Traveling, Cooking, Reading, and Trains

Olive, Again

Author: Elizabeth Strout
Copyright: 2019
Type: Fiction
Finished: December 10, 2019

Rating: ★★★★

Image from Amazon

As she did with her character Lucy Barton in Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout returns to one of her characters through a series of short stories. Olive Kitteridge is present to one degree or another in the various stories. Sometimes she is the central character; in others, she is barely mentioned. The first story, Arrested, Jack Kennison drives to another town an hour away to shop  just so he won’t bump into Olive whom he barely knows.. 

Reading this first story I knew I was in for some great Elizabeth Strout storytelling. In superlative short story telling, we follow Jack through a day’s interactions and learn about his relationships and his past and feel compassion for him. He shows up again throughout the book. Even though he wanted to skip seeing Olive at the local store, he later appreciates her approach to life:

People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something. And this is why he missed Olive Kitteridge. [p 8]

Loneliness is the predominant theme of the book. Olive slowly begins to understand that relationships are the way to fight the terror of loneliness. She looks back on her relationship with her son, Christopher, and her dead husband Henry. In her new relationship,

Olive would put her leg over both of his, she would put her head on his chest, and during the night they would shift, but always there were holding each other, and [he] thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore – and how they held on for dear life! [p 148]

Olive grows so much in this book and that gained knowledge can have a sharp edge.

Loneliness, Oh, the loneliness! It blistered Olive. She had not known such a feeling her entire life; this is what she though as she moved about the house. It may have been the terror finally wearing off and giving way for this gaping bright universe of loneliness that she faced, but it bewildered her to feel this. [p 260]

We also get to revisit some of Strout’s other characters: the Burgess boys as well as Isabelle from the novels with their names. 

Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite authors and this book does not disappoint. But don’t pick this up to read until you have read Olive Kitteridge.

January 19-20, 2020

No trip to Arizona is complete without a trip up to the northern part of the state to watch some trains running on the BNSF Transcon. A good bit of this post is a railfan nerd fest post.

Most of my photos along the BNSF transcontinental route are in Flagstaff and Winslow – so of course after brunch of chilaquiles at Martanne’s in Flagstaff we headed over to the depot. Carla shopped for a t-shirt for our railfan grandson while I waited for a train.

Eastbound BNSF container train passing by the Flagstaff depot.

The picture above shows the problem shooting trains in my two usual sites: deep shadows. The best available viewing spots are on the north side of the tracks. This is an especially tough vantage point in winter; at worst I’m shooting almost directly into the sun and at best I’m getting lots of shadows on the subject. This can be remedied in Flagstaff by hanging on the other side of the tracks, but in Winslow there is no access to the south side of the tracks where the sun is at your back.

So before we left I researched places where I could get a view of trains from the south side. I found the very helpful Arizona and New Mexico Rails Places to Railfan. If I was out on my own I would have stopped at most of the spots; Carla is a good sport but I didn’t want her to have to sit in the car while I waited for trains. So, I picked a grade crossing just east of Flagstaff off I-40 Exit 207 ON Cosnino Road.

Cosnino Road on Google Maps
Cosnino Road grade crossing east of Flagstaff. (Image from Google Maps)

This is a great spot to railfan; there is a wide open area allowing us to get nice shots while being back from the tracks. It didn’t take long before an eastbound autorack glided through the west half of the S curve and into view.

Autoracks heading east outside of Flagstaff, Arizona

After this train passed, I heard the sound of a westbound laboring up the hill. It rumbled up for a few minutes before it came into view exiting the eastern half of the S curve. What a treat: a BNSF freight with two Norfolk Southern GE locomotives in the lead. While it isn’t unusual to have NS locos on BNSF trains, it is rare to have them in the lead.

Norfolk Southern locomotives leading the charge of a BNSF heading uphill toward Flagstaff, Arizona

Trains were running pretty regularly. It was a cold clear day and the San Francisco Peaks made a beautiful backdrop for the eastbound trains.

San Francisco Peaks looming over eastbound container train.
East of Flagstaff on Cosnino Road – I40

Another view of the same train as it got closer to my position.

Another view of the container train dropping down the grade toward Winslow, Arizona

As I said, the trains are pretty constant along the Transcon. I grabbed the first picture at 2:30 and the last at 2:47 – Three trains in 17 minutes. Railfan heaven.

I got back in the car and we headed to Winslow for our stay at La Posada hotel. The next day we prepared to drive outside of Holbrook to hike a bit in the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. But first we stopped at a rest stop on the west side of Holbrook – another spot listed on the web site linked at the top of the post. The bad news was that I was again on the north side shooting into the low winter sun. The good news was a beautiful wide open vista. I get intoxicated driving this stretch of road: the world stretches out in all directions.

Eastbound container BNSF slowing its roll for its stop in Winslow.

Container trains are the norm on the Transcon. About 15 minutes later another one appeared on the horizon.

Another westbound container train near Holbrook, Arizona

I was heading back to the car so we could get to the national parks but there was an eastbound coming so I hustled back to my vantage point.

Eastbound BNSF picking up speed leaving Winslow about 20 miles to the west.

The Cosnino Road grade crossing will be in my future railfanning adventures. Even though the reason for our Arizona trip was sad – my Uncle Jake’s memorial service – there were good times too. The memorial service was beautiful and moving; I saw my younger sister for the first time in ages; we had beautiful walks along the Verde River in Cottonwood as well as the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert; we visited La Posada hotel; we took in the Musical Instrument Museum; and I got pictures from new spots on the Transcon.

Good times.

January 21, 2020

When we awoke on Tuesday morning in Winslow we were greeted by Portland winter weather: cold, cloudy, and rainy. Sporadic snow was in the forecast for Flagstaff so after breakfast we headed out to try to get up and over the mountain down to Phoenix during the warm part of the day. It rained pretty steadily the first half hour but was moderately clear as we made are way up to Flagstaff. We could see big dark clouds on the west side of the city, probably blocked by the mountain.

Heading down I-17 into Phoenix was a bit hairier with many more clouds and as much rain as we wanted. As we descended we drove three separate fog banks that limited visibility to maybe 100-200 yards for a mile at a time. Even when we were at the base of the mountain and in northern Phoenix it was still cool and rainy. We stopped at an In ‘n Out for lunch. Yum.

We’ve been trying to get the Musical Instrument Museum on the north end of Phoenix for a while now. One of our yoga group friends, Jim, is a retired music teacher. He and Terry have been raving for years about the displays. Others in the group have been in Phoenix and also came back with glowing reports. Let’s go.

The first thing we noticed is that there is no Senior discount as there usually is in museums. Looking around it was clear why: we were in the land of the olds. Over 80% of the visitors were older or school age so there is no need to coax us in.

The organization of the museum is great. You are fitted with a set of headphones as you go in, but you don’t have to fiddle with entering some code when you get to a display. Instead, when you stand in front of a display a sensor automatically starts a narrative of what you are looking at. Most of the displays are accompanied by video.

Not to be hyperbolic, but excluding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the special exhibit on Congo Masks and Music is one of the best museum exhibits I’ve seen. I took a bunch of pictures of the masks and related costumes but they lose their impact in the static displays.

Congo Chihongo (Left) and Ngulu masks
Congo Chihongo Mask
Congo Minganji masks

Almost every mask has a video with the music and dancing associated. I’ve tried to find some on the internet to share but have only found a few – none of the ones in the displays. Some of the samples I share here are not even from Congo, but from other west or central Africa countries.

From YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHYk0nnXsak)
Not from Congo I think. Dancing starts at 0:21
YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ572yLH9sc).
Leggings more like the Congo displays we say.
Dancing starts in earnest at 0:45
YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B13nDtokcM0)
Definitely from Congo.

Most of the videos linked above are more modern; the private videos in the exhibit are in black and white and probably from the mid 20th century.

Our next stop was the upper floor where we explored music from around the world. Since one of our daughters-in-law is from South Africa we made sure to stop there. The video on how them make these guitars out of discarded materials is amazing.

South African musical instruments

Both of our sons played trombone in high school and our younger son was a touring professional for a few years before settling down into teaching. So of course we took pictures of every trombone-like instrument we saw. The Sackbutt is the ancestor of the modern trombone.

Sackbutt – Early trombone

Sackbutt is loosely translated as “to pull out the end”.

Though we were tired after hours of standing, we went down to the first floor exhibits which are organized around instruments. There is a large display of Martin guitars including a video of the repair to Elvis Presley’s 1975 D28. The linked video here is both a good example of the MIM displays and the painstaking restoration work done AT MIM.

We watched videos of guitarists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, big bands, pianists, and more. We kept saying to each other, “I’m tired, let’s go to the hotel” but as we walked through the museum we’d be pulled into another fascinating exhibit.

The Musical Instrument Museum in just off exit 31 on the 101 highway at the north end of Phoenix. You can see their web presence at mim.org. Go there.

After dinner and a good night’s sleep we prepared to head to the airport for our flight home. Our flight was in the afternoon so we had time to squeeze in a walk. Just north of our hotel, there is a large open area with a sidewalk along the southern border. We strolled for about an hour.

Phoenix Desert Ridge area

After that we packed up and drove back to the airport, stopping for our last In ‘n Out burgers for a while.

You may be thinking to yourself that I’ve had 5 posts from Arizona with no trains. Not to worry; my next post will have as many trains as you can take – maybe more.

February 2, 2020

We interrupt the posts on our Arizona trip for this important bulletin.

For more years than I can keep track – going back to at least 2013 (first blog post I can find) – we’ve hosted a Super Bowl party with a small group of close friends. Since our youngest son moved back from Chicago we’ve been doing more family stuff, so we had family over for the game this year instead. It was tough breaking with tradition but great for the family to be together.

Herb normally makes the wings in a crock pot and they are so tasty. I wanted to try something different so I had a competition with myself by grilling wings from 2 different recipes.

I knew the grandkids – ages 5 and 3 – wouldn’t like the spicy wings, so I followed a recipe I found for Grill Master Chicken Wings on Allrecipes.com. It couldn’t be much simpler: marinate wings in a mixture of even parts soy sauce and Italian-style salad dressing.

Wings ready for the marinade

I prepared the second batch using Meathead’s Crisply Grilled Buffalo Wings recipe on Amazingribs.com. I dry brined the wings with some kosher salt, ground pepper, and baking soda.

While the wings were resting, I whipped up some sauces for the Buffalo wings – again from that AmazingRibs recipe linked above. First was the blue cheese dressing.

Ingredients for blue cheese dressing

Measure, weigh, crumble and whisk.

Blue cheese dressing for Buffalo wings

That was going to be way more dressing than we needed. And much thinner than I expected. I added a bit more cream cheese to help it set. Honestly, next time I’ll probably buy some store bought dressing.

The Buffalo sauce is pretty easy as well, butter, hot sauce, and minced garlic.

Buffalo sauce ingredients

Franks RedHot is good stuff, but not real spicy – which is fine with me. I melted the butter in a small pan, sautéd the minced garlic for about 30 seconds then whisked in the hot sauce. The biggest challenge for the sauce is keeping it from separating. If you make this, realize you’ll want to whisk just before coating the ribs after cooking.

I started the grill at 325° set up for two zone grilling. The two sets of wings are ready for the grill.

Dry brined and marinated wings side by side.

I started the wings on an upper grate with an aluminum foil shield over the direct flame. It wasn’t hot enough. After 10 minutes I removed the foil shield and bumped the temp to 375°. I know from researching the web that some people cook them at 400° with good results. Once the wings were cooked through I crisped them up on the lower rack over the direct side of the grill. I made about 3 passes flipping the wings to make sure they didn’t burn.

Wings on the grill

Then they were done. I tossed the dry brined wings in the buffalo sauce and put them on a platter.

Wings ready to eat. Buffalo wings on the left; marinated on the right

I didn’t even time to stage the picture or get the platter to the serving area. We gobbled them all up. The 3 year old passed, but the 5 year old – my Associate Pit Master – gobbled up 4 of the marinated wings. Like I said, the Buffalo sauce wasn’t too hot at all but the 5 year old didn’t want to risk it.

They were both very good with the Buffalo wings winning out with one more star: 4 stars to 3. I’ll definitely make these again.

If you read my blog with any regularity you know I make chili each year. You may be tired of looking at the pictures, but I’m not tired of posting them 🙂

This might be the first time I got ALL the ingredients together for the set up pics.

Chili ingredients

The supermarket had a sale on Wagyu sirloin steak for the same price as the regular. Yes please.

Chili ingredients mis en place

The next course is served

A bowl of red

On my next post I’ll be back on our Arizona trip.

Visit Date: January 20, 2020

After brunch in Flagstaff, we headed down to Winslow, Arizona for a two night stay at the La Posada hotel. I’ve written about it before but I want to mention it again: La Posada is a beautiful old hotel worth visiting, even if you aren’t a train fan.

Entrance to La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona
La Posada Hotel. Winslow, Arizona

The hotel was part of the Harvey House chain that serviced Santa Fe railroad passengers between 1930 and 1957. It was designed by the architect Mary Colter, who also designed some of the iconic buildings on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Once the railroad travel business waned the railroad converted it into offices. It was slated to be torn down in the 1990s but was was saved when Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion bought it in 1994. They have been working on restoring it ever since. Tina Mion is an artist who has had three expositions in the National Portrait Gallery. Her style is striking and many of her works are displayed throughout the hotel.

She is working on a series of portraits of the First Ladies portrayed as playing cards. President Woodrow Wilson had two wives (not at the same time of course) while president. Ms Mion painted the two women as opposite ends of the King of Diamonds. Wilson’s first wife – who died when First Lady – is on the bottom and her head is cut out of the card and resting on the floor. You can see the portrait here. For more of her work, go to TinaMion.com.

The Turquoise Room is the restaurant at the hotel and the food there is delicious. If you go, you must try the Corn Chowder and Black Bean soup. So good.

It was too cold to spend much time trackside so I contented myself with looking down on the tracks from the Manager’s Suite – our second floor room. The trains are not too loud. Honestly. Those headed west are gliding to a stop west of town for a crew change. Eastbound trains do exert some power as they work to get up to track speed.

The next morning after breakfast we walked over to the newly opened Winslow Arts Trust museum which is in the renovated Santa Fe Depot immediately next to La Posada. This depot brought back strong memories; it was where my Grandpa brought be to watch trains when I was just a little guy.

Doors to the Winslow Depot. Now home to the Winslow Arts Trust Museum.

The exhibit was “Life Along the River: The Ancestral Hopi at Homol’ovi” We visited the Homol’ovi pueblo ruins during our Route 66 trip in 2015. The exhibit was moving and informative. It will on display through January 2021.

Later we headed east to Holbrook and the Petrified Forest. It was a cool crisp day which was great for hiking around. Usually when we visit in the summer it is much too hot to do much more than take a quick look before jumping back into the air conditioned car. But this time we spent plenty of time hiking around two different areas of the National Park.

The largest petrified tree is just behind the visitor center.

Petrified tree in the Petrified Forest National Park

A close up of one of the chunks shows how the crystals and minerals formed in the tree.

Petrified tree segment.

I love the juxtaposition of the old trees against the wide open desert spaces.

Panorama: Petrified National Park. Arizona
Petrified National Park. Arizona

It’s disconcerting to see these remnants of huge trees out in the desert where no living large trees are to be found. The forest lived in the subtropics when the earth’s continents were still bunched together. It’s mind bending to think about just how long these stone trees have existed and how far our North American continent has moved.

Being winter, the Forest Service was busy repairing bridges in the park meaning we couldn’t go very far into the park. But we did go to the last hiking area before the road closure. I love this picture of a grove of trees that millenia later fell and broke apart.

Petrified Forest Grove. Petrified National Forest, Arizona.

Another old tree; this one in pieces

Petrified Forest National Park. Arizona

In this picture you can still see the bark and tree rings.

Bark and rings. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

My favorite picture of the day was just across the road from our hiking area. It shows how the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are made up of the same geology.

Painted Bluff looming over the Petrified Forest.

We wanted to see the Painted Desert – the adjacent National Park. There is a road that connects the two, but as I said, the road was closed. So we had to haul ourselves back 20+ west to Holbrook, and then east another 30 miles on I40 to get to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. It was getting to be early evening and we had spent a full day driving and hiking, but we found a small hike along a ridge overlooking the scenery. You might want to click on these images to get a better view.

Painted Desert National Park. Arizona

We were standing on a huge basalt column that prevented the erosion that carved these canyons.

Here is a panorama that may provide a better idea of the view.

Panorama of the Painted Desert.

We went back to the La Posada for dinner in the Turquoise Room, read some, and were lulled to sleep by the train traffic outside our window. The next morning, Tuesday January 22, we had a long drive to Phoenix. As we headed west to Flagstaff we gained elevation and fought through Western Oregon-like rainy weather that threatened snow. But the cacti were stoic as we saw at a rest stop between Winslow and Flagstaff.

Prickly Pear Cactus at a rest stop west of Winslow, Arizona.

We stopped at In ‘n Out for lunch, then proceeded directly to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. More on that in my next post.

Dates: January 18-19, 2020

After Uncle Jake’s memorial service and fellowship at the Mountain View United Methodist Church in Cottonwood, a group of relatives went to lunch. Sally’s sister Betty had a large contingent of grown kids attend the service and lunch: two sons and a daughter along with various of her in-laws. It was informal but comforting. I had an especially nice time visiting with one of Betty’s sons-in-law.

Carla, Diana, and I then headed out on our own for the afternoon. Our first stop was old town Cottonwood. Back in 1965, Diana and I spent the summer at my Aunt June’s and Uncle Tony’s place along Oak Creek east of the road that connects Cottonwood and Sedona. Tony farmed a bit of land down in the valley but his primary job was owning and operating a grocery store in downtown. I helped unload the trucks and stocked the shelves. I also wrapped groceries. Back then, they didn’t use grocery bags; instead, there was a big roller of brown paper and a large spool of twine. I was terrible at wrapping people’s groceries. Just plain terrible. But June and Tony never raised their voices and gave me time and space to figure out how to do it.

Diana worked up in the office with Aunt June – Jake’s second oldest sister. If you are old enough you’ll remember Green Stamps and/or Blue Chip Stamps stamps. When you bought something at a participating store – thousands and thousands across the country – you’d get a certain number of stamps per dollar spent. Diana’s job was to manage the stamp process.

As an aside, I remember pasting stamps into booklets at home. We’d have a big pile of stamps, a bunch of booklets, and sponges. My sisters and I would dampen the stamps with sponges and paste them into the books. When there were enough filled booklets, my mom would take us shopping at the Green Stamp redemption store.

Anyway, Tony retired and sold the store; today, it is a cabinet shop.

Aunt June and Uncle Tony’s Old Grocery store in Cottonwood, Arizona. Now a cabinet shop

Carla took a picture of Diana and me at the front door.

Howard and Diana in front of what used to be June and Tony’s grocery store. Cottonwood, Arizona

Old Town Cottonwood fell into the predictable hard times in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; but it has recently turned into a nice tourist area featuring wine tasting shops. While it doesn’t have the backdrop of the red hills you’ll find in Sedona, it is a more pleasant place to visit because of the lack of craziness that comes with Sedona tourism.

After walking through downtown and pointing out building we remembered, we walked down to the “Gateway of the Verde River” and walked along a beautiful path. Although their leaves were gone, the cottonwood trees were stunning with their white branches and limbs. I tried to capture the white tops.

White topped cottonwood trees along the Verde River in Cottonwood, Arizona
White topped cottonwood trees along the Verde River in Cottonwood, Arizona

The Verde River is that last free flowing river in Arizona. It’s not huge like its big brothers the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, but it has its charms.

Verde River in Cottonwood, Arizona
Cottonwood Tree Reflections in the Verde River. Cottonwood, Arizona

After about an hour we wondered what to do next. Carla and I recalled that the neighboring town of Clarkdale has a copper museum that some of our yoga friends rave about. If you’ve been to the area, you have probably seen Jerome, the copper mining town on the side of Mingus mountain that dominates Cottonwood and Clarkdale. Clarkdale is at the base of the mountain where the smelter was and where the mine managers lived. Aunt Sally tells the story of how the mining operation just picked up and moved to a new mine – equipment, miners, families and belongings – in a weekend. Jerome is now a ghost town turned into a tourist town. It is said that if you lived in Jerome long enough, one leg would grow longer than the other, making it easier to walk the steep slopes of town. I have a couple of posts about Jerome you can see here.

Anyway, we drove the few miles over to Clarkdale to take in the museum which is in the old Clarkdale High School building.

Copper Museum in Clarkdale, Arizona

The museum was informative and there are an abundance of intriguing displays. But what took our breath away was the artillery art made during World War I. Soldiers would use their idle time in the trenches making intricate art from the brass – made from copper and zinc – artillery shells. After finding a spent shell without any cracks, they’d fill it with molten lead, then trace a design and slowly and delicately hammer out a pattern. Being filled with lead, hammering in one place would push out the brass in another. Here is an example of the result.

Artillery Art from World War I in the Copper Museum, Clarkdale, Arizona

There was an entire old classroom filled with hundreds of pieces of the shells. If you are in Sedona and/or Jerome, a stop at the copper museum is worth a look.

We stopped by Jake and Sally’s place on our return trip to watch Wheel of Fortune with Sally, Betty, and one of Betty’s sons. I think the country can be divided into two camps – not liberal or conservative – but whether you watch Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy. Sally, Jake, and Betty are diehard Wheel of Fortune fans.

Afterwards we headed back to our hotel. One of the benefits of the Cottonhwood Best Western is that there is a Mexican restaurant in the parking lot. We could drink a margarita or two and not have to have a designated driver.

We were scheduled to depart the next morning. Carla and I headed up to Winslow – of course – and Diana had to get back to Texas. Diana and I posed for a picture; we haven’t seen each other in person for too many years.

Brother and Sister having dinner after Uncle Jake’s memorial service

A second benefit of staying on the second floor of the back wing of the motel is the view. Early Sunday morning, I woke up, took a step out on the balcony and snapped away. Sedona’s red hills are hidden in the shadows.

Winter Sunrise in Cottonwood Arizona
Winter Sunrise in Cottonwood Arizona

While the sun was ascending the moon was getting ready for bed.

Early morning quarter moon in Cottonwood, Arizona

After a visit to give Sally one more hug, we headed out. Diana used to live in Cottonwood for a couple of years so she had breakfast with an old friend. Carla and I headed up to Flagstaff, then Winslow. Our first stop was Martanne’s Burrito Palace in Flagstaff. It is known as the “The House That Chilaquiles Built”. I had my first plate of chilaquiles there in the Fall of 2018 and have been looking forward ever since to my next visit. While I’ve had the dish a couple of other places since, your first love is always the strongest.

Chilaquiles are basically a green chili on top of corn tortilla chips. These feature scrambled eggs under it all. We didn’t have hangovers but this looks like perfect hangover food. Looking back at pictures of our last visit, the hashbrowns are a recent addition.

Chiliqueiles at Martannes in Flagstaff

It was late Sunday morning so of course the college crowd from Northern Arizona University crowded the place. We had a 15 minute wait to get a table, but it is sooo worth it.

The artwork on the walls is, interesting.

Artwork at Martannes. Flagstaff, Arizona

It was quite cold out – below freezing – but we stretched our legs a bit before getting back in the car. What do you know, we sauntered by the Flagstaff train depot. How did that happen? What, a train is coming? I might as well grab a picture.

Container train on the BNSF Transcon in Flagstaff, Arizona

We drove down to Winslow looking forward to some sightseeing the next day.

January 18, 2020

My Uncle Jake passed away in December 2019. When we visited him in November his doctor told us he was suffering from “too many birthdays”. I loved how the doctor put it. He was 91. He was my mom’s brother, the youngest of five siblings, the only boy, and my last connection to my mom’s family. You are supposed to have favorites, but he was my favorite since I was 5 years old.

My wife, youngest sister, and I went to Cottonwood, Arizona to pay our respects at his memorial service. In the weeks leading up to the service my sisters and I went through pictures to find some nice ones of Uncle Jake. My older sister, Laura, recently digitized my mom’s huge family photo album so she got us off to a good start. I used Lightroom to touch up a few of them and then printed them to display at the service. The church administrative assistant worked with me to to get the pictures displayed. When we showed up Saturday morning she had white boards and stands for us to post the pictures on.

PIctures of Jake at his memorial service

The memorial service was quite simply the nicest I had ever attended. Years ago when Jake lived in Winslow he conducted a series he called “Sermon in Song” He’d sing a hymn in his beautiful tenor and then talked about the biblical foundations of that hymn. In a typical sermon he would cover a few songs. Pastor Jonathan in Cottonwood got wind of that and a few years ago asked Jake to reprise that when Jonathan had to be out of town. As part of that, the pastor videotaped an interview with Jake about the process. He played parts of that interview during the service. We also heard recordings of Jake singing two of his favorite hymns during the service.

Speaking and singing in your own memorial service: you can’t do better than that.

Everyone who spoke at the service repeated the refrain: he was the kindest and gentlest person any of them had ever known. An older man stood up to say that Mr. Baker was his favorite teacher ever. Max stood up to testify that Jake was the best boss ever. Members of the Verde Valley Voices recounted how he co-founded the group and was a joy to sing and be with.

I was one of the last to speak. Knowing the inevitable was going to happen, I had a few months to gather my thoughts about Uncle Jake and ended up with a long text which I was planning to read from. At the beginning of the sharing, Pastor Jonathan reminded us that we didn’t need a second sermon. Uh oh. Suffice it to say that I cut down my planed talk dramatically. Instead of the opening humorous line I replaced it with something along the lines of “Pastor Jonathan said we didn’t need a second sermon; although my last name may be Thompson, I am a true Baker at heart and like a Baker have a lot to say.” Here is the written version of my speech

I’m not sure how many times I’m going to cry today, but if the over/under gambling line is 2½, take the over.

My name is Howard Thompson and Jake Baker was my mom’s brother. I think today most everyone knows him as Jacob; but to me he will always be Uncle Jake.

I have a confession to make. Like your kids, you aren’t supposed to have a favorite uncle or aunt. But of my mom’s 4 siblings, Jake was my favorite. My aunts were all great but my Uncle Jake was my hero. 

He stayed in Winslow near my grandparents and was a big help to them as they aged. Jacob was a school teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Winslow and then became principal of the same school. This was the same school he attended as a child. He admitted it was a bit awkward at times supervising some of the same teachers who taught him when he was a child. Years later he got a job as assistant superintendent in the Cottonwood and Sedona area.

Each summer we would travel over Route 66 from Southern California to visit my grandparents, aunts and uncle. The stories I could tell of those summer trips across the desert: 3 AM starts; chicken pox; me and my 2 sisters and a collie in the back of a VW bug; our car overheating in the desert. But those are stories for another time.

During our visits Uncle Jake would take me for a walk down to the drug store after he got off work to get a soda at the drug store counter. This was the real deal: the little metal frame with a small conical paper cup – like you see for snow cones today – hand mixed Coca Cola syrup and soda water. Spending time alone with him was Heaven for a little boy.

One summer visit I was lusting for a toy rifle I saw at the Western Auto. I was doing what I could to earn a little bit of money here and there but I just wasn’t going to get close. One evening Uncle Jake just went and bought it and gave it to me. I was over the moon.

It wasn’t just the stuff he bought me that made me close to him, it was his gentle spirit. His generosity extended to his treatment of people.

Like so many families of the Great Depression (though what was so great about it, I don’t know) they had a tough life. Before Jake was born, both my grandparents suffered from tuberculosis requiring them to move from rural Illinois to the southwest. Reading some letters written by my Aunt June – his second oldest sister – I came to appreciate just how hard their lives were. Despite the hardships: three brothers dying of disease in Illinois, living over a thousand miles from family in an age where technology couldn’t shorten the distance; and with his dad traveling on the Navajo reservation for weeks at a time, Jake’s gentle spirit shone through. 

Being the youngest, and being blessed with a long life, Jake was eventually thrust into the role of caretaker for his sisters. A job he took on with love. Well into his 80s Uncle Jake would travel over to Sedona two or three times a week  to check in and help his oldest and only living sister. My Aunt Sally is right, Jake is the kindest person we’ve ever known.

As you no doubt know, Jake has always been a singer – in Winslow he sang in a number of groups including a barber shop quartet. You may not be aware of this, but Jake was a professional singer from the age of three: he’d ride his tricycle down the block singing and would be rewarded with pennies and nickels. You can see him on that trike on the picture board set up for the reception.

There weren’t as many singing opportunities when he and my Aunt Sally moved up to the Verde Valley. In true Baker fashion, he co-founded a singing group – The Verde Valley Voices. It has been active for many  years and grew in size up to 120 people. 

We live in Portland, Oregon today, so It’s a rare treat when our visits coincide with one of his singing engagements. We got lucky two summers ago as the Voices were singing in the Verde Valley Days festival. Although Jake was starting to slow down and had to sit instead of stand, he was a trooper and stayed in the group. My wife, Carla, her sister, and I were in the audience and it was wonderful to see and hear him sing. 

On another trip, my son and his wife – a soprano in the Chicago Symphony Chorus – joined us for a visit. One of the truly memorable moments of my life was sitting around the home piano listening to them sing. I can’t imagine the singing in heaven is any better.

I’m so grateful for my Aunt Sally, who is a fantastic story teller and has always helped keep Jake’s life fresh in my mind and heart. On every visit we’d hear another tale of the ways he touched the hearts of his students. His past students and fellow teachers would invariably stop by his house to say hello when in town. But I’m preaching to the choir, you all know what a wonderful person my Uncle Jake was. 

Over the past few decades I have made a point of talking on the phone with him a couple of times a month. Once we retired we tried to get down to visit him and Sally once a year. He told me he thought of me as his son. There isn’t higher praise than that. With my parents gone, I looked to him like my father.

Uncle Jake was the last surviving member of his siblings.  When I talked with his doctor in November, he told me that Jake was suffering from too many birthdays: 91 of them. What a great way to put it. Personally, I”m glad he had so many birthdays and I’m thankful that I was able to share so many years with him. I miss him as the last connection to my mom’s family but mostly I miss his warm spirit.

Here are me, Diana, Sally (Jake’s Wife), and Carla at the fellowship time after the service.

Howard, Diana, Sally, Carla

Here are just a few of the pictures we used at the service. If you’d like to see all 33, you can look at my Lightroom album here.

Here is Jake with my dad, grandpa, and older sister Laura in about 1950. A couple of years before I was born.

Jake, Jim, HH Baker, Laura

Here is a picture of all 5 siblings who survived childhood. Probably taken sometime in the 1980s I’d guess. My mom is in the red skirt immediately on Jake’s right.

Barbara, June, Lucinda, Lois, Jake

A beautiful portrait; probably my favorite picture of the group.

Uncle Jake

Ten or so years ago, I bought Uncle Jake an iPad so we could share family pictures and FaceTime with him. Here I’m showing him how to use it.

Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of my younger sister, Diana, with Jake.

I miss Uncle Jake terribly but feel content that he received the best send off possible.

Date: January 14, 2020

This was my third practice work with my Sony A6600 camera. I’d done outside foliage, and trains, today it was cooking. I tried a recipe I had done before but that only rated three stars. My notes had some ideas about what could be done to get another star.

Let’s get started! Line up the ingredients

Italian Meat Sauce Ingredients

Prep the ingredients for cooking. In addition to the ingredients below I had 1¼ pound each of spicy and sweet Italian sausage links. Last time I used bulk and thought the links might be less fatty. Not so much, it’s really the same stuff, just pushed into link casings. And it was time consuming taking the sausages out of their casings.

Italian Meat Sauce Mis En Place

Naturally, we start by sautéing the mirepoix (carrots, celery, onion) then toss in the aromatics (garlic, red pepper flakes, dried Italian seasonng, and salt)

When that is done, add the sausage and cook until no longer pink. When I made it before it was much to greasy, so I drained some grease before adding the tomato sauce and chicken stock. I got a nice little bit.

Layer of fat taken off after sautéing the meat.

Then add, the crushed tomatoes and chicken stock.

Italian Meat Sauce ready for pressure cooking

Pressure cook for 20 minutes with a 20 minute release. Meanwhile, start simmering some water for the pasta and enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir

A glass of wine while cooking

When the cooking was finished I still had too much fat so I spooned some a lot out. Not the most pleasing picture – but it’s important to see what the process is.

Excess fat from the Italian Meat Sauce

Last time I didn’t get nearly enough of the excess fat off so this was a nice start.

Drain the pasta – I used Penne – and toss one cup of the sauce with the noodles.

Cooked pasta with a bit of sauce.

Dinner is served: portion into pasta bowls and ladle some more sauce on top. Sprinkle some parmesan reggiano on top and dig in.

Dinner is served: Italian Meat Sauce

Sad to say, but even with taking off more of the excess fat, this dish doesn’t climb up to four stars. I found it too watery. That was a problem I didn’t think I’d have when I mixed everything together for pressure cooking. The vegetables and meat really release a lot of liquid. And it was still too fatty.

Carla and I talked and agreed that a search for the killer Italian meat sauce recipe would be fun.

A note on the pictures. I didn’t set up multiple flashes shooting through translucent umbrellas like I sometimes do. I simply used one on-camera flash. I’m reasonably pleased with the photos considering the set up and continue to be happy with the Sony A6600 paired with the 18-135mm lens.

Date: January 14, 2020

Last January I took part in the Matt Kloskowski “Fresh Start” training/program. I found it fun and engaging. I learned some new things that I’ve carried forward since then. You can read my posts for the four weeks here.

Matt is running the program again this year and I signed up again. Week One’s assignment was to get in the habit of publishing your work – review and post my favorite pictures of the last year . While I feel I do okay with that via my blog, I think it is helpful to keep track of my successes so I can build on them.

If you look at the sections on the top of my web site you’ll see a section called “Photo Gallery (…)”. I had the intention to update this at least annually, but you can see by the title of the section I haven’t changed it in four, going on five, years. I’m going to work on that in the coming month, so keep a look out.

Rather that replicating them in this post, I’ve created a Flickr album of my favorite 20 pictures from 2019 you can find here.

Here is my absolute favorite of the year – taken near Lake Quinault in the Olympic Rain Forest

Kestner Homestead, Lake Quinault

Some will find their way to my new all time top 20 favorites. Stay tuned to see what makes it and what doesn’t.

Now I’m looking forward to Week 2 which starts tomorrow (Monday January 13, 2020)

This all comes under my goal for the year to work on my photography.

Picture Date: January 4, 2020

Friday I took some pictures around my front and back yards with my new Sony A6600 with an 18-135mm lens. On Saturday it was time to see how it works with trains!

My favorite local location for train pictures is was near the entrance to the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. There was a lovely little spot to park and get pictures of northbound and southbound trains on the BNSF line between Seattle and Portland. I could be safe far back from the track and the sightlines were great; there was even a signal in view making it easier to determine where the next train might be coming from. I’ve posted about my visits here numerous times.

Last year they replaced the single lane wooden bridge over Lake River (yes, that’s the name) with a new two lane structure that goes over the tracks as well as the river. The new bridge is complete but they are still removing the old one. The access is closed during the week for that work. Being a Saturday and having a new camera , I thought it would be a good time to see if I could still get in to take some train pictures. Dang; there is a little turn off to that area but it is now protected by a locked gate. I had to find a new place to grab my pictures.

So I headed into the town of Ridgefield and looked for places where a road might cross the tracks. I found a spot on Railroad Avenue that provided some access. It wasn’t long before I was rewarded with a train horn. I had a memory position in my camera set up for action photos. Unfortunately the train was coming from the south and I had to shoot practically right into the low winter sun.

BNSF coal train rolling through Ridgefield, WA

What a difference the light makes! As the train passed I turned to face north with the sun behind me. I got a dramatically better picture. Light is everything.

Nice light on the back end of BNSF coal train rolling through Ridgefield, WA.

Less than 10 minutes later a UP container train was headed north.

UP on BNSF trackage in Ridgefield, WA

I’m delighted with the performance of the camera. While it isn’t as capable as my Sony A7R3 with the 24-105 lens, the new camera is so light and the motion tracking may even better than its big brother. Less weight is good when packing for a trip and for hiking or walking around a city all day. And the images are definitely good enough for my use.

There is a nice pedestrian bridge over the tracks at the Carty unit of the sanctuary, but it is protected by a chain link fence limiting train pictures. A train passed just after I parked but I got to the bridge as the train was pulling away. I tried to shoot through one of the gaps but you can see a blurry white artifact to the right of the last car.

View from the pedestrian bridge of the Ridgefield Wildlife Sancuary Carty Unit.

Train traffic had slowed or stopped so I headed down to the depot in downtown Vancouver, Washington. There was no action on the main north/south line over the bridge but there were a couple of freights pulling out of the yard and headed east out the Columbia Gorge. I grabbed a couple of frames. These yard locomotives look freshly painted for 2020.

Vancouver, WA train yard
Vancouver, WA train yard

All in all an okay day despite the disappointment of my favorite spot not being available anymore. But hey, any day with trains is a good day!

You can also check out my A6600 album on Flickr.