Author Archives: pablovilas13

About pablovilas13

I'm a retired systems analyst. I enjoy wilderness sports like hiking, XC skiing and kayaking. And I'm a letter-writer and story-teller. Born 1948, male, married with children.

Good and better pictures, and what I wish I’d done

The topic today is composition.  Many of these examples are inspired by Seattle photographer Meredith Blaise’s digital camera workshops.  Keep in mind that I’m just an amateur photographer.

Eliminate distractions

I wish I’d thought of fixing the framing of this shot while I was still there.  The cropping removed about a third of the pixels in the picture.  With so much loss of resolution, do I dare enlarge it?

Make vanishing points visible

I wish there had been a boat at this dock, maybe a weatherbeaten old trawler that crept in from a storm — it would be bound to have some kind of story.  I lost most of the far shore’s  interesting treetops in the upper-right.  Also, the tide is low; there’s slimy seaweed you can almost smell.

The rule of thirds

There are four possible power-points in a picture, according to the Rule of Thirds.  You can find these points by dividing each edge of the photo into three parts and projecting perpendicular lines into the photo from the division marks.  Where these four lines cross are places where strong picture elements may create pleasing proportions.  Here the church and two tree-trunks are on power-points.

Many cameras give you the option of overlaying the image in the viewfinder with power-point guidelines.

Frame it with foreground

I wish there were somebody sitting under a tree, looking at the church or just reading (but please, God, not looking at their phone!).  Even a dog would be a nice addition.  There’s nobody here; that’s dull.

Have a subject

Put a person in your picture — or move in close — or try a different perspective.  Make your picture be about something.



The big three settings of digital cameras, in plain English

Real photographers will immediately detect that I’m no expert on this stuff.  But I seem to have enough of a grasp of it to explain it to people who know even less than I do.

Here is my concept of the three important settings of a digital camera (including phones); aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  You may not have been adjusting these settings, if you just use your camera’s automatic exposure system and let it set them for you.  On a lot of cameras and phones, you don’t get a choice; they’re built automatic.  Even so, these settings are the variables that the computer in your camera or phone plays with to deliver a hopefully great picture.

  • Manual access to aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings allows you more artistic flexibility, and is a sign of a better-quality camera.

Let’s say you’re taking a picture of a tree.  The light from the tree passes thru a series of parts inside your camera to create an image of the tree.  First, there’s the lens, obviously.  Like a prism, its curved surfaces bend the incoming and outgoing light.   Most cameras actually have a series of lenses of various shapes.  This lens lineup projects a focused image of the tree on the imager that is upside-down.  The same thing happens inside your eyes.  Think about that.  For your whole life you’ve been looking at the world upside-down.  You get used to it after a while, I guess.  I’m not going to say any more about the lens, since I don’t know any more.  Let’s move on to what I can deal with here.

Aperture; f-stop (f/x)

The aperture is an adjustable opening that controls the size of the beam of light coming out of the lens, like a valve.  Your eye has a part that does the same job, called the iris; irises also come in many pleasing colors, like chestnut brown  But nobody cares about the color of a camera’s aperture.  The aperture is the red thing in my little drawing.  The way you set it is called the f-stop, which means “focus stop” but I don’t know why.  You’ll probably find the f-stop control on or near the lens barrel.  Here is a great technical explanation of aperture.

f-stop is expressed as a fraction, such as f/3.2.  The part of this setting that you can adjust is on the bottom side of that fraction (the denominator).  The larger you make that bottom number, the smaller the value of the fraction will be — just as 1/4 is half the value of 1/2.  The larger the bottom number, the less light can pass thru the aperture.  Some things I know about aperture:

  1. the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth of field.  Let’s suppose you’re at a tree-farm and you’re talking a shot of a row of trees.  You’re standing near one end of the row.  If it’s a sunny day you have lots of light to play with, so you can get away with a high f-stop (small aperture); that will give you an image in which most of the trees are in focus.  On the other hand, if it’s twilight and your camera is starving for light, you may have to go with a low f-stop (big aperture).  Then not as many trees can be in focus at the same time.  Remember having the irises of your eyes dilated during your eye exam, so the doctor could look at the insides of your eyes?  Everything seemed so blurry.  Could be what we’re talking about here.  The pros like to purposefully make the background of a portrait or close-up blurry to emphasize what’s in focus, and this is how they do it.
  2. If you need to do photography in dim light, a low f-stop, opening that valve as far as possible, is one way to help your camera grab all the light it can.
  3. The greater the range of f-stops your camera or lens can do, the more flexibility you have as an artist.  So this range is one way to judge the quality of a camera or lens.

If your camera has an aperture-priority automatic exposure setting, you can play with the aperture and still have a good chance of getting decent shots.  Set an f-stop and your camera’s computer will figure out a shutter-speed and ISO setting accordingly, so you’re still getting the right amount of light.

Shutter speed; x seconds

The shutter is a gate that opens to let light into the camera for a set period of time.  I made the shutter blue in my little drawing.  The nearest thing the eye has to a shutter is the eyelid; but we don’t use our eyelids that way.  Shut your eyes, then blink then open.  Do you remember what you saw?  So.

Unlike the aperture, the shutter is (conceptually) either all the way open or all the way shut, and never in-between.  The longer the shutter is open, the more light comes into the camera.  You set the shutter speed in seconds; usually, in fractions of one second.  Bullets about shutter speed:

  1. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the image you’ll get.  This is true if the subject of your photo is in motion, like a tree that’s blowing in the wind.  It’s also true if you’re not using a tripod but are holding your camera in your hands; because, being a living organism, you’re never entirely still.  To freeze all that motion you need to narrow the time during which the shutter is open as much as you can.  Of course, a shorter interval also means you get less light for your image.  The brighter your lighting, the faster shutter speed you can use.  Otherwise, in order to get some kind of a picture, up go the aperture and ISO settings.
  2. The slower the shutter speed, the more the moving elements of your image will blur.  This can be a good thing, such as helping you make a pic of a waterfall that’s smooth and silky instead of looking like an ice sculpture.  Now you may have to throttle all that light with a narrow aperture and low ISO.  You might even clap a gray filter over your lens.  When you’re playing with slow shutter speeds, like longer than 1/30 second, you really need a tripod, or your body motion will make the whole image blurry.
  3. For low-light photography, you’ll want a really slow shutter speed, perhaps 7 to 14 seconds in near-darkness.  Now you need a tripod for sure.
  4. The greater the range of shutter speeds your camera can do, the more flexibility you have as an artist.  So this range is another way to judge the quality of a camera.

If your camera has a shutter-priority automatic exposure setting, you can play with shutter speed and still have a good chance of getting decent shots.  Set the speed you’d like and let your camera’s computer figure out appropriate aperture and ISO settings.

ISO; x

When I was a new father in 1977, I bought a roll of high-ISO film so I could take pictures of my baby daughter inside the hospital using the available light and no flash.  In those days we called this value “ASA” because that’s how the yellow boxes of Kodak film were labeled. I never found out what ASA stood for.  We thought a value of 300 was high; now some cameras claim to go to ISO 12800.  Don’t get me started on flashbulbs.

Instead of film, 21st century cameras have a mechanism called an imager for recording images.  For an imager I imagine a bank of tiny photocells coupled to some computer memory.  In my drawing I portrayed the imager as an upside-down tree image.  The part of the eye corresponding to an imager is the retina.

The ISO is a measure of how sensitive the imager is.  What’s great about an imager is that you may be able to adjust its sensitivity — tho of course that also means your camera is a little more complicated.  (Check this article which explains ISO much more accurately and incidentally tells you what the initials “ISO” stand for.)

  1. A small ISO means low sensitivity; a large ISO means high sensitivity.  But keep it as low as you can, because high ISO tends to make a grainy image (tho again a pro might want to do that purposefully for an artistic effect).  Use the shutter speed and aperture to regulate your light, leave the ISO on automatic, and let raising it be your last resort.
  2. The larger the range of possible ISO settings, the more flexibility you have as an artist.  So this range is another way to judge the quality of a camera.  Unfortunately this is one area where camera manufacturers sometimes cheat, by allowing a high ISO setting on an imager that gives crappy results for much of the ISO range.  If you’re shopping for a camera, don’t be impressed by its high ISO until you’ve checked a hands-on review of it.

You can play with ISO if your camera has a way to manually set it.  Your camera’s automatic exposure system will incorporate the ISO you set into its calculations of aperture and shutter speed.




Photoshop Elements 11; picture-echo lettering

I love doing this to make a distinctive graphical message–in this case, a cover for a mix CD.  This is also a good project to get a grip on layer and cookie-cutter concepts.  What we’re gonna do:

  • Duplicate a layer that contains an image
  • Cut holes in the top copy of the image, shaped like letters
  • Move the bottom copy of the image so what shows thru the holes is offset in an interesting and readable way

To begin

  1. Get the image into Photoshop Editor (PSE).  In the top center, make sure you are in Expert Mode.
  2. Look around; is there a Layers window?  If not, open the Windows menu and turn on Layers.

03 start

05 dup layerDuplicate the image layer

In this example I start with just one layer.  (But there’s no reason why a composition couldn’t have more.)

  1. Right-click on the image layer.  In the pop-up menu, select Duplicate Layer.
  2. Rename it if you like and click OK.


Cut letter-holes in the top layer

  1. In the left toolbar, select the Lettering tool.
  2. In the tool options window on the bottom of the screen, select one of the mask options. I used the vertical mask.
  3. A fat font such as Arial Black will let recognizable bits of the bottom layer show thru the letters you cut in the top layer.
  4. With the top layer selected, type your lettering, and position it on the image.  Click the green check mark to accept the result.
  5. In the Layer window, click on the eye icon of the bottom layer to make it invisible.  Now you can see what you’re doing in the next step.
  6. From the left toolbar, get the eraser tool.  In Tool Options make sure it’s 100% opaque and a good working size.  In the Layer window, make sure only the top copy of the image is active.  Whip the eraser around to gobble the insides of the letters.  Don’t worry about erasing outside the lines; what isn’t selected is protected.

Offset the bottom layer

  1. In the Layers window, click the top layer’s eyeball icon to make it invisible.
  2. Click the bottom layer’s eyeball icon to make it visible.  Make this the active layer.
  3. From the left toolbar, get the Move tool.  Move the bottom layer to an offset position where interesting stuff will show thru the letter-holes.  (If you didn’t make the top layer invisible, PSE will move the top layer instead.). 
  4. In the Layer Window, use the top layer’s eyeball icon to peek at how it’s looking.  When you like it, you’re done!

XC skiing in Banff National Park, AB; February 2018

Four of us, along with our Outing Club guide Lance Young, flew from Seattle WA to Calgary AB for several days of cold but beautiful cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Canada’s Banff National Park.  We were all retirees (we’re the ones with the time for trips like this); Linda and Terry, originally from Ketchikan AK, had operated a seafood company specializing in the Asian market.  Photographer Monica had worked at T-Mobile.  And your humble reporter Paul formerly in IT at the City of Seattle.IMG_3849

Monday 2/5: My adventure started right after my wife Pat, daughter Alice and her partner Jenn dropped me off at Seattle’s airport.  I’d had trouble packing because Lance said we’d be snowshoeing and my snowshoes didn’t fit in my suitcase.  Also, Air Canada has strict rules against putting anything other than skis in a ski bag; and my stuff didn’t all fit in my suitcase.  So I’d brought three bags.  The agent at Canada Air’s checkin counter was horrified at what he’d have to charge me to check three bags.  He implored me to carry one bag on board.  So I hung onto the suitcase.  But as Lance walked with me to TSA it dawned on me that I had a problem.

I hadn’t packed the suitcase to pass inspection as a carry-on, because I’d planned to check it.  I found a quiet corner under a wall of Pearl Jam posters and opened it up.  It was a simple matter to gather the liquids and stick them in a plastic bag; fortunately they were all small.  (From now on I’m going to pack every bag this way; who knows what I might have to carry on board?)  But the Swiss Army knife that I meant to put in my backpack while skiing certainly would be confiscated; Pat has lost two of them that way.  Lance snatched it and headed out to the airport to meet my family and hand it off to them.  For about 20 minutes they roamed around the airport looking for each other.  Now and then my family would swing by to see if Lance was there; so I got bonus goodbye hugs.

TSA usually awards me pre-check, considering me harmless, which is convenient if a bit humiliating.  I didn’t have to take off my shoes.  I’d hit on the plan of putting all my pocket items in a vest that I could slip off.  And I was wearing a plastic belt.  So, with my hastily-edited suitcase in hand, I strolled quickly thru security.  Then I turned my suitcase over to the gate attendant to check for free.

The flight to Vancouver BC was in a propellor plane too small to fit against a boarding ramp; so we were led onto the taxiway to climb up the plane’s own folding steps.  We were seated in the mostly empty plane at widely spaced intervals, arranged I suppose to keep our weight balanced.  A 25-minute hop brought us to the Vancouver airport.  Here Lance led us thru Canadian Customs’ maze of corridors and security wickets that had been built into the ceiling of the terminal.  Canada had no intention of considering me harmless; so I had to go thru another more rigorous security screening, shoes off.  On a little shelf at the head of the conveyor belt I saw a row of abandoned water bottles and one can of mace.  I drank all I could from a bottle of water I’d bought in Seattle and added it to the shelf.  Later, Lance told us that Customs had once confiscated his ski wax because it resembled TNT.

The flight from Vancouver to Calgary AB was about 90 minutes, on a much larger and fuller plane.  As the plane landed I saw a thick layer of snow blanketing Calgary; inland and at 4,000 feet, it has prairie weather.  I’d worn flannel-lined pants and brought a goose down coat, and I was glad to have them as we wandered the rental car parking lot looking for our van.  It was a large, comfortable Kia Sedona, “The worst car for snow that I’ve ever driven,” Lance concluded later.  We overnighted at a Calgary motel.

Canmore Nordic Center

Tuesday 2/6: The forecast high for today was 10 F. / -12 C.  Lance’s GPS wasn’t working, so Terry navigated us with a paper map to Highway 2 and Canmore’s Nordic Center.  It had been constructed for the 1988 Winter Olympics, and had a good lodge and an outstanding trail system.  It was quite cold, so I dropped two chemical heating pads into each mitten and put on all the layers I had.

The forest and the surrounding ridges were very beautiful.  The snow had a peculiar dry, grainy consistency like the tiny styrofoam pellets in a bean bag chair.  It wasn’t very fast, and I kept sliding sideways on any slope.  I ventured off the groomed tracks into some woods, but soon gave up the idea.  My skis were too narrow to stay on top of the snow, and wading in snow up to my shins wasn’t much fun.  The sun lowered and a mist rose, and I couldn’t see the contours in the snow any more.  So I quit at 2 PM and retreated to the fireplace with a mug of hot tea and a cookie.

We moved on to Banff, the biggest town inside Banff National Park, and checked into The Inns Of Banff, a large, rambling hotel whose buildings seemed to have been hooked together with sky-bridges and tunnels as an afterthought.  We picked out a promising dinner restaurant, but it turned out that they only offered Mexican food.  Monica wanted something else; so she and I walked on to the Maple Leaf Grill And Bar and had a nice dinner (seafood pasta for me).

Lake Louise

Wednesday 2/7: Lance led us thru the labyrinthine hotel to breakfast.  We went to the park information center, a grocery store, and touched the hotel again; the cold in town had persuaded me that I needed my heavy fleece.  Then we drove up to Lake Louise.  Cross-country skiing here is centered around the luxurious Fairmont Chateau hotel.  (Downhill skiing is at a separate resort south of the highway.). It was warmer here, 28 F. / -2 C., and there were billows of fluffy snow.  I skied up onto the wooded ridge above the hotel, imagining that I would get to a clearing with a sweeping view of the dramatic peaks; but I never found one.  Several inches of snow had fallen since the trails had last been groomed; this gave a nice feeling of skiing on virgin snow while still having a definite route to follow.  Previous skiers had skied very neatly, leaving a pair of perfect grooves; and snowshoers had kept to their own parallel trail.  I practically had the place to myself; I met only two other skiers on the ridge.

After noon, overcast moved in and it began snowing in earnest.  I skied down to Lake Louise; it was frozen and covered in snow, and there was a groomed ski trail on it.  I figured that if the ice could hold a grooming snowcat it could hold me, so I headed up the lake.  I met some friendly Canadians (really this is redundant to say, because they’re all friendly) who recommended a frozen waterfall halfway up the lake.  They warned against proceeding any further, because they’d seen some footprints that had broken through the ice.  Monica had been here earlier, and later she told me that she’d seen ice-climbers making their way up the waterfall.  They weren’t up there when I was looking, but all the same, seeing the pale blue icefall made the long ski worthwhile.

I could hardly see the craggy ridges on each side of the lake thru the snow, there was no point in taking pictures.  I followed the shore trail to the hotel.  It turned out that horse-drawn sleighs complete with jingle bells use this trail for excursions to the icefall.  I heard single bells and scrambled up onto the embankment; a two-horse sleigh full of heavily-muffled tourists glided past, taking up the whole width of the trail.  The sleigh had bench seats furnished with red blankets.  A blade attached to the rear of the sleigh smoothed out the hoof prints.  This happened two more times.  Monica said the same thing happened to her; she’d lost her balance and rolled down the hill to the edge of the lake in front of all the tourists.

At the hotel I stood my skis in a rack that the doormen pointed out and withdrew to the lobby.  I took off, shook and packed away my layers; globs of snow lay on the thick carpet in an incriminating ring around my chair.  The rest of the crew showed up, and we had supper in the lounge (a bison burger and a beet salad for me), watching the quickening snowstorm thru tall arched windows.  Monica and I had “Glacier Warmers,” which were basically hot chocolate with booze in it.  So good!

We drove back to Banff in heavy snow.  We were passed by a snowplow and a semi that threw out a great wake of snow.  I saw a car upside-down on the shoulder of the highway.  At our much more modest hotel, Lance made a run at the ramp to the upper parking lot near our rooms but couldn’t make it.  He concluded that the steering wheel must have been installed in the wrong end of the car, because it handled snow better driving backward.  We had to walk from the front door thru the labyrinth to our rooms in our ski gear.  Later I tried the Jacuzzi; it was piping hot.  It could hold a dozen or so people, and it was.

Spray River

Thursday 2/8: The forecast high today was 7 F. / -14 C.  I couldn’t find my balaclava; I must have lost it when I took off my layers in front of the fireplace at Canmore.  (A balaclava is a knitted tube that you pull over your head and neck, with a hole in the front to see thru.  Not to be confused with a baclava, a pastry.)  As we walked around downtown Banff, my face ached.  Lance made a detour to a ski shop so I could buy another balaclava.

Due to yesterday’s snowstorm, the mountain highways were not in good shape.  So a ranger at the park center recommended the Spray River trail at the south end of town; it’s in a valley and so is protected from the wind.

Lance drove us to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (as luxurious as its Lake Louise sibling) and the group broke up. Monica and I got a late start, plus bad directions from the doorman.  We slithered down a steep, icy road to a picnic area at the foot of Spray Falls.  Here was copious fluffy snow; and it snowed all day.  Some people advised us to ski to a bridge, cross it, ski along the riverside fairway and take a footbridge across the river again.  I didn’t know what a fairway was; Monica didn’t know either.  It was achingly cold, my nose was running, and the balaclava was making my glasses fog up.  I had to keep stopping to fiddle with my clothing and equipment.  Monica paced me patiently.  As we crossed the footbridge, we met Lance crossing from the other direction.  He told us to ski up to the groomed Spray River trail the way he’d come down, and turn left to ski upstream or right to return to the hotel.  And then, like Gandalf having dispensed advice to hobbits, he disappeared.

We followed his tracks to a hillside trail and started up it.  But, beyond a curve in the trail, the tracks became faint.  We worried that they might be somebody else’s old tracks covered in snow.  So we went back to the bridge to look for other, fresher tracks Lance might have made.  We found none, so we started up the hill again.  But, a bit further on, the tracks were even fainter.  (Of course it was snowing all the while.). Back we went to the bridge, examining the snow-covered picnic area at its foot like Holmes and Watson.  There were some other tracks, but they had been made by snowshoes or boots.  So we skied to the top of the hill and found the groomed trail, just as Lance had described it.  Later Lance explained that he’d bombed down the hill so fast that his skis probably hadn’t made much of a mark.  Truly, nobody out-skis that man.

Skiing up Spray River was quite nice; we were protected from the wind as the ranger had expected, and the sun came out.  The recently-groomed trail had just a little fresh snow on it, fast but with enough structure to give good control.  The forest and glimpses of the river and the opposite wall of the valley were pretty, and ups and downs in the trail kept us entertained.  This trail goes all the way to Canmore’s Nordic Center, for those who have the time.  We saw a few other skiers; and we soon met Terry and Linda, who were skiing to the hotel for lunch.

At one point one of Monica’s poles lost its snow-basket; she found it in her last pole-hole, and screwed it back on.  Carrying an extra basket would probably be a good idea.  We came to a wide opening in the trees close to the river.  I could hear rapids out of sight behind a screen of trees.  I decided to sidestep down the embankment and take a picture of them.  This worked for about three steps; then the snow gave way and I rolled down the hill to the riverbank.

“Are you all right?” Monica called down.  I told her I was fine.  Then she took a picture of me wallowing in the snow.

I disentangled my skis from some bushes and checked out the rapids; as it turned out, they weren’t that great.  I sidestepped back up the embankment, but got stuck in more bushes; so I took off my skis, tossed them up onto the road and scrambled after them.  Happily, my ski bindings were in a good mood and let me clip them back on with no trouble.

We came to a clearing that might have been a campsite.  It looked like I could get a good view of the river, so I went off the road again, skiing laboriously thru feathery snow up to my knees.  I got some nice panoramas of the semi-frozen river, pale blue with “rock flour” — rock finely-ground by glaciers. Then it was time to head back.

Lance’s directions to the hotel worked much better than the doorman’s.  The group gathered for supper in front of a fireplace in the upstairs lounge.

Friday 2/9: I didn’t feel quite right today, so I took the day off and hung out at our hotel.  The rest of the group went snowshoeing up Johnson Canyon and then skiing on a trail they saw from the highway.  I never used the snowshoes that I’d gone to so much trouble to bring along.  I thought about exploring the town; but after some online research I decided not to.  The park museum was closed, the movie house had nothing interesting, and there was nothing else to do but shop.  It was too cold to just roam around.  I had the jacuzzi to myself and read and napped.  We had dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel; hot sake, salmon teriyaki and California rolls for me.

Saturday 2/10: There had been some talk of skiing on the way back to the airport at Calgary.  But we had an early afternoon flight and it had been snowing for days, so Lance wanted to allow extra time for the drive.  Besides, once again it was very cold.  As it turned out, much of the highway was bare pavement.  And at the airport we discovered that our flight to Vancouver had been delayed.

I took my rolling suitcase to the carry-on security wicket as before.  It failed its scan; an agent summoned me to witness as he went thru it.  He started out by opening it upside-down; stuff fell out onto the table.  He said he was looking for a “handle,” and he wouldn’t let me help.  Was it the suitcase’s built-in telescoping handle?  No.  Was it my camera?  No.  He rummaged for a while and came up with my bathroom kit.  Inside was the culprit, my folding brush-comb.  Apparently it looked like a folding knife on the scanner.  I won’t travel with that any more!

More pictures



Woohoo! I replaced a Moen 1225 cartridge in a 7730 faucet

I thought I was an adequate home handyman until I gave up my unreliable but simple rubber-washer faucets for washerless faucets.  Now I’m afraid to do anything with them, and every time a plumber comes in here it’s like $500.  And the kitchen faucet was dripping and leaking around the handle like a sunufuhbitch.

I discovered that it didn’t drip if I pushed the handle all the way over to the right.  So I announced that I’d fixed it!  But The Woman wasn’t very impressed.  After a while she pointed out that it had started dripping even in this position.

My next move was to pick up a cheap “easy to install” faucet at Costco.  But then after watching some installation videos and giving the matter more thought I realized that the hard part of the project would be removing the old faucet.  I’d done something like this once before and it had turned out badly.  Also I discovered the new faucet got crappy reviews on Amazon.  (Memo to self; research stuff before buying it, instead of after.)

I persuaded the new faucet and its various accouterments back into their package for The Woman to return to the store.  Surely there must be a video on YouTube about how to replace the ceramic cartridge in my particular faucet?  I just needed to find out what make and model of faucet it was.

A little red and white emblem on the handle said “Moen,” a promising start.  I went to Moen’s website to look at a gallery of photos of faucets.  There are a million of them, and none of them is like mine.  I stumbled onto a customer support page that had instructions on how to find my faucet’s series number; 7730.  With this as a search term I found David Trebacz’s excellent cartridge replacement video.  If you’re facing the same job, I recommend you study it well.

What follows is a commentary on me following David’s wonderful video to get this job done.  Back when I was working I was an IT guy; so I’m reasonably clever behind a keyboard.  But my hardware experience, and for that matter my experience in anything practical, is close to zip.  The cartridge instructions said this job would take a beginner an hour; it took me two and a half hours.  Okay, I was being slow and careful, taking pictures and watching David’s video over and over.  Anyhow, if even I can swap out a Moen cartridge, so can you.

David is careful to get a good camera view of each piece of hardware, every step and every tool.  He fast-forwards thru stuff that’s boring, like turning a screw again and again, not leaving it out but just letting you know you’ll be doing it not-fast-forward.  He makes a few mistakes and deals with them, a nice touch.  And his tools are way better than my tools.  I ended up using a few different tools:

07 tools

  • Hammer (to tap down stubborn new cartridge)
  • Straight screwdriver
  • Philips screwdriver
  • Toothbrush
  • 7/16 inch hex driver
  • Flashlight
  • Plastic dealie that comes with a new cartridge
  • Small, wide rubber band that comes with fresh broccoli
  • Crescent wrench
  • Needle-nosed pliers
  • Channel-lock pliers
  • Bowl
  • Rag towels for wiping up, kneeling on, etc.

I used a small slot screwdriver to pry off the Moen emblem.  Inside were two holes, small and big.  The big hole is the one to put the 7/16 inch hex driver into (it’s the hole that’s in the center, duh).  I realized this after I’d rotated the hex driver in the little hole for a while with no effect.  The little hole turns out to match up with a stud in the emblem that keeps the emblem from swiveling around; and I guess it would stop you from attaching the emblem upside-down.  I checked the video; David’s faucet just had one hole in the handle, as far as I could tell.  I used a flashlight to see that the hex driver went into the square hole in the screw head deep inside the handle, unscrewed it, took out the screw and pulled off the handle.

Having survived the first crisis, I tried my Philips screwdriver on the obvious screw sticking out of the top of the assembly.  The whole assembly wanted to swivel around; David’s hadn’t done that.  I handled this emergency by holding the outer assembly steady with pliers while unscrewing the screw.  I didn’t have a cameraman like David did.  What a good trick to have my hands full of tools and still take a picture.  10 phiips screw

Next problem I ran into was how to loosen up the threaded black plastic thingie without stripping it.  I solved this problem by wrapping it with a small wide rubber band, protecting it and giving me a better grip.  I hadn’t noticed yet that it has two flat sides, as you can see in the picture below.  Those are the right place to put your channel-lock pliers.  I got it off somehow anyway, and found the flat sides later when I was putting the faucet back together.

15 black thingie

Next I ran into a little metal washer that I didn’t remember seeing in David’s video.  I slipped the tip of a screwdriver under it to get it off.  David makes up for this by putting two washers on the assembly when he’s putting it together, but I just had the one.  20 washer.jpg

David used needle-nosed pliers to rotate and loosen the cartridge.  He said that was because he didn’t have a new cartridge that comes with a special white tool-dealie that fits over its top.  I put my white dealie on the cartridge; it has two legs that fit into the little wells on each side of the central post.  This photo shows it about to go in.  I tried to turn it and the cartridge with the adjustable wrench; nada.  I’d forgotten to take out the clip.25 plastic dealie

The white plastic dealie is a crappy tool for rotating the cartridge anyway; it doesn’t hold well, and it strips itself.  Instead I grabbed the central post, which has two flat sides, with the adjustable wrench and turned it.  Eventually I realized the clip needed to come out, and after that it turned real well.  Here the clip is, half-way out.  It’s the same color as the thing it fits into, so I didn’t see it at first.  The two prongs slide underneath projections on the front lip of the outermost pipe-fitting, so you have to pull it out sideways, not upward.30 clip

At last, after taking off way more parts than seem necessary, I yank out the cartridge, just like an old time dentist yanking out a tooth.  Tada!  Oh my god how am I going to get this thing back together so it won’t erupt like Old Faithful?35 out it comes

The phrase in Peter And The Wolf (get the version narrated by Peter Ustinov if you can find it) that I always liked the best is “Now here is how things stood …”  I took this pic of the parts I removed, in the order removed, to make sure I put them back on in the same order:

37 partsNow I deviated from David’s video, because I’d read in some Moen instructions that I should wash out and flush the valve before putting in the new cartridge.  I scrubbed its insides with a discarded toothbrush (or you could use a toothbrush belonging to somebody you don’t like).  Nothing dramatic came out, just a little icky goo.40 toothbrush

Next I put a bowl over the valve so Old Faithful would flow downward.  I wrapped the vegetable sprayer around the bowl so it wouldn’t fall off the valve and get water all over the place.  I cautiously turned on the cold water under the sink part way.  I let it run for half a minute; I never saw any grunge wash out.  But I don’t see too well so maybe something did.45 bowl

Water off.  Now to put in the new cartridge.  I hadn’t paid attention to which way the old one was facing, so I just stuffed it into the valve, wondering whether the hot and cold positions would now be reversed like David warned.  The center post slipped down too far.  So I used the white thingie that came with it to push it in; this worked better.  Maybe it’s what the white thingie is really intended for?  It’s hard to tell; Moen’s instructions are little diagrams with no words, like Lego brick instructions.50 plastic dealie 2

I screwed down the threaded black ring, a tedious job with just a small turning space for the channel pliers, until it gave a lot of resistance.  Again wrapping it in the rubber band, and this time I realized that gripping it by the flat sides would work better.

I slid the clip back in.  A flat side of the center post has to face the gap in the front of the outer pipe exactly, or the clip won’t go in.

Next, I put the metal washer over the central post.  Turns out the washer has flat sides too, that have to align with those on the central post or it won’t fit.  Maybe it isn’t really quite a washer, but something else?  If it has a special name and you know it, please reply.  Any day I learn something is a good day.55 washer

Next, the gray plastic thingie.  Extrusions on its underside slip into gaps in the assembly, so you can’t just cram it on anyhow.  Here it is upside-down so you can see how they go in.60 gray thingie

The top of it is a sort of collar.  It’s not like David’s; in my case the tall side really did need to be in the front or it wouldn’t seat properly.65 collar

I screwed on the chrome dome.  I popped in the rabbit-eared thingie, ears forward, and screwed it on with the Philips screw.  67 rabbit ears

Now for the handle.  Getting it aligned felt floppy and indefinite.  I looked inside it and could see that the screw had to enter it just right to pass thru the rabbit-ear’s central hole, come out the far side of the rabbit-ears and enter a threaded block in the center of the handle.  Once it realized I wasn’t going to settle for anything other than a straight shot, it let the screw go in the way it should.  70 handle

$500 saved.  Good luck with your faucet!  And thanks again, David; you’re a hero to us nerds who can hardly lay a hand on a tool without hurting ourselves.






North Dakota road trip; September 2017 — part 3

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IMG_3478Sunday, 10/1: We bade farewell to Gwen, Dannyelle and Johnpaul, and drove west  into Montana on SR 2, chasing a cloud-obscured sunset. We crossed into the Mountain Time Zone, gaining an hour and perhaps a bit more dusk. Two and a half hours later, we stopped at a tall-ceilinged old hotel in tiny Fort Peck.  We clattered up a long wooden staircase to the lobby. Fishermen had taken up nearly every room. All the creaky historical hotel had available was a second-story room with a bathtub.


2: Glasgow, Montana

There was nowhere else to stay in town; so we drove on to Glasgow. Here, twenty minutes’ drive away from the attractions of Lake Peck, there were plenty of rooms at a modern motel, the Cottonwood Inn.

Our plans for the coming days; find Thoeny (“Teeny”), MT — John’s birthplace and now a ghost town. Continue west, closely following the Canadian border, to Glacier National Park.

Monday 10/2: A winter storm was approaching over northern Montana. I ‘found an online map displaying Montana road conditions. It showed the roads in different colors signifying dry, wet, slush, ice, blowing snow, etc. The roads west of Glasgow didn’t look good. We decided to give up our quest for Thoeny; it’s too far out on the northern prairie, and will have to wait for a future trip. We stayed in Glasgow for a day to wait for better road conditions.

Our Cottonwood Inn motel let us move to a larger room without charging any more rent, and let us use a second desk chair and suitcase stand. It had a passable restaurant; good breakfast, mediocre dinner. Only a few people were eating when we were there. Glasgow’s streets were wide but had little traffic. We shopped a bit and gassed up the car in the life-sucking wind.


Tuesday 10/3: This morning I got up early and crossed the parking lot for a swim, and discovered that wet snow was falling. Two people stood in a corner of the indoor pool talking, as if it were a Roman bath. Afterward I had breakfast in the motel restaurant. The room went dark; Glasgow’s power had failed. The desk clerk assured me that my room key-card would still work.  Ten minutes later, the power came on again.

The online road conditions map showed that, unlike the northwestern route we’d planned to drive, the way south and east was clear. So much for Great Falls and Glacier National Park. We bundled up in our warmest waterproof layers and drove south to the Fort Peck Dam.

The dam looks strange to eyes accustomed to Washington’s concrete-wall dams such as Grand Coulee. It’s a huge, gently-sloping, grassy hill. The Interpretive Center is actually an impressive museum with a large dinosaur exhibit; the monsters were common along the shores of the ancient sea whose bottom now forms Montana’s prairies and badlands. Many fossils have been found here; some “firsts,” some “largests,” and some unique in the world of paleontology.

A small exhibit about the dam is in the back of the museum; it was a depression-era project conducted with an eye to creating jobs. Despite an emphasis on safety, 60 people were killed in the course of the project. The bodies of some men who died in a mudslide were never found and are supposed to be entombed in the dam.

We continued south and west to Jordan, buffeted by wind and snow showers. The worn little town clings to a crossing of two back roads on the crest of the prairie. A sign warned that cattle were loose on the road, but those we saw were in the fields, being good. We refilled the gas tank at a little store that didn’t want us to pay in advance. It was 39 degrees F. The weather and road conditions looked okay, so we set course southwest for Billings.

DSCN2014 (1)Snow-speckled, desolate hills separated long stretches of undulating grassland. We saw dozens of small brown deer idling near the road and perhaps looking to cross it. We saw some abandoned farms, and stopped to take pictures of one near Roundup. I found that a section of its fence had been patched with bedsprings, an improvisation that must have a sad story behind it.


4: Billings, Montana

We reached Billings at dark and had dinner at Tao New Asian, an elegant little restaurant with Japanese, Chinese and Thai offerings. What a contrast between city and country!

I asked for some miso soup. The waiter explained that, altho miso soup was on the menu, they no longer offered it, because not enough Montanans will eat it. He went to the kitchen to ask the chef if he could make a bowl of it for me, but returned to report that the chef had no miso paste that day.

IMG_3499Wednesday 10/4: We had a fine second breakfast at the Four B’s Cafe across the street from our motel. Pat asked a motel employee where we might hike, and she suggested Zimmerman Park. It encompasses meadows, bluffs and a sheer cliff that forms the north side of the Yellowstone River valley. We walked a network of trails that led up to steep boulder-strewn slopes with splendid views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Here there was no need to worry about falling off a cliff or stepping on a rattlesnake. Those things don’t happen in a city park!

A big cloud drifted up the valley from the west, spoiling the sunset. It looked like rain, so we turned back to the car. We had good salads for dinner (Santa Fe Chicken Salad for me) at CJ’s Bar And Grill. When we came out it was raining.

Thursday 10/5: By means of a supreme effort we managed to check out at 10:20am. We had an evening date with Pat’s brother Tim and his wife Cathy in Anaconda.

On our way west we stopped at Madison Buffalo Jump State Historic Site. Before Spanish interlopers brought horses to North America, an Indian community would drive a herd of buffalo off the cliff, kill the animals that survived the fall, process them using every part, and put the meat by for winter. We followed a trail to a hilltop below the cliff. It gave a fine view of the broad, grassy valley where buffalo once roamed.


The Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers join at the headwaters of the Missouri.

Our next stop was Missouri Headwaters State Park. Here at “three forks” the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison Rivers join to form the Missouri River. The pretty rivers join in a meadow surrounded by low mountains. The 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition had camped a mile from Three Forks on its way to the Pacific. Their Indian interpreter Sacajawea recognized that this area was where she had lived as a girl before being kidnapped by another tribe. Eventually she was reunited with her brother and the chief.

IMG_3508The nearby ruin of an 1868 hotel, held together with massive wood beams, is all that remains of the town of Gallatin. Speculators had started it in the early 1800s, hoping to profit by supplying gold prospectors. But a waterfall further down the river made steamboat transportation to the eastern US impossible. In desperation they moved the town across the river, but apparently still above the fall; in a few years it faded away. Nearby farmers tore down part of the hotel for its wood.

5: Anaconda, Montana

We reached Anaconda at dusk. East of town we drove past long black mounds speckled with snow. These are copper smelter tailings; a few tall smokestacks and foundations are all that remains of the smelters. Tim and Cathy met us outside the Copper Bowl bowling alley.  We gave Tim the rest of the Relics.  He’d originally given a collection of flint arrowheads and other stone tools to John.   It was intriguing to imagine people making such implements on which their lives depended.

IMG_3518Tim took us on a car tour of the mine tailing reprocessing plant that he manages.  The tailings, he explained, are mostly iron silicate; the iron content is 65%, rich enough that another business is considering refining it. The material also contains arsenic and other toxic substances. It’s dangerous if heated, and its dust is also dangerous. The smelter had melted copper ore; the tailings material had risen to the top, to be removed and piped in a watery slurry to the tailing pile. Water used in the process was sent to settling ponds and then dumped into the river, dying it lurid colors and killing everything in or near the water, even plant life. Tim told us that much of the land has since been reclaimed. He had a part in this work; as a train engineer he’d driven trains carrying removed material to a repository across the valley from Anaconda.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 6.11.17 PMThe reprocessing company’s conveyor belts carry the material through a spinning tank with hot air blowing thru it, like a giant clothes dryer. Next it’s conveyed into a screening building. Two grades of sand are stored in silos; the remainder is returned to the tailings mound. The fine sand is bagged and sold for use in sandblasting; it’s well-suited for this, because it’s half again as heavy as normal sand. The coarse sand is bagged or loaded into covered-hopper rail cars or trucks for use in manufacturing asphalt shingles.

On our way out, Tim pointed out a large warehouse across the road. “That’s full of equipment we could use, like a 50-pound bag filler,” he said. “The people who own it used to run a smaller reprocessing operation where our plant is now. They neglected to pay their lease to Asarco for eight years; so Asarco put a lien on the plant and kicked them out. They’ve gone to court several times to try to get the plant back; but they’ve always lost. And they’re too mad about it to sell us that equipment.”

Tim and Cathy took us to dinner at O’Bella, a nice little Italian restaurant nearby. We looked at pictures of their grandkids and had a fine visit until the restaurant asked us to leave to make way for a large group. We drove on to Missoula; not in the mood for Ruby’s Inn again, we stayed in a large Best Western.

6: Missoula, Montana

Friday 10/6: I got up early, thanks to the alarm clock that the last person in our room had set, and went downstairs for a swim. The pool had no changing room, so I’d hoped to slip thru the corner of the lobby in my swimming suit unnoticed. Two employees were chatting there. “Well, look at YOU!” One woman exclaimed. “Are you on your way to the pool?”

“Yup,” I said.

Pat and I had breakfast together. She dropped me off at the end of a different branch of the Clark Fork River bicycle trail. It tunnels under Reserve Street, Missoula’s most overloaded arterial, and weaves thru a residential area to the riverbank, joining the main trail where I’d ridden on the second day of this trip. It was a beautiful fall day with warm sunlight sparkling in the river, and more color in the leaves than before. I crossed a cute little suspension bridge to an East Missoula park. I rode to the Canyon River Golf Community, where the trail ends across the street from a nice pond garden. On the ride back, cold shadows stretched across the path and a gusty wind rushed down the river valley.


We had dinner at Perkins with Pat’s Aunt Ginny and cousins Kim and Sandy. I saw an elderly woman at the next table struggling to reach her cane that had fallen into the aisle, and went over to help her back into her seat and prop up her cane. I had Santa Fe avocado salad, giving Pat the avocado, and lemon meringue pie for dessert.

Sunday 10/9: While taking a load out to the car, I met a middle-aged couple in the elevator. He was holding a bouquet, and she held a pot of flowers with bits of tinsel. “I don’t often see people traveling with flowers,” I said. They explained that they’d come to Missoula for their daughter’s funeral service. Their daughter had cancer, and they’d often stayed at this motel while visiting and caring for her. The staff had come to know them, and the flowers and a card were from the staff.

Showers and gusty winds opposed our drive west. We saw the base of a large rainbow as we left Missoula. Lunch was in the funky deli in a back corner of the Pilgrim Foods grocery store in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. Beyond the Rockies we crossed eastern Washington’s flat, grassy prairie on the ruler-straight highway.

IMG_3554By the time we’d crossed the Columbia River the setting sun was getting in our eyes. We stopped in Kittitas to wait out the sunset in Olmstead Place State Park, an old farm with a large collection of antique farm machinery. The tours had ended an hour before, and the park was empty. A ranger hurried over to see whether we had an annual park pass; I was hanging it on the mirror while Pat talked to him. He suggested a footpath that followed a stream, and we had a short stroll. Windmills lined the low ridge beyond the fields to the southeast.

Dinner was at Ellensburg’s Dakota Cafe, the best restaurant of the trip; pot roast for me. Pat was eager to be home, so we drove on into the Cascade Mountains thru a pounding rainstorm. It didn’t let up until we’d crested Snoqualmie Pass.

There’s no place like home!

More pictures

North Dakota road trip; September 2017 — part 2

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6: Medora, North Dakota

Monday 9/25: It was late on a rainy afternoon when we crossed from Montana into North Dakota. A bright red layer appeared in the tops of the hills. We’d see more of it in the coming days.

We stopped for the night in Medora, a tourist town outside the entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Medora might be a vortex.  My phone’s Google navigation app kept misleading us.   A map of the town that our hotel gave us was unreliable too.  Because Medora was trying to look like an Old Western town, it had no neon signs and not much street lighting.

The tourist season had ended. Aside from the ruinously expensive Roosevelt Room only two restaurants were open; and they were just bars with pub food. We walked to Boots Bar And Grill, braving dark wet wooden sidewalks, and sat at a table made out of a Jack Daniels Whiskey barrel. We’d arrived 20 minutes before the kitchen closed. I ordered a salad; it was loaded with bacon and feta cheese, and was accompanied by a chewy roll. On our way out we met a gray-bearded man who had driven there with his grandson; they couldn’t find a hotel. We gave them our map and directions to our hotel, and we saw them there later.

We’d planned to do laundry tomorrow; but I discovered that the nearest laundromat was in Dickinson, a 35 minute drive out of our way. Later I found out that Dickinson has a notable dinosaur museum; so perhaps we’ll wash our clothes there on our next trip.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 8.08.58 PMTuesday 9/26: I got up early and had breakfast at Medora’s Cowboy Cafe (they close after lunch.) My first non-motel breakfast of the trip; French toast and ham and black tea. I pulled my bike off the car and rode up to the park’s south unit Visitor Center. The ranger at the counter told me that bikes are allowed only on paved roads, not on trails. He gave me a map of a bike trail that detoured around the park.

While I was looking at it, a young woman came over to talk. Her name was Ruth. She was riding across the country, as our daughter Alice and her friend Kyle had done, and had mistaken me for a fellow biker. We went out to look at her bike; it had a steel frame, small wheels (because they were easier to find in third world countries), and 30 gears. It was loaded with camping equipment. She’d gotten wet in last night’s rain, so she’d put her down sleeping bag in a drier. She had sectional bike maps like Alice’s in a transparent case on her handlebars; she’d started at Washington’s Orcas Island and was riding to New York. I wondered if she was traveling solo, but I couldn’t think of a way to ask this question that wouldn’t sound critical. I complimented her on her adventure and wished her luck. She went back inside to buy some postcards. I slipped a twenty into her saddlebag, acknowledging the many good Samaritans who’d helped Alice and Kyle during their adventure, and left.

I tried the road into the park but it was steep and without shoulders; TRNP is a very hilly park. I found a nice but short bike path that led west from the park’s south entrance over a nearly dry river to the Maah Daah Hey trail. This trail was a muddy mess and not for me; I doubt that Ruth came this way either.

I returned to the Cowboy Cafe for more tea, and read my Enigma book until Pat was ready. The waiter came over and suggested strawberry rhubarb pie, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. A la mode. So then I had to take a nap in our room to sleep it off, while Pat visited the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

We finally got on the road to the park in mid-afternoon. We saw beautiful vistas of rolling hills, terraced badland buttes and sinuous, delicate-looking trees whose leaves were turning gold.


We stopped for a short hike into the hills. The Lower Paddock Creek trail crossed a large prairie-dog town whose residents heralded our approach with warning peeps; “Look out! Look out! The monsters are coming!” The broad, inclined field was cratered with tunnel openings. Chubby tan prairie dogs peeked out of them, stood on their hind legs on the watch for approaching danger, or lay within easy diving range of their holes. They looked like big gerbils. Their holes looked like little volcanoes; they’d built up the rims with clay scooped from the surrounding ground. Crumbs of red sandstone were scattered around the mounds; the prairie dogs had carried it up from their tunnels. Later we found some buttes with layers that were the same color.


Past the prairie dog town, the grass was longer and I saw pale green flowering bushes — sagebrush, Pat guessed. The trail split into several parallel trails where hikers and horseback-riders had tried to get around mud. Some hillsides had thin seams of coal that had washed onto the trail. Pat found some juniper berries. We saw a little short-eared rabbit whose fur exactly matched the ground. He froze, until he realized his camouflage wasn’t working; then he turned and dove into his hole.


The way got rough and muddy. We went back to the car and took turns scraping gumbo off each others’ boots with a stick, and put them in plastic bags to deal with later. Walking on snow would really clean them well, and I suspect we’ll see snow again — maybe more than we’ll want.

We finished the scenic loop drive around the park. As in Yellowstone, we’d find cars stopped in the middle of the road to look at wildlife; then we’d look around for what they were looking at. We saw two buffaloes; one was rolling on his back on a hilltop. We saw three wild horses and some deer. The low golden sunlight lit the landscape beautifully.

We drove around Medora and confirmed that only the two bars were open. So we went to the other one, Little Missouri, for dinner. Pat gave the grilled chicken salad a good report; I had a mediocre, partially burned pizza. We realized that a large party sitting next to our table had been at the Boots Bar and Grill last night. The Little Missouri had flocked red wallpaper, gilt framed mirrors and crimson ceiling lamps. The music was country western. Cowboy hats and dollar bills were pinned to the ceiling beams. The waitress explained that this had become a local custom, like the snapshots of customers in a barbershop.

Wednesday 9/27: Breakfast together at the Cowboy Cafe. The walls are covered with photos of cowboys, rodeos, etc. Pat reminisced that she and her mother used to watch rodeos on TV. I wonder if Montana stations cover rodeos live any more? I might watch that show myself.

We drove up to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit, after a short detour due to Siri not mentioning the exit from I-94 that we needed to take to get on SR-85, and due to me trusting her too much. We noted three Buffaloes loitering around the little visitor center. Pat asked the ranger whether they were a permanent feature for entertaining tourists. “Uh-huh,” she said in a bored voice. But she had good advice when we asked about a short hike. “The trails are full of water, except for the Sperati Point trail that starts from Oxbow Overlook at the end of the road.”

We drove across the park, which differed from the South Unit. The stripes on the sides of the badlands clay mounds were more colorful. We learned from a roadside sign that the mounds can slump down or tilt when undercut by surface water. A shifted mound’s stripes match stripes higher up on neighboring mounds. We saw broad grassy meadows and stands of various trees, in particular one with gracefully arching trunks and branches whose delicate leaves flicker and sparkle in the wind. Its leaves were turning from bright green to gold. We stopped at a campground at the edge of a small forest of these trees; it was beautiful. We also saw lots of buffaloes and some deer, but no prairie dogs.

We stopped to walk out to a viewpoint over the Little Missouri valley. It had a beautiful fieldstone shelter that had been built by Works Progress Administration craftsmen in the 1930s. The river below meandered thru forests of the green-gold trees. It was the final destination of streams that found their way down thru the chaotic badlands on each side. There is no way to adequately photograph such a huge and wonderful view; but we tried.

The Sperati Point hike was a good one, taking us across a saucer-shaped prairie to its raised rim for a view down the length of the Little Missouri’s canyon. Pat spotted wild rose hips and what looked like drought-stricken blueberries. There was also a type of sprawling bush with fuzzy pale green leaves and wicked thorns. We noticed several buffalo-sized depressions in the tall grass. On returning to the car, we discovered that yesterday’s mud was gone from our boots.


7: Williston, North Dakota

We drove back out to SR-85 and followed it northwest to Williston. Road construction obstructed our path; as darkness fell, we groped our way into the city later than we’d hoped. We checked into El Rancho Motel, close to Pat’s niece Dannyelle’s house.

While Pat went on to their house for a short visit, I worked on our laundry. The first challenge was to find the laundromat. It turned out to be a nondescript cinderblock building wrapped in darkness in the parking lot. Here were two washers and one usable dryer; there was no change dispenser or soap. By the time I had gotten everything together, someone else was using both washers. So I had dinner at the Williston Brewery next to our motel. It was much nicer than the bars in Medora, but it was still a bar. I ordered a chicken sandwich that turned out to be tall and messy. The music was ’90s pop, a nice change from country western. Four young men were partying at the next table, swearing and guffawing; what fun to be young.

IMG_3362When I went back into the laundromat a man in huge camo shorts was looking in the dryer. On my way back and forth I saw a man drag an empty beer keg outside the bar next door and pause for a smoke. Pat returned soon afterward, and in due course the laundry was done.

Thursday 9/28: We made eggs with mushrooms for brunch at Dannyelle’s house. Most everyone who lived there was either in school or working. So we explored the neighborhood on foot. It was a perfect sunny afternoon. Attractive houses line the wide, shady streets. A hint of winter; the fire hydrants have red and white poles bolted to their tops so the firemen can find them in snow.

We found a community center with a nice playground, bandstand and skateboard park. There was a swimming pool too, but it held only a stagnant puddle. The park had several carved and lacquered statues with roots, made from trees that I suppose had died or been in the way. Most were of fantasy figures; a witch, a dwarf, etc. The one I liked best was a buffalo.

IMG_3364I met Dannyelle’s two beautiful, friendly cats, Judith and Guy-Guy. Judith had recently delivered kittens; Dannyelle commented that motherhood seemed to have made her more mellow. We unloaded a lot of the Relics; Gwen and Dannyelle especially liked John’s paintings. Gwen remembered watching John working at the easel, and how he’d taught her to shape the brush’s bristles to paint various shapes. “I’d pushed my feelings into a corner, but now they’re coming back out,” she said sadly. Dinner was Domino’s pizza, infinitely better than the pizza at Little Missouri Bar and Grill in Medora.

Friday 9/29: Our motel room smelled like old socks. I’d just done the laundry, and I couldn’t find anything to account for the smell. The motel clerk let us move to a different room. Perhaps the clerk tipped off the housekeepers that we were troublesome; our new room had been liberally sprayed with air freshener. The window didn’t open; so we propped the door open to air it out. But the motel was being remodeled, and an adhesive smell came into the room. We shut the door and hoped for the best.

I was hoping to go biking with Dannyelle. But we couldn’t find a shop that rents bikes. So Pat invited her on a photo shoot while I explored Williston’s bike paths. A motel employee who jogs suggested taking the main trail north to Silver Lake Park, which has a one-mile trail around the lake. This route took me along a swale (marshy area) that is the indefinite shore of the many-channeled Little Muddy River. There wasn’t a lot to see, but it was a refreshing open space. I noticed that much of Williston is on a plateau above the river. The northern part of Williston is lower, and here a broad levee (embankment) defines the margin of the swale. This system seems capable of controlling a large amount of water, tho I saw a few buildings down in the swale whose owners must worry about flooding.

I had ridden halfway around Spring Lake when I noticed a car driving slowly along the road next to me. I realized it was pacing me, and that it was our car. Pat, Dannyelle and Gwen had come to Silver Lake for their photo shoot. We walked out on the strip of land that bisects Spring Lake. Gwen spotted a turtle peeking out of the water. She and Dannyelle bring the boys to swim here and sometimes they catch turtles. Dannyelle rode my bike around the lake a couple of times and decided to look for a bike at the garage sales.

I started to ride to their house. Easier said than done; North Dakota’s mighty prairie wind was against me now. What a good place for sailing and kite-flying this must be! And the lowering sun was in my eyes. By the time I’d reached Dannyelle’s neighborhood the bike trail was far from any road. “Turn right!” Siri said. I bumped across an open field near some warehouses. But it was muddy and surrounded by drainage ditches, so the shortcut didn’t save me much time. Then I had to cross a busy highway. So much for getting my bicycling advice from Siri. Stalked and misled by women; it’s a dangerous life for a little boy.

IMG_3367Pat came out and helped me put my bike on the car. I watched a recording of the Star Trek Discovery premier episode that Dannyelle had made, got some more lap time with cats, and enjoyed Dannyelle’s baked salmon with broccoli for dinner.

Saturday 9/30: We had breakfast at the Smiling Moose Deli; they brought us each a little custom-made skillet of scrambled eggs and goodies on a wooden trivet, with a hot pad fitted over the skillet handle. No need to tell us it was hot.

Pat went back to Theodore Roosevelt National Park with her family. After a frenzy of food prep and packing, they took off in two cars; Gwen and JohnPaul in Pat’s car, and Thomas, Jordan and “Little” Jordan in Dannyelle’s car. The two cars got separated on the way out of town (Pat made sure that Dannyelle could find the park, and didn’t wait for her). They found each other when Pat realized she needed gas. At the same time, Dannyelle needed snacks; and they happened to choose the same gas station. But Pat took off, thinking they would be behind her. She didn’t realize that Dannyelle had gotten confused and turned the wrong way. Pat stopped at a viewpoint outside of the park and waited for them.

They went into the park together. There were no buffalo at the Visitor’s Center this time. Fortunately, this day was a National Park “Free Day” so nobody had to pay to get in. As they drove to a campground day-use area, all eyes watched for wildlife. They saw buffalo, and some large birds later identified as wild turkeys. JohnPaul jumped the fence and scrambled to the edge of the canyon, scaring Gwen. Pat assured her, “He’s fourteen; he’ll be fine.”

After a snack in the campground and a decision not to try to get down the canyon wall to the river, Gwen, Pat, Dannyelle and Jordan Jr. went for a hike on a nature trail to the canyon’s edge.  Here they saw the wild turkeys again.

IMG_3404Meanwhile, I explored more of Williston on my bike. I saw another bicyclist, the first in four days. My first stop was Railroad Park, a grassy knoll overlooking the Empire Builder railroad station, which still offers passenger service. On the knoll was a retired steam engine with a Great Northern tender and a green and yellow Northern Pacific caboose. I thought I saw a plaque on the far fence, but when I went around to read it all I got for my trouble was “Park closes at dusk.”

I ate lunch on a park bench, and continued east. Beyond the station I followed a disused spur close to the southeast levee where the Little Muddy joins the Missouri. I found a series of what one might charitably call equipment storage yards. Discarded cars and trucks and farm equipment slumbered in the autumn sunlight for me to photograph.  (More junkyard pics.)

IMG_3450I rode up into Dannyelle’s neighborhood, but of course they weren’t there. I found myself on the Williston State College campus, and remembered the Paint And Taste class I’d found on the web while planning the trip. I hadn’t signed up for it; but maybe I could find the room and drop in? So I did; the instructor, a young blond woman named Krystal Falcon, was just putting up a sign in the hallway. She directed me to a Jimmy John’s for a quick supper before class started.

When I returned, about 20 people were milling around in the room, filling out forms and getting blobs of blue, white and yellow paint from big pump-bottles onto paper plates. Another woman named Rochelle was serving wine from a makeshift corner bar. “If you have any trouble painting, have some more wine!” I took a glass of a red blend, very tasty, and put it next to my jar of water for mixing with paint. I suppose that if your wine starts tasting like paint, you know it’s time to go home.

A painting of a willow tree in a shaft of moonlight stood on display at the front of the room. Our assignment; paint something similar to this. We made the pictures in layers, from background to foreground. The acrylic paints could be mixed with water and with each other. We had three kinds of brushes, plus Q-tips which we bundled with rubber bands and used for stamping leaves on our trees. Krystal guided us thru one layer at a time; in two hours most of us had presentable pictures.

Sunday 10/1: As October dawned, the lovely fall weather sputtered out; while walking back from my breakfast at the Dakota Farms restaurant to the El Rancho Motel, I saw a dark mass of clouds approaching from the northwest. It socked in and rained all day. Gwen, Dannyelle and Thomas came to the motel lobby to visit and play pinochle with Pat. A motel clerk brought us a pot of coffee. After a while I introduced the subject of lunch. “No! We have to play cards!” Gwen objected.

A short time later, Gwen had to go to work. We went to a grocery to pick up some things, and I got a sandwich to eat in the car while Pat drove me to the library. She went to Dannyelle’s house to teach Jordan Jr. how to play Fish and coach JohnPaul in Pinochle

A librarian showed me where the local history books were. I found no book dedicated to Williston; but from some books about North Dakota I learned the following:

  • In 1827, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co. built Fort Union, an Indian trading post, where the Yellowstone River joined the Missouri. The fort had a steamboat connection to St. Louis MO. This community moved east a bit and became Williston.
  • In 1887, the Manitoba Railroad Co. owned by James J. Hill extended its line westward from Minot to Williston. This line became part of Hill’s Great Northern railroad.
  • Republican progressive Usher Burdick moved to Williston in 1910 and went into business there. He fumbled a bid to become ND’s governor.
  • Main StBy 1915, Williston was a rapidly growing commercial center. Its first radio station started broadcasting in 1929.
  • In 1976, nearby Fortuna Air Force Base detected a UFO on its radar; several townspeople reported seeing it.
  • The Bakken shale oil formation that underlies Williston is thought to have more oil than the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Enbridge Pipeline Co. built a pipeline from Williston to Clearbrook MN. In the late ’70s Williston experienced an oil boom. It built new water and sewage systems and new schools to handle the surge in population. Then oil prices dropped and the boom ended. Williston’s population in 2000 was about 12,000.
  • By 2016 it had rebounded to about 26,000.

Pat picked me up when the library closed. I got some more quality time with Dannyelle’s cats Guy-Guy and Judith. We had a farewell dinner at Applebee’s with Dannyelle and JohnPaul before heading west into darkness.

Part 3

More pictures