The air in the lab was filled with stars and spirals and crudely-drawn ringed planets and exclamation points.

I’m in the cheapest motel in Pueblo, sprawled out lazily on a bed enjoying some free wireless and pounding out some perl scripts to analyze and reduce some gigs’ worth data I don’t have yet, with some random sporting event on the TV in the background and my roommate sawing steel logs on the other bed. We’ll be back at 11pm, blazing down a deserted strip of D.O.T. asphalt to lie underneath a railcar and activate the data loggers. I’m a little worried about my hardware surviving the test, and really kinda underestimated the sheer size of these beasts that will be vying to destroy it. We attached the loggers in the early afternoon after an extended safety lecture covering everything from rattlesnakes (they like to huddle up against the rails at night because they’re warmer than the surroundings) to the shoe-heel length requirements (min. 1/4″, to catch one’s foot from slipping between ladder rungs, which would result in an immediate broken leg and [on something moving] probably being dragged for miles through gravel and cacti), initial tests, and sealing up all the seams with duct tape to keep moisture out (good luck).

About: DOT Road
From Pueblo, take a highway to another highway to about the middle of nowhere. This takes you to DOT Road, the 20+-mile access road serving (only) the test facility, and ends in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

We touched down in Denver about midnight the night before the day before, just before a freak snowfall would dump a foot of the white stuff on the city, leaving us to awaken to a not-unfamiliar sight (“hey, it looks like Boston!”). We hung out at CL’s friends’ place just outside the city for most of the day, with the girls and I even convincing him to come out and make snowmen with us. And an igloo, which became a castle about midway through building as we realized nobody had the slightest idea how to make the walls curl over into a dome without caving in before the critical last block was laid. And I took pictures of their beautiful snow-covered flowering tree.

About: Aeroplanes and ticking packages
Our flight was delayed by about a half-hour as some uncannily nervous-seeming flight crew explained that we’d be delayed slightly while mechanics changed a tire on the plane. About 15 minutes after the initial announcement, flight crew announced that the tire was changed, but they had to wait on some paperwork to get taken care of before we could take off. I was kind of curious about how they could change the tire of a 747 in 15 minutes, why they’d do it right at the terminal with passengers on board, and how they’d manage to do all this (including, probably, jacking the plane up) with no detectable bumps, noises or changes in elevation. It was only later we discovered a bolt missing from one of the loggers’ enclosures, and other evidence that it had been opened; then it kind of hit me that “changing a tire” sounds a lot nicer than “we have a bomb squad examining some very suspicious hand-machined aluminum boxes with a couple LEDs on them, with several sealed black cubes inside with wires running out of them to a stack of circuit boards held together with duct tape and 5-minute epoxy packages we found in the checked luggage”. Whoops. Come on, how could you possibly mistake this for a bomb?

About: Snow
Denver isn’t used to getting large amounts of snow. And with above-average daytime temperatures year-round, it normally just all melts away the next day. So they don’t really see a need for keeping an army of snowplows on-hand to scramble in the early morning to clear the roads for rush hour. A lone snowplow may drift occasionally past, but for the most part, it turns out that if the snow’s still there, they kind of just close the highways until it isn’t anymore.

We were figuring on getting moving toward Pueblo at about late evening, as we had a big day starting early tomorrow. Luckily we saw the snow coming and upgraded our rental car to a monstrous 4WD beast suitable for transporting elephants and driving over the top of smaller cars, so we figured we’d make excellent time and have enough night left over to check out the town and maybe hit the pubs for a bit. But even more luckily, we checked some weather / road reports first, and found out that the INTERSTATE WAS CLOSED. The fricking Interstate. Fricking closed.

This didn’t change the fact that we still had somewhere to be early the next morning, so the conversation that followed kind of went like this:

CL: “No problem, we can make it.”
TG: “They just put up this flimsy little barricade, and only on the incoming side. It’s drive-around-able.”
Girls: “No you won’t, you guys are going to get yourselves killed.”
TG: “Hey, we know what we’re doing. I grew up driving in snow in Chicago.”
CL: “We’ve got four wheel drive…”
Girls: “You guys are crazy.”

Eventually they convinced us to cool our heels for a bit and see if the roads reopened, and crash at CL’s friend’s BF’s place if they weren’t opened by a reasonable crashing hour, which they weren’t. So we hung out there (pigged out on, irony of ironies, Boston Market I’ve never actually seen one in Boston), watched some movies, and crashed out. All right, at least one of us did. And he sno-o-o-o-o-ored. SNO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-ORED. The walls shook and plaster rained from the ivory plaster sky, that kind of snored. I vaguely remember constructing some kind of makeshift earplugs out of wet toilet paper, and eventually falling asleep myself.

To give us plenty of time to show up for our 8:15 meeting, we woke up at 4 and dove immediately (bedheaded and unshowered) for our snow-covered behemoth. Didn’t really bother uncovering it because we assumed tearing down the highway like bats outta hell would clear it off soon enough. So we hit the road and… yeah.

*Homer Simpson voice* “Ree-lax, it’s a rental!”

So we crawled onward, 20mph through the dark and high winds, not always sure where the road was, guided by the frozen-over lumps that were cars spun out in the ditch. But we made it, and only maybe 20 minutes late, even with a stop along the way to snag some gourmet coffee at a gas station. The Gas Station Coffee turned out to be surprisingly good, at least way better than you’d expect from a middle-of-nowhere gas station, and the next hour or so was smooth sailing – the snow gods had drawn a line in the sand, and snowed only on the Denver side of it. (Seriously, it went from blizzard conditions to sunny and dry in the span of about a mile.)

CL: “Sorry we’re late, we got here as quick as we could.”
Luis: “Late, I’m impressed you guys made it here at all. Last I’d heard all the roads out of Denver were closed.”

*CL and TG exchange glances*

About: Rattlesnakes
We didn’t see any. I was disappointed. (They also aren’t lurking in the ball pits of fast-food playlands, sorry to disappoint anyone else.)
The safety lecture for today told everyone to step over, not on top of, things commonly found on the facility grounds, particularly the rails (extremely slippery when wet, and pretty slippery when not wet, these things get polished by metal-on-metal contact at least several times a day). But everywhere else in the world, the woodland wisdom is to step
on (stumps, logs, boulders), not over, so as not to take a blind step where a rattler happens to be snoozing against it…being stepped on tends to really piss them off. I decided I’d rather take my chances with falling on my indestructible duff.

So we had the safety lecture, the grand tour, got down to business attaching the equipment, then came back and checked into our motel. Which brings me to…right now. I think I was supposed to be whipping up some crunchy little scripts or something. Wow, I can’t believe how much I’ve forgotten perl. Think I’ve spent more time Googling syntax than actually coding. Who’d have thunk $39.99 a night would get you free wireless? Anyway, I should probably try to catch a little sleep before we head back down DOT Road – today has been a long couple days, and tomorrow morning ain’t getting any further away.


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