Monday, June 30, 2008


Long hot showers work wonders. No ibuprofen, and our cycle time keeps getting shorter.

Beautiful morning—cool and clear, mist in the valleys. On a meadow in the middle distance, a tom is courting a hen by constantly walking an annoying circle around her. Wish I could hear what he’s telling her.

A digression: The bikers of Mabry Mill stick in my mind for some reason. They are representative of a certain type I have watched for a long time. They appear worn, tired, testy, stiff and sore, and not very happy until they are off their bikes and socializing. My prejudice will out, and I make no pretense of objectivity. Riding, though by no mean exercise, is physically demanding. So is sitting in the sun for hours. So is immersion in constant loud noise. To combine it all on a machine designed for its looks, or in imitation of looks, is folly. No wonder they look and act they way they do. The sport bikers have it right. Design is life, reality can’t be held at bay for too long, and physics is a cruel mistress.

Woodpecker. Cow. Skunk.

Pencil and paper. Real film. How quaint.

Hydropower dam on the Little River. Below the dam, two boys fish. It looks odd to me, but this is, of course, exactly what two boys should be doing on the warm morning of June 24th. The one fishes impatiently, from my perspective on the dam. But eventually he hooks what looks like a smallmouth bass, larger than anything edible I recall ever catching. He walks gingerly back along the stone knife-edge from which he is fishing, leading the fish in the water like a dog on a leash before unhooking it and releasing it back into the froth-flecked river.

The foam is not pollution, but an indicator of decay products in the water—exactly what you’d expect to see in a river like this. Mostly protein breakdown products, I think.

The generator is a thing of beauty, virtually Art Deco. 4,160 VAC at 60 Hz. Brushes the size of candy bars. Great data dashboard on the monitor. The rotor is turning at a stately, majestic pace, and it is silent—when I press my ear to it, there is nothing to be heard. Then the plant manager opens the penstock gate and the low flowing river awakens in a roiling, churning explosion of froth and spray; the generator jumps to life.

It now exudes a vital, vigorous force, turning six times faster than it had been just a few moments earlier. Yet, up close, it is still as perfectly balanced; an ear pressed to it now only detects the slightest of hums.

Inside the hollow dam, we admire formations resembling cave formations. But I think the chemistry is different between the limestone/karst geology and this stuff. Besides lime (calcium oxide from superheated limestone, calcium carbonate) portland cement (from which concrete is made) also contains gypsum and some other odds and ends. The sulfate (if I recall correctly) is several orders of magnitude more soluble than the carbonate in rainwater, accounting for the presence of well-defined formations in concrete structures (Lincoln Memorial, this dam, Metro stations) within a few decades of their construction, while purely carbonate formations require centuries to develop. Though they look the same, the dam’s stalactites and flowstone are calcium sulfate, as opposed to calcium carbonate. (I think.)

Our guide actually allows us to climb down into the turbine room through a large square opening in the corner of the blockhouse—via a precarious wall-mounted ladder—to a shuddering catwalk below. A lawyer’s nightmare. We can walk right up to the spinning shaft and touch it, stick our tongues to it if we wish. This degree of access and intimacy is unbelievable in today’s world; it is a throwback to the era when the dam was built.

The Virginia Tech Cogeneration plant is a contrast to the tiny little Radford hydro plant in every conceivable way. It’s a towering nightmare of pipes and girders rising up in the middle of campus like some alien spaceship. It’s like being inside that stupid “pipes” screensaver, but hot. Our personal Virgil leads us into a stygian maze where the hellish heat is matched by the incessant roaring. The thermometer in the men’s room reads 98 degrees, and I believe it. We are told of a part of the facility—where people work—hit 147 degrees recently. It is hot, dirty, dark, loud and menacing, and between the noise, our guide’s mountain accent and his polite speaking voice, I catch one word in twenty. I make up things to fill in the gaps.


Dismal Falls needs to get a better agent.

Perhaps that explains the sign referring to “Falls Of Dismal.” They could also try “Les Falles De Dismalle” if that doesn’t work or maybe “Ye Olde Falles Of Dismal.”

In any case, they actually were pretty nice except for the depredations of the @#$%^&* white trash who left so much beer party debris behind.

That’s what happens when there’s less than—oh, say thirty trail miles—between the parking lot and an attraction. Slobs are lazy. They should just stay home and keep their beer cans in their own yards.

Rant off. We have a nice relaxing stop there,
and pretty much everyone gets wet
to one degree or another. And crayfish, lots of crayfish.

Yet another point of comparison: The Glen Lyn power plant. It sprawls along the New River in an industrial confluence of rail, road, river, wires and structure. The stacks look singularly virtuous as we park, pumping blameless gas into the sky; I think I can barely make out a host of angels hovering at the tops of the stacks, inhaling deep draughts of sweet coaly goodness. We cluster by the road, discussing issues of power and principle while the sun heads towards the hilltop behind us. Our little family remain unmolested by plant security; the two lone employees who appear menacingly on a catwalk high above us appear to only be taking a smoke break. No binoculars, crackling walkie-talkies or high-powered rifles. Apparently, we are unworthy of concern. Damn. How do you like that?

Dinner. Pizza. Tempers. Tension. Tired.

Long dark drive back to Selu. Execute Dreamsicle, then to bed very late. I’m tired to the point of incoherence.

New words from the trip: Geographist, Inauguracy, Frasstastic. Use them three times in a sentence and they’re yours.

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