Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pasties on the Range

In 2003 my family made its first foray into the upper Great Lakes region of Northeast Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), beginning our long, continuing affair with the shorelines of the greatest lakes. Possibly the first sign welcoming us to the area hinted at "pasties ahead, 1 mile." Soon the byways were peppered with an assortment of sometimes shambolic roadhouses, neon "open" signs beckoning us to "Get your pasties here." My first thought was of tassels and cheap burlesque. But reality was in truth as tawdry as a senior's night checkers game at a nudist colony. We had stumbled upon a heritage dish, mining's contribution to the world's palate, the pasty (PASS-tee).

The pasty is perhaps the main raison d'être for an otherwise disrespected vegetable, the rutabaga. Other principal components of the standard pasty are beef, potato, onion and spices wrapped in a crimped pastry to form a semicircular pocket sandwich that is then baked to a golden brown. In the Upper Midwest, "spices" refers exclusively to salt and pepper. The pasty is right at home there. Its most scandalous aspect regionally is mild disagreement over the spelling of the singular item, some vendors preferring "pastie."

Variations on the standard pasty for the adventurous crowd might skip the beef altogether or include extra potato, and ketchup is an almost shameful side transaction not discussed between merchant and customer. Hoping no one will see, I've furtively grabbed a few courtesy packs of the condiment like a nervous youth in the prophylactic section of a drugstore. Gravy is a damnable abomination reserved for tourists.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Almanzo Wilder homestead

There is a subculture of leisure travel dedicated to romantically rural sites of factual or fictional literary interest that speak nostalgically of a "simpler" time. Perhaps devotees of Lucy Maud Montgomery's fictional  Green Gables series are the best known, flocking from worldwide to bucolic Prince Edward Island locations that inspired (or were inspired by) the book series.

The best American example may be the widely-scattered historic homesteads of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her husband and their families. Similarly passionate enthusiasts of Wilder's loosely autobiographical Little House children's series plan whole road-trip vacations around seminal locations of the series from New York, through the Upper Midwest and Missouri.

This photo was taken near Malone, New York at the boyhood home of Almanzo Wilder (future husband of Laura Ingalls), restored from largely original materials. The 84 acre farm and surrounding countryside looks much as it may have in 1865. I've followed my own wife's interest here and to De Smet, South Dakota, and such sites do add a third dimension to one's impressions of past generations, and a greater appreciation for the challenges of their "simpler" way of life. Today's McMansions have individual rooms the size of this little house, which sheltered a family of five children. But there is life lingering in old boards and something poignant about a commonplace item--maybe even a lowly nail--that someone I've read about may have handled.

Open for the summer from late May to October, general admission includes a guided tour of the restored farmhouse, reconstructed barns, and the (free) museum. Adults: $8.00,  Seniors: $7.50, Children 6 - 16: $4.50. 5 and under: Free.

To get there from Malone:
Drive northeast on US Route 11 for about 2.5 miles (towards Burke). Turn on County Route 23 to the first right, Donohue Road. Take Donohue Road to a T-intersection at Stacy Road and turn right. The Wilder Homestead is about 1/2 mile on the left at 177 Stacy Road.

July, 2014.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Picture of the Moment - A Phoenix in the Ashes

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a Western Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda) stands as a bastion of life amongst blackened neighbors consumed by wildfire. My equally beautiful wife Stacey took this picture on the road from Esperance to Albany, not far from Ravensthorpe. I only wish there could have been a few rays of full sun in the foreground.

I've always been drawn to perseverance. Perhaps it's because my career in mineral exploration demands it; success only comes from overcoming obstacles, and the road is littered with failures. We had never seen one of these Christmas trees in such full bloom. It's a reminder that it's always darkest before the dawn, and with dawn comes the brightest star.

Photo from December 23rd, 2008.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Avoiding World Record Traffic in Toronto

There will always be an argument about what city has the worst traffic. But Highway 401 (officially the Macdonald–Cartier Freeway) running between Windsor, Ontario and the Quebec border is the busiest roadway in North America, and it is arguably the world's busiest, with locally more than 18 lanes of idling cars. If you like superlatives and travel to Guinness-book sites, it's a must-see vacation destination.

When traffic is flowing, it's a poor man's thrill ride.

An office transfer off the direct mass transit routes made taking the GO train system an impossibility for me last year. Heavy city congestion meant a creative commute and work-from-home hours, and I learned from experience that driving from the city during peak rush hours (not shown here!) could make my 42-kilometer commute from Etobicoke (north-western Toronto) to Burlington take over a hundred minutes on the less-heavily trafficked Queen Elizabeth Way. That was on a good day. Google Maps tells me I could cover the distance in 32 minutes without traffic, but there's no sense in waiting for the Apocalypse. Torontonians are aggressive drivers as a whole, and not enough would be taken up in the Rapture.

To use pivot tables and breakdown statistics by weekday or route; that thought makes me weak-kneed. Since I left a regular technical role for Management, I am now absurdly pleased when I have the opportunity to make a chart or X-Y plot of anything, however banal, on personal time, hence my daily commute illustrated here. To decide between a linear trend line or the third order polynomial, that's a moment of near nirvana.

But independent variables like weather, accident, school-year traffic, teenagers, dubious third world driving licenses and sunspots wreak havoc on the best of plans. I modelled my commute in both directions over a calendar year with 3rd-order polynomial regressions, and both have very poor correlation coefficients below 0.35. But I dared not tread the main rush hour waters (4-7 pm) for a better spread of data, particularly in the afternoon, based on the hard lessons I learned before I started plotting.

Now I travel the lonely highways of northern Minnesota, and my commute is a unvarying flat line at any hour. Perhaps the end is nigh?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pardon the tumble-weeds...


There's a lot going on for me this week, so something had to give.

Moving house internationally (even between Canada and the US) with three kids, two cats, a dog and a harried spouse in a minivan is a lot of work that requires full-time attention. And we should know. It's our sixth home move in 7.5 years. Happily, the moving truck didn't need to come with the minivan.

So pardon the tumble-weeds, and I'll be back soon. Look for a blog on top tips for moving in the near future.

Regards, Mike

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blooming Western Australian Desert

It's easy to forget Australia is more than an endless coastline and Uluru. The Lucky Country is just too huge, and sometimes unforgiving, for casual trips across the continent, and air travel can be prohibitively expensive. Even many native Australians don't get far beyond the narrow strips of high population density on the east and west coasts, to an interior largely considered barren desert or dry cropland eked out of the bush. Not surprisingly then, many of the largely urban Western Australian population never experience the spectacular, seasonal carpets of wildflowers that paint the rural countryside within easy reach. Maybe they are victims of their own domestic marketing of beaches and a large rock.

Australia is the driest continent. Excepting the occasional summer cyclone, even prime farmland in the Wheatbelt of south-western Australia can go months between rains, which finally come in the temperate winter months of June through early September. With welcome moisture comes an explosion in colorful flowers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Baking in the Shadow of Vesuvius

The first thing you notice about ancient Pompeii is the buildings are in generally better condition than those of modern Naples. The second, at least for me, is the proximity to Vesuvius. I knew it was close, but visiting in person I feel I could almost throw a rock at the mountain. And Vesuvius isn't a particularly imposing peak. I don't suppose it was even particularly lofty before the historic eruption. The vegetation running up its sides gives it the appearance of pastoral approachability.

The close geography of the key elements makes it easy to picture the events of 79 AD as an observer from what is now Naples--the cloud of choking hot ash first suffocating Pompeii, then collapse of the mountainside and a superheated pyroclastic flow barreling like a freight train towards those in Herculaneum who had lingered to watch the eruption. The Earth often gives early warning, but in truth four million Neapolitans and their neighbors live in sight of a mountain that could release its pressure at any time. And if it happened today, I could be part of the next archeology exhibit. Almost tempting for a geologist.