Big, big west (part one)

It was about two weeks ago that I arrived here in St. Paul, on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, coming from the west on the final leg of my thirty-day rail pass.   I want to give some indication of what happened on my (nearly) first trip to the west coast since I was in high school.  Since I covered quite a bit of it–albeit mostly big urban centers–let’s call it my West Coast Tour.  It was certainly the first time I was there as an artist, doing art work.  I’m just gonna cover some of the highlights.

So, it occurs to me that this is the most time I’ve spent on trains during any given thirty-day stretch in my life.  I guess it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a cumulative seven days on trains.   The fact that I packed all wrong (over packed, over packed!) and that I was somewhat miserable feeling on the first leg of the trip are the result of waking up on the wrong side of the bed, there in my studio, on the day I left Chicago.  One of the reasons I like the train is the strange temporary social world that forms, built of glances, curiosities, brief exchanges, and occasionally, weird, long conversations with people you would never otherwise come into contact.   And of course sometimes there is an ad-hoc,  alcohol-fueled, mini-party of strangers that forms in the observation/cafe car.  I wasn’t feeling that on the west-ward part of the trip, but my final night on the train to St. Paul I met a great little group of folks.  Suffice it to say all kinds of intoxicants (including a shamefully munchie-licious array of junk food) were shared.  Two weeks later and I still feel affection for that temporary crew.  But I was generally quite introverted during these train travels.  Part of me feels like I miss out on something by not being more out going.  But another part of me feels like I was privy to something by spending this time on these trains–that I had  a vantage on the landscape (and the landscape is always people) that made just being there as an observer worth while.

Essex, Montana

A view of Essex from my walk up the hill.

My last stop before this closing train party was in Essex, Montana.  I stopped there because I still had a sliver of time left on my rail pass and I thought it would be good to go for a walk in the woods of Montana.  I have a hard time thinking of Essex as a town from what I experienced.  There is a hotel there called the Isaak Walton Inn.  It was originally  built as a boarding house for railroad workers when the Great Northern Railway was built.  Their job was to keep the lines clear of snow during the winter.  The Great Northern Railway was of course built by and for the gold rush, a key aspect of manifest destiny (The Empire Builder!).   I was in Essex for exactly twenty-four hours.  The Isaak Walton Inn is appearantly named for an Englishman who wrote a book about angling in the 1800’s.  This was my first exposure to the name, but he is well thought of in some conservation circles, I have since learned.  In fact there is a conservation organization called the Izaak Walton League that began in Chicago.  I just learned of this organization after having spent the night in Essex, as it so happens they co-organized a recent, very interesting looking event I didn’t get to go to at the Experiemental Station in Chicago.  This strikes me as one of those moments where something decides to make itself visible in my life by seemingly disconnected circumstances.  I assume the Inn being named after him has to do with trout fishing.  Anyhow, the walls of the inn were covered with tons and tons of rail road bric-a-brac.  I was most intrigued by the images of James J. Hill driving his Model T (or some old car) around the wilds of Montana.  Hill was a rail road baron who financed the construction of the Great Northern Railroad.  I like to see how these rich guys used to recreate.  You can still go for tours of his palatial mansion on Summit Avenue here in St. Paul, just a mile or so from where I grew up.   I think the main clientele at the Inn are train-nuts (there are converted cabooses and even an old freight engine you can stay in) and cross-country skiers.  It was rainy while I was there so the skiers were disappointed.  I went on  a walk and experienced half a dozen forms of precipitation as well as a few moments of bright sun.

Before Essex I was in Portland.  I actually met a somewhat interesting guy on that train ride.  Pete was about my age. It was a packed train so I plopped down next to him and I could tell he was disappointed at having to share a seat.  Who isn’t?  He was reading Sherman Alexie, which for me was an indication that we might have some things we’d like to tell each other about.   The ice got broken, or at least cracked enough.  I think there is a common defensiveness in people in our age bracket (really, bracket?).  Some of us don’t share too easily with strangers. Frankly I think it has to do with the controlling and undemocratic nature of the education system combined with the conditioning of a youth filled with passive media consumption, but I’m not going to try to unpack that right now.  Pete ended up telling me about an organization he helped to start, The Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, to protect one of the last herds of un-hybridized buffalo (non-beefalo-buffalo) in the world.  He told be about how in high school and college he discovered Edward Abbey and that this was central to his early political education.  I can say the exact same thing, in fact, I did.  He also described how the subsequent eco-activism he did formed close bonds with a group of people and that some of them have pooled their resources to buy something like fifty acres of land not far from Glacier National Park, near the Idaho, Montana border.  There they live partially off the grid, they grow food, hunt, and construct and sell yurts (I doubt there are very many yurt companies in north west Montana so I’m betting this Shelter Designs is their’s).  I’m glad Pete and I could get over ourselves enough to talk a bit.

Sam powering Frau Fiber's sewing machine.

I was in Portland for five days or so.  I stayed with the Baldwin-Gould family.  Sam and Laura are old friends from when they lived  in Chicago in the early 2000’s.   At one point Sam and I were explaining how we are old friends to one of his Portland people and we realized we have actually not even known each other for a decade.  None the less, we decided that old friends is the right description, out of a mutual  feeling that is real yet not rational.   While down town for lunch and shopping with Honora and Esme (Sam and Laura’s beautiful four month-old twins!) we ran into a friend of Sam’s  who works at the Museum of Contemporary Craft and she suggested we check it out the current exhibition Gestures of Resistence.  This show has all kinds of Chicago all over it.   The best part was when we ran into Frau Fiber on the street.  She had a bike-powered sewing machine and was making knock-off Columbia jackets out of plastic bags!  The Frau now lives in LA teaching kids how to do radical cultural work (that’s what it sounded like to me anyway),  but she was a powerhouse of Mess Hall programming for a while, organizing the Sewing Rebellion.  It was cool to see her again.

The other real highlight in Portland was meeting Matthew Stadler and having a little book making party with his print-on-demand equipment, for his independent, experimental publishing operation, Publication Studio.  I really liked meeting Matthew.  I am really stricken by his honest generosity.  His home (and business) is one of the most appealing manifestations of a permeable home that I have yet experienced in my wanderings.   Sam and I both had a lot of stuff we wanted to print and bind, but Honora and Esme had different plans.  They had concerns of their own and we found it was hard to operate a guillotine trimmer and hot-glue book-binder while holding slightly cranky baby girls.   Thanks to Matthew though I got to make a second edition (of one) of A Call To Farms, which I traded with him for a copy of Capitalism Inside an Organization by Pravin J. Jain.  A fascinating little pamphlet/book about the fall of Enron written by a former VP.

My bro Louis and his dad Sam (also my bro), on our sparkling day trip to Oceanside, Oregon.

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