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    Early Feb.
My train trip to Chicago:
Enroute: Tuesday
"I am riding trains absurdly.  I am riding trains beyond all hope..."
That is a quote from a younger version of me that came to me after a sufficient time today spent riding the train through Montana, which is a very wide open space, indeed.
I chose to ride the train, to visit my mother in Minnesota, and my son near Chicago, and attend the Chicago Folk Festival.  It might have been cheaper to fly, although perhaps not with the extra stops I planned.
But, as I told my son, the only thing to disabuse me of the romantic notion  that riding the train would be fun, could only be the act of riding the train--all 36 hours of it each way.

So here I am, nearing the east end of Montana.  I've seen lovely mountains in Glacier National Park, herds of antelope and deer, a coyote, grouse, and hawks.  I've seen little dried up towns that make me thankful for my own depressed little town.  I see the way we've transformed nature, for better (?) or worse, leaving deer to graze from a haystack.
Yes, my seat is sore.  I got on the train after midnight.  I'd  thought that sleep would be easy for me in their reclining coach seats with "ample legroom," since I slept in my recliner for over a month last spring when I broke my ribs.  It soon became apparent that the seats, although they recline, are no easy chairs, and I joined the ranks of others squeezed sleepily across two seats, a distance of slightly over 3 feet.  Ample leg room is a myth for those of us 6 feet and over...
In spite of the implicit suffering in the sleep area, it has been an enjoyable journey.  Even the hundreds of miles of barren plains have features of interest--the old settlers' cabins chief among them, as well as the hard scrabble cluttered farmyards of the pioneers who survived.
Because every overnight passenger prefers two seats, even husbands and wives set across the aisle from each other.  With population pressures that low, it does make for a very quiet, if relatively congenial group.  Sleep seems the most popular occupation.
Stops which allow leaving the train happen every couple hours (to allow smokers their vice), during which I like to see the old stations and hike alongside the dozen or so cars of the train.
There are two reasons for my "romantic notion" that riding the train would be fun. 
The first reason originates from the experience that engendered  my initial quote about "riding trains absurdly."  In my youth, I got into hopping freight trains.  A college musician friend read an article about how easy it was to hop freight trains.  At this time, in the 70's, hitchhiking was a common activity for the young, including my friend and I, even though our family incomes  made it unnecessary.
In fact, my friend was a doctor's son, and told his parents we were hitchhiking to Montana, while planning to hop freights instead.
We started, hiking across a railroad bridge over the Mississippi river in Minneapolis, into a rail yard, where we asked the first worker where we could catch a freight train  heading west.  At that time, on that railway (Burlington Northern), started by railway magnate Jim Hill, there was a lax attitude towards hobos.   It was often quoted that Hill had said that hobos had built the railroad, so let them ride it.  The only worker to fear in the yard was the "yard bull" or railway detective, who had plenty of reason  to not let  hobos ride, including vandalism, pilfering, and potential for their accidental or intentional injury or death (the liability of which, as I understand it, has made surveillance against freight hoppers much more strenuous).
It was early August, and our goal was to visit a friend in Kalispel, Montana, and get a PE credit for college by backpacking in Glacier National Park.  We were warned to stay clear of the lines of cars sitting on the parallel tracks as  cars are added by a process called "humping," where the cars are pushed fast enough down the proper track to snap onto the next car in line, resulting in the whole line jumping rapidly in the process, which could kill anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So we found an empty box car on the westbound train, and got on it while it sat awaiting its departure order.   It could be in the 30's most bums hopped freights when the train was moving, but by the time I rode them, you never got on or off a moving train.
With either passenger or freights, there is the main line and the side tracks, where trains pull off to allow another train to go by.  The impression I've gotten is that passenger trains generally have priority.  At least it often seemed that we sat a lot on rural sidings, watching other trains roll by. 
I think it was at one of these stops we found out there were other young men on the trains. They were about our age, but seemed wilder.  The one I remember was a "hogger's" (engineer's) son, which seemed to give him a proprietary air.  He also taught us some of the railroad lingo.  A fast train is a "highballer" or "hotshot."  The fastest trains generally tended to be "piggybacks," loaded with semi-truck trailers or shipping containers.   Also trains with "reefers," or refrigerated cars, were given priority, as the produce might spoil.
We were riding in an empty box car, with both doors wide open.  What springs there are on a box car are designed  to cushion a full load, so empty box cars tend to bounce a lot.  On curvy sections of track, short rails are used, such that each joint would make a noticeable shake and noise at fast repetition.  Farther west the rails are much longer, and the ride smoother. 
As I traveled today, I saw large stocks of concrete ties, slowly replacing the wood ties which tend to work loose and rot with time.  I imagine the new track will also make for a smoother, faster ride.   There are places where the engineer announced they had to go about 30 mph due to track conditions.
I mentioned the bumpiness of the box car because the smoothness of the passenger car is in direct contrast.
We were planning to backpack, so we had sleeping bags and thin foam pads along.  These pads did little to cushion the constant pounding of the empty box car.  At a stop an experienced hobo told us to gather cardboard for a cushion, and indeed it worked.  We bounced along westward, to Minot, N. Dakota,  where the train got broken up and rerouted.

As soon as we pulled in, we asked where the next hotshot headed west was, and found a new empty car. I have to mention this backpack motif again, because we were as green at backpacking as we were at freight hopping. The result of that was that we had minimal food or water along for this part of the trip, in which you never know how long you'd be stooped and where you did stop you might be well out of town, which is the way I recall it was in Minot.

We had sort of pooled resources with the other young people, and it was agreed that a couple of us would go into town to a store, while the others would watch the backpacks, etc.

Memory is an interesting thing. I know what happened next, but I've never been sure if I was there, or only one of those who stayed at the train. But I think my friend set off with one of the others, and we sat waiting a considerable while for them to return. We began to discuss what we'd do if the train left before they'd get back, when they finally returned.

The story was that as they left the rail yard, they tried hitchhiking into town, and were picked up by the railway bull (detective), who told them they couldn't ride the train anymore.

The best I can remember is that they argued that their packs were still in the yard, so they'd have to go back to get them, and apparently the detective acquiesced. I know they brought some food, and we continued west.

It being August, the heat was considerable, and we had only small water bottles intended for frequent refill when backpacking. As I said, though, you never know where a freight will stop, so by the time we reached Havre, Montana, we were very thirsty.

possibly the bar in question in Havre...

Right across from the railyard was a bar, so several of us ran over with canteens and bottles and asked the bartender for water. He smiled at us and filled them up. When we got underway, we found he'd filled the largest canteen with beer. This was, of course, a magical experience, even though I personally don't like beer and would have preferred water. Still it lent a mythic quality to our trip, the rest of which went well. In the end, I think we decided to hitchhike home, as it's easier to be sure where you're headed when hitchhiking.

We arrived back at my friend's house, where he told his little brother of our freight hopping experience, and who then passed the information on to his parents, who were quite appalled. Although the trip was my friend's idea, I became persona non grata by association, and left soon thereafter.

But the seed was planted, and I made several more memorable freight hopping journeys.

 Feb. 6

    Back home, after an 1800 mile 36 hour train ride, that did indeed wear out my romantic enthusiasm for train travel.  5 or 6 hours is fine.  I spent the day removing part of the floor in the pottery workshop and shoring up the joists with bricks and wood cribbing, to fix the sunken floor detailed last month.  I've two kilnloads of bisque pots ready for glazing, so I'll be hard at it again tomorrow.   I got a few nice photos from my trip, which might spice up the rest of the month.  The pair of hooded mergansers, described as uncommon in my bird book, were in  a small lake on the Northwestern campus, the only standouts in an otherwise typical crowd of mallards and sea gulls, that form where ever people give them handouts.

Feb. 7

The excuse I used for picking this frigid time to visit Chicago was to see my son, and to attend the Chicago Folk Festival at the U of Chicago.   He and his girlfriend Susa were great guides for getting through the city via the El and bus system.  I'd never heard of any of the performers, but that gave them more "folk respectability" than if they were well known.  But I was glad that they had one Chicago musician on the schedule, L V Banks, a guitarist and singer of the old style started by Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf.   He finished his set before intermission, then came out and sat towards the back to enjoy the rest of the show.  Just before the intermission ended, I was moved to go shake his hand and thank him, and ask to take this photo.  He said he was very impressed with a Sligo style fiddler he heard earlier, Tony DeMarco from Brooklyn.  It's a great world where a Brooklyn Italian can master Irish fiddle, and the blues can live on in the midst of a world of rap and hiphop...
   
    Feb.8
    Linda from Australia, whom I've often quoted in this blog, has gotten her own blog, which is well worth reading.  Everyone's life is different, and not all have  a cockatoo like Linda does. http://llindylou.blogspot.com/
    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, bassist Jonathan Hawkins has signed on to playing for the songwriters performance on  Feb. 20.  We ran through most of the songs this evening.  
    A snow storm was predicted for today, which was a dismal failure at adding more snow to the ski hills.  Everything is slushy here in the lowerlands.

    Feb. 9
I've added 3 more music videos today, linked from my video page.   There's a variation of Barbara Allen, a version of an early Chicago blues, and a medley of hymns.
Down at the lake, there's an open spot about 50 feet out from the bridge, and the first duck of the new year was visiting it today.  With everything so slushy, Spring certainly seems a possibility, but then all it would take is about a 5 degree drop to make it all solid again.
    On the trip to Chicago, I got 3 pottery related  tools, none from a pottery supply.   I got some hemp jute for hanging planters, a pediatric sized ear syringe for squirting glaze, and some scratch point nibs, that fit in a pen holder, to make some new hole punch tools.  The nibs have an intriguing sharp point that might work to bore through the clay better than the reverse end that I usually use...

    Feb. 10
I added one more video today, called Take me home, Poor Julia, learned from recordings of Uncle Dave Macon.  Otherwise it was a quiet day.  My son won a helmet and some sunglasses at a nearby ski competition (Silver Mountain).  He was the only skier in the half pipe competition, and won 3rd in the slopestyle.  One of his ski bindings became an issue, releasing so he'd frequently lose a ski.  As a result we're gluing and duct taping some of his old skis so he can use them tomorrow.  He may take a rare day off on Monday to get his good skis back.

    Feb.11
3 more videos added to the video page today.  The weather, slushy and rainy, is conducive to working on music.  I also made a little video of our cats playing with a bag.

    
Feb.12
     My son came home early from skiing today with a goodly bruise below his knee.  When his binding broke last weekend, he went back to his other more worn out skis, which were not good on the rails, so he slipped and hit on the iron rail.   After 50 straight days of skiing, he's taking tomorrow off.  There was a ramification there for me as well, as I planned to ski tomorrow, but couldn't imagine driving up there just for my own skiing, when every other day I could ride with my son...  Maybe later in the week.
    Frequently I ski Mondays, but our clay group meeting was today, when we talked over plans to use a hundred kids or so to make a clay mural, about what they like about our area, in Coeur D'Alene this weekend.  We had just ordered in some aprons with our logo on it, so I came home with one, as did the others who are volunteering to help with this clay project...

    
Feb. 13
    Our county commissioners came to Spirit Lake for a town meeting tonight.  We were the first in their plan to visit most of the communities of Kootenai County.  Kootenai County, with about 125,000 residents, is around 10% of the state's population.   It was a chance to see people who were just names on ballots before, and see some sort of democracy in action.  I asked a question about aquifer protection, which has been on my mind since we'd received two notices in the last month  that our town's water was running a little high on E. Coli.  There was also a complaint about property taxes and how the commissioners handle the appeals process.  There was some discussion of garbage service (or lack thereof).  Although the room was crowded, there were few questions overall.    I think most people don't have real issues about politics on the most local level--although if there were larger issues like Iraq or abortion, they'd be outspoken.  Certainly most of us wish our property values weren't as high, but we all know that's what property is selling for.  The issue of losing property for nonpayment of taxes came up, and the commissioners assured us that most property with residences on it don't get seized, more odd slivers of property and other low value land.   Most of Spirit Lake used to fit that classification, when we moved here, and about half the town was for sale.

    
Feb. 14
    Linda's Australian blog,
http://llindylou.blogspot.com/, mentioned today visiting my site and talked about the earthy things potters have in common.  Coincidentally, I got an email from a potter on Lookout Mountain Georgia, also mentioning his affinity to gardening.  There are undoubtedly urban potters who could care less about plants, but on average we are an earthy bunch.  Of course, as much as we have in common, our sense of aesthetics varies, so I might not like another potter's pots, or the way he/she gardens.
    Meanwhile my son went to the doctor today, and will have to get some physical therapy to make his knee pain go away.  No skiing for a while, which is a bitter pill for him to take...

    
Feb. 15
Today our clay group spent about 4 hours getting a ceramic mural ready for kids to attach their sculptures of favorite North Idaho things on it, at a hands on kids workshop on Saturday.  This included rolling out slabs of clay to make about 8 large tiles, which are supposed to depict an aerial view of the local area, to which it's hoped the 1-5 graders will add boats, flowers, fish, etc from quarter pounds of clay.   The whole project, assuming it looks good enough, will be donated to a local something or other, that's willing to display it.   We'll also be spending 6 hours doing it on Saturday.  This all may be looked  at by some members as as corporate penance for the way our group made lots of money at the Christmas sale.  Or just as part of our mission statement to promote clay in the community.
    My fiction blog, which is languishing with an average of 3 readers per day, is starting a new story today which I wrote on the train earlier this month, and which I consider above average.  There's also a short parody of corporate life which concluded today on the site.   Click on "fiction blog" at the top of the page to visit it...

 
Feb. 16
This is the duck that first appeared on the little open water hole on the  Mill Pond: a female Goldeneye.  

Soon there were two of these:

A male Goldeneye.
Like some French movies, the triangle is resolved at the end, to only the female and one male.   They do seem an odd couple, though, n'est-ce pas?  The two pictures were taken on different days--today's photo of the male reflects the bright sunlight we enjoyed today,  reflected off light colored rocks.
    Last night the last apples from fall were made into apple sauce, which would leave only a couple cabbages, except the snow is slushy enough now to move it aside in the garden, where the carrots that were covered with leaves are now as fresh as when the snow covered them.

 Feb. 17
Today was the kind of day for weather forecasters to gnash their teeth, as they predicted cloudy weather and rain, and it was all sunshine and pleasantness.
Unfortunately I spent most of the time in a mall helping little kids make flowers and trees and snakes and things to populate our clay mural, but I could look out the door and enjoy the sunshine concept.    The whole thing went smoothly, but for me an hour of helping beginning artists is a long time, and this was 5 hours...
Tonight I attended another Bluegrass Thang in Spokane, with 5 fine bands playing 20 minute sets.  As a musician, I've gotten to know most of the local bluegrassers, but the audience knows them also, as the bluegrass universe is quite small locally, so there's a bit of friendly banter that goes on between the performers and the crowd.  One band, described as new by the emcee, was familiar faces in new costumes...  I also had a chance to chat with the songwriter I'll be sharing the stage with on Tuesday.  He played in one of the bands tonight, and is a great flatpicker.

 Feb. 18
I was thinking about the songs I write today, as I was fine tuning the list of 13 songs I have ready to play Tuesday.  Curiously, they're all about love in its various phases.  I do remember thinking early on that the Beatles were more spot on (as the British say) with their songs about holding hands than looking through glass onions.  So I expect that thought  influenced my songwriting, although the songs were written over a period of 30 years.  Occasionally there are some autobiographical aspects to the songs, but I  look on songwriting as a form of fiction.  I write songs about  drunken love, gamblers, and cheaters without any penchant for those particular  vices.  Of course a song that's all "love--tra la" gets cloying a lot quicker than one that's got some tension in it, so I add the other stuff to give it drama.
    I had arranged the songs in a sort of flow of relationship--courtship, disillusionment, separation, rapprochement,  and the songs will be performed  in groups of four, so one set ended up being totally heartbreak and tears, which seemed a bit heavy.  That led me to thinking about the songs I write.  I'm not an emotionally expressive individual (okay, I might get teary eyed at a good romantic comedy movie, but those are so rare nowadays), so I guess the songs are an emotional outlet.  Cheaper than therapy, as long as it works...

   
Feb. 19
I woke up this morning having dreamed that I had a large tattoo of my insurance company logo on my upper arm.  Were this actually to
be the case (and I haven't checked), one would have to wonder both "What was I drinkin' ?" and "What was I thinkin'?"  (It would have been my first tattoo)  My next thought was what a brilliant marketing ploy this could be, given the right celebrities and the right product.  Right now Britney Spears scalp would be worth millions, although she might have to sign an agreement to keep her head shaved.  And I don't suppose the shampoo companies would be interested...  But there are really very few original ideas, so I'm sure this is already happening. somewhere.  Probably loads of people have the Nike swoosh tattoo, since every article of clothing they own has it...  At least an insurance company logo (with life insurance policy number) would insure that your loved ones got what's coming to them, in case you die after getting robbed of your identity and left decapitated somewhere (which may or may not be covered by your insurance policy--call and check now).  
Maybe I should reserve my dreams for my fiction blog, which is mostly where they go...


Since the local school is having an art contest, I thought I'd try some larger sculptures.  So I made the one on the left in about a half hour, and in the afternoon decided to make another one.  They're about half scale in size, and will be extremely lucky to make it to or through the firing process, as the clay is not really designed for sculpture, and they're currently solid and will need to be hollowed out.  I was pleased with how quickly they went, and with how they look, but I realize that there's not a lot of market for this sort of thing, nor is it likely to impress art judges...


For comparison these are the sculptures I made last winter.   Of them, about half broke in process or on display, the green one in the top row was ordered to be made in 2 copies in black glaze, and the one on the lower left still bemuses people when they see it on the shelf.

    Feb. 20
About the sculptures I made yesterday--I did figure out a promising career, if we would just get taken over by a Chinese emperor who wanted to surround himself with individualized clay soldiers, I could have a job.
    Today was the songwriters concert--about a dozen in attendance--mostly songwriters themselves.  Although the crowd was small, the music was reasonably well played, and the other songwriter had some good stories that elicited some of my own.   He had a song about his hundred year old farm house, and how a previous owner had died there.  So I  said I lived in a hundred year old house too, where a former owner had died, chopping down a cottonwood tree in the side yard.  Every couple years the roots of the old cottonwood send up some new shoots, trying to make a come back.  Haven't seen any sign of the former owner, though.

   
Feb. 21
Being Ash Wednesday, I went to the church my wife has been filling in for at Clark Fork, and afterwards we took a few scenic detours on the way home..

These are most likely Tundra Swans, on Lake Pend O'Reille.  There are currently about 10 of them along the NE side of the lake, presumably awaiting the end of  winter.  They rarely show up on Spirit Lake in the spring or fall as well.
Feb. 22
A couple weeks ago one of our hens was found unable to stand.  Usually when something like this happens, they soon die, for whatever reasons chickens die...  However this one didn't die, only apparently broke a leg or hip or something, so it can't stand.  So we have it in a nest of leaves in an old wash tub, and move it in and out of the pottery packing room every day, to spend its days on the porch.  It's become a pet chicken, and has gotten better to the point that it can hop in and out of the washtub now.  Today I tried to put it, in its washtub, with the other chickens, but it hopped out and  got into a muddy spot below the feeder, so it's back to solitary confinement until it can get around better.  
Meanwhile it snowed about 3 inches today, staying below freezing and unwindy, so the ski mountain calls to me for tomorrow.  My son's physical therapist predicted he could return to skiing in a week or so.

    
Feb. 23
It was a good day for skiing, with a soft coating of snow over the groomed base.  Being a Friday after a fresh snow fall, it was pretty crowded by my standards, which means I usually had a bit of a wait to get on a lift, as opposed to no waits on Mondays, my usual ski day.   Since I skied this morning, I worked on pottery in the afternoon, making some smaller chip and dips (a new idea, that everyone might not like a large platter sized chip server), then starting to make animal figurines (which I only do when I'm really bored or caught up with making other objects).  I start with rabbits, then turtles (recalling the Tortoise and the Hare story), which is all I made today, though I plan to make more tomorrow.  
    These little figurines remind me of the Astrid Lindgren stories of a little Dennis the Menace like boy named Emil who, after driving his parents crazy with his antics, would get locked in the woodshed (for his own protection), where he'd carve figurines for entertainment.  Lindgren would always point out how Emil grew up to be a prominent citizen of the community.  Many of the stories had  him causing hilarious accidents at the expense of the haughty and corrupt... They were great for reading aloud to children, as were her Pippi Longstocking books.

Feb. 24
I made penguin figurines for an hour today (about 40 of them), then decided I'd had enough of that for a while.  This afternoon I started recording folk songs for Youtube (links at the video page).  It's snowy and around freezing, and feels like cabin fever time.  it's a good time for projects that require attention and lots of time.  I wish I could think of some...

    Feb. 25
We woke up to 8 inches of snow today.  Although more is predicted over the next few days, the temperature got enough above freezing to make its departure seem likely soon.  Another project I'm working on is converting my vinyl record collection to digital audio.  It looks like the hundred or more records will easily fit on one DVD, or a couple CD's.  Little wonder the youth of today move towards mp3 players.

   
Feb. 26
    My sister sent me a newly converted DVD of super 8 movies made when our children were toddlers.  When they speak of the mist of time, it's especially applicable to viewing old media--it's grainy and flickery, as it should be.  It would be startling to see in perfect detail the way we were 20 or 30 years ago.   On a ski lift the other day I heard someone detailing a meal they had on a trip.  I do well to remember what I had for breakfast, and yet some details of my early life remain clear.  It's really hard to know the extrinsic value of the past, and which keepsakes are really worth keeping.  I can go years without looking at old family photos (partially due to pain at the death of loved ones).   Yet tangible links remain with family and old friends.  I'm thankful I can remember them.

    Feb. 27
    It's time to be noting signs of Spring.  I saw my first robins  last week.  Through the winter, besides brief distress calls, the most common bird calls are crows, but this morning I heard a bird call from in the house that sent me outside looking for it (though I didn't see it).  The snow is still falling frequently, but it's enough above freezing that the snow pack at this elevation is going down--the 8 inches we got the other day is now 3-4 inches thick, and the snowman we made a couple days ago keeled over and just looks like a lump.  
    Meanwhile the injured hen is walking on both legs today, and wandering around the porch, so it looks like we'll soon be able to reintegrate it with the other hens (who, keeping with the Spring theme, are laying eggs again with gusto).  Its progress seems to mirror my son's, who plans to start daily skiing again this weekend.

   
Feb. 28
    Another foot of snow today!  While out shoveling, a bald eagle flew directly overhead.  The snow ended late in the afternoon, but more is forecast tonight, and in fact it's snowing now.  
To while the time away, my son and I watched two movies, The Illusionist, and Death to Smoochy.  The Illusionist was a great combination of magic, romance, and mystery, and I highly recommend it.  Death to Smoochy was a bit weak on plot, too bitter on comedy and romance, and the only reason I mention it is that both films starred Edward Norton, playing polar opposites, to the point that neither of us recognized him from one movie to the other till I saw his name in the final credits.

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