Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 26, 2015: Is A Picute Worth a Thousand Words?

We've all heard the saying.  Most of us have used the saying more than once.  But is it true?  Can I pen 1000 meaningful words about a single photo?  Let's give it a try.

                                                                   Looking Back

Montana Rail Link engineer Sam Sutton peers through his rain splattered mirror.  His locomotives are cut in the middle of a heavy westbound coal drag.  He looks back as the rear half of the train rounds the horseshoe curve at Austin, Montana.  Within 3 years of the taking of this photo, Sam would not be with us.

Looking back. Like Sam looking back on his train, I find myself looking back on my experiences in Montana.  Like the effect of the water droplets on the mirror, I'm sure my view of what I did and saw has been a little distorted by time.  The photos taken can bring when and where into focus, but the more important emotions felt, the nitty gritty details of the experiences I had, that's where time tends to either enhance, or fade.

Montana would have never happened were it not for a set of events that had nothing directly to do with me.  Our son Seth, transferred from the University of Washington to Montana State.  The 4 year plan became a 12 year stay.  Looking back,  even if I set aside my WSU Coug roots requiring a hate of the U of W Huskies, Seth's move to the Gallatin was a good one.  It revived his pursuit of a Master's of Architecture and my enthusiasm for rail photography.

I remember the trips to Helena and Bozeman.  It seemed once across the Idaho boarder and the closer I came to the top of Homestake Pass, the more relaxed I became.  When the aggression and hustle of the "west side," and the seeming endless monotony of Eastern Washington finally were replaced in my rear view mirror with the Bitterroots and the Clark Fork River, a degree of ease settled in the like of which I have never experience before or anywhere else I've been.  Not just the open spaces of  "The big Sky Country" it was the attitude of the people.  Look again at Sam.  He is helping to move 15.000 tons of coal up a mountain grade.  He is controlling 14,400 hp along with two other engineers operating that many horses, or more, and yet you can see his sense of calm control.  Looking back, I saw the same demeanor in most I met.

Of course, over a period of 12 years things are going to change.  The biggest change for me is one of priorities.  Seth and his wife Jess moved from Billings this past summer and are now living a mere 20 miles from us here in Washington.  With them, (and our soon to be born granddaughter) here, driving to Montana has slid down the "to-do" list to the point it no longer even appears.  Looking back, taking train pictures along the Montana Rail Link was important to me, but these trips were always planned around spending time with Seth.  It's no coincidence that 2014 was the first time in 12 years I did not go Montana.

Changes have come to the people I've met which is to be expected.  Three of my MRL friends have retired, two have taken other positions on the railroad, and as mentioned, sadly, Sam has passed away.  Looking back, it is these connections, these friendships that I value far beyond the images they allowed me to take. 

Looking back, I sometimes think I was able to experience the Montana Rail Link during a time of transition.  I was there when the tried and true old locomotives of the 70's were being replaced with sleek new, high tech engines that were supposed to run more by computers than the seat of the engineer's pants.  Looking back, the mountain grades of Montana more than tested that theory.  But there also seemed to be a shift in attitude.  The pressures of surges in rail traffic forced the MRL to shed its local, hometown, regional point of view and lean more towards the corporate, Class 1 mode of operations. 

Sam was old school.  He was the Montana I look back and choose to remember.  Climbing the east slope of Mullan Pass he was watching his train, watching over his power, and watching for where the local elk herd was grazing.  It was getting close to hunting season.  He was back and forth sparring with the Road Foreman of Engines who was riding with us and one "Did I ever tell you about the time...." after another.  He was a man that treated me, a total stranger, like a best friend within minutes of meeting.  Like Seth, Sam was a good reason to keep going back to visit Montana, and like Seth, when Sam left, a little of the incentive to travel back left with him.

Is this picture worth a thousand words?  I think the question should read, are a thousand words worth this picture?  Right now I'm at 809 words.

I guess the answer is "No."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 19, 2015; What Was I Thinking?

All photographers, professional and amateur have a fair number of shots no one will ever see.  Even the best in the world probably have pictures that had them saying to themselves, "What the hell was I thinking about?"

Of course the digital age has changed all of that.  A photo is taken, not liked and deleted forever, usually within seconds.  Even slide shooters had the ability to look at individual images and throw away the rejects.  Those of use who shoot negatives, weeding out the trash is no so easy.  All too often a real clunker is the middle image of 4 or 5 good negatives that have been cut and carefully stored in sheaths. Each time I pull out a string of negs to scan or print the good images, I also get to revisit that mistake or two that seems to show up in every roll.

Case in point:  look at the above photo.  I give up, what's so great about a couple of tank cars?  The pattern of the ties is kinda cool, were it not for the grass I so cleverly used to further clutter the image.  What was I thinking?

Taking a photo from a train is tough to do, at least for me.  I know what I was trying to do in this shot.  The concept was getting a photo of the switchman on the ground.  But why would I wait for that exact moment when the wiper blade and handrail bisected the guy's body?  What was I thinking?

There is so much I could have done with this opportunity.  That old milepost marker, the back lighting, the helper set, everything was there for a good shot.  Maybe I just couldn't decide how to pull it off and by the time inspiration arrived the helpers were almost out of sight?  Maybe I meant to have a telephoto on and somehow "forgot" I had the wide angle?  And here's the real mystery, there is no negative of the helper set coming at me as one might think.  It appears this IS the shot I wanted.  What was I thinking?

A really good "away" shot of a train can be a little tricky.  A really bad "away" shot like this, all too easy to take.  Look close and you'll see just what a debacle this shot actually is.  Standing in the grass is the Old Man watching the train pass.  Why was I more interested in trying to get a crappy "away" shot than I was getting a good shot of Dad watching the train go by?  What was I thinking?

There is a train in this shot, I swear to God there is.  Using a wide angle lens to photograph a train a half mile away, passing behind a grove of trees.  What else can I say?  What was I thinking?

So there you go, 5 examples that took me probably less than 5 minutes to find.  A really good photographer would learn by these mistakes, but I'll probably revisit this topic a few more times to illustrate just how slow a learner I actually am.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February 14, 2015: Night on the Great Divide

If you want to feel insignificant, spent a night or two alone up at Blossburg, Montana. At the summit of Mullan Pass, draped across the Great Divide, the only man made light comes from the searchlight railroad signals and the headlights of passing trains.

Whether it is the altitude, the lack of the constant droning of urban life, or just the dark solitude, my ears seem ultra sensitive to sound.  Somewhere in the night one of Dave Schatz's cows is bellowing out a call, answered by her calf.  The "conservation" ensues until the two are reunited only to be replaced by the not too distant yipping of coyotes.  The amazing thing about these animals, two scraggily coyotes can sound like 50, especially since their chilling howls are multiplied by their echoes bouncing off the surrounding hills.  I have to convince myself they are a lot farther off then my imagination is trying to tell me.

As if on cue, to the west and to the east a faint rumbles become obvious.  Distant whistles intermingle.  A westbound and helpers are rounding the Austin horseshoes to the east, an eastbound is whistling for the crossing at Elliston.  The noise ebbs and flows as the trains duck into back canyons them emerge out into the more open valleys.  Finally, to the west the bright light of the eastbound emerges illuminating the switches at Blossburg.  To the east, the rumbling of the westbound suddenly ends, the head-end is in the tunnel.  The train's helpers also fall silent, but a glow to the east tells me the head-end is about to emerge just down the track from where I am situated.

And then all hell breaks loose!  The lead locomotives of the westbound climb out of the tunnel cut, their diesel engines straining under the load.  Headlights are momentarily dimmed as the engines of the two trains pass, then are turned back on to light the way.  Cars inch by, and then a set of helper engines, with only a bare minimum of lighting thunder by, shoving part of the train downgrade, while still pulling the remainder of the tonnage uphill.  More of the quiet clickity clack of the cars, the cadence increasing as more and more the train crests the summit and roll downgrade.  In time the last set of helpers drift by, no longer powering, but rather helping hold the train back for the downhill run to Elliston.

Within a few minutes of the westbound's passage, the eastbound gets a green signal to proceed.  The engineer throttles up just enough to get the train rolling over the summit, then backs off into braking, the a long string of empty coal hoppers following in an obedient line.  With that, the little drama ends and once again I'm surround by darkness.  A few distant whistles can be heard as the two trains continue to put distance between them.

The late night rising of the moon adds a luster to the scene.  One of the helper sets off the westbound returns, stopping briefly for a red signal then continues east to Helena and its next assignment.  Silence again returns. 

Be it the unbelievable show of horsepower over gravity, or merely the wide open spaces, I am left feeling as important as a single chunk of the ballast.  Under a canopy of stars not to be seen in but a few places these days, I come to the conclusion,  I represent a pretty small cog in a really big gear.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 8, 2015: 44 Years and 20 Bucks Later

Driving rain, blowing wind, Dad and good friend Brian Ambrose attempt to take shelter under an umbrella.  We had splashed our way from Auburn up into the foothills of the Cascades to catch an empty grain train at Palmer Junction. We had spent part of the morning in town watching trains, but when a grain empty left the yard for Stampede Pass, we decided a chase to Kanaskat was in order.

Lucky for us, the train showed up before the rain penetrated through our coats and shirts.

As the train roared past and around the corner, Dad and I remember back to a time almost 44 years to the day when we had come to the same spot.  Our goal was to photograph the Burlington Northern's version of the famed North Coast Limited.  We parked the family wagon on the road, within yards where we parked this day.  We hiked around the corner, just beyond where this shot was taken and climbed up on the hillside above the curve.

Like this day, it was only a short wait before the train came around the bend and headed up the Green River Gorge.  Our goal attained, we called it good and went back to the car.  During our short absence, the soft shoulder of the ground had given way, and the rider's side of the car had settled to the frame. We were stuck.

Lucky for us, just across the tracks and down in a little hollow was a single wide trailer house whose owner had a Jeep.  Not only did he have a Jeep, he loved roaring around the countryside in his Jeep.  Dad told him of our predicament, and in an instant he fired up the straight piped Willis and dispensing of such formalities as a driveway or road, came flying straight up the embankment surrounding his yard, spun a couple of "brodies" on the dirt Tacoma Watershed road, then backed up to our listing station wagon.  A few quick tugs and we were on our way, the owner of the Jeep obviously disappointed it took such a minor pull.

As Dad and I were recounting the tale to Brian, Dad laughed, "that guy got my last 20 bucks."

Monday, February 2, 2015

February 2, 2015; That Damned Norwegian Work Ethic

This is a photo taken of my Mom back in 1970.  If my math is correct and memory clear, I believe she would have been 84 today.  She passed away about 4 years ago.

The Old Man was a hard worker, but Mom was the one with the driven work ethic.  I think I get my work-a-holic ways from her.  This shot of her on her knees, weeding the big garden at the farm was taken on the 4th of July.  I remember Dad was up on the front porch taking a break before we went to the annual Grange picnic.  Not so Mom.  She had finished frying 6 chickens for the feast, and while they browned in the oven, with still an hour or so before we left, she took her weed box and trowel, and went to the garden, with me in tow.  I snuck away long enough to take this shot, before she was able to look up and realize I had skipped out.

Mom was well read, an accomplished musician, a very intelligent woman, and a career housewife.  When I say career, I mean that in a very industrial/corporate sense of the word.  She worked at that job with the same vigor, seriousness and intensity modern women put into their careers outside of the home.  By any standards, our house in Tacoma was a "shack," but under Mom's care the interior was immaculate, not a blade of grass out of place in the large yard.  Later, when she and the Old Man moved back out to the farm, her childhood home, we used to tease her.  The lawn in front of the big old farmhouse under her care was referred to as "the putting green."

So if I work long hours at the mill.  If I spend 7 months out of the year farming nights after work and week-ends.  If during the winter months I spend my week-ends out in the fields weeding, it's not my fault.

It's that damned Norwegian work ethic.

It's one of the many gifts Mom gave me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

February 1, 2015; Curb Appeal

These days I find I watch almost as much "House and Garden TV" as I do ESPN, Root Sports, or even History Channel.  In particular I tend towards the make over shows. In some couples are either shopping specially for a fixer-upper that is magically transformed into their dream home, or the evil real estate agent tries to lure them away from their beloved, but run-down home all the while the hapless but never the less good looking renovation expert is frantically remodeling in a effort to make them want to stay.  In all cases, curb appeal and making a house "warm and inviting" are high on everyone's list.

Curb appeal.....  Does it look "warm and inviting?"  Whenever I hear those phrases my mind goes back to my grandparent's barn in Ohop Valley.  On a cold, cloudy winter evening, as darkness begins to fall, what could be more warm and inviting than a dairy barn?  The barn lights are on, Grandpa, the Old Man, my little sister, all are inside busy with evening chores. Years earlier it was just me and Grandpa in there working.  Even from a distance you can hear the steady drone of the vacuum pump, the rattling of buckets, the static filled music coming from the barn radio.

Warm and inviting?  Even on the coldest nights or frigid mornings, the heat from the cows greeted your face when you walked through the door.  The hay mow above not only served as an all winter playground for us kids, but was a thick layer of insulation trapping the warmth coming from the cows.  Of course it helped that you were working.  Cleaning the gutter before and after milking, and of course milking the cows kept all of us busy enough the outside cold was seldom noticed.

There were the other chores as well.  Feeding hay, bedding down the cows if they were to stay in all night, and feeding the calves.  It could be well below freezing outside, but Grandpa would have his coat off, and the sleeves of his sweater rolled up while he mixed a bucket of powered calf milk.  (A quick aside, any farm kid will tell you, one of the best games was to dip your fingers into a bag of powered calf milk, and let the calf suck it off your fingers.  Then it was your turn.  You dipped your slobbery fingers back into the bag and licked the tasty paste off your own fingers.  You repeated that until Grandpa gave you that sideway glance telling you, "You've wasted enough powdered milk for one day.")

You want to talk curb appeal?  You want to talk about warm and inviting?  I would argue any real estate agent or renovation expert would be hard pressed to match, let alone top a barn full of dairy cows.

Just as I would argue their is nothing colder than the same barn standing forever more empty.