Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter Severe Weather

I tap the digits of the long-distance number and wait, half listening, for the point in the menu where I can press 4 for our region and 3 for our forecast. My mind tunes out the random clip advertising other services, but the echo of that voice returns at moments through the day: "Winter Severe Weather..."

In this land, this week,
severe weather is a violent stillness
creeping inward to the places where life
curling protectively around its own spark
waiting, hoping to last
until rescue.

Lasting until rescue, and knowing some will not, is a grim reality of life in this land. Small wonder that Connie Kaldor sings, "I come from a land that is harsh and unforgiving..." and tells the story of one who "tried to walk and froze to death, fifty feet from town." Sometimes summer too drains life away: again Connie sings of those still standing, stony faced with survivor guilt, "hoping to hold on so you don't end up like the neighbours: him and her, they're weeping as the auctioneer yells."

In a gentler song of springtime, Ian Tyson recalls the names of his neighbours and their ranches, where each in turn is pictured "pulling calves," helping with the birthing and rejoicing that they "made it through another on the northern range." In the last line of the song, though, he brings to mind the name of one more rancher, one who has pulled calves for the last time: "Gid's in the country where the tall grass grows..."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Annie Gardenbed's Song

Your world is good for me
and so I give you thanks
for soil and seasons, seeds and sun,
for water and wisdom and work to be done.
Your world is good for me
(Annie Gardenbed) -

Sorry about the Noncommercial break, but I wanted Disney's
legal hordes to know that I'm not trying to profit by this.

Your world.
I don't say who "you" is, but there is no need. I am singing to one who is present, listening; why use a name? It would only drag us off into arguments about the connotations of the name, and then about which gender of pronoun we should use when the name is too burdensome to speak in its entirety.

Isn't it rude to argue about someone when they are present?

Your world is good for me.
It is a whole world, and it is larger than my doubts and fears about what may be done to me specifically. It is a good place in which to choose my way.

I give you thanks . . .
and in so doing, I open my own eyes, and my whole being, to the wonder, blessings, and possibilities that are all around me, always, whether I remember to give thanks or not.

Do I own it? Because I can surround it with survey stakes, do I really own the soil? If I turn and tear it with the movement of steel, driven by combustion commanded by cash, do I forget? It is much more ancient than I and my title. It is more fluid and changing than the lines on the deed. It anchors the roots of life, records the traces of centuries, and yet whole decades of its building can be swept away, to a new place and people, in a few windstorms or a single flood.

Is soil, all too often, taken as a given instead of as a gift?

Dave Sauchyn of Regina, trying to create the few bullet points asked of him to somehow sum up a 448-page report on the impacts of climate change in Canada, said this:
Canada is losing the competitive advantage of a cold winter.

Seeds, sun, and water . . .
the things we often remember in our thanks.

There is so much more.

If you find a little here, I am thankful.

Work to be done!
In our modern world we only deem something a success if we can stand back idle and watch it work. If any physical effort is required, it is an outright failure. . . . The very first thing we do when seeing something so elegantly simple and useful as this pump is scheme to make it work while we just stand by and stare at it.

There is a pitfall in being thankful for things given to us. The story of Johnny Appleseed is inspiring, but the popular version, as summed up in the merry little verse, drifts toward a "big-rock-candy-mountain" vision of idyllic idleness achieved at last, as a result of someone else's generous hard work. That vision entices, seduces, and robs us of the wonderful gifts of our own work: tending; bringing forth; growing strong; growing wise; being present; finding meaning.

Through work we receive the ability to give.

Your world is good for me!


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Annie Gardenbed

I aspire to be known as Annie Gardenbed someday - but I aspire to be and do many things, and I can work on only a few at a time, so if someone else earns the name first, I won't be disappointed. I hope this blog post might help that happen.

Why Annie Gardenbed? Well, it's a little play on the name Johnny Appleseed. I'd like to be like Johnny, except that instead of planting apples, I'd be digging new garden plots and getting new gardeners started.

The popular legend is that Johnny wandered all over planting apple seeds almost anywhere, so that whoever came along later could gather apples. As with any legend, the reality is similar but different: John Chapman was a wandering planter of apples, but he planted nurseries in areas where settlers would soon be arriving, and had the seedlings ready to sell to the settlers for their homestead orchards. Still, the legend captures some of the spirit of his life and legacy, in that he lived extremely simply; he was generous in his dealings; and his undertaking was remarkable enough to earn him the nickname "Johnny Appleseed" by about halfway through his long life. The real story, or what we think we know of it, is richer and stranger than the legend, and definitely worth a look.

When I came up with the idea of "Annie Gardenbed," I knew only the popular legend of Johnny, and a related little song that we often use as a mealtime grace:
Oh, the Lord is good to me,
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need:
the sun and the rain and the apple seed.
The Lord is good to me.
Alleluia, Amen!
Many people sing "Johnny Appleseed" instead of Alleluia in the last line. The song appears in many places unattributed, as if it were a folk tune going back to the days of Johnny himself, but thanks to Cathy's Grace Notes, and some further sleuthing, I learned that it is a verse from a song written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent for the Walt Disney Music Company in 1946, and sung by Dennis Day in the animated short "Johnny Appleseed" (part of Disney's 1948 release "Melody Time"). The sheet music is still available.

I'm disappointed. Today while washing dishes I came up with a little verse for Annie Gardenbed, but I don't dare tell you what the tune is, or Disney might come after me. I'm not afraid of ordinary mice, but . . .

I think I'll see about a public domain license for my verse, before I post it. That way at least I'll have evidence that I'm not trying to profit from Disney's tune in any way.

Or should I just go ahead an post it anyway?

Friday, October 17, 2008


I can sleep on my left side.

I hadn't been able to do that in years - so many years that I can't remember when the first year was, or how long it took to realize that I might never sleep on that side again. All I know is that I used to try to ignore the clicking in my sternum, or near it; and I used to shift around and try to find a position where I could breathe without that soft click-click, shift-release, on and off with each and every breath; and it didn't hurt, exactly, but it felt very wrong, like it would certainly be hurting later if I let it carry on.

My theory was that some cartilage had been damaged somehow, so my rib cage wasn't quite as solid as it should be. And I didn't think cartilage could heal. So I slept on my right side.

I have never been able to sleep on my belly. On my back, yes, long ago, and still sometimes when I let down my guard. You see, a long time ago I woke suddenly, frantically, sitting straight up in bed from a dream of falling backwards, backwards, into blackness. I think it happened more than once, and then I just didn't sleep on my back unless I rolled there in my sleep without noticing. These days it's not that dreadful dream that wakes me, but the sound of my snoring.

It troubled me a little, having only one position to sleep in, especially when a limb would sleep longer, numb and prickling. Still, I lived with it.

And then I made a change in my life, a change that had nothing to do with the clicking in my chest - at least not as far as I was aware.

And some months later (a year, maybe?) I noticed that I was lying on my left, and my chest wasn't clicking. The click came back sometimes, gently, and I was patient, just trying that side for a little while each evening, turning back if the click returned. Finally it stayed away.

What a sweet moment that was, when I woke and realized that I was lying on my left side.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Harvest Home

Picture this (because I don't know where to find a camera with batteries charged up):
  • onions and beets spread to dry on newsprint
  • cardboard boxes brimming with carrots, potatoes, and squashes
  • bags of dry beans, with the sides rolled down to let the beans dry a little more
This week I'll be storing things away a little better: tucking the onions into old nylons and hanging them on nails on the floor joists in the basement; cleaning up some of the carrots and beets and finding some room for them in the fridge, freezing some others, and maybe drying some for soups, too; and clearing some room in a not-too-cool spot for the squashes to sit with some air spaces between them. The dry beans are experiments. I have been growing Windsor broad (or fava) beans for several years, but never understood what they should look like when mature. Finally I read somewhere that they can be picked when the pods start to turn black, and realized that this was not a sign of disease! I let them dry on the vines, and today we gathered them. Also, as a sort of accidental experiment, we gathered the dry wax beans that we didn't get eaten as fresh beans in the summer. We eat a lot of kidney beans and some chickpeas, lentils, and pinto beans, but all of these are tricky to grow in our short summers, so I want to experiment with some other dry legumes. We'll see!

I am very tired, and very happy. I let myself be led away from the garden path for most of the summer and early fall, and when I heard the word "snow" in the forecast I feared I had left it too long, but the rain and snow held off and we got it all in.

Happy thanksgiving!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Square Wave Days

The world sunlight map often shows a sort of sinuous curve along the boundary between light and darkness, but these days it has more of a binary look to it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

100 Species

I got this idea from CG. How many people can list 100 species that are growing in the area where they live?

I'm sure I could, but I often get paid to list species, so I'm not typical. Mind you, I do remember a field trip when I was a new biology student in university, and my prof was wondering how I knew so many of the plants we were seeing. Well, I just always wanted to know, so I learned!

Anyway, I am curious now to see how many plants I can name just by picturing my surroundings and what is there - how far from home would I have to wander in my mind to reach 100?

1) quack grass (I'm starting in our yard)
2) dandelions
3) Kentucky bluegrass
4) clover - which one? It's a Trifolium species, a white one, but I'd have to look up the exact name
5) common plantain
6) annual sow thistle
7) perennial sow thistle
8) chickweed
9) wild buckwheat
10) lamb's-quarters
11) brome grass
12) red-root pigweed (and there's another kind of pigweed whose name I have forgotten)
13) garden atriplex
14) doorweed (sorry, I don't know which one it is)
15) purslane or wild portulaca
16) there's another grass that I pull out of the garden before it matures enough to positively identify without a great deal of unnecessary fuss - I think it's probably foxtail barley
17) green foxtail
18) creeping bellflower (this is one of the plants in the flowerbeds that came with the house, and I just learned its name because it's on the invasive plant species lists I'm working with - there are also some kind of lily, an iris, a daisy, and something with variegated foliage, and a very pretty thing that I did know the name of once but it escapes me now - maybe a columbine? I've just never taken much interest in the ornamentals)
19) lily-of-the-valley (I did know this ornamental somehow - maybe because it's poisonous)
20) Maltese cross (another ornamental that I know, because I came across the name and it intrigued me)
21) desert saltgrass
22) caragana
23) chokecherry
24) gooseberry
25) saskatoon
26) American elm
27) Manitoba maple
28) green ash
29) lilac
30) honeysuckle (though I'm not sure which one - those ornamentals again!)
31) peppers
32) tomatoes
33) onions, chives, and garlic - are some of these so closely related that they are counted as a single species? I don't remember
34) swiss chard, beets, and spinach - if I recall correctly, these are all close relatives too
35) parsley, parsnips, and carrots - another set of close relatives
36) lettuce
37) beans (wax and fava)
38) peas
39) lots of cucurbits - cucumbers, zucchinis, pumpkins, and spaghetti, acorn, and butternut squashes
40) potatoes (I'm out of my own yard now, across the street at Garth's brother's place, where we keep the other half of our garden)
41) dill
42) sweet corn
43) rutabagas
44) broccoli
45) raspberries
46) strawberries
47) spruce trees - I wonder exactly what kind?
48) ox-eye daisy
49) dame's-rocket - these last two are more ornamentals that I just learned because they are on the invasive species lists
50) Hmm - one more to hit 50 before I leave the two yards that we live in - there must be one more. Have I seen goat's-beard here? Or - yes! There is a cotoneaster bush, or there was, but they may have killed it when they ground the stump of the big elm in front of the house last month, but I'm going to count it.
51) blue grama grass (no, I haven't gone way out in the prairie yet; this is between the sidewalk and the street, just next door)
52) bastard toadflax (I hope I got that name right - it's another one I learned from the invasive species lists - this is growing wild at the edge of the pavement)
53) butterfly-weed or scarlet gaura - a farmer friend of mine found the scientific name titillating, but maybe I pronounced it wrong - go look it up if you're curious. (The PLANTS database is handy for that, and if I used it I could get all these names right, but I'm testing my mind here.)
54) weeping birch
55) poplars and/or cottonwoods - I don't know the horticultural species, but I know there are a bunch of them in various nearby yards, and I'll get to our native species later (if I don't hit 100 before I get out of town)
56) crabapple
57) rose (I do admire the white shrub roses in some yards nearby, so much so that I tried to root some cuttings last year, and just today I picked some of the dry hips to see if I would have more success with the seeds)
58) seaside arrowgrass (I'm away from the street now, wandering in my mind along the drainage ditch behind our yard)
59) cord grass (and I know there are two species here, and I know that one has awns and the other doesn't, and one of them is called alkali cord grass so maybe it's the one that grows in the saline ground along that ditch)
60) cattails (in the old brick ponds behind our yard)
61) wild licorice (just beyond the brick ponds)
62) kochia - I just remembered that one, it's in our yard too - and I thought I might like to work as a weed inspector! Ha! I'd have to clean up our own yard a bit first! But seriously, if I could work from the angle of helping people learn more about what's growing on their land, not just as the enforcer with the right to enter onto private property, I could enjoy that, and in some places I think the inspectors do work from that angle
63) oh, and I'm sure we must have some black medick in the garden too
64) and probably some yellow sweet-clover
65) alfalfa - now I'm beyond the railway, or I should say beyond the old railway grade, out looking over the hayfield towards the airstrip that some locals call the airport
66) willows - that's down beyond the airstrip, but there are some ornamental willows in town too - and don't ask me what kind of willows they are!
67) sedge - I'm sure I could find a sedge somewhere along the roadside where I walk south of town; for sure there must be some down by those willows - and again, don't ask me which sedge!
68) northern wheatgrass (okay, I gave up and went home in my mind to the farm five miles from town, where this challenge gets so much easier)
69) western wheatgrass
70) needle-and-thread grass
71) western porcupine grass
72) awned wheatgrass
73) western red lilies
74) smooth camas
75) wild blue flax
76) gaillardia or blanket-flower
77) black-eyed susan
78) prairie crocus
79) June grass
80) prairie cinquefoil
81) white cinquefoil
82) three-flowered avens
83) ground-plum
84) snowberry
85) silverberry or wolf willow
86) narrow-leaved meadowsweet
87) fringed loosestrife
88) pincherry
89) beaked hazelnut
90) high-bush cranberry (I want some hazelnut and high-bush cranberry bushes for the yard here)
91) paper birch
92) white poplar (told you I'd get to them) or trembling aspen
93) black or balsam poplar
94) Western Canada violet
95) poison ivy
96) stinging nettle
97) yellow avens
98) heart-leaved alexanders
99) alum root
100) Indian-pipe (a non-photosynthetic plant - I had to think of a distinctive one for my 100th)

And there are many more. But CG's list is much more impressive, because you can tell that she knows a lot more than just the names - she knows which ones to eat and which ones to use for healing and more.

And if you find all this overwhelming, there is a book I want you to meet. (I wish I had known about this book back when I knew mostly just the showy wildflowers that I had taught myself from the pictures in our field guides at home, and I was sent out with a few floras - floras are plant books with detailed botanical descriptions and sometimes no pictures at all - to see what I could find growing on proposed oil well sites, in case something rare was there.) Thomas J. Elpel's Botany in a Day gives you patterns to look for, just a few patterns to learn so that you will know the major plant families of the North American interior plains. That means you can jump to the right part of the flora or field guide right away, instead of struggling through a botanical key or flipping through the pictures. And you will have hooks to hang your knowledge on as you meet new plants, instead of just an endless parade of names and images to remember. And most importantly of all, if you learn from Mr. Elpel's book, you will be learning plant uses as you go, because he includes information about the properties shared by plants in each family.

And CG - thanks for getting me blogging again, if only for today. Tomorrow I will be back out in the farmland of southeast Saskatchewan, listing plants for pay, and reinforcing my conviction that I'd rather grow plants to eat and not need the pay so much . . .

Friday, August 01, 2008

From one cold corner of the Earth to another

This is quite a find for an undergraduate student from North Dakota . . .

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Million-Dollar Rain

At last. I haven't replaced my frost-cracked rain gauge yet, and I haven't found the charger for the camera batteries so I didn't get pictures of the puddles, but all three of my rain barrels overflowed, and that grim look on many faces has been replaced with quiet joy and relief. I heard that many places around here got well over an inch. That was the first significant rain we've had this spring, and coming after a winter with very little snow, and a dry fall before that, it was desperately needed. We had used the rototiller on the garden plot at Brian's, for the potatoes, but in my own garden I was careful not to turn the soil at all; I just knifed the shovel blade down in to lift and loosen where the beds had packed down too much. I could see a little bit of moisture in the deeper soil but the top few inches were hard clods and dust. Hoping still, I put all the early stuff in and right after I finished, it rained softly off and on all weekend. Beautiful. We won't get the eavestrough on the house for a while, but we propped up bits of it to catch some of the drips and filled two of our barrels with wonderfully clean water from that new steel roof.

I took a contract doing assessments of the health of native pasture and wetland areas this summer, so you probably won't be hearing much from me for a while yet.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Root Shift

Wayne at Niches has another post up about the ongoing drought in the southeastern U.S., and some disturbing comments about the response (or lack thereof) from his students - and even from his biology students. I replied that I think the message about climate change and personal change has been watered down too much, in an attempt to make the necessary changes seem "easy." I suspect that many people equate "easy" with "unnecessary."

Then I found myself writing about my root shift idea. It's high time I mentioned it here. From my comment at Niches:
I am working on a concept called “root shift.” This stresses the fundamental change that needs to be made: to shift the roots of our living (our food, our shelter, our clothes, our entertainment, everything) away from fossil fuels and onto a sustainable base. This shift won’t happen if we wait for governments to force it or corporations to donate it; it must come from us, from the grassroots. What is stopping us from making the shift? What is stopping me, a person who knows far more than enough about the need for it? (Another root shift image: the branching tree of evolution, lopped off by our current extinction event, and future biodiversity starting over from just a few surviving roots...) What do I need to know about the roots of my own being, my attitudes, my habits, and so on, to make a real shift? I want to answer that, and more. I have bought a domain name (rootshift.org - sorry, right now it just directs to Garth’s website) and I’m waiting for “Wikis for Dummies” from the library. I want to build a collaborative website that will bring together tools for change. The “root shift” concept will be central, and all content will have to measure up. Being “good for the environment” is not enough. We’re not talking about tweaking trends, here, we’re talking about reversing them. If an action can’t contribute to the root shift, it’s a distraction. And I suspect that what’s more important than the actions is the spirit - finding enough peace with oneself and one’s neighbours to stop “needing” so much, to begin to love one’s own home place, to choose life.

UPDATE: I have created a web page outlining the root shift concept, which you can view at rootshift.org.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Chris Mooney's "Storm World"

If you're perplexed by the conflict over global warming, wondering how to decide who to believe, or wondering how "the other guys" can be so earnestly stupid, you might find some food for thought in Chris Mooney's book, Storm World.

If you're thinking, aha, Mooney, that's the guy who wrote The Republican War on Science, so that's where Laura's coming from - think again. I haven't read that book and probably won't, since I have very little faith in politicians of any stripe, either as people to rely on or as people to blame. I have my own work to do, walking the walk.

I recommend Storm World not as support for a position, but as context for thinking about positions regarding global warming. Mooney does an admirable (and surprisingly entertaining) job of chronicling the scientific debate around hurricane formation, hurricane intensity, and how global warming could influence hurricanes. Without hiding his own opinions, he illuminates the perspectives of numerous hurricane researchers and the way those perspectives have changed through time with ongoing research and debate. Although he disagrees with Bill Gray, he is refreshingly sympathetic towards this prominent hurricane scientist, who has devoted his retirement to convincing people that there is no global warming-hurricane connection. Mooney is also refreshingly critical of environmental activists making claims that are not supported by current hurricane research.

Overall, Mooney reveals that much of the actual discussion among scientists is not nearly so polarized or conclusive as media coverage suggests. More importantly, he takes us inside the research processes of actual scientists and shows how their quite different perspectives legitimately emerge from their work. This book may not make you any more certain about who to believe. In fact, it may well make you less certain, and that could be a good thing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Good News? Not Yet.

Once in a while I see some talk about how increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere cannot be causing any global warming, because carbon dioxide only absorbs infrared radiation in certain narrow bands, and all the radiation in those bands is already captured by the current level of carbon dioxide. Sounds like good news! But I've always seen this argument buried among numerous other good news arguments, and somehow as I checked out each one and wound up disappointed, I never quite made it down the list to check out the saturation argument.

Until now. Here's a fine summary, and a fine example of the work of Spencer Weart. He is the author of The Discovery of Global Warming: A hypertext history of how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change. If you haven't dipped into that website yet, well, I wish you would.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Nature Kind in Voice and Touch

A beautiful story:
Dolphin Rescues Stranded Whales

It reminded me of another I had heard spoken about recently, and I found it for you, too:
Daring Rescue of Whale off Fallarones

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hearts Far from the Earth

A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.
Cheyenne Tsistsistas
Like many others on the Internet, I am repeating the above words without knowing much about their history. I first saw them on a poster about the "Sisters in Spirit" campaign to draw attention and response to the disappearance of hundreds of native women in Canada. The words have haunted me.

They came back to me this week, as I pondered a sad change in the hearts of women here. It goes along with a change in language, I think, where the terms "spring" and "thaw" and "runoff" are now heard less frequently than the term "breakup." What matters to people these days is not when the air is warm, or when the hills get bare, or when it's time to start garden plants, or when the pasture will green up, or how soon the fields might be tilled; instead, it's when the roads "break up" as the frost comes out, so that the heavy equipment in the oilfield grinds to a halt.

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I have heard young women rejoicing that breakup will be short this year. Both times I said I would rather see a couple of feet of new snow before then. In the past, almost anyone would have agreed that we need the moisture, but these women did not. One said she had to support her boyfriend during breakup, and the other said her boyfriend would be around the house too much.

The proverb talks about conquest, but conquest is not the only way for a nation to be finished. It can also be finished when the hearts of its women are too far from the earth.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

That Time of Year

These are the days when the temperature creeps up close to the melting point, and the strengthening sun pushes sand and dust particles up over that crucial point, thawing a honeycomb of brown-lined caves into the south sides of the snow ridges along the street. I noticed it beginning a week or so ago, when the air temperature was still staying well below zero, but the solar melt had begun.

Last week, too, I noticed my neighbour blowing the bank of snow away from the wall of his house. He piles it up there all winter, keeping the house warmer, and then when the thaw approaches, he clears it away and keeps the house dry. I wonder how he knows when to do it.

These are the days when the sun warms the pavement, and any snow that sifts across it in a breeze is apt to stick. On Monday I got out on the highway and found it a skating rink, so I crept along for two miles and then escaped to the safety of a gravel back road to finish the trip to Carlyle. On Thursday I went directly to the back road.

These are the days, some years, when I am starting to wonder where I will pile the snow if I have to shovel any more. This year, I am just wishing it would snow. I'd take a picture of the snow pile, to compare to other years, but there isn't one. Aside from clearing a bit away from the doorway, I haven't shovelled snow all winter. My neighbour's snow bank against his house was so small, I think he cleared it in one pass with the blower. Our snow is just packed on the driveway, because it never got deep enough to bother. Last winter I think we had more snow on the ground in November than we've had throughout this winter. And last winter there was almost no runoff.

These are the days when I notice horned larks again. I don't know if they've just returned, or if they've been here for a few weeks but I've finally returned to the back roads to see them. What wonderful symbols of hope they are, adapting to fallow field and gravel road side, returning to this snowy barren landscape before there is any sign of spring except the quick flash of their own tiny wings and black-edged tails.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rare Good News

Discovery News: Ocean Thermostat May Shield Reefs

In the wake of news that King Penguins have shown sharp declines in response to small changes in ocean temperature, and following the recent stream of evidence that changes are happening faster than climate models predict, it's good to hear about a natural process that may help some biodiversity squeeze through our grand extinction event. It's a glimmer of the hope I need to keep working at living more lightly on this Earth.

Where Credit Is Due

Amtrak is careful with their disclaimers. I figured it was a long shot, but I inquired about compensation anyway, and they came through with a travel certificate for a little more than half the cost of my round trip. Looks like I may be riding again! Truth be told, I was prepared to give them another try anyway.

Any suggested destinations?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What More Could You Want?

Here is a chance to help your favourite win a popularity contest, and get your name in a draw for a free book, and find out about something fun to do this coming weekend, anywhere in North America - even right here in Arcola. How can you miss?

While we're on that subject, here's a related link.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Chasing Happiness

A couple of weeks ago, I overheard talk about the Whistlepigs having a CD release party on Groundhog Day. I was at a supper meeting to plan the 2008 Forget Summer Arts Festival (great supper, and I have a new resolve to get the Festival website updated, along with many other things to do, but first - first I have a story to tell). As you may have heard here, I am a great fan of the 'Pigs. Still, Minnesota is a fair distance away from here, even at the closest corner, and St. Paul is double that. I felt a brief twinge of envy towards the folks who were planning to go, and then I got on with my busy-ness.

Then came the cryptic two-line email from Fred, with the subject line "PS...", suggesting that if I caught a ride with the folks from Forget, I could stay at his place. Garth, who knew nothing about the CD release, and didn't remember a guy named Fred, found that an interesting email indeed! After we sorted that out, I got to thinking - I could meet Deb! A few messages and phone calls later, Deb was planning to come to the concert, I was scheming to get out of directing band rehearsal on the eve of Groundhog Day and playing the organ in church the morning after, Garth was resigned to his fate of taking the kids to all their activities for the weekend, and I was getting excited. I had left a somewhat awkward message on an answering machine in Forget, inviting myself to catch a ride, if that was okay . . .

Monday morning I found out that it was not. An extra passenger just didn't fit with the travel plans, and I admire those folks for saying so! I quickly withdrew my request and wished them a good holiday.

Still, there was no denying I was disappointed.

I may have a little stubborn streak somewhere.

Next thing you know, I'm checking bus schedules. I know there's a bus that runs south from Winnipeg - what was the company name, again? Found it, no, that bus gets in too late to catch the show. Maybe Greyhound? Ooh, closer, but still too late.

Train? I must be crazy. But there is that Amtrak line across North Dakota - yes, I must be insane, but, but . . .

Well, this will be a long story no matter how I tell it, so I'll cut to the chase and tell you I bought a train ticket. It was too late to have the ticket sent out to me, and the quiet little station I chose (Stanley, ND) doesn't have a ticket office, so I got a boarding code to let me buy my outbound ticket on board, and prepaid a return ticket which I would pick up in St. Paul.

Fred assured me that there would be concert tickets at the door.

Deb told me about some restaurants where we might meet.

I checked out St. Paul city bus schedules online, and printed off a map of downtown attractions like the Science Museum and the library. My train was scheduled to arrive early Saturday morning, giving me the whole day to poke around and then find my way to the vicinity of the concert. My return train departed late in the evening, so I wouldn't need to stay with Fred - I could just sleep on trains, both ways! Very efficient, I thought.

There were some minor worries, still, like whether I would have trouble at the border crossing with the brand new document requirements, and whether I could sleep sitting up, or whether I would snore. Still, things continued to come together for me. The weather forecasts for North Dakota were warmer than here, so my truck should start okay for the drive home. Ruth was willing to contort her weekend plans a bit so she could take my place as band director Friday night. Brian gave us a U.S. road atlas, which he had picked up for our summer trip planning, and I noticed the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, right next to my route to Stanley - maybe I could see some sharptail grouse on a lek!

Friday morning, things started to shift a bit. Ruth couldn't make it to the band rehearsal after all. Oh, well, they'd manage. I finished my packing, discovering a forgotten favourite T-shirt that would be perfect for comfort layering for my train-sleeping outfit, and remembering a wind-and-rain-proof shell that I could wear over top of my warmish coat if it was wet in St. Paul. I planned to leave my really warm clothes in the truck, and just carry a small backpack on the train, so when I reached the city, I could look like a local student instead of a vulnerable tourist. Which book to take for the train? I settled on Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos by Bruce Sanguin, with the striking cover design of a delicate frog, balanced on a stem, circumscribed by an expanding spiral. I had a library book I wanted to read, but having lost a library book on a plane once, I decided to leave it at home. It was James Bonnet's treatise on writing great stories, with the flaming pencil on the cover and the title Stealing Fire from the Gods. Little did I know, fire from the gods was already on its way: I would have no need to be stealing it.

Just a few things left to do - buy an inflatable neck pillow, and get some spare house keys made for Ruth and my parents.

Then came a call from Amtrak, saying there were avalanche conditions farther west, and my train had been turned back. The replacement was running about six hours late, estimated to depart from Stanley not at 8:11 p.m. as I had expected, but around 2:30 a.m. instead. Call for updates, they advised me - they didn't want me waiting in the cold.

Suddenly the thought of a quiet little station in a small town was not so appealing. Would they open it for an off-schedule train? Would there be anything open in Stanley at 2 a.m.?

A Google search for Stanley gave me a city website that was not responding, and a lot of these useless directory sites that list every named community in the nation and offer nothing but advertising. Paging through the Google results, I noticed a link for "Great American Stations." A great station? In Stanley? Intrigued, I clicked through and found a picture of a low wood-frame building beside the tracks, with a gravel parking lot in the foreground. Great, indeed. Perfect, as a simple, uncrowded place to catch a train in the daytime; but somewhat daunting as a place to wait in winter in the wee hours.

I recalculated my departure time, and called my parents to say I would come to band rehearsal after all, at least for the first part. I finished the last of my preparations, finding a neck pillow and also a slim wallet that would fit in the zippered breast pocket of my fleece jacket. I figured a person couldn't grope around there without waking me.

It occurred to me that I should clean my truck, to make sure there weren't any hayseeds for the border officials to object to. But first, since I was feeling weary enough, I lay down to get some of the rest that I had planned to get on the train.

I couldn't sleep, but I stayed flat on my bed and rested, stubbornly.

Just before dark, I cleaned the truck as well as I could without washing it and having the doors freeze shut. I checked the train status again. Now the estimate was 3:13 a.m.

At band practice, Lorraine heard my plans and declared that she hadn't been that young in a very long time. She said she knew where her prayers would be directed that night. We had a fine rehearsal, and I was given the leftover cookies to take with me. (We always have cookies at band rehearsal. If you live anywhere near here, you should come.)

When I got home, I found out the train was running even later. How could this be? Shouldn't it be making up time? With a three-hour drive between me and the station, there were too many uncertainties - road conditions, problems at the border, and always, the status of the train - and yet, I didn't want to end up shivering for hours by the tracks in Stanley.

I knew I should get some more sleep before leaving. Could I trust my alarm? I remembered a friend who is always up late. His phone was busy - tied up with his dial-up Internet connection, no doubt. I sent him an email asking him to call me at 11:30, and went to bed.

At 11:30, the estimate for the train had moved even later. My friend listened to my worries, told me I was the craziest friend he had, and agreed to call me again at 12:15.

When I answered, he said "You didn't sleep, did you." He offered to drive me down to Stanley. And pick me up again. No, said I, firmly - two trips in your gas hog instead of one in my little truck? No. We talked about places he had seen in North Dakota, like Lake Sakakawea that winds all the way from Williston to south of Minot. Finally I decided the train status seemed to have stabilized: it was time to go.

I sent an email to Deb, letting her know my train was much delayed, but since this whole thing was a crazy jaunt anyway, I was going through with it.

I left Arcola at about 1:30 a.m., feeling oddly alert. My friend had told a warning story about falling asleep behind the wheel, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sleepless resting had done me good. I was growing excited again, although I did calculate mileages in my head and figure out that this joyride - just the driving part of it - was equivalent to five weeks' worth of my trips to Carlyle for the kids' usual activities. Could it be worth the cost?

I took the shortest route, on the smaller roads, and I had them to myself. I didn't see another vehicle until I reached the highway near Bienfait, where the clouds from the coal-fired power plant loomed high in the darkness, lit from below. Before I pulled onto the highway, I used my cell phone to check the train status once more. It hadn't changed. I hoped that would hold, since my phone wouldn't work once I crossed the line.

I had no trouble at the border. The officer's voice had a hint of incredulity as he asked me, "Where're ya coming from?" and "Where're ya going?," but maybe it was just his way of amusing himself through the long and mostly empty hours of the night.

Speed limit 25. Oh, yes, that's like 40 where I come from. All my worrying had cost me some sleep, but it had sure etched the route map into my mind. I found my turns just like I'd been there before, and often. South of Bowbells, I noticed grassy ditches: there was almost no snow at all. A little further, the land began to roll a little and the lights of farmsteads thinned out to nothing on the west. That must be the Missouri Coteau, I thought, and Lostwood N.W.R. Not much farther now.

After a while I began to wonder where Stanley had got to. Shouldn't I see lights ahead?

It took longer than I expected, but Stanley did come into view at last. I passed an imposing brick building that must be the county seat, and then the street plunged into a railway underpass. Glancing quickly off to the sides before they rose out of view, I caught no glimpse of a station. When I emerged on the other side, I stopped right there on the empty street and craned my neck each way.

After a moment of doubt, I spotted it, just like in the picture on the Internet, except half shrouded in darkness. There were a couple of trucks parked by its wall, looking like work trucks that stayed there a lot. Other than that, the parking lot was empty.

A pay phone? Nothing obvious in view, so I pulled into the parking lot to take a look around.

I had never been at a train station before, except once in the vast marble hall of the VIA rail station in Regina, where I found out that I had misunderstood the departure time of 12-something a.m., and come to catch the train a day late. That was years ago. VIA doesn't run through Regina anymore, and that great station is a casino now.

Next to the parking lot, chained off from it, was a lighted area of concrete level with the tracks. I guessed that might be the place to board. From there I followed a narrow gravel walkway between the tracks and the station building. There were some lights in an office, but no-one inside; and beyond that, a door, through which I saw a lighted waiting area.

The door was open, and the interior was warm. With rising confidence, I strode past empty ancient benches of wrought iron and green-painted wood, around a corner and down a silent hallway, following the signs to the ladies' room. Reckless, maybe, for a woman alone, but I needed that room.

Later I explored the waiting area. There was a bit of literature and signage, but not so much as a note to tell me the status of my train. I found some baggage tags and learned that even my carry-on bag should have one. I made a trip out to my truck for a pen. Still there was no-one around.

Walking back to the building, I heard a whistle off to the east, and saw lights begin to gleam along the rails. I had barely stepped inside the waiting room when the freight roared by, shaking the walls and the ground, cars flashing and gone again at the window. Catching my breath, I realized that I had never been so close to a moving train. Well, sure, I'd ridden antique steam trains at low speeds in heritage parks, a couple of times. This was as different as my truck from a tricycle.

When I got bored and walked outside again, there was a car in the lot, and I could see a woman around my age, talking on her cell phone. I longed to ask her whether the train status had changed in the last few hours, but I thought she might be frightened if I approached her car. I walked past, nodded at her, and she smiled. I continued onto the bridge over the underpass, so I could look down the street. What would a pay phone look like, here in North Dakota?

Back in the waiting room, I tried out the benches, and let my gaze wander over the details of the room. It was old, and worn in places, but not uncared for, painted a neutral shade on the wallboard panels (asbestos?) and green on the wood trim. Outside I had noticed neat and solid modern metal roofing. Still, there were signs of frustration, literally: the office door had stick-on lettering that said "SECTION HEADQUARTERS / IF THERE EVER WAS," and above that someone had added with a marker the prefix "EX." There was a piece of equipment on a counter, with lights to indicate "charging," "fully charged," and "defective." That last one was the one that was lit.

I noticed a dark beige plastic box high on the wall, with a slim cable coming to it, and below it, a rectangular section of wall that had missed out on the most recent coat of paint. I had found my pay phone, or the traces that were left of it.

A woman stepped into the waiting room, saw me, and asked "Do we know the time yet?" I assured her of my ignorance. She told me she was going for a large coffee - would I like one? - and not to let the train leave.

I was outside again when she returned, and we could hear a whistle in the distance, this time from the west. She and her daughter went inside, while I waited and watched. The whistle came closer; light gleamed along the rails, and then the triangle of headlights came into view. At first I imagined the train was slowing, but then suddenly it was blazing at me. A freight! The thought hardly formed in my head before the wind blasted in my face and the engines roared by. I stepped a little further from the tracks, fearing flying objects, and marvelling at the enormous momentum of the train.

"You survived that!" she grinned at me, when I stepped back into the waiting room. I found a bench and let her conversation with her daughter wash over me. She was going to Minneapolis, picking up a brother-in-law along the way, and staying for a while to help him find his way in the big city. He had been a farm boy all his life, she said, and didn't know how to be safe in such a place. Now his wife was in hospital there.

I wondered if I knew how to be safe in St. Paul.

Our train came at last, a great tall silvery thing, with windows far above us. The conductor sorted out which three of the four women before him were boarding, and sent us on. Every bit of it was new to me: the vestibule with racks for baggage, and nearly hidden in a corner, the narrowest stairway I had ever seen, but quite comfortable to climb, turning twice and bringing us out on a dimly lit aisle above, where there was seating just like on a Greyhound bus, only far roomier. Hesitantly, I chose a seat rather close to the woman who had waited in her car, but not too near, so as not to seem pushy. The other woman had disappeared somewhere behind me.

The train was rolling. The conductor appeared and started the paperwork for the woman near me. I dug out my boarding code and ID and waited. Another man spoke to me from behind, asking if I was buying my ticket on board, and turned away, saying he would let the conductor take care of that. I didn't get a good look at him, but he was one of those people who just feels comfortable and reassuring - not too tall, wearing some sort of uniform, but instead of the fancy hat that the conductor wore, this man had a toque.

I signed for my ticket, took my receipt, and settled in. The woman near me appeared to be a seasoned traveller, pulling out a blanket and getting comfortable, but I was happy with my own preparations. My loose-fitting cotton clothes were perfect, my neck pillow yielded gently with the rocking of the train, and my fleece jacket kept me cozy while my warmish outer jacket covered my legs. The other passengers were quiet, the lights were dim, and I slept.

I was vaguely aware of a couple of stops, but I knew we had a long way to go before I should worry about missing mine. I did take notice when a young man took the seat across the aisle from me. He deposited his things and went off somewhere, leaving me to observe with fascination his bundle of diamond-willow walking sticks, some beautifully finished, others in various stages of carving. A dream-catcher dangled from the bundle.

He returned, arranged a couple of pillows that he got from the train car attendant, and went to sleep.

Somewhere along the way, I went for breakfast. In the dining car, I was seated with two men, one a nervous-looking man about my age, the other older, personable, questioning the first about his journey through the mountains to get to this train. When avalanche conditions had stopped his train at Whitefish, the passengers had been loaded onto buses - three buses, full - and driven around to Havre, to meet the train we now rode towards the east. As his story unfolded, I learned why our departure time had grown steadily later. The buses were caught in a snowstorm on mountain roads. To make matters worse, in the bus our dining partner rode, the defrost was not working, and he and other passengers stood up next to the driver and wiped the window with whatever cloths they could find. He saw the driver talking on a cell phone, trying to find out how to fix the defrost, holding a flashlight and looking down at the controls while discussing the problem, and still driving all the while through the storm. At one point, the driver gripped the wheel and said, "Oh my God, I can't see!" They stopped briefly, and when they tried to start again, the bus slipped sideways. Backing up cautiously, the driver got them back on the road.

The older man beside me laughed, gently, shaking his head. "So that's where you were when we were sitting in Havre, wondering 'Where are those buses?'!"

Mountains seemed unreal from where we sat, swaying above gently rolling fields and pastures indistinguishable from the landscape of home. The man who had survived them excused himself to retreat again to his sleeper. A woman took his place, and the man beside me quizzed her. He guessed - correctly - that she was a teacher, but he didn't get the details quite right. She taught English as a second language. We talked about the places we came from, the frustrations of politics, and the populations of hares on the prairies. Lingering over coffee after the teacher left, the older man offered advice about riding city buses in St. Paul. He thought I should take a cab rather than walking from the train station to the nearest bus stop. "How much luggage do you have?" he asked. Just a backback, I told him. "Oh, you're fine. For the daytime. But at night, after the concert, you should catch a ride or get a cab."

I paid for my breakfast, trying not to look puzzled over the all-green American money, with its one-dollar bill looking hardly any different from the five, the ten, or the twenty. Back at my seat, I discovered that I could zip the hood off my coat and use it to cover my eyes and leave my nose clear for a very comfortable doze.

The train was motionless when I heard the announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a crossing accident. There were no fatalities, but we have to wait until the police come so the engineer can give his statement." Gradually, over the succeeding hours of our journey, I heard bits and pieces about what may have happened. A man driving a pickup truck had not noticed the train. He would have driven right in front of it, except that he heard the whistle and turned aside a little, hitting the side of the train instead of having it hit him. No-one was hurt. The train had taken a full two miles to come to a stop.

Later, as we passengers got to know each other, we started wondering if we recalled a bit of a bump or a lurch, one that stood out from the rest of the little bumps and lurches along the way. I remembered a couple, but I couldn't be sure that either of them was the one.

The young fellow across the aisle hadn't even heard the announcement, so the whole thing was news to him when people started discussing it again. Again the train had stopped, and not at a station. The Grand Forks station was just a few hundred yards behind us, and we were enjoying a view of impossibly flat bare fields and an industrial park. Why had we stopped this time? Why was the power going on and off? Had the accident damaged the train?

Eventually they told us that the air brakes were locked up, and they were working on the engine to fix the problem, and they had to turn off the power at times in order to do that.

Bored and restless, passengers drifted into the sightseeing lounge, and traded stories. Some went downstairs to see what they could find in the snack bar. "Sorry folks," said the attendant there. "I'm shut down while the power is off."

Where I come from, nobody would turn away customers over a little problem like a power outage. That's what a pad of paper is for.

We gazed at the industrial park, and introduced ourselves to our neighbours, and shared little pieces of our lives. The dining car was serving lunch, and we wondered how they were doing it, when the snack car couldn't sell us a bag of chips. Another announcement came: they were unable to repair the engine, so they were going to change that unit out, but they had to find a place to leave it. We wouldn't be rolling again for a while yet.

The young man across the aisle from me began to realize that he wouldn't be home in time for the SuperBowl. I repeated a joke I'd heard in the sightseeing lounge: we wouldn't be home in time for the election. The woman in the seat ahead, the one who had smiled at me from the parking lot in Stanley, turned around and joined the conversation. Slowly, bit by bit, the young man's story emerged.

He had boarded the train in Rugby, a couple of stations after us. He used to ride the Greyhound, but having had enough of that, he had decided to try the train. They told him to come pick up his ticket before the station closed at 2 p.m. He had a friend drop him off, got his ticket, and settled down to wait for the scheduled departure of 10:30 p.m.

I wonder, now, why they didn't tell him when he picked up his ticket, that the train was late. Hadn't they known by then? Hadn't they phoned me around noon?

Locked out of the station, he waited in the cold. He was headed back to his home in Ohio, not just to see the football game, but to stay until winter was over and the weather warmed up. He was a painter, accustomed to spending the winters doing interior finishes on mansions in Florida. He had a girlfriend now at Turtle Mountain, and he had been content there, except that this cold was too much for him.

At 10:30 p.m. he had learned that his train wouldn't be coming until early morning. He found a bar and closed it down, but back outside in subzero temperatures, the buzz didn't last long. He considered going to the police, because he thought he was going to die.

It was mid-morning when our train finally picked him up in Rugby. Now we were sitting at Grand Forks, less than 150 miles from where he had boarded, and something like 12 hours behind schedule. The woman from the seat in front offered him a cell phone to call his family and tell them not to set out to meet his train just yet. Then she loaned him a book, one of those positive-thinking books that tend to arouse my suspicion.

Presently they backed us up slowly, past the station, across a roadway, and past a fork in the rails. Then we were still again, with the power off.

I borrowed the cell phone, too, and got only answering machines. I left a message for Garth to consider whether I could stay over an extra day, to make my trip worthwhile.

A chill began to creep inward from the windows.

Somebody said, "Hey, look, maybe that's our engine." Off to one side, we could see two train engines moving slowly, presumably the pair from our train, one dead and the other pushing it to its resting place.

Sometime later there was a little bump, and another wait, and then the power came back on. The man I'd met at breakfast, with the advice about St. Paul, sought me out, cell phone in hand. He wanted to help me. He was sure I wouldn't make it to my concert, but I was still hoping I might get there partway through and say hello. He found a printed train schedule for me, and I pored over the numbers, comparing the scheduled time for Grand Forks to the actual time now, and adding the difference to the scheduled arrival for St. Paul. Yes, I might still make it before the show ended.

As we rolled along again, an atmosphere of wry merriment rippled down the train. People traded stories of all the things they were missing - supper dates, parties, the Saturday chores the wife had planned back home. Many plans were already ruined, but at least we were rolling again.

Not for long. The train slowed, and stopped. We looked left and right, craning to see forward or back along the tracks, but saw nothing but a highway and open fields. There was a highway sign, and someone noted that we were only thirty-seven miles out of Grand Forks. What now?

From the sightseeing lounge, we watched someone walking along beside the train, duffel bag over his shoulder, just walking.

An attendant rushed through the lounge, flinging her announcement at us as she went: the operating crew had put in their maximum ten hours, and now we would have to wait about 45 minutes while they brought in a replacement crew from St. Cloud.

In response to our startled looks, she said, "You saw that man walking along the tracks? That's our engineer, walking out on us." And she disappeared into the next car.

I never found out where that engineer was going, walking away from a train on a siding between two fields. I suppose there may have been a car waiting for him, but you can't see ahead or backward from a train car, just miles and miles out to the sides of exactly where you're at.

Some of us started joking about driving the train ourselves. I got in touch with Deb, and suggested that she might meet me at the station to have a drink before I got on my return train and went home again.

We passengers traded more stories, and loaned each other books. Kari, the woman with the cell phone, exclaimed over my book, saying "Frogs come into my life," and writing down the title. I don't remember when it was, but the three of us, Kari and I and the young man across the aisle, got talking philosophy. Kari mentioned a woman from First Class who had ranted over breakfast about how the seven hour delay was preposterous, and more or less complained through the whole meal before retreating to her sleeper again. Kari noted how her own tendencies had changed over time, and now instead of taking a sleeper, she liked to ride in coach and meet people. She tried not to complain, but to be positive, thus bringing more positive into her own life. The young man dug into the book she had loaned him, trying to find where it had said something just like that. I sat back quietly and wondered why those ideas bother me. True, there is power in positive thinking, but isn't there also a need for willingness to face the suffering of others, other humans and other living things? Isn't that what Christ was teaching - a willingness to go where the suffering is worst, and walk right into it if necessary? When does positive thinking cross the line into denial?

Bit by bit, the young man across the aisle told more of his life story, full of betrayal and loss, of suffering on the part of those who have no say, of demands placed on those who have no responsibility, and yet there is no-one else to serve. It was much too personal to repeat the details without his permission.

I never learned his name.

Kari and I listened with growing sympathy and concern. There was really nothing we could do but listen; there was no help or advice to give, just momentous choices that he must face alone.

Finally Kari said, softly, "And I thought you were just a guy going home to watch a football game."

And I thought I had troubles, missing everything I'd come for. It was only a weekend, after all.

The 45 minutes stretched out to something more like an hour and a half. I had to admit that my growing fear was correct: I might not reach St. Paul before my return train left.

Finally our train started moving, and then the announcements started flying. The new conductor would be walking through the train, answering questions. A special Amtrak team would be boarding the train in St. Paul to help sort out connections. Meanwhile, they were calling the First Class passengers to the dining car, and soon they would be calling the rest of us, car by car, for a complimentary supper. Before they finished speaking, the train was rocking hard, making up time.

We were sixteen hours behind schedule.

I borrowed the cell phone again, talking to "Julie," Amtrak's automated agent, trying to find out what I should do. I wanted to take charge of my situation, to do what I had to, to be sure I got on my train for home. The previous conductor had advised me not to get off this train early, because none of the stations would be open. But there was no question now about catching my train in St. Paul: it was impossible.

I got past Julie to a human, and tried to get her to help me. My ticket was waiting in St. Paul, but I needed it a station ahead, in St. Cloud. By this time, our car had been called for supper. I was seated across from the other woman from Stanley and her brother-in-law with the wife in hospital. I apologized for talking on the phone over dinner, and she assured me that I should do what I had to do. She turned to her brother-in-law, telling him I was the one she had told him about, the one who had missed everything.

I broke down. Tears streaming, I argued with the hapless Amtrak agent, gradually realizing that there really was nothing she could do to help me, and she was right - I needed to talk to someone on board. A delicious supper of stew and mashed potatoes had appeared in front of me, and I was struggling to eat it between questions and answers and sniffles and quiet sobs. At another table, I could see Kari, conversing cheerfully, and I felt awful for my little scene. Everyone else was in the same boat, or worse; why was I so upset?

My dining partners left, apologetically, but they were finished and there were others waiting to dine. I hung up the phone and finished my meal, and then set out to find the conductor.

He was a slim, quiet man with eyes partly hidden by his shiny hat brim and glasses. I told him my trouble, and at first he reassured me that the Amtrak team would be boarding in St. Paul, but he stayed attentive as I calmly informed him that I would have missed my return train by then. He promised to write me out a ticket so I could catch it in St. Cloud instead.

Once more I borrowed the phone, and left a message for Deb saying I was sorry for dragging her out of the woods and not showing up myself. I asked her to say "Hi" to Fred and the Whistlepigs for me.

I had a passing train car attendant change my seat check tag from "St. Paul" to "St. Cloud," so they would know to alert me for my stop. Then I slumped in my seat to wrestle with my hurt feelings. I didn't want to be like this. Others were cheerful. I wanted to be strong and gracious.

The young man across the aisle offered that if he were me, he'd blow a gasket. He'd demand his money back.

I didn't know what to say.

As we rolled into St. Cloud, I tried to be in the moment, to just appreciate whatever was in front of me right then. Out the window arose a mountain of logs, higher than a house and longer than a city block. Behind it was another one, and then another. Neat stacks of tree corpses.

Next came a vast and reeking mill, blocking all the light with its steel wall towering right against the tracks, a blank of darkness that dragged on for many seconds, only to be followed by an eerie yellow-lit alley crossed by huge pipes.

And then they were telling us to prepare for our stop, and that there would actually be two stops, because it was a briefing point for the new crew, even though they were already on the train. If we walked ahead in the train, we could get off at the first stop, or if we waited in the rear it would be another ten minutes. I decided to walk ahead.

As I packed up my things, I noticed the CD I had brought for Deb - a Fire Lily CD from way back in 2001, not good enough for my ears anymore, but I had thought she might enjoy a few of my songs anyway. Suddenly I wanted Kari to have it, as a small token of appreciation for all her help with the cell phone, her gentle listening, her sharing about her family and her interest in environment, all the things we had in common. But Kari was asleep.

She was curled up across two seats, peaceful. I could see her bag open in front of the window seat. Could I lean over and drop the CD into it? What if she wakened, startled, suspicious?

The young man was sleeping, too, but he stirred and opened his eyes. I started to ask if he could give it to her, but no, I realized, he was going on to Chicago, and he might be sleeping when she got off. Never mind, take care, I waved at him, wretched. I wished I could give him something, too - something much more than an out-of-date CD of clumsy folk songs. He would be needing more than that.

Downstairs in the vestibule, the man I'd met at breakfast caught my eye across the knot of passengers waiting to detrain, and gave me a startled look. Outside, he learned of my decision, and shook his head. "You didn't even get to meet your friend," he said, and I told him, no, and I didn't get to give her this, either - do you want it? "What is it?" he asked, and took the CD, seeming delighted, giving me his card in return. Then he asked if I drank wine - no - or beer? He had his car, he could take me just around the corner and bring me back in ten minutes. It was just that he was sorry I'd missed my concert.

I thanked him but told him I wanted to just go in the station and sit. And I did.

The building was much like the one in Stanley, but instead of wooden benches there were molded fiberglass seats, each one with its own separate arms, all mounted in rows on steel frames. Nothing you could lie down on. I noticed that some of the seats were up against a wall, where I might lean my head back, but those seats faced away from the front of the station, so I couldn't watch for my train.

I realized that if I had waited in the rear of the train, I would have had ten more minutes to sit in comfort, ten fewer minutes to sit in this place.

It was now about 10 p.m., and my train would be coming at 12:40. Had I ever been so tired? How would I endure the hours of waiting? How would I stay awake? There was another couple waiting, but they were waiting for their son to pick them up. There was a man working in the office, but he soon closed up and walked outside. I followed him to ask whether someone would be coming inside when the next train came. If I fell asleep waiting, would someone wake me?

He assured me that, since this was a crew change point, the new engineers and conductors would be here well ahead of the train, and they would notice me and wake me if I were sleeping.

The other couple waiting talked with me a little. Their son wasn't answering his phone. "He lives on his phone," said the father, perplexed. The son had said something about leaving a car for them, but they had been dubious about that, because it wasn't a very good part of town. They peered out windows, checked around outside, sat and talked some more. Now that everyone had left, they couldn't use the phone in the office anymore. Suddenly the man jumped up. "Why does that say 'Phone'?" I swivelled to see what he was looking at, and realized that the magazine rack behind me was formerly a pay phone cabinet, now just a shelf with the phone gone, but the lettering still there.

I couldn't converse anymore. I crossed to the small area of thin, hard carpet by the doors, and stretched out on it, with my back against a wall, my head close to an office door, my backpack protecting my head, and my feet stretched out beyond the carpet onto the cold concrete. The carpet and the wall weren't much warmer. I spread my coat over my legs, but soon shifted it to cover my trunk, to keep from shivering. I laid my glasses in front of my face, put my zipped-off coat hood over my eyes, and dozed.

The doors opened and two young men strode by me, glancing down with surprise, but moving on into the station where the couple welcomed them. All of them left together, and I dozed some more.

Again the doors opened, and a voice said, "Look what we have here," as slim uniformed legs disappeared into the office.

Once more the doors opened, and a tumult of young men poured through. Were they a bunch of friends? A team? Alumni of a team? The room was suddenly boisterous with testosterone. I stood myself up, rearranging my glasses and coat to their proper places, blinking and leaning against the wall, straightening up since it wasn't a good place to lean, with a framed poster behind me, leaning again, straightening again.

One of the men said something about "seven of us" going to Devil's Lake. I counted, slowly, confirming my suspicion that there were more than seven in the room.

The office door opened again. The uniformed man had shed his warm coat. Very tall and slender in a well-fitting black uniform, with curly black hair and dark eyes, he moved briskly and boldly out among the young men, who now looked short and drab in their casual clothes. I was half dead, and still I was stunned.

He sorted out boarding arrangements for the group. They wanted to remove one name and add another. I watched, blankly. The conductor turned slightly and said, "Are you the one going to Stanley?" I stared, blankly. "Stanley?" he said again.

I may have mumbled something as I moved forward and took the blue seat check tag he held out. I turned it over, curiously, realizing that it was just like the one the conductor on my last train had given me to use as a ticket. Like that one, this was marked "STN" for Stanley, except that the writing on this one was more elegant.

The young men were taking their first ever ride on the train, and they plied the conductor with questions. He explained what to do, where to have their luggage, what would happen when the train came in, and how he would call them to board. I listened in, knowing most of it already, but comforted to hear it laid out.

As the train came in, one of the men turned to me and asked if it was my first time too. I said yes, but then he asked where I was going and I explained that I was going back home. "Oh!" he said, "you lied to us!" I laughed a little, shaking my head. It was all one trip now.

I might have been feeling a little more confident than I had been at 5 a.m. the previous morning, except that this time the train was on the far side of a set of three tracks. I watched closely as the conductor crossed to it, talked to someone, and then turned back towards us. "Board!" he called, beckoning, and we trailed out across all the pavement and rails. His voice followed us inside the car, telling us about the luggage racks and the stairs to our left. The young men wondered if they should keep their bags with them, and I was too tired to explain that it was up to them, whether to leave some on the racks below or not. They dragged everything with them, following me up the stairs, spreading out in the nearly empty car, each of us taking two seats. I had turned toward the rear of the car, knowing that in the cars I'd seen on the other train, the forward seats had been reserved for groups and couples. Not that it had mattered; I had chosen a "parties of two" seat in my uncertainty in the dim aisle at 5 a.m., and no-one had objected. Anyway, the young men took seats all around me, and started talking about their classic car restoration projects and their parties. I heard beers popping. Someone snored in the seat in front of me.

The train started moving. A smell arose and strengthened in the car. "It reeks," said one of the men. "The thing's on fire!" I was thinking the same thing, sitting straight up, wondering where to go, what to do. The conductor had not appeared, and there was no attendant in sight. The smell stayed, but didn't seem to strengthen anymore, and I remembered the reeking mill. Maybe that was all it was. The mill came in sight.

The train slowed, and stopped.

I wondered if this was just another check, related to the crew change.

The power shut off, leaving only the glow from the battery lights in the stairway.

"Oh, sh*t!" I said, audibly.

"This isn't good," said one of the young men, but I was thinking: not again. Not this train too. It's me. I'm sorry!!

It didn't matter. I was on a train facing west. I'd get to Stanley sooner or later. I curled up across the two seats, tucking my coat around me, arranging my seat check tag in my hand where the conductor would surely see it, and closed my eyes.

Later, rocking along again, I heard an announcement that we were about an hour behind schedule, since they'd had to work on the air brakes at St. Cloud.

The seat check tag was still in my hand. I could see one dangling from the luggage rack above me, and I silently thanked whoever had written a new one rather than disturb me by drawing the tag from my fingers.

Later still, stirring around to find a new sleeping position sitting up, I noticed the conductor coming along the aisle with his flashlight, saying "Devil's Lake, five to seven minutes." Just past my seat, he turned back and repeated this. "Did you hear me?" Then his hand was on my shoulder, shaking me gently. "Devil's Lake."

I guess I was more forgettable than he was.

"I'm at Stanley," I called feebly to his retreating back, but he was waking more of the young men, my voice lost among their questions.

I waited for them to leave. I had hatched a little plan to tuck my "STN" tag up in place of the erroneous one for Devil's Lake. As the tumult of testosterone faded down the stairs, an attendant swept by, clearing the Devil's Lake tags. I waited for quiet in the car, then tucked my elegantly written tag in place, wondering if I had it right, since it didn't seem to hold very well. No matter, I still had a spare one in my pocket. Dragging my fingers through my hair, I set off toward the dining car for breakfast.

I dined with a couple from Williston, on their way home from visiting a sister in some place I didn't recognize or remember. We talked about the lack of snow, and how they had a four-wheeler derby at Williston instead of a snowmobile derby. He knew of the Moose Mountains.

Back at my seat, I daydreamed about the conductor coming by and recognizing me, realizing his mistake at Devil's Lake. I imagined him apologizing, asking about my turn around in St. Cloud, sitting down beside me to listen.

His voice came over the speakers, announcing a crew change in Minot. He told us about the extended stop for a scheduled check of the train, and how they would try to get it done more quickly to make up some time. He told us there were soda machines in the station, and pay phones.

I wondered about going to a pay phone, to tell Garth what had happened, since my last message to him had been about whether I might stay over an extra day. Had he tried calling Deb to find out? Was he worrying about me? But I didn't know what change the phones would take, or where I might get it. Still, if I went into the station, I might get to see that conductor one more time.

I stayed on the train.

I heard someone asking a family member whether he had had a chance to get cleaned up a little. It occurred to me that I might do that, too. Exploring a little on my last trip to the bathrooms, I had discovered a bathroom labelled "changing room," with an extra space with a little bench in it, and another room labelled "dressing room," with two stools before a counter with two sinks. There I sat and brushed my teeth in comfort, secure on the stool instead of bracing against the rocking of the train. In the changing room, I traded the comfortable clothes I had dozed and lived in for the past day and a half for a slightly less comfortable but much better smelling outfit.

As I came back upstairs, I saw steep banks next to the tracks. More sandhills? I had been delighted with a glimpse of sandhills somewhere farther east, but these turned out to be cut banks where the tracks crossed through the upper reaches of a coulee before emerging onto the plains above.

Out on the plains, the view stretched only a little way, before it was swallowed in fog.

An attendant stopped in the aisle, looked at my seat tag, and asked if anyone had come for my ticket. I gazed at him, mouth open, fearing for a moment that after all this way, I was going to have trouble about my right to be there. Awkwardly, prompted by his questions, I explained what had happened, and that I had never actually had my ticket, since it had been waiting for me in St. Paul. Understanding, nodding, he finished my explanation for me: "So they just told you to get on, and let's go," and then he was walking away up the aisle.

Not long after, a uniformed man - a conductor, perhaps? - in a toque, not too tall, stood before me and told me we would be in Stanley in a few moments. I gathered my things, accustomed to the drill now, and went downstairs.

In the vestibule, the attendant who had asked about my ticket was waiting to one side, and the man in the toque was at the doorway on the other, with the window open, watching for something as we rolled into the station. The attendant looked at me suddenly and said, "Sorry about your weekend!" I smiled wryly and said, "Well, I got to find out what it's like to ride the train."

"Yes," he said, "and ride it, and ride it . . ."

"And sleep on the station floor for a few hours, and ride it some more," I finished, laughing.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the conductor, if that's what he was, slowly turning away from the window to look at me.

Then there was a voice from outside the train, saying "You don't have any on here," as we rolled to a stop. "Yes, but I have one off," said the conductor. I felt sorry that they had to stop just for me.

Then the door was open, and the little yellow stool was placed on the ground in front of it, and the conductor was telling me to watch my step. "Thank you," I said, planting one foot on the stool and the next well beyond it, striding away, past the caretaker on the platform, around the end of the chain and into the parking lot, heading for my truck. The caretaker asked if someone was meeting me or if I had a vehicle, and I pointed ahead, not looking around. But as I opened the door, I saw the train rolling away, with a window still open, and the conductor in the toque, watching me.

The tall dark one I may remember for a while.

The not-too-tall one in the toque, I will hope to meet again.

I started the truck immediately, and then turned to the task of scraping thick frost off the windows. Suddenly I turned and waved at the caretaker. He waved back, then understood and stopped his truck.

"Can you tell me where there is a pay phone?" I asked.

He looked at me significantly, and gesturing with his hands for emphasis, declared, "There is not a pay phone in this whole town."

I drove around looking for gas, and found some down towards the south end of town. Coming back north, as I emerged from the railway underpass, I noticed a phone-shaped symbol on top of a wooden booth with glass panes. I craned to look at it. I couldn't be sure, but from the shadowless outlines of the glass, I'd have to guess that the booth was empty, its phone long gone.

Driving north in the fog, I thought about Lostwood. If I saw a sign, I decided, I would stop.

I saw several signs, but mostly they were just signs in the corners of fences, with no access trails, or if there was a trail, it was gated and locked. I was struck, though not surprised, by the the thick stand of smooth brome grass (an invasive introduced species) that spread behind the first sign. Idled land, I thought. The worst thing you could do to it.

Later I saw another "Lostwood" sign in front of an area of extremely short grass. Well, that's more like it, I thought. They must be grazing that parcel.

Then, off in the fog, I saw an observation tower. A trail led towards it, but I could see that it was gated off, less than halfway to the tower. I backed the truck onto the highway again, and carried on.

Just a bit farther, I saw one more "Lostwood" sign, this one more imposing than the rest, with an open gravel road next to it. I drove in, and found a small office/public building, and the start of the auto-tour trail, marked "Open May to September." Next to the trail was a large display board, with information about prescribed burning, and racks of brochures. I read about the burning, looking past the display to the hills draped with smooth brome, and wondered how much success they were having with it. I wondered if that very short grass area I'd seen was actually a recent burn. I remembered a conference presentation by a man from North Dakota, about successes with brome grass control on public lands, but that had been using grazing, hadn't it?

I turned my truck around and drove away from Lostwood, drove on towards Bowbells and lunch. But at Bowbells, I didn't feel hungry yet, and there didn't appear to be much of a place to eat, anyway. I munched a package of M&Ms and sipped at a Pepsi I'd bought on the train. Caffeine and sugar, to keep me awake. At the border, the officer looked at my ID, and asked "Any purchases?"

"Half a can of Pepsi?" I offered.

"Have a good day," he said, walking away.

At the first high ground, I tried the cell phone. Garth asked where I was, and asked if I would be stopping to see anything. "What's to see?" I asked, puzzled. He hadn't realized that "north of Northgate" meant I was already in Canada, almost home. He said they would wait lunch for me.

Near Alameda, I watched a golden eagle take flight when I slowed for a better look at him, feeding on something out in the field. It was the best sight of my whole trip.

I came into the house, and Ruth was talking, eagerly, telling me all about their curling competition from the day before. James was in the bathroom. Rather than waiting, I decided to go across the street to Brian's to use his bathroom. My own family hadn't asked for my story yet, but I told it to Brian. When I returned, lunch was still waiting, because James was still in the bathroom and Garth was finishing changing the oil in the car before we ate. Ruth talked curling all through the wait and into lunch. I heard every detail, how they beat out a good team, and an excellent team, and then lost to a team of people that had never curled before. How the games developed, how the deciding shots went, what nicknames their skip earned with his frenetic sweeping of opposing rocks as soon as they crossed the tee line, right out the back of the house, again and again. Garth watched me, quietly, and still Ruth talked. James chimed in occasionally from behind the bathroom door.

Finally Garth asked me how my trip went. I suggested that my story should wait until everyone came to the table.

Somewhere during the telling, I found out that Garth had not checked his voice mail at all. It was perhaps an hour after I got home, as my story unfolded, that he first learned that I had not even set foot in St. Paul.

He was apologetic, disappointed, wishing he had known, because he would have encouraged me to stay over.

Who knows? Maybe Amtrak would have put me up in a hotel. Maybe Fred and the Whistlepigs would have had time to see me on Sunday. Or maybe I could have caught a ride with Deb out to her place, and then maybe there would have been a bus back into St. Paul on Sunday.

Or maybe not.

I was happy to be home.

Update: Where Credit Is Due

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Shirtsleeve Weather

We're just coming off a few days of the kind of cold that makes me think about survival. It was a bit unusual because there was wind as well as cold, with wind chill values around -40 to -50ºC. Today I was out running errands around noon, and it was only about -20º, and by late afternoon it was maybe -10.

Working in the sunroom this afternoon, Dad and I took off our jackets because it got too warm. There is some heat that leaks into that space from the rest of the house, but we keep the doors closed, and the one heating duct that feeds into it is closed off. Mostly the space is heated by the sun through the windows. Even during the extreme cold over the past few days, the sunroom has been cooling to only a couple of degrees below freezing over night, and warming nicely during the days. Today the heat flow was reversed: Garth opened up the doors into the rest of the house and turned the furnace off for a couple of hours.

The thermal performance of the new space has been improving bit by bit as we insulated the outside walls, closed in the gaps where warm air could rise right into the attic and away (big improvement there!), and finally started sealing all the walls up with vapour barrier. Today we were applying the last big sheets of poly and finishing the seams around windows. As we got down to the last little details, I noticed the sound of a big truck, engine braking somewhere nearby, and realized that the sound was much fainter than usual. With that thought, I also realized that the room had been feeling different over the last few hours. If someone had asked me, I might have said that I sensed it becoming more airtight, but in reality, what I sensed was probably just the gradual reduction in sound.

We are very pleased with the sunroom so far. Over the next couple of years, I hope to add a rock wall or perhaps water containers as thermal mass, to smooth out the heating and cooling cycle a bit. Insulated blinds or shutters are a big priority, too. If we can slow the heat loss overnight, I am hoping the room may become a significant heat source for the rest of the house.

And if you're wondering what it will be like in July, check out my post from 2006 about designing window overhangs. From what I saw of the rafter shadows on the window framing last summer, it looks like this is going to work, folks!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Back to the Mountain

Eleutheros is posting again. If you've been thinking that "every little bit helps," he has news for you. And if you wonder why people cling to that kind of thinking (and yes, even I do, at times), you might want to consider whether there is a Faustian bargain behind it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I picture somebody asking me, "Is there anything you don't do?"