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The N&W Railway and I May 30, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, railroads.
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N&W steam locomotive reincarnated for excursion use. Photo by James G. Howes

The Norfolk & Western Railway has played a role in my life at two widely separated points.

The first was around 1960, when Dad took our whole family to see the last commercially operating steam locomotive in Roanoke, Virginia, the hub of N&W’s operations. I don’t remember the locomotive itself as well as the awe-inspiring roundhouse, where the locomotives were positioned on a revolving turntable for purposes of shifting direction or changing tracks. It was a massive showcase of heavy, complicated, dark, noisy equipment. I loved it.

But then, I had already been a pint-sized railroad fan. For my 5th birthday, Mom and Dad gave me the core components of a Lionel train set that was continually expanded over the following years. I spent many hours putting my train through its paces, backward and forward, running it through its papier-mache tunnel and through its forest of model railroad trees with their spongy foliage. (The foliage is made from a type of lichen that is harvested, among other places, in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest.) My train was a mix of freight and passenger cars, but my imaginary passengers did not mind at all that their car sat behind a coal car or a box car.

And it never seemed to bother anyone that a girl was so interested in something that was supposed to be a boy’s hobby. I must have picked up my father’s enthusiasm for trains at a very early age, and no one tried to discourage me. Dad was a true railway buff who read extensively about railroads of both the U.S. and Europe, and he collected timetables. You can read about one of his favorite railroad books from childhood here.

Twenty-two years after my visit to Roanoke, I got a job writing about coal markets for a small company in Knoxville, Tennessee. This led to work writing about international coal markets for McGraw Hill and then, for many years, for the Financial Times.

For the benefit of people who are upset by the existence of coal, I’ll point out that my job was not to promote the coal industry but to report on its buying and selling activities. A big story for me would, for instance, concern the price on tonnage of Australian coal going to the Brazilian steel mills. At any rate, my reporting tended to focus more on metallurgical coal than coal for power generation, since U.S. coal exports were primarily “met” or “coking” coal for the steel industry.

And that is where the N&W comes in again. Top-quality metallurgical coal—arguably the best in the world—came from the coalfields served by the N&W, especially the Flat Top-Pocahontas coalfield. These were the famous low-vol Virginia Pocahontas mines operating in the “Pokey No. 3” coal seam, and the elusive mid-vol produced at operations like Amonate and Jenkinjones. The mid-vol generally ran in thin seams and was very expensive to mine, but the mention of its physical characteristics—24-25% vols, high FSI, very low ash—would bring raptures to a steel company coal buyer concerned about the performance of the coal in his coke ovens.

The coal was exported out of N&W’s Lamberts Point Pier 6 in Norfolk. By the way, I’m quite aware that the N&W was merged with Southern Railway in 1982 to become Norfolk Southern. But people with an interest in the railroads tend to refer to the older names. It’s partly that they are more specific, and partly out of a kind of nostalgia for something that has died in the age of faceless, consolidated corporations.

(Continued here)

Lambert's Point pier in Norfolk---a truly amazing place

Celo Knob via Woody Ridge May 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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On the steep part of Woody Ridge

Unfortunately, my camera lens was fogged on almost all of today’s pictures. I promise to pay more attention to this in the future. In the meantime, just pretend that these photos represent a nostalgic, sentimental return to some place that was of deep emotional importance to me at some point in the distant past. Perhaps I strolled up this trail with some lover from the mists of time, and now I am returning to the scene with a broken heart. In reality, I have never been to this place before and I have no emotions attached to it whatsoever.

I seem to get conflicting information about the dimensions of this hike. After a certain amount of weighing and considering, and then just arbitrarily settling on some numbers, I declare that the climb of Woody Ridge to the Black Mountain Crest trail is 2.2 miles and 3100 vertical. I think we can all agree, though, that this is a pretty steep climb. I would say it is the steepest climb I’ve done on any maintained trail in the Southern Appalachians.

The stretch that gets you from 4200 to 5200 feet is especially steep. That climbing is probably done over about a third of a mile.

Ah...the memories, the memories...

So I grunted and sweated my way along. I must say that this trail is a really good workout. I might try to figure out some way to do it once a month. It’s good for the calf muscles on this rather unusual steep section where you are not stepping up on rocks in staircase fashion, but rather just trudging up a daunting dirt slope where your feet stay at a steep angle. And on the way down, the quads take the punishment.

When I decided to do this hike, I really had very little information about it. Just knew it was a challenging climb up a ridge on the east side of the Black Mountain range. And, as it turned out, I paid the price for my ignorance of the details. I’d heard that you could climb to Horse Rock, 6200′, not a “true summit” (doubtless because of an “inadequate col”) but still an interesting point above 6000 feet with good views.

So, as I climbed the ridge, I passed some nice viewpoints above 5000 feet.

Finally I reached the junction with the Black Mountain Crest trail. My new digital altimeter told me I was at 6050′, and since I knew Horse Rock was 6200′, I figured I had a little more work to do. So I turned right on the crest trail and continued along for another 15 minutes or so. A large knob reared up in front of me, and I climbed it. I think I kind of realized as I climbed that I was not in fact ascending Horse Rock, but rather Celo Knob (6327′).

A clear herd path ran from a turn in the crest trail, so I followed it to a high point. At that point, a stronger herd path ran to the north. It was Celo Knob. I backtracked a short distance and found a nice viewpoint where I could have lunch.

View from Celo Knob, looking at Woody Ridge

I figured I’d find Horse Rock on the way back. But I never did. I looked for faint side trails, cairns, or flagging, but saw nothing. I think it must be quite obvious, but this was not my day for finding it. (Note added after looking at a better map: I should have just bushwhacked up to the top of the slight rise on the east of the trail.)

And so I began the strenuous descent of Woody Ridge. There was a nice little bit of Catawba rhododendron blooming just at a point where you had to do a little scramble. And there was nothing terribly noteworthy after that.

“Wake up about four in the morning” May 22, 2010

Posted by Jenny in literature, poetry.
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This is a poem by William Stafford that I like very much. It has a bite to it. But it also offers us something.


Freedom is not following a river.

Freedom is following a river,

though, if you want to.

It is deciding now by what happens now.

It is knowing that luck makes a difference.

* * *

No leader is free; no follower is free—

the rest of us can often be free.

Most of the world are living by

creeds too odd, chancy, and habit-forming

to be worth arguing about by reason.

* * *

If you are oppressed, wake up about

four in the morning: most places,

you can usually be free some of the time

if you wake up before other people.

From The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. Graywolf Press, 1997.