwiches are not to be consumed on the Lord’s Day.

  • Fast food places patronized: 0 (Technically, Chik-Fil-A has tried to take on the “quick food” designation)

  • Number of honest-to-god “Poboys” eaten: 1

  • Chain restaurants patronized: 3

If I distinguish between national chain and local chain, that number drops to one: Applebees on Easter. All of the locally owned places were closed. And I do mean all – I checked the whole friggin’ town.

  • Number of newly restored, antique sailboats sailed on: 1

  • Number of newly restored, antique sailboats run aground due to my non-existent seamanship: 1

I’m so sorry, Chad! That’s another shining entry in my Lifetime Catalog of Embarrassments and Regrets – although, it was some help when you remarked that it was revenge for the cell phone call you make me take that one time.

  • Number of times car battery died: 2

  • Number of jumpstarts needed: 1

  • Number of new car batteries purchased: 1

I’ll leave this one to the imagination, although, I will say that it might have been a better idea to bring more blankets.

  • Number of postcards mailed: 13

  • Near-death experiences: only 3

These were all in traffic in two rather large metroplexes that both start with the letter “D”. Although, I can’t be sure that I was actually _awake _for all of those 8870 miles – there may have been other incidents that I am completely unaware of.

All in all, I’d have to say it was a great trip. Three weeks into it, I finally thought to myself that I’m starting to recover. If nothing else, it gave me a great introduction to many areas in the country that I’ve read about over the years but never seen with my own eyes. One or two of them don’t seem like they would be too terrible to live in! 

I definitely want to go back to some of those places to investigate and photograph them in more detail. Everything around the Twin Cities suddenly now seems bland and uninteresting in comparison.

I also want to go back to the Black Hills and ride the Mickelson Trail. I criss-crossed over it several times while taking a “remote logging road shortcut” (suggested not by google, but by my topo map – and no, that’s not where my car died), and I bet there is some fantastic scenery back in those hills.

Here is a representative set of photos from the trip:

I might, if I find myself lacking on subjects to write about in the present, pick and choose some memories from the trip and write about them in more detail.

New Gear: Hennessy Hammock

June 8, 2010 by cynick | Posted in gear

Some of my bike rides this summer will very likely take longer than a day. It always bothers me to stay in hotels when all I really need is a roof for a few hours (it’s a pity the capsule hotel hasn’t taken off in this country), so, with that, and the fact that I don’t have any income at the moment, I’ve been investigating stealth camping.

The general idea is to bike until it gets dark, and then find a place in the woods some distance off the trail, set up a shelter, sleep, and tear it all down and leave as soon as possible the next morning before anyone notices you are there. The finer points of such camping (eg., avoiding high traffic paths that will teem with deer, rabbits, drunk teenagers, and other creatures all night long) are readily found via a few google searches; for me, though, I had to decide what kind of shelter I wanted to get.

The search boiled down to either a Hennessy Hammock or a Sierra Designs Light Year 1 tent.

I eventually settled on a Hennessy Expedition A-Sym.

Some of the benefits of the hammock over a tent:

  • The whole thing – hammock and rain fly – easily rolls up into my Brompton bag, and it only weighs 2.75 pounds.

  • If handled properly, it will never even touch the ground, so there are no worries about finding dry, level, rock-free ground.

  • No damage is done to the environment, which is line with the photographer mantra, “Take only photos, leave only footprints”

As it turns out, my colleague (and Scout  Master) Ry4an has had one of these things for many years, and has used it extensively, in both fair and foul weather. So, I think I chose wisely!

I’ve been practicing setting it up in various tracts of woods around Saint Paul. I immediately found some of Ry4an’s advice to be true: it is best to set it up, sit in it to stretch out the cords, and then completely retie it.

Yesterday afternoon, while hanging out in the thing in Mounds Park, just watching the clouds roll by, it occurred to me that it is really a kind of portable screened-in porch! I’ve never before been able to simply sit in woods and enjoy their sounds and sights without constantly worrying about ants, mosquitoes, spiders, and other (perhaps) imagined interlopers – until now.

Since the thing is so easy to set up, I don’t see anything wrong with making it a regular part of my gear, and setting it up for short periods of time just to take a nap or read a book whenever I feel like it.

I plan on having a test overnight adventure soon; then we shall see in fact how bug-proof it really is. First, though, I have to do some homework on lightweight cooking gear.

A Summer Manifesto

June 1, 2010 by cynick | Posted in mntour

Statement: This summer I intend to cover every mile of rail trail in the state of Minnesota.

At first glance, this seems like a daunting task, but, thanks to, I see that the total mileage is just shy of 1200 miles, with 43 trails. Eminently doable.

Some of these trails are quite short, others are more than a hundred miles. I’m going to do all of this on my 2007 Brompton M3, and perhaps some light camping equipment. For some trails, I may even be able to ride Amtrak to get to the trailheads. For others, I will have to drive my car to get to them.

The main idea of all of this is to ride the trails with an eye on the history behind the construction of each railroad that used to run there, and to document any remaining artifacts such as rails, signal masts, mile markers and other signs of the railroads’ former presence. Some trails on which I’ve already ridden have provided fairly decent historical information via kiosks arrayed along the line, but others supply no more information than “this is an abandoned railroad grade”. These might go so far as to state the name of the railroad, but it’s typically the name of the last railroad to operate the line, rather than the railroad that operated the line for most of its existence, or the railroad that was actually involved in its construction.

I’m also going to link all of this into Google Maps to chart my progress as the summer goes on. I may even invest in a GPS receiver to mark the locations of any artifacts along the right-of-way.

This should be a lot of fun. I expect to learn more about Minnesota railroads, as well as hone my bicycle touring abilities. The latter might lead to even longer rides, to such places as Omaha or Michigan.

Stay tuned.