Saturday, April 11, 2015

April 11, 2015; Springtime in the Rockies

Cattle grazing on new grass growing in between melting snow, that's springtime in the Rockies.


Having dinner outside in your shirt sleeves, only to wake up to a fresh coating of snow the next morning, that's springtime in the Rockies.

Trickling streams become white water torrents, that's springtime in the Rockies.

When a helper set tops the Great Divide in the morning sun........

....only to return a few hours later in a falling snow, that's springtime in the Rockies.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April 5, 2015: Ruins

We have never been a people content with the status quo.  Standing pat with what you were dealt just isn't in our make-up.  Expanding, changing, updating, that's what we do best.  And when we do, we are usually in such a hurry, useless it's torn down and replaced with better on the very spot, we have no issue just to leave the old behind.

Up in the North Cascades, above US 2 over Stevens Pass this drive to improve and leave the old behind is illustrated, by the mile.  The Iron Goat Trail now takes hikers along the old Great Northern route up the west slope of the pass.  Interpretive signage tells the story of the GN's drive to build and then rebuild and then rebuild again their troubled right-a-way.  Each time they left behind the unused for Mother Nature to exercise her will.

Before the days of the Iron Goat Trail I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones style quest when exploring the old grade.  There were a few rough trails here and there, but it was mostly a case of tromping through the heavy underbrush that so hampered the early locators with names like Haskell and Stevens.  Eventually the narrow way would widen slightly and large timbers would jut from the rain soaked ferns and scrub alder.  The thick second growth timber would make it hard to get my bearings.  Is this part of the old siding of Alvin, or the sheds to the west?

Maybe one of the oldest artifacts left behind by the Great Northern's struggle to conquer the Cascades isn't even a part of the Iron Goat Trail.  On the eastside of the pass, only 100 yards or so above the hustle of US 2, a small cedar grows over a wood axle still attached to a rotting wagon wheel.  At first glance you might think this is the remains of some poor pioneer's wagon.  Only miles from their destination of the Puget Sound lowlands, their prairie schooner gave up and fell apart.

But no, nothing quite so grand.  This is the remains of one of probably thousands of the two wheeled, mule pulled carts used in grading the railroad from the Twin Cities to Seattle.  The first Great Northern line over the pass required a series to switchbacks sawing up to the summit.  This cart was used to build that route.  Whether it was just left behind after the railroad was completed in 1893, or the axle broke during the process and it was cast aside, I'll never know.

What I do know, this old wheel does share one thing in common with the ruins littering Windy Mountain on the west slope.  In the rush to build, to finish so it could be upgraded and rebuilt, this too was cast aside and left behind.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28, 2015; Waiting For Willet Palmer

                                                       "Clouds are gathering in the south
                                                        And things aren't getting calmer.
                                                        We're sitting by the hay mow door
                                                        Waiting for Willet Palmer."

I was never a poet.  While in high school, we had an English assignment to write a poem.  Mine was about haying on my grandparent's farm.  I don't remember too many of the lines in that masterpiece except for the phrases above.

Back when I was spending summers on the farm, my grandfather didn't own a hay baler.  Over the years he always depended on custom balers that toured the area during haying season.  Early on it was Clarence Bement.  Clarence had an old Massey Harris tractor pulling a giant Freeman baler powered by a two cylinder Wisconsin stationary engine.  With Clarence Bement, we always said you worried if he ran out of noise and dust.  When Clarence retired, or more specifically, when there was more twine holding his baler together than the bales of hay, a local dairy farmer named Andy Anderson baled for us.  He soon sold out and moved. That's when Willet Palmer showed up.

Willet was a John Deere man.  His source of power was a JD 60, a latter model 2 cylinder Johnny Popper.  The beauty of the 60 was the hand clutch.  It gave Willet the ability to feather the tractor's ground speed when big slugs of hay would go through his John Deere baler without down shifting.  Added to that, the hand clutch also gave Willet the ability to maintain his customary standing position.  For Willet a seat was there as a foot rest, not a butt rest.

Despite its appearance, Willet's tractor and baler were surprisingly durable and reliable.  Unlike poor Clarence Bement where in field mechanical overhauls were a yearly event, with Willet breakdowns were not all that common.  The issue with Willet was his reliability. 

Willet was the eternal optimist.  You have 20 acres ready to bale on Thursday?  No problem.  Move in Wednesday night and be ready to bale once the dew's off in the morning.  It all sounded so good on the phone.  The problem was Willet was already behind getting 40 acres baled for someone else, and this was Tuesday night. 

And that brings us back to my poem.  All too often we had the fields raked into windrows and a crew gathered to start picking up bales as soon as they hit the ground.  All too often the great weather forecast of the morning had soured by afternoon.  All too often we sat by the hay mow door, waiting for Willet Palmer.

It was usually a toss up who heard him first, us or the dog.  Willet's Johnny Popper in road gear announced his arrival long before we got a visual.  Grandpa would glance at his pocket watch and mutter something like "It's about time," then head down to start rolling over the windrows.  Willet would Pop! Pop! Pop! right on past and head straight for the field, tipping his straw cowboy hat as he whisked by, standing tall, his foot on the seat.

Shortly after my folks moved from Tacoma and took up residence out at the farm with my grandparents, the Old Man bought a baler for himself, thus ending the tradition of the custom balers. It was a good move.  Dad kept his baler running like a sewing machine and when the hay was ready, Dad was ready to bale.  No more waiting by the hay loft.  More than once the time gained by having a baler was the difference between getting the hay baled dry or getting it "washed" with a June shower.

But there was also a loss.  Lost was that sense of adventure and uncertainly that came with the rattle trap Rube Goldberg outfit pieced together by Clarence Bement, and the hours wasted waiting for Willet Palmer.