Old Photos of New Family

As a kid, I would sometimes purchase new aunts, grandparents, and cousins. No, it wasn’t some kind of mail-order bride-type scheme or human trafficking. It was old photographs to fill a family album.

My dad collects old cameras, and every year, we’d go to a big camera show just south of Seattle. Honestly, I dreaded going. Camera bodies, lenses, straps, red bellows, black bellows, tripods, and other metallic odds and ends filled table after table in what seemed to be a room without end. My dad looked at everything at least five times. Maybe five hundred. Or at least that’s what it seemed to my child-sized patience.

Then one year, my mom and I discovered a side room filled with shoe boxes and milk crates of black and white photographs. Babies in Christening gowns on tufted chairs; head shots of women with braids wrapped several times around their heads; mothers and children standing buttoned up around a seated father in a suit and bowler. I couldn’t stop flipping through the photographs, wondering who these people were and how they ended up anonymously stashed in a box. Most had nothing written on the back.

“Lost relatives,” I declared to my mom.

She was fingering a worn velvet photo album with “Family Album” stamped in gold on the front. Inside, its thick board pages had cut-out windows surrounded by printed flowers, polka dots, and curlicues. It was the most beautiful photo album I’d ever seen. A paper tag inside said it dated from the 1890s.

Soon, we were grabbing photos from the boxes and trying them out in the album. Maybe this beautiful woman in the bustle was my great-great-great aunt? And this toddler leaning over the back of the chair a distant cousin? Maybe, why not? We soon filled the album with our new relatives.

To this day, I can’t stop looking at old photographs, trying to imagine who these people are and what their lives must have been like. Photographs of old sports teams and panoramic view of factories with all the employees lined up out front are some of my favorites. And of course, this photo:

This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect.

This is one of my favorite photos. A bikini and hip waders?! Pretty much perfect. Source: WHI 1994

The velvet album filled with my fictional family still sits in my parents’ living room, the people in the photos separated from their own families but more than welcome in mine.



Pulp Version of Odd Wisconsin

Have you seen the Pulp-o-mizer? Just for fun, I made a new, pulp-y cover for my book Odd Wisconsin. Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

Train Person

I’m a train person. The pace, the unexpected views, the reading, the lack of need for me to pay attention to where we’re going, the very old-fashionedness of it… it’s really just perfect.   Some of my best ideas and clearest thinking have happened while confined to my seat with little to do for hours but stare out the window. The constant rush in my head finally settles down and a perspective I can’t seem to see or grasp in my daily life comes into focus. Everything seems possible again. The path forward seems less a tangle of thorny blackberries than a meandering jaunt through a forest filled with singing cartoon rabbits and deer.

And I can say this after many not-so-perfect long-distance trips.

An overnight trip from Spain to Italy had us clutching our bags in the night as thieves boarded the train at small town stops to grab what they could before jumping off as the train pulled out of the station.


My first Amtrak trip from Wisconsin to Seattle started with a bus ride to the Twin Cities after flooding took out a portion of the tracks in Central Wisconsin. Once on the train, we discovered that the train had not received all of its usual supplies for the 40+ hour trip across the country. The snack bar had hot dogs but no blankets, pillows, or much of anything else. I shivered in my coach seat, sleeping little, and eating nothing but a 1 pound bag of carrots that I happened to bring along. By the time we reached Idaho, the bathrooms in our car had become indoor outhouses. The lock on one stuck on me and I had to be rescued by the porter who kicked the door open while I pressed my back against the sidewall to avoid a broken nose.

A more recent trip from Chicago to New Orleans took a tragic turn when our train crashed into a man attempting to race the train in his truck in Mississippi. Needless to say, he lost.

But these bad times have been far outweighed by the good. I’ve seen all the people Nathaniel Rich describes in “How to spend 47 hours on a train and not go crazy.” The people who refuse to fly; people starting over; and people obsessed with trains. Once, we stayed in a hotel filled with train spotters in Montana. They sat by the windows and outside on the deck, counting the trains, taking photos of the trains, and talking about trains. All were white-haired men. A few wore the blue-and-white striped engineer hats that I thought only children and characters in children’s books wore. They were deadly serious about trains. Their wives, on the other hand, sat away from the windows chatting about everything but. They paid no attention to the passenger and freight cars clattering by every 10 minutes.



We met a man another trip who criss-crossed the country from his home in Santa Barbara on the train. He planned to take one long-distance train after another for two weeks, his destination the journey itself.

Trains often pass through areas you can’t experience any other way, both astonishingly beautiful as on the train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland and across the mountains of Norway, and others less so like the trash-strewn industrial landscapes ringing many American cities. But there’s still something magical about all of these places and the rare glimpse afforded from a seat behind a broad pane of glass.

Onboard, I scribble notes and ideas to myself on receipts, hotel notepads, and ticket stubs in an attempt to capture all the good feelings and thoughts that the train has inspired. Stepping off and onto the platform, life consumes me once again. But I’m calmed by the thought that I can capture it all once again on my next train trip.