Friday, December 28, 2007

Rambling West

The first inhabitants of this land understood. Rooted deep in their culture, their legends, their religion was the belief that Spirits kept a close guard of their world. These were strong Spirits, seen in the sun, the moon and the animals. They lived deep within the mountains and watched over the changing of the seasons. The return of the salmon each year to the rivers, the wanderings of the herds of buffalo across the open plains, all were guided by the benevolent wills of the Spirits. To the Spirits and the order over which they ruled, the Native Americans owed and derived their existence.

The early pathfinders understood. The spirit of the West indwelled each of them and called them back with an irresistible siren’s song. John Colter heard its notes and succumbed to its pull. As a member of the Corps of Discovery he had journeyed from St. Louis, west to the Pacific Ocean. Away from civilization for over two years, he and the rest of the expedition were nearly home when he asked his superiors, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Captain William Clark to be relieved of his duties. His request granted, Colter immediately turned back west. He eventually made his way to the Yellowstone country. When he finally did return to the east, he came back with such outrageous tales of entire valleys spewing steam, and geysers shooting hundreds of feet into the air, most thought him mad. The spirit of the West lead John Colter to what would become Yellowstone National Park.

The trailblazers understood. Men with names like Bridger and Bozeman became caught up in the western spirit of renewal. Here was a place where a man could start fresh and provide others a route so they could do likewise. This was a land of hope and promise, not bound with the rules and traditions of the east. Birthright meant nothing in a land governed only by the spirit of individual effort. Crowded off small farms or out of family businesses merely by the fact a man was born a younger child, it was the spirit of the West that gave him a chance to make something of himself.

The road builders understood. When Captain John Mullan was ordered to build a military road linking Fort Walla Walla in the Oregon Territory to Fort Benton in the Montana country, it was not wooden wagon wheels rolling west that occupied his mind, but flanged wheels of steel. All the while his men roughed out a crude road, Mullan set his mind to surveying routes for a northern transcontinental railroad. Driven by the spirit of challenge and of a vision commerce, men like Mullan, Judah, and in later years Bogue and Stevens, transits and barometers in hand located the routes that would push steel rails west through the untamed land. Forsaking the spirits long honored by the native tribes, it was the spirit of profit that pushed the railroad men onward and eventually conquered, if nothing else, a centuries old social structure that derived its order by being in tuned with the nature of the land.

The railroads complete, a sense of finality settled across the West. Those who refused to acquiesce to the forces of change were soon enough absorbed by the spirit of progress. Even the iron horse itself feel victim to this spirit of never ending change. Paved highways paralleled the iron roads with trucks hauling cargoes once the sole property of the trains. High above, the western skies became crisscrossed with the trails left by airliners carrying the passengers that once filled the opulent coaches of trains with names like the Oriental Limited, the North Coast Limited and the Olympian Hiawatha. It seemed the spirit of the West had finally been tamed.

But spirits have a way of lingering. Despite all of its civilization there are still places where the beckoning of the western spirit still lives, even flourishes. For the West is big. The West is where all the clich├ęs like, wide open spaces, never ending plains, and majestic mountains become reality.

The West, it is a place where cities sprawl across the landscape for miles, and yet the “intelligent design” has yet to be finalized.

The West, it is a place where the wills of men routinely battle the landforms that brand this region. It is a place where the railroad men came with the idea of subduing this land, but ultimately settled for working as best they could with the spirits that rule this part of the world. It is a battle that has yet end. The West is where steel and nature collide.

If the East is tall, the West is wide. To this day, when a person feels the need to stretch his legs and feel the spirit of challenge, he will pack his bags and travel towards the sunset. So follow the glistening rails reflecting the final rays of the sun, out towards the Pacific. Shed the confines of the day to day struggles that keep you corralled. Follow those ribbons of steel west, out to a place where the spirit has room to ramble.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Secret Life Revealed

I love black and white film photography. It is the peg where I have hung my photographic hat. Begrudgingly I have entered the digital world, now scanning my negatives for posting on the net, and yes, my most recent published articles were illustrated with photos not taken from prints, but scans.

The days of hours being spent in the darkroom trying to produce publishable scans are over for me. I still like the smell of the chemicals and watching under the glow of the safe lights a blank sheet of paper turn into a memory, but there is the practical issue of what publishers actually want. Scans they want, so scans they get.

My secret life, however is not my turning to the digital world to produce images. No, it is far more disturbing. All the while I have been vocally touting the glories of black and white negative photography, I've been shooting color slides.

I have always "justified" this double standard with the weak excuse that my "serious" photography was always done in black and white. And true, these days I very seldom do shoot a scene in color, still, the evidence is all around me in slide trays and plastic sheets. Color photos taken of serious subjects, not just family vacations.

My hobby is rail photography, shot in black and white. My business is farming, and that I have shot in color. I still believe I am a far better monochrome photographer than "Kodachrome", but here are a few taken over the years. All are with a 5 mile radius of where I live.

Lucky me........

The view ahead.....

....... and the view behind.

Turning the good earth...plowing down ground that has been limed.

I live in Skagit County in northwestern Washington State. Our is one of the last areas west of the Cascades where agriculture is still a dominate industry. But it is fading fast. As population increases so does the pressure on land use. It is far more profitable to farm houses than cows.

Combining spinach seed.

Spouted freezer peas.

The amber waves of grain.

Sunset in God's Country

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Story of "Vis Major".

"Vis Major" has been an ongoing journey that began with an article in a 1961 issue of TRAINS magazine. In a two part series about the history of the Great Northern's struggles over Stevens Pass in Washington State there was a single paragraph mention of an avalanche that destroyed two Great Northern trains, killing nearly 100 people. It happened in a little town, now long abandoned, named Wellington. I was 8 years old when I read that. It has been my mission ever since.

My interest in the Wellington Slide has ebbed and flowed over all of this time. I would go for years without giving the event a single thought. Often times out of the blue, something would connect, and once again I felt the urge to visit the sight, or continue the search for information on the event. Whenever I would go up to Steven Pass to photograph the railroad, Wellington would force its way into my mind set and influence the photographs I would be taking.

As time passed and I learned the great skill of "net working" I started to amass a fair amount of information on the disaster. A close friend, who was also on the Wellington trail came forth with a number of old documents, including telegrams sent at the time, and various court papers stemming from the aftermath. From these papers, a vision of what "really" happened up there the last week of February, 1910 began to take form in my head.

At some point in time, probably 10 years or more ago, I decided I want to write a book about Wellington. I had no idea in what form the book would take other than a nonfiction narrative talking of the day to day progression of events. There were three or four attempts to begin this great work. All got no further than an opening paragraph. All fell flat on their faces.

And then I watched a TNT production called "Gettysburg". I'm not a Civil War buff by any stretch of the imagination, but for some reason that movie spoke to me. Finding out it was based on a novel titled "The Killer Angels" I read the book. I wasn't three chapters into this work when the bolt of inspiration hit...this is how I was going to tell the Wellington story.

Still, it was not simply a matter of sitting at the computer and cranking out an historical novel. Writing fiction, even fiction based on fact, was new to me. I found that fiction was infinitely harder to pen than nonfiction. Characters, long dead had to be brought back life and in a way that was true to history. Beyond just writing down a list of facts like in a nonfiction work, in this book I had to apply human motivation and thought showing why things happened as they did.

What I also learned, a work of fiction takes on a life of its own. The more I studied and wrote, looking at the event from the perspective of the railroad men that lived it, I found that they began to speak to me in clear voices. Facts that on the onset did not make sense, suddenly plausible explanations came to mind as the "boys" as I began to call them lead my hands across the keyboard. Many times I'd sit down to write after work and wonder where I would end up. I knew the time line of events I was going to write about, I knew through which character these events would be viewed, and yet many times I would end the session, producing a text far from what I might have predicted.

After 4 winters, (I farm so my writing is limited to when I'm not cropping) "Vis Major" was complete. That was 2004. So where is it, you might ask? Just try to get a literary agent or major publisher interested in a book penned by a farmer in Washington State!

During this period a writer from back east contacted me. He too was writing a book on the Wellington disaster. I, along with a number of others, helped him understand what happened and offered to him our research. He even read over my manuscript. When his book was published, "The White Cascade" he actually listed "Vis Major" as one of his sources. What a shot in the arm. Unpublished, yet "Vis" was recognized as a legitimate historical reference.

"The White Cascade" is an excellent recounting of the story. Still, I don't know why, but the boys, men like William "Snow King" Harrington, or Johnny Parzybok, or "Patty" Kelly tapped me on the shoulder and asked that I tell their story. Not the "official" story, not the safe nonfiction presentation of accepted "facts", but what it was really like for those men.

Thanks to technology, writer like myself no longer needs agents or the big east coast publishers. Publish on demand companies like iUniverse offer internet marketing and affordable printing. Keep your eye and ears open. "Vis Major" is about to become a reality.

John Parzybok, rotary plow conductor killed at Wellington.

Brakeman John "Patty" Kelly, killed at Wellington

William "Snow King" Harrington Wellington survivor next to his beloved Lil.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Year in Review

I guess the best way to start out a blog is to take a look back at what I did this past year with my old cameras. Really, the answer is, "Not much." What photos I did take were ones that did fill in some weak layers in my collection. Things I've long wanted to shoot, but never had the opportunity.

It began with a stormy Saturday shooting the BNSF snow dozer working on Stevens Pass. I've shot the dozer at work a couple of times previous, but never had the opportunity to get any photos of the crew preparing the machine for use. Here we see the guys getting the various electric and airlines required to operate the plow connected and in good order.

This shot has been floating around the internet a bit, so you might have already viewed it. It is the most dramatic of the group, and yes, I got covered.

No year is complete without a trip or two to Montana. This year I was able to get away twice and head for the Big Skies. The first journey was strictly a family affair with very little railfanning involved.

I did sneak away one morning and caught a westbound coal train climbing Bozeman Hill. For once a nice little herd of cows appeared just at the right moment and positioned themselves perfectly to add a little accent to the scene.

Returning in September, I was allowed to hi-rail over Mullan Pass with a track inspector. Of all the photos taken that day, this is my favorite as it shows to what degree these men go to insure the track is safe.

The "highlight" of the day was removing the greasy, smelly remains of "Yogi", a bear struck earlier by a light helper.

A certain amount of time was spent track side. I love Austin. The open country and the double horse shoes offer an unlimited number of camera angles. Here an eastbound rounds the lower loop with the ties for the siding extension project to the left.

I like this shot because there is so much wrong with it. Backlit, no engines, it is a different look at the lower Austin horse shoe.

A productive morning was spent out on vast nothingness of Winston Hill. The plains between Helena and Townsend are wide open, but they are anything but flat. Here loaded coal train grinds up the hill with a two unit helper pushing on the rear.

Nearly at the top of the grade, a two-set ACe helper shoves through the East Winston switch.

On my last day, I spent a few somber moments with the Livingston dead-line. I realize the Montana Rail Link is operated for profit and not for the benefit of railfans, but I really do miss those old SD 45's.

The year ended on a sad note with an e-mail telling me of the sudden death of MRL engineer Sam Sutton. I had the privilege of riding with Sam on two helper shoves over Mullan Pass. Although I can't say that I knew Sam well, he was a good sport and a good story teller.

So a toast to you, Sam. May you pass through that dark portal and into the light you deserve.