HOLDREGE, NEBRASKA – Greetings from the prairies of the Great Plains…

It’s time for our Friday mailbag edition, where I answer the latest questions you’ve sent in.

This week, a reader questions our decision to leave Grandpa while he’s dealing with cancer treatment… others want to know more about our “world-schooling” experiment… and finally, someone asks: Why do we only use slow backroads on our road trips?

My answers below. But first, an update from the road…

A Bucket List Experience for a Rail Fan Like Me

We had an awesome experience today… visiting the Golden Spike in North Platte.

Union Pacific has a vast freight yard in North Platte. It’s called the Bailey Yard and 14,000 freight cars pass through it per day. (Biggest freight yard in the U.S.)

Near the middle of the yard, there’s an eight-story-high outdoor viewing platform, open to the public, for watching trains.

They call it the Golden Spike. (It looks more like a golf ball on a tee than a railroad spike…)

We visited today. There were no other visitors when we were there.

On the observation deck, we met Gary, a retired railroad worker. He was extremely knowledgeable about trains, and he was eager to answer questions.

Since there was no one else around, I peppered him…

“How do you tell the difference between a GE-made locomotive and a GM-made locomotive?”

GM-made locomotives have two round fans on the roof. GE-made locomotives do not.

“Why do some trains have pusher locomotives in the middle and at the back?”

Either they’re using distributed power, which means using pusher locomotives at the back to help move heavy trains up steep grades. Or they’re saving money by joining two trains together and only paying one crew.

“How often do they fill the tanks up with gas?”

(About every 700 miles or so. They don’t like the tanks getting too low. Bailey yard is the largest consumer of gasoline.)

And so on.

It was awesome… a bucket list experience for a rail fan like me.

Here we are…


Exploring the North Platte freight yard with Kate and the kids

And this is Gary explaining railroad operations to Miles…


Gary teaches Miles (11) about railroad operations

Kate said they did a really good job. Penny loved it, too.

Anyway, we’re having a great time in Nebraska.

Here we are at the Pump and Pantry in Ogallala. The boys are practicing their spiral passes while a manifest freight rumbles past in the background, headed west to Denver…


The boys practice their spiral passes in Ogallala, Nebraska

Now I’m writing to you from our motel room at the end of a busy day.

Tomorrow… we set a course for Kansas…

Family, World-Schooling, and Backroad Road Trips

Now, let’s dive into this week’s mailbag…

Reader comment: You surely realize radiation/chemo gets much worse as the days go on. Can be unbearably worse, the side effects, pain sometimes on the body. The thought that your dad has most of it ahead alone seems rather callous. He will miss you all terribly the minute you leave… a big empty void in his apartment.

Just wondering why you wouldn’t stay until at least a bit closer to Christmas and through more of his treatments. Get a hotel and at least be there for him if it’s too close, staying longer. Certainly, seems your wife and two of the kids might have then flown to her parents in Florida and you and Dusty gone after the car.

Sorry for butting in but I have a son and if he left me at such a critical point, I’d sure feel abandoned and ever so alone… cancer is heavy to deal with and especially by oneself.

We considered all options… including splitting the family up temporarily to recover the car. But in the end, after considering Grandpa’s good progress after two weeks of treatments, we decided to leave.

I hope the radiation doesn’t take too much out of him. Also, Grandpa isn’t alone. He has friends nearby and one of my brothers lives nearby, too.

Reader question: Since your father had an English public-school education and sent you to the same school, can you ask him if he values his education? And ask you if you value yours? Having seen how you educate your children, if he had his time again, would he choose your route?

You ask a difficult question. So many of the decisions we make in life are in response or reaction to circumstances, not necessarily ideology.

I love the idea of world-schooling, for example. But we first had to get divorced, and I had to get depressed and quit my career before we were able to choose it for our children’s education. Otherwise, we’d never have taken this path.

Same with my education and my father’s education at boarding school. Yes, our parents believed boarding school would provide the best education… but their decision was mainly motivated by circumstances.

So when I asked Grandpa if he could go back in time and homeschool us, he just said, “It wasn’t an option for us at that point in our lives.”

Reader comment: We have partially homeschooled our kids and I’ve heard a nifty idea from some other homeschoolers. Pretend you are a private school and prepare something like transcripts and report cards for your kids. This is in case any one of them decides to go to college. I hear that there are still some universities that don’t bow down and kiss your feet when you say you are homeschooled, but prefer something more substantial.

Great idea. We imagine our kids will either have the best college applications the admissions officers have ever seen… or the worst. One day this will make a great book: what happens when students who have traveled around the world and never been to school apply to university.

Reader question: My theory is that the best way to learn how to be a good worker is to work. Dusty is already learning that a little with his column writing. I’m wondering if you are using your kids to help research your financial columns (and other stuff). It would be a marvelous education for them.

They haven’t helped me with research yet… but maybe in the future?

I love the idea of us working together on business and entrepreneurial projects.

But even more I love the idea that they’re able to enjoy their childhoods without any stress or pressure and they have total freedom to explore their curiosity.

Reader question: Have they picked up even a little of a foreign language in their travels? Chinese? Spanish?

Not really. They’re fascinated with learning Spanish, though. We’re hoping to spend six months in Mexico soon to learn Spanish…

Reader question: Tom, why do you use backroads? You’ll go twice the speed on the freeway… and get to Florida that much faster.

Because the Interstates are flyovers. Except for dozens of identical rest and refueling stops, you don’t see anything of the country, or meet anyone interesting. And being surrounded by trucks all the time gets old, too.

The backroads are so much more pleasant because they’re almost empty of traffic, the towns are fascinating, and you can stop anytime and take in the sights. We travel at a max speed of 55mph…

Also, we’ve been trying to avoid national chains and do business with locally-owned businesses. We ate at a little diner last night called “Country Cookin’.” And today we found this taco truck called “Taco Riendo.”

Here we are waiting for our tacos and playing more football….


More football practice by the Taco Riendo food truck

And that’s all for this week! As always, keep your questions and comments coming at [email protected]. I’ll do my best to answer them in a future Friday mailbag edition.

– Tom Dyson

P.S. I asked Gary – the retired railroad worker I told you about earlier – if he was seeing any evidence of supply chain disruption.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All those containers stuck at sea are bad for business. The railroad is only running at 85% capacity right now…

“See all those locomotives sidelined down there?”

Gary pointed at a cluster of about 100 locomotives, parked off to one side of the yard.

“The railroad doesn’t need them.”

Like what you’re reading? Send your thoughts to [email protected].