Time for the St. Patrick’s Day... White?

Our old house has a back stairwell that abuts our bedroom and my office, and that’s my primary route to and from the downstairs. At the top of the stairwell is a window which looks out on the side yard.

The window

Regular readers have seen many pictures from that window. It’s my first view of the wider world virtually every day, letting me know what I can expect to encounter as I venture forth.

This morning was an unexpected surprise.

The calendar tells us that it’s March 17th, the day we here in the US celebrate as St. Patrick’s day by wearing garish amounts of bright green clothing and turning other things green as well. But Old Man Winter had other ideas this year, and gave us an overnight gift in the form of a blanket of white:

Out the window

Things vary, of course, depending upon one’s latitude, but it is surpassingly late in our winter season for snow to be happening here in northern Illinois. My offspring - I’m not entirely an evolutionary failure - joined us some 17 years ago now within the first week of March. LB was earlier than expected by a month or so, and so I can vividly remember getting the call from my wife and driving the hour or so back home across the countryside at a pace that was, perhaps, a little bit more than the law would allow.

This memory comes up here because on that automotive adventure I remember being surprised that it had begun to snow - just flurries - because it was so very late in the season for that to be happening. The ground itself was completely clear of the white stuff at that point, as is typically the case.

And despite all of that, here we have complete coverage more than 10 days later into the season. Anyone denying climate change is really not paying attention.

That aside, though, it’s kind of a late season gift given us by OMW, or at least that’s how I was thinking about it as I geared up for one last snowy trike ride. Of course, LB expressed what was more likely to be the popular opinion when we talked about it after I got home:

Yeah - you are all like "its a white biking day", but I’m looking out the window from my bed thinking "aw crap"...

Yuck

People talk a lot about how they hate winter. What they mean, mostly, is the cold and the snow that accompanies the presence of January and February on the calendar.

And then they herald the changes that roll in with early March - the higher temperatures, the rain coming down in place of snow.

People are nuts - this is the absolute worst time of year, weather-wise, as far as I’m concerned.

This weekend the rain falls.

It falls because the temperature has risen. It’s risen just above that critical freezing line, and so it remains liquid, not solid.

It falls on ground that is reacting to those warmer temperatures, and so is defrosting itself.

But just on top.

yuck

So what this leaves is a layer of thoroughly saturated muck that slides about atop a still-frozen substrate, like oatmeal on top of glass. And thoroughly saturated means that the water that falls ultimately just sits on the surface - no where to go, absorption impossible.

yuck

In short, it’s gross. And it sucks. Would not recommend, zero stars.

In the winter - in the real winter, with the frozen ground, sometimes covered with lovely snow, it is possible to go out and enjoy the out of doors, the countryside. But what does one do with weather like this.

Sit. Inside.

Sit inside and resent the weather.

Winter Moanings

Well, it’s here.

We’ve reached the part of the winter where virtually every conversation starts out with a reference to how tired of the season the person is, and how ready they are for spring.

I feel a little bad for winter in that respect. I mean, no one ever tells you how tired they are of summer, or how ready they are for the fall colors to just get it over with already. No - winter is clearly a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed.

I get it - we’ve absolutely had our own challenges with this winter, and though we’ve weathered through them, it does help one see how and why the yearning for the vernal equinox occurs. But mostly this sort of thing makes me think back to what life must have been like out here in the days before central heat and rural electrification.

Our old house is several miles from the nearest town. That distance is easily covered in just a few minutes in a car, but it would have been a much longer period of time by foot or by horse. This would have been a journey of some effort in the winter, and something probably undertaken only under specific, favorable conditions.

And they would have been prepared for the weather when they went. This is something that is a recurring theme in my thoughts about this and, oddly enough, in my conversations with LB about the weather (not odd that I bring it up, but odd that LB engages the conversation). While I am certainly not interested in going back to the days prior to those modern conveniences - let’s be clear, I’m writing this on an iPad, not, say, scrawling it with a fountain pen on parchment - the conveniences themselves have absolutely changed how we modern people regard the weather.

On even very cold days you see people moving about in lightweight gear - maybe a jacket, maybe not, wearing tennis shoes, eschewing scarves, gloves, and hats. It is easy to see how this happens: if all one is doing is moving from their home to their vehicle, and then from their vehicle to a heated office or other sort of workplace, then their winter gear could certainly seem sufficient.

Of course, this means that the exposure one experiences while outside has the dual components of being always that point of initial contrast to the warmth of the inside, and so especially shocking; and it is experienced with insufficient weather protection, compounding the effect. All of which is to say: no wonder it seems so cold.

Now, before this becomes too much a get off my lawn post, let me note that I’m not suggesting that everyone should bundle up like they are tackling a South Pole record ride in order to go from home into a warm workplace. But I do think that we are losing, as a culture, both the understanding of how to remain warm and safe under cold conditions, and some degree of the general weather-hardiness that previous generations had - that ability to go out and tolerate, perhaps even enjoy, winter conditions for extended periods of time.

This is one of the gifts life in our old house on the prairie can offer. On the harshest winter days it absolutely is not as cozy-comfy as a modern ranch in a housing development. It might be technically possible to get it there one day, but short of a lotto win or the passing of an unknown, beneficent wealthy relative ("Great uncle Otto? I don’t think I ever met... what was that? You say he left us $40 million? Oh yeah - Otto. I always loved that guy...") its not going to occur any time in the near future.

But it means that we do have to employ older techniques - understanding how to dress for cold weather to remain warm in the house, and how to outfit a bed so that it’s warm and comfortable for a night’s sleep as the winter wind wails about the home. Our ancestors knew how to do these things well and would have had human and bed clothing specific to the purpose. One has to bear in mind that, even if one has a heating stove in the bedroom, the fire inside will go out in the middle of the night - it’s going to be pretty cold in the bedroom by morning.

None of which is to suggest that I think those ancestors did not complain about the winter weather. I suspect that pissing and moaning about the cold has been a universal since humans first evolved speech. Probably the first word was something like "rock" or "fire"; but I’ll bet the first sentence was something like "sure ready for this cold weather to end..."

Ice Storm

This past week Old Man Winter saw fit to slap northern Illinois with a truly next-level ice storm. When these things happen - and they do, on occasion - ice gathers on absolutely everything.

Iced over trees

The trees are covered with ice, and branches get weighed down and stretch to the ground or break off. Doors and windows get covered and ice has to be broken away before you can open them. And ice gathers on other things as well, most notably the power lines.

Outages are not uncommon out here, as has been discussed before. But this particular winter event was something special. The power went out Monday night, and remained out until Thursday morning.

The ice gathering on the power lines has a similar effect as it has on the trees, adding weight and pulling downward on them, and gravity is a harsh mistress. This means that lines break, and break in multiple locations.

Along our mile-long stretch of road alone I counted three breaks in the line, and I am by no means a power line expert (which is to say that I could have missed others). In the couple of days that followed I had opportunity to drive along the stretch of line that leads up to our house (there are several miles of it), finding at least two additional break points.

line down

line down illustrated

This meant that, despite the diligent work on the part of the power line workers (and it was diligent - they could be seen, out day and night, in sometimes very unpleasant conditions, struggling to put things aright), it was going to be some time before our spark was rekindled. This was complicated by extreme weather Tuesday evening, resulting in whiteout conditions on the country roads and rural highways. For myself traveling in it the short distance from town to home, there were times where nothing but the foot or so of roadway to the sides of the vehicle were visible, and one would find, in the breaks offered by buildings and trees at homesteads, that one had wandered out into the middle of the roadway. Progress down these roads on the trip home was glacial, with 20mph seeming radical and dangerous. I have lived in northern Illinois my entire life, have been driving here for over 30 years, and I drive a lot; I have never seen anything quite like it. I can only imagine trying to repair a power line in it.

This meant that Tuesday night was another night in the cold, and that, while it would have been nice to retreat to a place of warmth, having made it home through the whiteout, it was clearly safer for everyone to stay there than it was to venture out again. But we learned some important things as a part of this adventure:

  • Blankets work. Implicitly one thinks one knows this, but it’s still surprising just how warm one can be under the right blankets (wool, eiderdown), even in a house that is pretty chilly. MLW and I have always said in the past that there really is no such thing as having too many blankets, and this experience bolsters that.
  • Our ancestors knew what they were doing. At its coldest - after we had finally been able to retreat to a warmer haven - the house never got down below freezing. I’d drained down the pipes anyway, just to be safe (better than sorry). This despite the functional air sieve that is our front doorway.

I have typically been putting insulation in the doorway between the front door and the screen doors as a compromise between nothing and the insulation over everything that I’d done in the past. Between the polar vortex and the power outage that wasn’t enough, so I gave the door it’s own blanket this year.

Door quilt

door quilt poofy

The thing that one realizes, with some thought, is that our ancestors would not have had our modern conveniences such as central heat. Each bedroom would have had a small franklin-style stove in it for heat (the original chimneys for this still in the walls). Still, they understood that the fire they stoked in that stove at bedtime would have long gone out by morning. As such, they would have dressed their beds, and themselves, accordingly. Nightcaps) are inherently easier to understand in this context.

All of this historical realization aside, retreat to warmer options we did, as soon as the weather made it safe to do so. It is, after all, interesting to learn how things were in ancestral times, but one realizes there are reasons why we don’t do it that way any more...

The thaw started early Thursday, with temps rising to above freezing overnight. Out back at the house in the wee hours just prior to sunrise to feed and check on the animals I got to stand and listen to the somewhat eerie sounds of chunks of ice dropping from the trees around me. It’s not quite like anything else.

Those diligent line workers had everything at our homestead back up and running again by sometime later Thursday morning. Astonishingly, aside from a few limbs down, the old girl seems to have weathered through just fine. It’s nice to see that things hold together so well after all of those years.

For the record, however, I don’t believe we need another demonstration of that any time soon. You listening, OMW?

Snow Days

Our encounter with the Polar Vortex out here on the prairie the week before last offered some opportunities. Since it was preceded by significant snowfall, the combination of cold, wind, and snow made travel out of the home challenging at best, dangerous a worst. In some senses of the word, we were effectively trapped at home.

But another way to look at that is that we got the adult version of one of those things that kids long to hear in the short-day season: snow day!

Last Monday we had some continuation of the struggles with drifting and getting stuck that were chronicled here recently. In this case I ended up leaving a car at the end of the driveway because the volume of drifting in front of the garage was beyond the little vehicle’s capacity to clear, and dealing with it in the dark was competing poorly with the idea of sitting on the couch watching TV.

The following morning though, the snow offering up some time, and the day offering up sunlight and brilliant blue skies to combat the single digit temps and negative wind chillls, it offered a much more attractive option. I needed to get the car in the garage, and besides - I wasn’t likely to get any other exercise, so the snow and shovel could be my equivalent of the gym (isn’t that sort of how CrossFit works? I’m not sure - I may not have a compete understanding of that...).

So I pulled on some (several) layers, and the dogs and I went out to tackle the drift.

Now there are certainly animals that struggle in the snow and the cold - a Chihuahua would be miserable in weather like this (or, frankly, probably anything below 40°). But one does get some perspective when one sees this:

Calamity pic

Calamity close up

That is our Blue Heeler, Calamity Jane, rolling in the snow. Because, you know, the air isn’t cold enough on its own - she also wants the white stuff all over her.

And so, with her help, I gathered up my shovel and started throwing some flakes around.

Yup. That’s what we call snow shoveling around these parts: throwing flakes. Doesn’t everyone?

Anyone?

Anyone...?

Uh - anyway... I didn’t have the foresight to get a decent picture of the drift before I started, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was monumental. It took me a solid hour to clear a space in the driveway as wide as the garage door, which was my goal - wanted to be able to move both cars if needed. When I was done this is what it looked like:

Garage pile

And this is the pile of snow I created with my shoveling efforts.

Erin’s snow pile

Ok - technically a part of that pile - the part in the back - is from my cousin Glen clearing the entire driveway the day before, but the part in the front is mine.

Erin’s actual snow pile... ...

Ok - if I’m being entirely honest, the top few inches or so of that second pile is mine. But that’s still a lot of snow, and I worked really hard. Shut up!

So maybe this is more true

Erin’s actual, actual snow pile

At any rate, it was clear, and I was able to go get the car and pull it in.

Feeling buoyed by my accomplishment, I walked down to the end of the driveway to see how much work that would be to clear. I mean, at this point I’m a snow moving monster - you saw the mountain I created (err - added to) above, right?

So when I got there what I found was this:

End of driveway

And as I stood and looked at this, leaning against the handle of my shovel, out there in the open wind coming off the field to the west, my hand - in the glove that I’d been wearing while shoveling for the past hour - began to freeze and hurt. And I thought "well, that’s probably enough shoveling for today".

And I went inside and had a cup of coffee. For three consecutive days.

Wascally...

Quite a while back we noticed that we had rabbits living on the outer edges of the yard.

This was a delightful change because, although we are in a considerably rural location, we have a limited variety of actual wildlife we encounter at the homestead proper. We have birds, of course, and certainly have had our issues with trash pandas and the smaller members of the rodent sect, but the more common, semi-benign outdoor companions like squirrels and rabbits have largely been absent. We know they are out here - I routinely see them on my rides through the countryside - but they hadn’t been on the property. This is why that initial rabbit sighting was such a treat.

We still see them periodically, and over the past several months I’ve seen them run across the front yard - this usually as I’m pulling out of the driveway. Across the front yard seems somewhat unusual, since that’s dog territory. Our earlier sightings of our leporid friends saw them on the outer edge of the property - outside of, or at least within a short running distance of, that line. But the front yard is solidly within the canine zone.

And then the other day I saw this in the snow:

Rabbit tracks out the window

rabbit track

rabbit track out the window annotated

Rabbit track annotated

It’s hard to tell from the initial shot, being directly overhead, but this track is within 10-15’ of the house.

Dog territory

This would not only be within canine territory, but a considerable distance from the boundary line. There are a couple of bushes nearby - lilac and mock orange - which could potentially provide some cover, but otherwise it’s a long run to escape from interested dogs.

And then, the other morning, I looked out the window at the back stairwell and saw this:

There are actually two rabbits there. The one is easy to discern because it is moving, the other is a gray lump to the left side of the screen at the beginning. This is on the opposite side of the house from the rabbit track, and again well within the dog fence. The dogs were actually inside at the time I took this - I believe I was on my way down to let them out - so that might be why they were so bold. But it seems pretty risky territory regardless.

This probably seems, to the average suburbanite, a pretty banal thing to be excited about. But as I noted, it’s been a long time in coming. These farm homes are little islands of horticultural variety in a sea of monoculture. If the "island" loses its variety of critters, it seems difficult to get them back.

Now - will I be as excited to see the rabbits if (when?) they, say, start digging in our garden? Possibly not. But that actually seems a pretty reasonable thing to have to deal with out here on the prairie, so excited or not, it just feels more right.

Stuck!

As everyone who lives in the mid-upper Midwest is well aware, we’ve had our first real snowfalls of the season over the past couple of weeks. Mostly I delight in the snow, but it has presented its challenges over the past few days.

Mostly those challenges have to do with our driveway.

When I was a kid, growing up out here in the country, we lived in a house up close to the road, with a short circular gravel drive. And this was the most common presentation - not the circular part, but the house situated near the roadway, with a short drive up to some type of garage (or structure serving such a purpose, anyway).

But while that was the common driveway solution, it wasn’t the only one. One of the virtues of riding the bus to school every day was that one got a pretty good look at the surrounding countryside. Most houses were like mine, but occasionally the bus would pull up to a driveway that was different. In these cases, you would see a gravel entryway that was distinguishable from a side road only due to the presence of a mailbox rather than a road sign. And if you looked up from that mailbox and followed the trail you would sometimes see, if not occluded by trees, the house that it led to in the distance.

Sometimes these were straight, direct affairs, and sometimes they wound a bit on their way to their destination. In some cases the property surrounding the drive was pastureland, sometimes plowed field. On rare occasion it was manicured lawn, but this was not typical. For the most part these all would have been 19th century farm houses, and so the location was likely not selected to provide a grand presentation. One suspects that it was a case more of practicality - perhaps they were simply located on the site elevated enough to keep the house from being flooded out when the vernal ponds emerged.

Still, the me that was a kid on that bus didn’t have thoughts of practicality. Rather, to my mind those long, sinuous driveways were cool - this in a romantic, isolative sense. The distance away from the road made the destination remote, protected from prying eyes; and that distance bred fascination.

Long Drive

Long with Trees

Yup - Long

Let me tell you that you only have to get stuck in your driveway once or twice before losing any desire for a long, remote driveway, serpentine or otherwise.

We’ve already reached our quota for that this season.

Our driveway is not particularly long, in relative terms. We don’t have a winding path leading to a secluded spot. According to the measure feature in Google Maps, our driveway is about 180’ from the garage to the road. This is certainly a greater distance, than, say, the average suburban household contends with, but it’s not the extended pathway that you see in some of the pictures above. It is, most certainly, more than one wants to have to shovel by hand.

Mostly this isn’t an issue. For a while we had contracted with folks to come out and clear the driveway. When they stopped showing up (yes, literally just stopped showing up - isn’t that delightful?) my cousin from down the road began to clear it for us (now he is delightful). But in either case, you are victim to the snow remover’s schedule.

What this means, for the most part, is that people stay home until the snow is cleared. Well, at least, people who are not me.

I seem to have inhereted a genetic condition that works in the following fashion:

Weatherman: Conditions are hazardous, so we recommend that people stay at home. Folks, if you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t.

Me: Well, that’s it. I need some chewing gum. From Peoria.

Well, it’s not just that (really!). My work schedule is such that I often have to leave earlier than plowing occurs. And besides, someone has to get the gum, right?

(For the record: I do not chew gum...)

We deal with this mostly with a combination of snow tires, a bit of experience driving in the winter, accented with a touch of dumb luck. Essentially, when Old Man Winter conspires to make our driveway disappear I will venture out with an application of judicious speed and careful feathering of the throttle. Usually this works.

Occasionally it doesn’t:

yup - it’s stuck

snow, snow, and more snow

So. Twice over the past week I’ve had to dig our cars out of the snow in our own driveway. This would probably seem a universally bad and frustrating thing, and it does come close, except it offers a couple of different upsides:

  • I get to play in the snow; and
  • I get to play with cars; and
  • I get to solve a puzzle.

All assuming, as was the case both times this week, that I don’t have any place that I need to be, it is actually possible to look at this as a bit of fun.

Part of the challenge is that, as one can see in the pictures, we are working with cars that don’t have a great deal of ground clearance. The net effect of this is that, when one doesn’t hit the drifted snow at a sufficient speed, or maintain momentum, one rides up on the snow and ends up astride the snow, with it gathered underneath the chassis. This is, peradventure, an impediment to forward motion.

When this occurs the situation calls for multiple steps. If the car isn’t sufficiently crowned up on packed snow, it may be possible to use the old-fashioned rocking technique (do they still teach that in driver’s ed?) to gain traction and free the vehicle.

This was not successful in these situations.

Failing that, one has to go for the Full Monty and break out the shovels and rakes and implements of destruction.

Well, the shovels anyway. And, ideally, something to aid in what is known in these parts as gription. That could be sand, cat litter, or anything else you have handy that provides a similar composition. This week’s candidate was an old bag of charcoal briquettes that we happened to have sitting in the garage.

The key is to shovel around and under the car. Around in order to give clear space for it to move both forward and backward without hanging up on more snow. And by under I really do mean under - pulling material out from underneath the front, back, and both sides as much as possible; and breaking up what cannot be removed.

Then your gription material has to go around each of the drive wheels - both in front of and back of the drive wheels to catch in each direction.

Once all of that is accomplished, you get back in the car and repeat the rocking exercise. If you are smart, you have left the car running while doing all of that so it’s nice and warm inside (though, honestly, the work you are doing may take care of the staying warm part by itself). And if you have done your work well the car should concede to the idea of moving one direction or the other.

If it will only go backwards, it may be necessary to get out and remove the remaining pile of snow that had been underneath, but is now in front, as well as whatever else is still underneath (yes, believe me, there will be more than you thought) in order to get the vehicle to comply with a request for forward motion.

And although it may have been frustrating to have had the thing happen in the first place, there is something particularly satisfying when the car does break free and start to move forward of its own accord.

It’s an achievement; You’ve beaten Old Man Winter one more time. I mean really - screw that guy.

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls...

...Because it doesn’t.

Our old house, like many of the farmhouses out this way, has a bell:

The Bell

It’s been there a long time. This picture - of my mother and uncle as kids - shows them standing by the post:

Joel and Julia

I won’t out their ages by saying how long ago it was taken, but I’m less than two years shy of a half-century myself (but, of course, my mother had me when she was eight). Suffice it to say that it wasn’t doctored to make it black and white.

Unfortunately, this is the bell as it appears today:

He’s dead, Jim

As you can see, the bell is somewhat less symmetrical than would be considered ideal. And one might ask "how could such a thing happen?" Of course, I have no earthly idea how this occurred. Just happened out of the blue. Maybe it was struck by lightening.

Yeah - sure - that’s it. That’s the ticket...

Ok - I might have been slightly involved. Slightly directly involved.

Because it is outside, these bells are subject to the weather. In the winter, that means that they can sometimes freeze...

Frozen ringing

close-up freezy

If memory serves, I had been trying to call the dogs, and they weren’t responding - the yard is big enough that sometimes they are out of voice or whistle range. However, we’d found they would come to the bell reliably (liberal application of treats post-ringing may have been involved in developing that). So I pulled the bell rope to summon them and...

...nothing. The bell was stuck. Stuck sideways, wouldn't move. It was frozen.

Now by this point it’s just possible I’d been becoming a little frustrated. You know, dogs aren’t coming. I’m standing outside in the cold. I’m not dressed for the weather because I hadn’t planned to be out there for any real length of time. So I engaged in a time-honored method of addressing a thing not working.

Which is to say I did what I was already doing, only more and much harder. I yanked down on the rope, trying to break it free. This was once, perhaps twice before the rope suddenly got slack.

Everything that followed took approximately three seconds to occur. I was fortunate in that, somehow, I recognized what the slackness in the rope meant. I stepped away and covered my head as the bell hopped off its saddle and came crashing down to the ground.

And then there it sat, in multiple pieces on the ground. And of course the next step on my part was to look around for someone to blame for this travesty. Well - someone else.

There was, of course, no one. I’m pretty sure even the dogs did not come (wise on their part).

This even occurred several years ago. Since then, the bell has been sitting, broken, on the porch while we try to figure something we can do about it. Sitting there, reminding me...

Enter the internet. A friend of a friend on Facebook posted the availability of a bell that looked to match our poor, damaged friend. What’s more, that bell was cracked, but it’s yoke - the part that sits it in what I call the saddle on the post - was intact.

New old bell

A little time on Messenger and we were able to make arrangements on it. It looks to be about the same size, and it came with a saddle of its own, just in case. And that’s where we are now - I’ve got a second bell here, waiting for myself or someone in the household, to undertake it as a project. That won’t happen soon, mind you, but at least now it’s possible.

Bells of a feather...

First Snow 2019 - Arctic Cat Memories

The snow started on the prairie yesterday and continued to fall through the night and, in places in the region, into the wee hours of this morning. This storm represents not just the first snow of the calendar year, but of the calendar season. We were blanketed with a substantial supply of the white stuff back in late autumn, but winter thus far has only offered precipitation in the form of rain. At least until now.

I find it interesting to chronicle this here not because it’s breaking news - anyone else living in the Midwest knows that’s it’s been snowing. But it is interesting to keep a record of when these things occur. To my recollection the warm temperatures and lack of fluffy precipitation this late into the season is an oddity, if one that is becoming less odd with the progressive peculiarity of climate change.

The thing is, while I don’t believe our region ever was an all-winter long snowy wonderland, my (potentially faulty) memory is of more snow, lasting longer. There is the risk for anyone from northern Illinois who is of a given age to picture the winter of 78-79, when the snow made walls to either side of the roadways after the plows cut through (if they could cut through) as typical, and it was not.

Not Typical

But I do recall extensive periods of winter play - building forts, sledding, and snowmobiling.

And this last is probably the thing that seems the most different. Sledding (downhill) is a single day activity in the Midwest, given that one must travel to find a hill of sufficient height (my Dad would take us to a hill just off of Beemerville Road). One good snowy day is really all you need if you strike while the iron is hot (or perhaps when the snow is nigh). But snowmobiling? To justify such a machine really requires the availability of a real quantity of the white stuff over a meaningful period of time.

Back in the late seventies and very early 80’s, when I was a kid living across the field, we had snowmobiles. They were a pair of Arctic Cats - my Dad had a Panther, and I had a Lynx (or, perhaps better said, my Dad had it, and I was allowed to ride it). I can remember riding that little sled all over through the fields and up and down the ditches. If my recollection is correct, the Lynx model I was riding had steel cleats as part of the tread. This meant that one could jump up out of a ditch at speed, land on an icy, snowy road, and the cleats would dig right in to the ice and shoot you forward. It was very cool.

It also meant that, when you "borrowed" your Dad’s sled, which did not have steel cleats, this same feat would leave one suddenly sitting, sideways, in the ditch on the opposite side, wondering what happened. Or, you know, so I hear... (Reminding me once again that it’s probably something of a miracle that we did not die as kids)

For at least one winter, and maybe a couple, we rode up and down the construction site that would eventually become I 39 (Illinois’ budget issues are not a new phenomenon - the highway was a project that had been started, and then sat incomplete for quite some time due to a lack of funding). When I got older and we moved into town we still had the snowmobiles, at least for a winter or two. Riding them meant carefully selecting a route through town that would touch on private property - well, at least on private residential property - as little as possible as we found our way into the country. This led to one encounter with the local constabulary which, thanks to the combination of overland mobility of the machine, and the complete anonymity afforded by gear that included a face mask and helmet, was probably the only time I ever actually got away with anything. The statute of limitations has probably passed, this event being, say, 35 years ago or so, but I’m still reluctant to say more. Let’s just say that it’s hard to chase a snowmobile with a police car...

Snowmobiles are comparatively rare here now. Occasionally I’ll hear one going down the ditch, or simply see the characteristic tread marks in the snow. Still, the lack of reliable white stuff to ride on has caused folks to sell off their sleds in favor of other pursuits. I have family who have done so, to be sure. It’s easy to see why - even today, after a day and night of snow proceeding, we have drifts of snow, but between them the grass and ground can still be seen. You could ride a snowmobile over this - and certainly there are people who will - but it won’t be terribly pleasant.

Of course, this just means that one has to find other ways to enjoy the winter weather. But it does speak to a real-world change in weather patterns - people who love snowmobiling don’t sell them off if they are continuing to have opportunities to enjoy them...


There is an older website, called Boss Cat Legacy, that archives Arctic Cat information (of course there is). Based on my memory, the pictures of the ‘77 and ‘78 Lynx on this page most closely fit what I recall.

Out, Out Damn Scot!

As quickly as it came, so it leaves us.

We are now past the week between, so yesterday was time for the temporary arboreal winter guest to move on. Unlike a human guest he didn’t start to smell after three days. Quite the contrary, he’d started to lose his fragrant appeal.

And needles. Boy was he losing needles.

Our tree this year was a somewhat unusual affair, as these things go. Though lovely when seen in a dark room all lit up, by light of day things were less ideal. It was the fullest, loveliest tree of its kind remaining at the Christmas tree forest area of the Peru big box hardware store, to be sure. Still, it’s trunk had grown with an odd, atypical bend to it that started at the base and continued up through to its spire.

Here it is, unlit and undecorated, in the morning following an apparent overnight, feline-based adventure:

Cat victim

For context, that "blanket" piled in the corner on the left side of the picture is the tree skirt, which had been around the base of the tree. One can only imagine the amount of effort the cat spent running in place needed in order to jettison it that far away from the bottom of the tree. It probably took only a few seconds, but I’m sure it seemed a lifetime from the cat’s perspective.

But that’s not really what I wanted to show you. If you look at that picture you get a nice sense of the beginning of arc of the trunk. I’ve illustrated it further below:

Illustrated trunk

This meant that, once it was up and we began to decorate it, MLW took to referring to it as our "drunk" tree. Indeed, like many drunk uncles before it, I did have to go in and offer additional support to get it to remain in some semblance of an upright position (this is why you see the dumbbells there - they aren’t remnants of a workout session).

But its problems persisted, albeit in different form, once it was up and standing. Though we cut a section off of the bottom and watered it regularly, it always seemed a bit dried out. Reaching in to the tree to put on lights or hang up an ornament would result in raised welts on the unprotected forearm. And many of the branches seemed to give way to the weight of even the lightest of ornaments, drooping and dropping at a rate heretofore unseen. It was almost as if this bent little tree had decided to do its own anti-Christmas tree protest, engaging in its own form of civil disobedience. Thoreau would have been proud.

Or, you know, maybe it just wasn’t as healthy as it could have been.

At any rate, come time to remove the tree, one quickly realizes that it’s bigger going out than it was coming in. I think I (sadly) go through this revelation every year as I reach the first doorway and am briefly perplexed at how it is now bigger than the passage. And again this year I have to have MLW remind me that it was netted down when I brought it in. (I would like to think I’m not a dumb person, but then things like this happen...). But the tree has to go out and, while I’ve considered buying one of those contraptions for wrapping the tree at the end of the season, it seems a bit of an extreme purchase for something one would use once a year. Besides, the branches bend towards the top, so as long as you take it out trunk first, the difficulty is minimal.

Right?

But this year our disobedient tree protested more than most, and left us gifts. Lots and lots of gifts:

Needles. Lots and lots of needles.

This didn’t stop me. No - that recalcitrant fir (it was a scotch pine - and you know how Scots are)) is now out on the burn pile. But it does leave one wondering for just a moment whether there could be some alternative purpose to which one could put all of those needles. Is there some sort of artisan craftwork, some sort of Etsy store offering that incorporates pine needles? They sell pillows full of barley hulls now, maybe I could offer up pine needle pillows. Granted, they’d be profoundly uncomfortable, but they would be hand-crafted...

Cat and Mouse

So there I was, yesterday morning, having a private moment in the bathroom. Then I heard a sliding and a clacking of sharp little claws, and a quiet "thud" on the door.

A second later the mouse ran out from under the door.

Under these circumstances one has to make a decision. I was in a compromising position, of course, but the earliness of the hour virtually ensured that I was likely to be unobserved. And I had to think and act quickly. So I did what I think most would under the circumstances:

I opened the door.

The cat came skittering in through the doorway and immediately located the mouse, who (of course) immediately ran behind the decorative storage lockers we have in the bathroom.


This is a scene, the type of which plays itself over and over again across time in our old house. The building is, functionally, a web of open passageways from the perspective of a rodent looking to come in from the winter cold. What looks to you and I like a solid wall made of wood and plaster or brick looks to mousy eyes like a piece of Swiss cheese. So, as the temperature drops, in they come.

Now, our issues with these tiny furry friends has lessened over the years with the help of commercial pest control. Still, the numbers never seem to drop to an absolute zero. And while this is somewhat to the dismay of the human inhabitants of our home, the feline crew seems to prefer the non-zero situation.

The tense and tenuous relationship between cat and mouse is a story as old as time - they say that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in part because they kept the rodents from overwhelming their grain stores and protected them from other pests. That relationship has persisted over time, and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries have also valued feline companionship for the purposes of vermin maintenance.

Within our own home the rodent control team consists of two players - Malcolm and Inara. Malcolm is a largish gray cat with green eyes who would seem to be a Russian Blue but for two tiny bits of white - one on his chest and the other on his tail. He has a delightful, chirping meow. He’s a beefy, strong cat. You can feel the muscle when you pick him up. A natural athelete, he is able to gain the top of our refrigerator with a leap from ground.

Inara is a tortoiseshell with yellow eyes. She is noticeably smaller and more slight than Malcolm, skittish and shy with most members of the family. She has a squeaking meow that is sometimes hard to detect and never pleasant. She is rarely seen to leap, and instead must climb our tall cat tree with claws and effort.

And so of course, who would you expect to have come skittering in to that bathroom? The Adonis, the cat-equivalent of the football player, the track god?

It was Inara.

As is so frequently the case in my experience with cats over the years, it’s the lady who does all the work. Inara parks herself at key points in the home and sits patiently and listens, waiting for the thing she hears behind the wall to peek a whisker out in the open.

Ideally, once that whisker shows, we as the cat owners (owned?) would like to be able to say that the rodent invader is dispatched quickly and efficiently. Those of you with previous cat experience will know this is absolutely not the case. Rather, from the cat’s perspective the catching of the mouse is just the first step in what is about to become an event of extended rodential torture that would make the writers at the Geneva convention add another passage to the rule book if they were to see it.

Apparently the mouse must be made to feel that it has a chance to escape, over and over again, just to discover that there, once again, is a swiping paw to block the way. Periodically one can hear the plaintive squeaks for help that indicate the trial is not yet complete. And apparently there are moments when it has become clear that the current venue is no longer the correct one - that the dining room isn’t the right place any more, and the mouse must be moved to, say, the living room. And so the cat is seen carrying the mouse in that characteristic heads-up position. At these moments the mouse is still and quiet and you think "it’s all over".

Nope - I don’t know why they remain still in that position - if it were me, I’d like to think that I’d be like John McClane surrounded by thieves in Nakatomi Plaza doing everything I could to get free. But no, they hang, still, perhaps hoping that, if they are just quiet enough, the cat will forget they are there... in the cat’s mouth.

This is clear, of course, because once they get to the living room and drop their rodent captive, he starts to move again.

Although he is clearly not in charge of the mousing situation, Malcolm does attempt to cooperate. It would be wrong to describe them as team players - it’s more like rivals working coincidentally towards the same goal. And now might be the right time to mention that we know he can jump to the top of the refrigerator because we feed him up there. We have to because, if we do not, Inara eats all of this big, beautiful athelete’s food.

So you can imagine how well his attempts to participate work most of the time.

There was an event once, several months ago, where he finally got so frustrated that he reached over, picked up the mouse, and simply ate it. If you are picturing the kid who shoves the entire ice cream cone in his mouth so his older brother cannot take it you are right on track.


Yesterday morning, during our bathroom adventure, I was able to move the locker so that Inara could access her prize and scurry with it back out of the bathroom. I’d like to say that I know what happened next, but I had to leave, and so have only the memory of feline and mouse silhouettes against the light of the front hallway to finish that event for me. Sometimes we find the mice later, deposited in delightful locations, once they have lost their interest to the cats due to the no-longer-breathingness they have attained.

Our ancestors valued their feline companions for the perceived assistance in pest control, and understandably so. I’m not certain that, in our situation they truly make much of a difference. The mouse sightings dropped precipitously once we contracted with pest management services. For a while we had a batch of cats outdoors on duty, but honestly our dogs seem to catch more vermin than the cat crew ever did (and the dogs are merciless on that score). But it’s possible that our ancestors also delighted in the joy cats do seem to take in their assigned duties. Setting aside the ultimate outcome, watching a cat diligently at work with a mouse is a little like watching Norm Abrams put together a chair on New Yankee Workshop... in an era absent television and video games a mousing cat would likely be (and indeed, is) quite entertaining.

Holidays at the Homestead

It won’t be a white Christmas on the prairie this year - not unless little patches like this, the functional equivalent of Old Man Winter’s snow comb-over, count:

Snow patch

This little bit remains due to a combination of drifting and fortunate shading, clinging on despite temperatures that have drifted up near the mid-century mark over the past couple of weeks. It’s made it through the solstice, and though we are a couple of days away from Christmas, a bit of it might remain on the holiday itself, so perhaps technically...

White Christmas or not, however, the decorating for the holiday season proceeds in this old house. This is always a somewhat nostalgic affair for me, given that this home figures as part of the holiday celebration for the majority of my life. When my grandparents lived here we would come over for Christmas Eve, after the service at Immanuel Lutheran Church (which always ended in a candlelit version of Silent Night - as it should be). There we’d have a light dinner which we, as children, wolfed down in anticipation of going into the living room so we could start in on the important part of the evening - the opening of presents.

For the purists out there who are now recoiling in disgust at the opening of presents the night before Christmas, take heart - these were the pre-Christmas presents. This was our gift exchange between family - aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. We also did Christmas morning, but that was for the gifts from Santa (Sometimes resulting in an uncharacteristic awakening at, say, 4:00 AM...).

Those Christmas Eve celebrations mostly took place in the living room, and we have, in past, decorated in that room. This picture is from Christmas 2012, with the tree in the spot that Grandma Marie usually chose - the Northwest corner of the living room:

Grandma’s Spot

Most years, though, we have gone with the placement in the dining room. This room has a large picture window that, itself, replaced a former bay window (the bay window was, reportedly, a "leaker"). The space lends itself nicely to the tree display, and the window offers a backdrop night and day:

Tree at night

Usually our decorating has been limited to the tree and a few knick-knacks scattered around the house. This year, however, the determination was made that something should be done with the front stairwell. It’s a (the) Central feature of the house, but figuratively and literally. In its unretouched presentation it was meant to make a statement:

Newell post

Stairs Rising

And this year that was dressed with garland and lights:

Stairwell brightly lit

I must admit that I cannot take credit for these things. The how and the why of them is largely and capably determined by MLW, with help from the kids. My role primarily involves lifting and moving and placing of things under her wise direction. And to give credit completely where it is due, MLW both conceived of the garland and placed it on the stairwell. There my role was simply to come home and appreciate.

If there is a challenge to all of this - aside from keeping the cats from taking it all down - it is finding a sufficient number of outlets, correctly placed, to allow for the lighting. The front hallway is a particular puzzle, as outlets in the downstairs portion are as absent as belly buttons on an angel.

Fortunately, There are two outlets in the upstairs hallway, both to the front of the house near the stairwell opening. Getting anything like this light display to work in there is an operation that deserves extra-credit.

In the winter months - especially now, during the darkest time of the year - that stairwell is a dark place much of each day. The kids, who occupy the rooms at the top front of the house and are the primary passengers of the stairwell, are already preparing their arguments for keeping the garland there year round...

Timely Decorating...

It’s been about 9 1/2 years since we moved out to the Homestead. While it may still be a bit premature, I decided to start hanging some of my pictures up in the office.

Yes - it’s a little sad, but while the essentials have been in the office since we moved in - desks, chairs, bookshelves - it’s taken me slightly longer to get to niceties like pictures. I’d like to claim that the wait is because I was looking for just the right items to complement the space, but the reality is that these pictures are things that I already had. They had hung in my office space in our old home.

I said some, and by that I mean two. I figured that I would start with the area around my comfy chair, which is the first area you see where you enter the space.

So this is a shot of that area prior to any intervention:

Baseline pic here

The first item I hung up is Watched by Mark Daehlin. This painting was a gift from MLW, and a one I very much enjoy (I’m a long time fan of things wolfy). And it turns out that it’s more enjoyable up on the wall than in a stack sitting along the floor.

Watched on the Wall

Once I got that one up on the wall I was still feeling relatively motivated, and it seemed like the space between the window and the corner on by the comfy chair was a reasonable location for my Mark Twain print.

Before

This one is a gift from my mother, and shows Samuel Clemens is his classic garb, sitting in a comfy chair, reading a book. The caption underneath is a quote by him that reads "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them".

The man who does not read good books...

Seemed a good fit, he in his comfy chair over me in mine. Now if he was just holding an iPad instead of a book...

I don’t want to make it seem that I’ve been terribly industrious in this. There are still at least a half-dozen items that I have yet to hang. I’ve let a couple of things, some more real than others, function as drivers (or perhaps rationalizations) of my procrastination.

The issue that is perhaps less real is the thought that I need to have frames on these items match the woodwork in the home in some way, or at least the era the home represents. You’d think after nearly a decade I’d mostly be past that idea - after all, the home now has other modern conveniences that aren’t original to its era. You know, I’m referring to little things like electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. And besides, it’s not like I’m scrawling these posts out on parchment with a fountain pen...

The eclectic nature of some of our items is really in keeping with the presentation of the home itself, which bears the imprint of multiple generations, each consistent with its time. So yeah - I can put up a print with a silver metal frame, dammit.

The other, more realistic issue is one of wall space. While the house is undeniably big, and the office is, in fact, the largest room on the second floor, the amount of unbroken wall space is relatively limited. Because of the layout of the home, with most of it centered around a front hallway and staircase, virtually every room has at least two external walls. Each external wall hosts (or at least hosted - one or two have since been removed) at least one window, and most of the walls have two. The windows are large and, while it’s delightful to have the sunlight they bring it, they do leave relatively little room for pictures - smaller and/or narrower are the rules of thumb for wall hangings.

Which is why the Mark Twain print seemed it would fit in nicely in that spot - between the corner and the window.

Small Town Recycling

When I was a kid growing up out here on the prairie, one of the more challenging things to deal with, depending upon your point of view, was your garbage. I say "depending upon your point of view", because in many cases the answer arrived at was simple:

Fire.

In the days of my youth there was an enduring tradition of simply taking one’s household refuse out to the designated spot and lighting it aflame. Everyone that I knew who lived out here had a "burn barrel" - often a cast off steel barrel that had previously held something like motor oil. These were, themselves, durable but not everlasting items that periodically had to be replaced. You learn pretty early from this experience that almost anything will burn - or at least "go away" - if things get hot enough. To this day I can still differentiate the smell of burning garbage from other smokey smells.

This is an enduring problem, and in earlier times it was an issue dealt with by burying things in addition to burning them. Sometimes this was in a place dug specific to that purpose, and sometimes it was a secondary use of the otherwise objectionable space beneath an outhouse. Indeed there are people who make a hobby and/or career of privy digging to extract the now precious items that prior generations valued so much they tossed them into their toilets.

Fortunately, these are largely concerns of the past - garbage collection services are available even out here on the prairie, and as such, we no longer have to throw our trash in our toilets or risk conflagration to dispose of it. But what is not offered out our way is any type of recycling services. Rather, all of the refuse simply goes into one large bin to be taken away once each week.

Whether or not recycling is of benefit is actually a question surrounded by some controversy. Most of us have heard of situations where the collection company actually takes the collected recycleables and simply dumps them into the landfill with the rest of the trash, particularly at times when the materials simply don’t carry much value. But at the very least it feels better to sort out the things that can be recycled rather than simply throwing them out. As such, we’ve looked for recycling options in our area, but mostly come up empty.

Mostly. The exceptions are for metals, particularly aluminum.

What does this mean for the rural lifestyle? It primarily means that, if something can be purchased in an aluminum container, that’s how we get it.

This actually represents an odd change of pace for those of us in the household who may have predilections towards beer snobbery (speaking here for a friend, of course). After a couple of decades of having convinced oneself that distribution in glass is the preferable medium for any ale or lager, one now finds oneself disappointed when a favorite beer is not available in a can. And there are other items - sodas, of course, and the oddly addicting LaCroix family of products - which can also be obtained wrapped in aluminum.

So nowadays we have a pattern of collecting the cans and engaging in periodic crushing sessions. When we’ve gathered what seems a sufficient volume we take them in to Buckman Iron & Metal Co. Sufficient volume is usually somewhere between five and seven 30-gallon bags.

Cans on their way in

The upside to all of this, particularly as compared to having recycling collected at the road, is that it does actually result in getting some cash back. Now, if one is hoping to generate a personal fortune through this means, one will be disappointed. My most recent trip in, with seven bags more or less full, come out to a weight of 46lbs. Aluminum was running at a price of $0.45/lb, which meant that I walked away with a whopping $20.70.

Not a princely sum, to be sure, but certainly more than I would have garnered if I’d simply thrown them away. Better, as my mother would say, than a stick in the eye.

The other benefit to this is primarily for the twelve-year old boy in me that finds it pretty cool to see the machines at work. On this last trip in, for example, I was waiting behind another customer who had brought in the remains of a Ford Taurus on a truck. This meant I got to enjoy the show involving getting the car off of the flatbed with a forklift. This was a delicate balancing act, to be sure, but one that neverless did not involve the car falling off of the forklift. If you’ve ever watched someone operate one of these things and thought "that’s no big deal", I think seeing one in action this way would get you to reconsider the error of your ways.

stacks of cans pressed

And you also get to see the results of your efforts, as well as that of others. Here I’m referring to the blocks of pressed aluminum that is produced at the far end of the machine that processes your cans. These ultimately join other blocks lined up on pallets (pictured above borrowed from DoRecycling ) that make it clear that what you’ve brought in will be taken out to be used again, which at least feels like you are doing something useful in the long run. And you are, as recycling aluminum reportedly works better than mining in both from a cost and environmental perspective.

Turbine Repairs?

I was traveling back home the other day, and came across this sight:

Blades Coming Down

As discussed here a couple of weeks ago, there’s been a lot of wind farm activity in the area over the past several months. Mostly this has been occurring in the form of raising new turbines to replace the ones taken down at Mendota Hills. This is different - the turbine you see here is one that has been up for several years.

I’ve never had the opportunity to see this particular event occur - them taking down an entire blade set. However, it is the case that the blades have to be repaired and/or replaced periodically. At times you will be driving by a turbine and see that it has new blades sitting on the ground next to it, for example. Later they will be gone and the turbine blades look shiny and new. There is also a crew that comes out with a cable and basket system - it looks similar to what you see for skyscraper window-washer crews - and appear to paint or coat the blades while they are still on the turbine.

The turbines themselves also appear to have a cable and winch system inside to pull up parts for internal repairs. I’ve seen them on many occasions with the cable coming down out of the back.

I turned the corner and got a closer shot of it coming down. They were actively bringing it down on the crane, so the blade set is lower in this shot:

Down further still

I suppose the gist of it all - besides the fact that I just find these events pretty cool - is that it shows that these are active, maintained facilities. Crews are out here performing maintenance and keeping them up and running, which seems overall a good sign. And it seems good, in a world where the urban and suburban landscape seems to swallow up more and more farmland, to see activity that makes one feel, at least, like some of this open land will remain open to other, non-residential activity.

Impending Weather

Although the calendar has not yet rolled around to actual winter - and will not, in fact, for nearly an entire month - the weather has taken to trying to prove otherwise. As such, we are sitting on the cusp of a weather alert promising (some would say threatening) 5-10 inches of snow.

Snow’s-a-comin’

Inevitably what comes from such proclamations is the reports that one should, under virtually all circumstances, remain at home. The roads will be dangerous and impassable, emergency crews will be busy, and the weather will make for treacherous conditions.

It is usually under these conditions that I experience the felt need to drive to, oh, Albuquerque to get a pack of gum. And maybe a Slim Jim.

This is a part of country life, the realization that, at times, the weather will dictate your activities, your mobility. The healthy and safe thing to do is to follow those dictates and remain safe and secure in your home, riding out the storm in relative warmth and security. These days, due to the benefit of a few years of wisdom, this is something I’ve come to do. When I was younger I would have engaged in that felt need, and made a run for something, anything, as long as it got me out of the house.

I’m not alone in this. I know there are other members of the family that experience it as well. This makes one wonder about the nature or nurture of such a thing. Is this a remnant of the nature that made our ancestors feel the need to move west? Was this the spark that made John and Martha Foulk and Prairie and Ziba Johnson look at the forbidding, windswept lands outside the shelter of the groves and say "that’s the life for us"?

This would have been a valuable thing, back then. It would have been the sort of thing that would have prompted them to break out of the house and lay out hay for the animals despite the blowing snow; to split the wood needed for the stoves that heated the house. Heck - I suppose a bit of this spirit is what one needs to brave the trek across the back yard to get to the outhouse...

But in all of this, with the animals fed, the wood stocked up, and necessaries taken care of for the moment, would John and Martha still have looked out the window longingly at the snow?

I can see Martha saying to John "you know what would be good on a day like today? Cornbread."

John: "Why, that would be a fine idea. Cornbread indeed!"

Martha: "But John, we have no buttermilk."

And they both look out that window, consider the blowing and drifting snow, before turning to look at each other. Then John says "I’ll hook up the sleigh Martha - let’s ride out to the general store and pick up a pint."

——

So... probably not. But I do suspect that they got antsy when the weather came to call, keeping them bundled up and indoors. That spark, if it really is a thing that is passed down from one generation to the next, may be a little less useful a thing when one doesn’t have to tend to the animals and the firewood, burning off that bit of drive.

New Windmills

Back in the spring of 2016 Leeward Renewable Energy began seeking permission for de-commissioning the Mendota Hills Wind Farm. Mendota Hills has the distinction of being the first of the wind farms in the region.

Growing up out here we always knew it was windy, but that was just a hassle that one dealt with. Our ancestors used wind turbines for a variety of purposes, including pumping water and local electricity generation. This very old picture of the house shows a wind turbine in place as a water pump, standing next to the house atop the original well.

wind pump

People nowadays sometimes complain that the turbines make noise. They are all at least a quarter mile away from any building. Imagine what it would have been like to have this thing spinning right next to the house. But I digress...

That was a thing of the past though, and although one could sometimes see an old wind turbine, or perhaps just its tower, standing at a farmstead, they were only remnants and memories in my childhood.

Between the time I moved away and came back, however, the wind farms sprouted. Mendota Hills was the first, most visible example. It existed alongside route 39 and, despite the name, was a good 12-15 miles north of Mendota, IL. It was visually distinctive because, from the distance of the highway, it gave the impression of what one might classically think of as a wind farm - many turbines sitting in “close” proximity to one another, seeming to turn in sychronicity. Of course, when one got up close to them, it was clear they weren’t nearly as proximate to one another as the distance made it seem. But they were much closer to one another than was the case for the later facilities. The turbines were also smaller and closer to the ground, relatively speaking.

It is that relative age that appears to have precipitated the change, and it was somewhat of a surprise to read that the company was going to be taking down the Mendota Hills turbines. It appears that the turbine technology has advanced sufficiently to make it more cost effective to remove the old giants and replace them with a smaller number of newer, more efficient and, well, giant-er turbines.

What this means for the area is that, for the second time since we’ve moved here, we have new turbines going up. It also means that, for the first time, we’ve been in the broad vicinity of old turbines coming down.

One of the arguments against the wind farms, classically, has been the question of what happens to the structures when the wind company no longer wants them. This spurs on concerns that they will be simply left to rot, huge hulking behemoths on the horizon undergoing the slow, inevitable effect of entropy. Given that this absolutely happens to other unwanted structures in the area - we have old barns, corn cribs, and other derilects aplenty across the countryside, unused, unwanted, but too expensive and time-consuming to take down - one can see the concern. And what is happening to the area around such a structure as it slowly falls apart? Does it one day, finally, unexpectedly topple to the ground? What does the landowner do with it when that happens?

This makes the sequence of events in this example especially interesting. Here, not only are they not being left to rot, but they are being actively removed and replaced. Also interesting and instructive is that this process offers some real-world impression of what would happen if these structures were allowed to topple - because that is exactly how they were taken down.

I regret that I did not have an opportunity to see any of them actually come down - one of the downsides to gainful employment, I suppose - but the evidence was there at each and every site this past summer, many of which could be seen from the road.

Turbine Down If you didn’t know what you were looking at it would be easy to mistake it for a downed aircraft.

As I mentioned above, this is the second round of turbine construction we’ve seen since moving back out to the homestead. It’s an interesting sequence of events, as it has an impact on not just the prairie skyline, but also on the landscape. This is true in multiple ways, as you watch new roadways getting cut into the fields in the area - access drives for the turbines - but also see the modifications made to the public roadways to accommodate the extra-large and unwieldy cargo that the trucks must haul. Each section of the tower, and the turbine blades themselves, come in individually, carried on specialized trailer setups. In many cases, there are special cut-roads that remove the 90° turns that these beasts would be unable to navigate. Signs pop up making drivers aware of overhead powerlines as well, hopefully preventing them from unintentionally clipping them with their outsized cargo.

Of course, anything so very large in its components must also require comparably large equipment to assemble it. And so, as the turbines are assembled, we see the arrival of machines like this crane:

Big Crane

And it’s hard to fully appreciate the size of this thing against the big sky backdrop. But if you look closely at the picture you can suss out the full-size pickup truck by the tread to give a sense of just what a monster that thing is.

Really Big Crane

Opinions on the wind farms vary. THere are absolutely people who hate them, feel they destroy the view, and a few who have some very strange ideas of how they might be harmful. At the Homestead we look at it differently. If the country is going to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, there has to be an embrace of alternative technologies. We aren’t helping anyone if we give it lip service but refuse to allow it in our proximity.

And besides - the presence of windfarms around the Homestead virtually guarantees that the land around us will remain open prairie and farmland. Staving off housing developments and otherwise inevitable ultimate suburban sprawl is a benefit from the perspective of this homesteader.

Not that all of that is what goes through my head when I see all of this going on. Rather, during these moments, mostly what is happening is the ascendance of the 12-year old boy inside who loves to watch things get built and knocked down...

First Snow 2018

Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to document when the first real, substantial snow of the season has occurred. In 2017 it showed up on November 12th. This year it touched down a might earlier, falling last Thursday night - November 8th - leaving us a blanket of white stuff to be seen in the early morning light Friday morning.

Early November Snow

The ground is, astonishingly enough, still covered today, three days later. This is different than previous years, where even a substantial early snowfall still disappears quickly the following day. In fact, far from being the typical November dusting, there was enough accumulation for drifting - actual drifting to begin to occur as the wind picked up later in the day. It wasn’t enough to be truly problematic, not yet. But the tell-tale strips of white across the asphalt and tar-and-chip were there, heralding days to come.

The weather report suggests that today is the last day of it, and in fact the temperature at the moment sits at 32° F, working its way up to a proposed high of 40°. These quiet morning hours represent the likely last moments of the pre-winter ground cover.

I’ve mentioned here, likely more than once, that I delight in the snow. This early example won’t last, of course - it’s more of a winter tease. But it does herald future flakes to come.

Cork & Tap Oregon, Illinois

This past Saturday saw the Illinois Cross Country 1A Sectional meet in Oregon, Illinois. The Mendota Girls Cross Country Team qualified, so MLW and I were there to cheer them on. This also left us with a little free time afterwards, so we took a little time with friends to explore the Cork & Tap in downtown Oregon.

This is a place that catches your eye as you drive in to Oregon from the East on Route 64. The sign is large and bright, and one notices that there appears to be a blues brother at a piano in the front window. When I first drove by it a couple of weeks ago for another meet in Oregon I didn’t have a chance to look closely, and I wasn’t certain from the name whether it was a liquor store or a bar. It proves to be the latter.

Oregon is a small town - about 3700 people, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong). But if you are expecting a typical small town bar when you enter the Cork & Tap, you can expect to be surprised. While they do carry the standard national fare - you can get a Bud Light if that’s how you roll - the Cork & Tap offers a long line of tappers (10+) with a variety of styles, and with a delightful mix of brands that are not your typical fare for the area. For example, on our trip they had beers by Pig Minds, a brewery located in Machesney Park, on tap, as well as others. For myself, I enjoyed a Dirty Bastard - a tasty, smoky Scottish ale from Michigan, as well as Bell’s Octoberfest. MLW enjoyed a WakeFire by Blake’s Hard Cider Company.

As the name implies, in addition to beer and cider, the Cork & Tap also offers a variety of wines. They offer tasting flights so you can sample and enjoy (flights of beer are available as well). As with the beers, local and regional options are present - if you’ve wanted to try a wine by August Hill, the winery located in Utica, Illinois, for example, here’s your risk-free opportunity. They offer a variety of mixed drinks as well, and those sampled by our group were pronounced quite tasty.

The bar is in an old store front downtown, and the space is used to good effect. The bar area is comfortable and modern in a rustic setting, with a comfortable loft area and a second floor as well. Cards and board games are available to allow for an old-school pub atmosphere. There are screens, but they aren’t everywhere and aren’t overwhelming - you’ll want to carefully select your seat if you want to watch the game (and you can easily position if you don’t want to see it). They have event areas if that’s what you are looking for as well. They don’t do food, but there are multiple options nearby that will deliver there for you.

Places like this in our little towns are few and far between, and they are wonderful to find. If you are in the area - say you are cycling or canoeing or kayaking - or you are just looking for a spot to head out to and have a nice time, this place is a regional gem. Check it out!

Powerless

On Saturday afternoon, October 20, we were enjoying a particularly brisk and breezy autumn day. It was a partly cloudy day, with blue sky peeking out between bits of fluffy clouds. The weather report tells us that the wind is out of the northwest at 29 mph...

Its breezy...

It is due to this last fact that it wasn’t terribly surprising to discover that the power had gone out. I was, in fact, involved in taking the window A/C units out of the upstairs bedroom windows - today’s high of 46°, and a week ahead with highs primarily in the lower 50’s suggested it was probably safe to do so - when we noticed it. Specifically, I had removed the unit from the window in LB’s room, and LB went to turn on a light - this a decorative thing, since the bright sunny day, combined with our prodigious volume of windows, made artificial light unnecessary - only to find it unresponsive. We tested a couple of other items, again to no avail, and then heard the tell-tale beep from the battery backup units that make it clear: no power.

What a power outage means out in these rural parts is that virtually nothing works. The incoming electricity off of the grid is your energy source for all of your daily life. Folks who live in a town or city will not be as familiar with this phenomenon. For example, while the power being out means that you cannot watch TV, and that you’ll need flashlights or something similar to see around the house at night, other components - things like water supply - are likely working just fine.

But here, the water comes from a well, served by a pump run on... you guessed it: electricity. This means no glass of water from the tap, no shower, and the number of toilet flushes limited to what is already in the tank (that’s exactly one, for those who may be unaware). It means no water for cooking or coffee as well, but that point is moot, because the stove and coffee maker also require electricity.

It also means no heat. While our furnace uses LP for fuel, the blower that distributes the heat throughout the house requires electricity to spin. That this is October and not, say, January, means that we could certainly be in worse shape in that respect. We have heavy blankets enough for all to ward off the chill, and it won’t get cold enough yet to worry about the pipes.

Other things have changed, however. I am writing this on an iPad in the middle of said outage. The iPad operates on a battery, of course, which will operate e device for several hours before running down. To extend that, I have it and my iPhone both plugged in to one of the aforementioned battery backups. These devices are designed primarily to keep older computers from shutting down suddenly when the power vanishes. They do a remarkable job of this, but they also retain power after this task sufficient for several charges of mobile devices. This means that we’re in good shape for connectivity to emergency services and for personal entertainment.

It’s a bit of a contrast from my youth growing out here. Then as now, the power going out meant being cold and it being dark at night, and it meant having no water. But the landline phones back then operated on their own, independent of ComEd, and we sought our entertainment through more rustic means. Then I’d be reading a fantasy novel or comic book on paper to pass the time waiting for the TV to be available again.

And of course now, I’ll likely be reading... well, a fantasy novel or comic book on my iPad to pass the time...

So maybe things haven’t really changed that much.