Monday, January 27, 2014

... we're left to remember... alone.

I had put this photo up on Facebook shortly after Mom's funeral, but need to get it into this journal to complete the record.  It's a wonderful photo of the two of them, taken by my brother Bill, as they were walking alone in Yellowstone National Park.

For some reason this photo really speaks to me... has more meaning now than originally intended. As they head off into the unknown, we're left to remember... alone.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jan 24 - My Mom


Carol Mae Hoch
My Mom
1928 - 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jan 23 - Impeccable Timing

I don't know how it happens... "it" being uncanny, mysterious timing. But I'm not one who needs supernatural explanations for weird phenomena, so I'll just call it impeccable timing.

We arrived at the Columbus Wisconsin Amtrak station last Tuesday evening in the middle of a minor blizzard... 7 inches of snow driven by icy 30 mph winds. "Welcome to Wisconsin you soft traitorous weaklings. We'll show you what you've been missing... what we true gritty Wisconsinites endure without nary a whimper or comment. Why, we're proud of our extreme weather... of our ability to take it in stride... of the way it keeps riffraff (like you) away... sort of an environmental Darwinism at work."

For the past week if it hasn't been snowing and blowing, it's been a bit chilly. This morning we woke to -5f (that's 5 below zero for you soft snowbirds). But at least the wind is blowing, hard, out of the Northwest. It's difficult to explain to folks who've never experienced mornings like this, but the clear skies and clean air pouring out of the arctic make for almost unbelievable visibility. If the horizon didn't curve away from view I'm sure we could see all the way to Minneapolis or maybe even Fargo. It's that clear, and a real treat.

The camper is mounted on the truck and ready to go. Unfortunately we're not going anywhere very soon. Another facet of this impeccable timing thing is that my Mom developed a medical problem the day after we arrived. She's still in the hospital. I'm writing this while I'm sitting in her ICU room this morning. There's no sure path for her at this time and we really don't know how long we'll be here. Impeccable timing. I recall, too, how my Dad started the downhill slide to his end a day or two after we arrived in Wisconsin last May.

I do have a few posts in the works to bring the Journal up to date, and I'll be back-publishing them one of these days. The ample time on my hands these days is offset by low levels of motivation. But as sure as a Wisconsin Winter gives way to Spring, this too will change.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jan 14 - Final Day on Amtrak

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I was awake early, still dark, when we made the bend southward from the Grand Forks area down to Fargo, where we bent eastward again. Don't know why but the passing landscape is much like watching a campfire... not many surprises, but you've just gotta watch.

Don't think we would have eaten in the diner car if our meals weren't included in the price of the roomette. It's not cheap and the quality was not the best. I'm sure they make liberal use of the microwave oven. Also read some place that they utilize "sous vie" cooking style... a means of bringing food to temp slowly, and keeping it at serving temp for long periods of time, with controlled hot water. Hmmm.

After Fargo we rolled and clacked our way southeastward toward the Twin Cities. Through here we were now almost 5 hours behind schedule. A crew member said we almost always make up time between here and Chicago. Hope so. Don't want Cal and Marion to be out after dark... even if it's just 12 miles or so to Columbus. Saw predictions of snow for today in Wisconsin.

Getting to St. Paul was easy. Getting to the station in St. Paul was a little more involved as we waited for quite some time before pulling in. Thought we'd get a breath of fresh air so jumped off the train to soak it in. Jeez it was cold; single digits if I remember right. Through a snowball or two and clambered back aboard. Certainly not dressed for those temps. The day was sunny but everyone seemed to be clearing the snow that fell the night before.

Then it was through downtown St. Paul, along the east bank of the Mississippi to where we cross over to the west bank just above Red Wing. Lake City, Winona... and then cross again at La Crosse. Hey, we're in Wisconsin.

Things were rocking and rolling pretty good until we got into Fort McCoy. The time we'd made up eroded away again when we came to an abrupt stop just prior to Tunnel City. You see, the town of Tunnel City is named from an old railroad tunnel that's still in use today. And because there's only one set of tracks going through the tunnel, trains must wait if there's traffic going the other way. I'm not sure why we had to wait as long as we did; seems we could have gotten through the tunnel without affecting the opposing freight train. As it was we had to wait 45 minutes?.. an hour?.. before the lumbering old Soo Line train clawed its way through and past us. Now we were back to about 5 hours late again.

The remaining hours saw daylight give way to evening. Snow was indeed falling and the wind was blowing hard. Communication with the parental pickup team was steady. It was completely night when we neared Columbus... about 6pm. Had a near panic situation as we packed and readied for disembarking. Couldn't find ?? Dar's cell phone. She felt sure she had it the observation car when we spent some time there but can't remember seeing it when we had lunch in the diner or since. A neighbor suggest calling it and I did. Turns out it was buried in a nook in our roomette. Wasn't sure we'd have time to do a proper search before we had to get off. All turned out ok.

The train is too long for the Columbus station platform. So they utilize what they call a two-stop solution. The train comes to a stop with the front half alongside the platform; people get off and get on. Then they pull ahead and repeat the stop for the last half. We were in the last half... indeed in the last car on the train then entire way. As it was we still had to trudge through snow to find Cal and Marion and get all bags and ourselves into the truck for the ride back to the farm.

Those 12 miles were a little tense with icy and snow covered roads, slow single-file traffic, wind driven snow (almost blizzard white out conditions at times), and a dark night. But we did make it home and were happy to be there.

Thoughts about the train.
First, glad we did it. As one of my bucket-list items but also actually enjoyed the two day trip. We were on the train a tad over 48 hours, which is much faster than driving it at a reasonable pace. The price, at $670 for the two of us, including the roomette and meals, could be lower than driving it as well... depending on fuel economy and use of motel rooms along the way.

Doing it again, I'd certainly recommend a roomette. Standard coach seating is comfortable, but not as good for sleeping as I'd imagined; the seats don't recline far enough and the footrest is not large enough to support a taller person's legs. Then there's the issue of leaving your stuff at your seat while you go to the observation car, the diner, or just to walk around. It's probably a smaller issue in reality but one that would gnaw at me if I had my bag-o-electronics left behind at my seat. Thirdly, in coach you're stuck with the people around you. I observed people talking loudly to traveling buddies across the aisle, portable speakers playing music (not my kind of music either), the socialite who talks someones, any one's, ear off. Generally, the noisy coach cars were a big contrast to the very quiet, library-like, atmosphere of the sleeper car. I'd do it again for this reason alone.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jan 13 - Rolling Eastward on Amtrak

Monday January 13, 2014

3AM PST Monday. Woke to a bright light just outside my window. And no movement... clearly we were stopped... somewhere. The light is a street light, one of several used to light up a parking lot immediately next to the tracks. No one around. All is quiet. Timetable says we were supposed to leave Spokane (after connecting with the Seattle part of the train) at 1:30am, an hour and a half ago. Further investigation and clarity of head reveals we're still in Spokane. No word on why we're delayed. About 3:30AM we start moving. Back to sleep.

8AM MST Monday. East of Libby MT. We're on the rail line pioneered by the old Northern Pacific which through the mid-section of the country came to be known as the "high line". Much of the route follows US-2, but through this area of Montana, between Libby and Whitefish, the two separate. Train passengers are treated to scenery motorists on the highway won't see. There's a 7 mile long tunnel through some hills out here... one of the longest train tunnels in the US. Before Whitefish we trace the west shore of Whitefish Lake. Saw a Bald Eagle snagging breakfast.

11am MST Monday. Near Glacier. Everywhere a thick blanket of snow atop roofs... laid-up over the winter like dozens of this flaky layers of pastry. After West Glacier our route circles around the southern end of Glacier National Park. Even though its cloudy and a mixture of snow and rain is falling at times, the scenery is tremendous.

12Noon MST Monday. We've been "holding" just southeast of Essex MT (Izaak Walton Inn) for freight traffic and high winds on the mountain. Dar and I have found a table in the Observation car which means I have an audience, most of whom don't appreciate my prediction that the winds will die down by Thursday. Groans.

1pm MST Monday. Started moving again a little after Noon and started the 1300 foot climb to Marias Pass and the Continental Divide. Definitely more wind and blowing snow up here. Wintry for sure. A little east of East Glacier we crossed a large trestle spanning a canyon. Shortly later stopped for freight traffic for a few minutes. At this point, we're about 3 hours behind schedule.

The rest of Monday afternoon was uneventful as we plodded across Montana. Not much scenery to enjoy, although I like the plains (big sky, you know) almost as much as I like mountains. Just different, not necessarily better one way or the other.

Had dinner in the diner car... sat with two gentlemen who work in the Williston Oil Fields. They're stationed at a facility that disposes of by-product liquids from various drilling and fracking processes. It gets pumped into the ground... I think I heard right that it goes into retired oil wells. Anyway, they live in a 5th wheel trailer and one or the other is on duty 24 hours a day for three weeks. The they get a week off. There's a substantial number of oil field workers on this train... heading back to work after their days off. We'll notice a decline in the number of passengers after Williston.

Were ready for bed but still watching the passing countryside when we reached Williston. Shortly thereafter the rocking, clacking train brought sleep to both of us.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Jan 12 - Aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder

Aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder January 12 - January 14, 2014

Sunday January 12, 2014; 6pm

A few minutes after 5pm we boarded Amtrak's Empire Builder at the Vancouver WA station. I've mentioned before that this is a handy boarding spot for us, being only 10 miles or so from Gage and Andrea's house in Camas. Andi and Evan saw us off.

The train is made up of one Amtrak engine, a baggage car, an observation/club car, two regular coach cars, and a sleeper car bringing up the tail end. All except the baggage car are "Superliner" two level cars. The Empire Builder is unique in this regard: between Chicago and Spokane it's a single longer train. In Spokane it splits, with half going to Seattle and the other half going to Portland. The process for eastbound travel is the reverse, and our small train will rejoin it's Seattle half later tonight. From there we'll be at "full strength" for the rest of the trip.

9pm PST Sunday. Our route follows the Columbia River, on the Washington side. During summer it's still light this time of night which would make this leg of the trip up the Gorge a real visual treat. We, on the other hand, didn't see much more than the lights of towns and highways and big dams. But our overall impression so far is favorable. And we're really looking forward to the rest of the trip. So far, at least, the condition of the rails is good. The ride is reasonably smooth.

We just arrived in Pasco WA after having gone through the Wallula Gap on the Columbia. We've driven this section on the Oregon side a number of times during the past 6 years. The Gap is a natural rock narrowing which caused large ice dams at the end of the last ice age. Repeatedly, a huge lake would form behind the ice dam, covering most of Eastern Washington and parts of Idaho and Montana. When the lake grew in size to a point at which the dam couldn't hold it all any longer, it all broke loose and the resulting huge rush of water is a big part of the natural forces that formed the Gorge.

10pm PST Sunday. Our roomette is small but since we'd gotten a good deal on it we thought we'd give it a go. Overall charge for the one way trip is $670 for both of us. Standard coach seating would have been about $400. The roomette includes meals, linens, towels, etc., which makes the $270 additional a pretty good deal.

After leaving Pasco our sleeper car attendant made up our bunks. During the day we have two seats that face each other between a large window. At night, the seats convert to the lower bunk and a second bunk pops down from the ceiling. Getting ready for bed was a bit of a chore this first night. When the bunks are down there's not much room to maneuver. Eventually we are settled and getting into the rhythm of the rocking train... the rhythmic clicking of steel wheels on steel rails... bumpy grade crossings... Of course our speed varies, but we've often seen 70mph and on the best sections, as high as 80mph. As we speed along the hills of eastern Washington, sleep comes easily.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Jan 6 - Journey to the Artic Planned

While others of our ilk are warming themselves in the extreme southern corners of the continent, we're preparing for a trip back to Wisconsin to retrieve the truck and camper. Makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, it's the low-point of Winter. As I write this the temp in our little hometown of Beaver Dam is -17 (that's not a typo... minus 17 degrees on the fricken cold scale. Note the time too... high noon... and the windchill is -39). I've heard that hell freezes over at about -28. 

The plan at this point is to get on an Amtrak's Empire Builder next Sunday, the 12th, for the trip to the Midwest. There's no doubt Amtrak is a convenient option for us; we board the train about 10 miles from our daughter's house in Vancouver Washington and get off about 10 miles from the farm near Beaver Dam Wisconsin. If all goes right we'll be on the train for 42 hours. Of course we could be on board for much longer, (maybe weeks?) as there's a lot that can go wrong. Like ice breakers, trains can get snarled and stranded in the ice and snow too. Rail travel may not be the best way to go for those with tight schedules and places to be. But these two intrepid explorers have spare time on their hands and have always wanted to experience long-distance train travel. We're ready for almost anything.

While hope is not a strategy we do strongly expect we'll be able to get the truck running and dug out of the snowbank within a day or two, do some quick visiting with family, and be heading back toward the Northwest during the upcoming January thaw. Barring that, we'll just deal with whatever comes our way.

My only real concern is warm clothing. After hearing so much about "global warming" a few years ago, I foolishly gave away my polar-rated parka to a homeless shelter. That may turn out to have been a premature move on my part. During the next few days I'll start packing and see what I can come up with.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jan 4 - Cycles

Time advances. The winter holidays recede. Parties. Family time. Solstice. Christmas. New Years. Bowl games. Food... so much food. Binges of excess... in so many ways. But it's our way, our ritual, so don't mess with it. We can't wait for it to start; then we can't wait till it's over. What does it all say about us?

So much of our energy and time and money is spent during these holidays. Decorating. Shopping. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Gifts. Wrapping. Christmas Cards. Hors d'oeuvres. Holiday dinners. Travel. Who's in? Who's out? Gatherings. Small talk. Run here. Run there. Sorry, can't think about it now - no time. After-Christmas sales. Un-decorate. More storage space for more stuff.

But January is when we reach the part of the craziness cycle when things slow down. Back to work. Back to school. Normal weeks again. Sol, our sun, has decided to halt it's southerly procession and head north for another cycle of seasons. A calm settles over the land. There's hope... primordial primitive hope. If we can hold out just a few more weeks life will return to the barren frozen-ness. We hope.

But fear not. There's another holiday... another celebration not far off... another big day to define and give meaning to our lives. Can't you feel the excitement? the anticipation?

It's our way, our ritual, so don't mess with it.