Archive for the ‘americana’ category

RIDING AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT

September 30, 2014

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-87Riding in the Sightseer Lounge Car with trains passing by on each side

Does Amtrak use Central Casting to hire its conductors? Probably not, but it seemed so when the man with the neatly trimmed white mustache and commanding manner arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station and announced to us how to queue up to board the train. He made the railroad proud.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-29The conductor checking tickets early in the journey

The last time I had been in King Street Station, the place was a mess, with temporary plywood walls and hardly a hint of the grandeur of the original station, which served the Great Northern and Northern Pacific passenger trains through much of the last century. Alas, the station had been modernized and lobotomized numerous times through the years, and had lost its personality. The city of Seattle bought the station a few years ago for the princely sum of $10, and agreed to renovate it at a cost of millions. Now the station’s interior is restored to much of its original glory, with plaster ceiling rosettes and marble floors and walls galore, along with the tradtional long wooden benches. Our voices echoed in the empty cavern. Earthquake cracks snaked along the marble floors–a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake that shook Puget Sound at a 6.8 quake level.

Seattle_King_St_Station-9Seattle’s King Street Station, recently renovated, is a classic, soaring space of light and marble

We had arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early on Sunday morning, after a beautiful late summer ferry run across Puget Sound, followed by a quick yellow taxi ride to the station. We were early because the ferry and train schedules don’t quite match, but that was all right, since it gave me a chance to photograph the station without the clutter of the passengers it was built for.

Our destination on this trip was Fresno, California, where we planned to pick up a new camping vehicle to drive back to Washington. We could have flown and been there faster, but we wanted  to take a bit more gear than would have been easy on a plane, and the train ride sounded like it would be more relaxing, since there is absolutely nothing relaxing or pleasant about the airport and airplane experience any more unless you can go in the airline club and get tanked prior to your first class flight.

Seattle_King_St_Station-15Amtrak’s classy poster for the Coast Starlight train, which runs daily from Seattle to Los Angeles (and visa versa)

Besides, I love trains. I’ve loved trains since I was three years old, and found an American Flyer train with a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive circling the Christmas tree in my family’s Detroit living room. My longest train ride was a trip to New Mexico circa 1964, when I went with a group of Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch for a great backpacking trip. In addition to seeing a UFO out the window while crossing the New Mexico desert, I remember flushing the toilet on the train and seeing it directly open to the railroad ties whizzing by below.

Later, I developed a love for the train songs that were popular in early folk and country music. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was influential enough in my life that I would have enjoyed becoming a Canadian if the opportunity arose. It didn’t. Then there was Linda Ronstadt’s exquisite version of “2:10 Train,” which showed her powerful vocal talents on one of her early efforts. And The Grateful Dead singing of “Casey Jones” meeting his fate, as in “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed … trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.” Music these days isn’t focused as much on planes, trains, and automobiles as it was when I was coming of age, and I miss hearing new train songs.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-23Passing one of the powerful locomotives on powerful Warren Buffett’s railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Soon enough Karen and I boarded the Coast Starlight for our overnight journey from Seattle to Fresno, California. Fortunately we got to sit next to each other on the nearly full train, though I hogged the window seat so that I could photograph the passing scene. There are big windows and plenty of legroom on these big seats, which is almost enough to make me never want to fly again. I could actually work on my computer without the fear that the person in front of me would suddenly recline their seat and shatter my screen.

There were passengers of all sorts: a few railfans, but mostly people who just wanted to get from here to there easily and inexpensively. From the start of the journey, there was a quiet murmer of conversation and the pleasant white noise of the hissing air conditioning system. The announcer came on the loudspeaker and asked people not to talk on their cell phones from their seats, but to instead take their cell conversations to a different part of the train car. But the young guy next to us didn’t hear the announcement, because he was already into a series of hours-long cell phone conversations that were so profoundly boring that I still feel like my useful life was shortened by being near him.

Alas, that is the common result of sharing a limited space with strangers for hours on end. It often works out well; sometimes not. Fortunately the passing scene outside kept us occupied, and Karen knitted a blue baby sweater for hours on end.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-24Passing through Tacoma, where the cable-stayed 21st Street Bridge crosses the Thea Foss Waterway

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-25Passing by Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, with its striking, cone-shaped hot shop, which celebrates the roles of Tacoma and artist Dale Chihuly in creating beautiful art glass. Note the Airstream trailer, which goes nicely with the stainless steel architecture of the museum.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-49Homes along a tidal slough along Puget Sound south of Tacoma

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-15The train takes passengers along industrial corridors normally not seen by highway drivers

We watched the passing scene as we wound through Tacoma and along Puget Sound. A group of scuba divers in drysuits and masks prepared to enter the Sound. Rotting piers and multi-million dollar condo developments flashed by. Occasionally a silver and red Santa Fe locomotive sat on a siding. This was a remnant of the the railroad business prior to to the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads. Now Warren Buffett’s company owns the whole BNSF system so we’ll blame him for any delays on this trip.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-45We passed right under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges. For those who remember their high school science classes, this is the location of the Galloping Gertie bridge that developed dramatic waves in a 40 mph wind soon after it was built in 1940. The waves were filmed and, at least in my fuzzy memories, the film showed cars being tossed from the bridge. It soon collapsed, and the pieces now create an artificial reef on the bottom of this stretch of Puget Sound.

After a while, we decided to wander the train, exploring the aisles and determining where we could eat when we got hungry. Three cars toward the locomotive, there was an observation Sightseer Lounge Car with windows that wrap over the top of the car where volunteer interpreters from Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park told engaging stories about the passing scene. My favorite story was about the guy who so enjoyed watching the trains go by from his driveway that he stipulated that he be buried under his gravel drive; it was fun seeing the wide green spot in his driveway that covers his grave, and waving to his friendly ghost.

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As we approached Portland, we bought lunch from the snack bar tucked away below the lounge. The coffee here was good; the microwave meals, not so much. As Karen said, it should be considered “filler” rather than food. Her plastic-enclosed Caesar salad was marginally better than my microwaved cheese pizza., but neither would win the mass transit cuisine competition. Amtrak, can we talk? Are you listening? Can’t you make these snack bars a little bit better with some truly edible food? Please?

Meanwhile, the interpreters pointed out all the houseboats around the islands as we approached Portland. They said that the original impetus for houseboats here was that people thought they could avoid property taxes by living on water instead of land. The government quashed that notion pretty quick with a different kind of tax, but people came to like the romance of rocking gently on the water as they drifted off to sleep.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-76Train station in Centralia, Washington

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Actually, speaking of taxes, this border with Oregon has long been a hotbed for tax avoiders. There are a lot of people who live on the Washington State side of the mighty Columbia River because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. Then, they do their major shopping on the Oregon side, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. It’s a pretty good racket, though they generally get caught if they buy a car in Oregon and try registering it there.

We pulled into the classic Portland Union Station, where smokers were told they could take a “fresh air break.” We coughed as we passed through all that fresh air, then entered the busy station, which was filled with so many people that it seemed like we had stepped back 60 years, though the cell phones and casual clothing were decidedly current. After a few minutes photographing the soaring station interior, and wondering why today’s public spaces are so uninspiring in comparison, we bought ice cream bars to savor during the walk back to our train car.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-94Portland’s Union Station, another classic structure from the classic era of trains

The train filled up again for the run south through the Willamette Valley, through Albany and Salem and Eugene and all the flat country of this vast agricultural valley.  When pioneers on the Oregon Trail finished their long journey in covered wagons pulled by oxen, this valley was their promised land. Its rich soil had been deposited during huge glacial floods that scoured eastern Washington and filled the Willamette Valley. Now there are vast vineyards to supply the wineries, tree and shrub nurseries, fields of peppermint to delight the nose, and orchards of hazelnut trees. During our ride through the valley many of the fields were brown after late summer harvests; had we come through in March, after the winter rains, the entire valley would have been a dazzling green.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-114Some passengers taking a fresh air break outside the train, with others just boarding

The afternoon passed pleasantly, and eventually we began to climb out of the valley and into the mountains of southern Oregon. We chose to have dinner in the dining car, where we were seated with two pleasant ladies heading home to Red Bluff, California after a Seattle wedding. They immediately refused the dinner rolls, saying they were on a gluten-free diet, along with tens of millions of other Americans. There were several entrees available; one of the ladies chose an Amtrak Signature Steak, which was a rare treat … actually, extremely rare, to the point of still mooing. She sent it back for some fresh searing. Meanwhile, we ate the Herb Roasted Half Chicken with rice pilaf, which was very good and filling. Amtrak may not rise to the level of excellence of a fine Seattle restaurant, but its meals are good enough to satisfy hungry travelers.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-115The dining car had some empty tables during our early seating

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-119Forest fires burned during this hot fire season, filling the air with smoky haze

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After dinner, we reclaimed our seats and watched as the train passed through a mountain landscape choked with smoke from nearby forest fires. We could not see any flames, but the fires were nearby.

Once it grew dark outside, we grew sleepy. After all, it had been a long day with an early ferry ride across Puget Sound, a cab ride to the train station, and then a long train ride. The gentle motion of the rails induced easy sleep in the reclining seats.

We were unexpectedly awakened before dawn by the Conductor saying that we were 12 minutes from Sacramento, and that it was time to gather our things. Amazingly, we were a full hour ahead of schedule when we pulled into the station, and were able to make an earlier and better rail connection for the rest of the trip into Fresno.

Once again, I was satisfied with rail travel. It is far more relaxing than flying, with better seats, freedom to roam the train, and a better space for working on a computer. What’s not to like, other than the snack bar’s offerings?

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-124Waiting to board our connection to Fresno, a train run by Amtrak California

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

BRIDGES OVER TROUBLED WATERS: With a Dollop of Heavy Crude

February 20, 2013

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyThe Charlotte Highway Bridge, built in 1886, is  now located in Historic Bridge Park near Battle Creek, Michigan

While I was young, my family had a cabin in northern Michigan that we would drive up to on weekends throughout much of the year. We knew we were getting close when our Chevy station wagon crossed the Muskegon River over a rusty steel truss bridge near the village of Hersey. The backwater pool under the bridge, with its sandy river bottom, became our favorite swimming hole and canoe launch point. While swimming there, local teenagers would sometimes climb to the top of the spidery bridge and launch themselves like bad boy Olympic high divers down to the river far below. It was a center of the community in summer.

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyMore views of the beautiful Charlotte Highway Bridge

Alas, the old steel bridge was replaced several decades ago by a concrete structure that is undoubtedly stronger and wider and safer than the original bridge–but has none of the charm and grace of the older structure. This has been the story across America, as bridges over troubled waters run into trouble themselves, and are replaced with more mundane structures.

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge, built in 1891 by the Michigan Central Railroad, is a semicircular stone arch bridge; Norfolk Southern and Amtrack trains pass overhead

One man saw the disappearance of iron and steel truss bridges as a sad Michigan and American trend, and he had the vision to create something truly unique. Dennis Randolph, Managing Director (at the time) of the Calhoun County Road Commission, assembled a team of staff and volunteers to move five bridges from various parts of Michigan to a small park along the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek. In a few short years, the bridges were brought in and lovingly restored by Vern Mesler and many other dedicated workers.

The park became Historic Bridge Park, and I was thrilled to walk through the park when it first opened. The old iron and steel bridges were elegant and beautiful in their engineering, and the restoration appeared to be impeccable. I know of nowhere else in America that has an outdoor bridge collection, and I applaud the people who made this possible.

Entrance Sign for Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIEntrance sign for Historic Bridge Park

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIToday the Gale Road Bridge crosses Dickinson Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River

Alas, on July 25 & 26, 2010, a 30″ diameter pipeline carrying diluted heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, burst near Marshall, Michigan, close to Historic Bridge Park. Before the leak was discovered and the flow stopped, 819,000 gallons of dark crude spilled into Talmadge Creek, then flowed into the Kalamazoo River, contaminating birds and fish and the whole riverbed for several miles. Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the spill, spent two years cleaning up the oil spill with crews and equipment working full time to restore the damaged section of the Kalamazoo River. Historic Bridge Park was necessarily closed to public use for nearly two years.

Part of the cost of cleanup and mitigation for Enbridge was to provide improved facilities at Historic Bridge Park. With these funds, new restroom and canoe launch facilities were provided, and the park got an endowment to help with future maintenance. Historic Bridge Park reopened in 2012, and it is now more beautiful than ever.

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIThe Gale Road Bridge originally spanned the Grand River in Ingham County, Michigan, from the time it was built in 1897

Bridges at Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County near Battle CrSix bridges in close proximity make Historic Bridge Park an outdoor museum

When I was in Historic Bridge Park, I noticed blue paint slashes on some of the trees. These are markers for a long distance hiking route: the North Country Trail. If I was of a mind to, I could shoulder a backpack and hike this trail south into Ohio, then east into Pennsylvania and on into Upstate New York, taking my last step in some of my favorite mountains: the Adirondacks.

Alternatively, I could hike the other way out of the park and head to Michigan’s “up north,” eventually crossing the Mackinaw Bridge, walking through the vast north woods of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, then ending up in the sea of grass of the North Dakota prairie.

Alas, I cannot do either, as it is time to leave Battle Creek and fly back to Washington State, crossing the snowy winter landscape at 35,000.’

Limestone Steps in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIBeautiful limestone steps ascend the hill so visitors can cross the Charlotte Highway Bridge on foot

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge passes under the route of the Norfolk Southern tracks

Kalamazoo River in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIThe beautiful Kalamazoo River, where it flows past the park

For specific information about the bridges in the park, go to Historic Bridges.

For information about the Enbridge Energy oil spill, go to Kalamazoo River Oil Spill.

The visionary engineer behind Historic Bridge Park, Dennis Randolph, is also a prolific administrator and author. He has written a good book about community engineering: Civil Engineering for the Community.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK: Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout

August 16, 2012

View from the deck of Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout toward Mount Rainier

When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.

Gobblers Knob Lookout sits atop a rocky promontory with terrific views into Mount Rainier National Park, and back toward the clearcut expanses of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!

Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).

Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!

Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.

Gobblers Knob is no longer staffed during each fire season, and is maintained now for historical reasons rather than fire fighting

When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.

Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.

Sunset reflecting in the Gobblers Knob lookout windows, looking toward Mount Rainier

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.

The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.

The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.

To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.

Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.

The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.

Sunset on Mount Rainier from the lookout; what a wonderful place it would have been to spend the summer!

Subalpine trees silhouetted by the last light of sunset as we started our descent

After dark, we left the lookout and hiked down the trail 1.6 miles back to camp by headlamp; the only spooky moment was seeing the bright green eyeshine of a hiker’s dog looking back at us

On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.

The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.

The tranquil view from our campsite along Goat Lake; that is, until I disturbed the peace with my yelps upon entering the cold morning water!

The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.

Photographs from the trail:

The trail to Gobblers Knob leads past Lake Christine and through subalpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers

White Avalanche Lilies, which melt almost immediately after snowmelt, were the star wildflower attraction here

I have rarely seen wildflowers packed as densely as these spectacular White Avalanche Lilies; avalanche fields forever

Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs are among the big trees in the forest near Goat Lake

The green of Beljica Meadows viewed from Mount Beljica, site of another abandoned lookout that has vanished without a trace into the annals of U.S. Forest Service history

Dark-throated Shooting Star is a spectacular wildflower of these high wet meadows

Magenta Paintbrush blooming along the trail

A close view of White Avalanche Lily

Rare yellow form of the normally red-and-yellow columbine that graces the high forests of Washington State

For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:

National Park Service trail to Gobblers Knob (Note: this is NOT the route we took; the National Park Service route is longer, and much of it follows the West Side Road, which is now closed to vehicles.

Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)

There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

THE NEBRASKA SANDHILLS: Loving the Great Plains

June 27, 2012

Colt following its mother in the Nebraska Sandhills

I’ll get the embarrassing stuff out of the way first: I got my vehicle stuck in the sand of Nebraska’s Sandhills. I was heading back on a 28 mile paved one lane road (paved so the tourists don’t get stuck!) that was about ten feet wide; after a particularly rewarding stretch of birding and photography, I decided to return to see if I could get any other photographs. Near a cattle guard I swung the van wide right off the pavement and then proceeded to take a wide U-turn. The sand on the other side of the road was softer than I expected, and the van’s rear wheels began spinning, cutting deeper into the sand like a chain saw. Within seconds, the van was resting on its transmission and the back wheels were spinning freely.  At this point, with my hands on my hips and any hint of a smile vanished from my face, I stared at my predicament. I wasn’t going to get out by myself with the equipment I had, yet it was 25 miles back to the main road and cell phone reception.

The thin ribbon of pavement leading out through the Sandhills; is it paved so that the tourists don’t get stuck in the sand?

My van, stuck in sand beside the paved one-lane road to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Here the van was resting on its transmission with the wheels spinning freely … I guess I should have gotten a 4WD van!

This is about as lonely as a road gets, but within a minute or so, I saw a truck towing a horse trailer approaching. As it drew next to me and slowed, I looked up at the driver and was surprised to see a cute teenage cowgirl, blond hair in a pony tail flowing out from behind a baseball cap. I immediately thought of the old “Take it Easy” Eagles’ song lyric:

“It’s a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me …”

Well, not at me, but at my predicament. I told her the obvious, that I was stuck, and asked if she had a way to pull me out.

“Sure.”  she said, “But I have to take care of something first; I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate your help,” and watched as she drove away. Then I spent the next half hour on hands and knees digging out as much sand from in front of the rear wheels as I could, not that it helped all that much, but it gave me something to do while waiting.

Then I heard the distant drone of a motor across the sandhills, and watched the flat-bed Ford and horse trailer returning. This time the girl brought her dad with her, and he matter-of-factly hooked a heavy tow chain to my rig and I was out in a couple of minutes. He looked like a rugged and handsome 40-something rancher from Central Casting, with a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a blue western shirt, deeply tanned with thin wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. I shook his hand and thanked him and his daughter for their help, and I was back on my way–albeit with his friendly admonition to stay on the paved road!

Back on the road again, crossing a cattle guard with a cactus sticking out of it

Western boundary of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 25 miles along this sand road to the nearest hamlet

The lonely landscape

The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a place apart, dotted with lonely ranch houses that might be a dozen miles from the nearest neighbor. When meeting a pickup virtually anywhere in the Sandhills, the driver will almost always wave. This happens only in the REALLY rural, sparsely populated parts of America.

The grass-covered sand dunes of the Sandhills

When this region was first settled in a land rush just after the turn of the last century, the new owners got 640 acres of government land under the Kinkaid Act passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, and set about to raise crops and dairy cattle. Earlier, settlers had gotten 160 acres of land, but that proved to be too little to make a living on, or even to starve decently, so the 640 acres was a better deal. But this is a harsh land, and the story of ranching and farming here has been one of farm failure, followed by gradual consolidation into large ranches.

Two-track road winding over the dunes in the Nebraska National Forest

I’ve loved this region since I first saw it some 20 years ago. It is truly big sky country, with wave after wave of sand dunes stretching far, far beyond what the eye can see. These are not dunes in the sense of barren and blowing beach dunes; these are dunes covered with grasses that wave in the constant winds. The sand dunes are no longer active, since the region gets enough rain now for the dunes to support the grasses that stabilize the sand. The exception is where wind undermines the grass cover on the dunes in a “blowout;” this has happened consistently enough through the eons that one endangered wildflower–the Blowout Penstemon–is actually adapted to colonizing and stabilizing these blowouts.

I rescued this Ornate Box Turtle from the middle of the road, after I took his picture

The Ornate Box Turtle has a hinged lower shell in front, which it draws up to shield its face from intruders; this was one of the few pictures I took after he finally decided I was not much of an adversary and went strolling away

Western Meadowlark viewing its territory from atop a wooden fencepost

Prairie Rose in bloom

Western Spiderwort brightening the landscape with blossoms that seem to reflect the vast blue sky

Winds are constant in this open land. Ranchers catch the winds with old-fashioned windmills, which pump water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer up to tanks for watering cattle. Many of these windmills have seen service for many decades, and the Great Plains would look even emptier without them. The landscape is wonderful for raising cattle, horses, and wildlife–all of which take advantage of the open tanks of water below each windmill.

Windmill pumping water for cattle in the Nebraska Sandhills

Each windmill pumps water, as long as the wind is blowing, into a stock tank; birds and other wildlife also take advantage of the good source of water

Patience is a virtue when waiting for bulls and calves to leave the road

The Ogallala Aquifer is Nebraska’s most precious natural resource, other than the future potential of wind. The aquifer is the reason that the Nebraska Sandhills made the national news for the first time in my memory. A Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., proposed to route the big Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Sandhills, which would bring black gold from Alberta tar sands down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. When President Obama announced a delay in approval of the pipeline in November 2011, a lot of Americans howled in protest, convinced that the delay was a political move, but not the conservative ranchers of the Sandhills. They know that their livelihood depends upon the health of the Ogallala Aquifer running below these old sand dunes, and that a serious oil spill could ruin the clear liquid gold that lies below the sand. These ranchers vociferously protested the proposed route of the pipeline, and I suspect that they will eventually win in the battle to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills.

Prairie pothole and dramatic cirrus clouds

One area of the Sandhills is dotted by prairie pothole lakes; here the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for ducks and wading birds, as well as songbirds and other wildlife. During my brief visit, I glassed a flock of American White Pelicans; huge birds that were resting on an island in the middle of a small lake. Near them, at a few feet higher in elevation than the pelicans, was a colony of nesting Double-Crested Cormorants. My favorite bird of the refuge was the Long-Billed Curlew, a large wading bird with an impossibly long and slender curved bell. Pairs of curlews were flying wildly above, frantically calling with the urgency of breeding. What an exuberant display of summer life on the prairie!

Prairie pothole lakes dot the landscape in the vicinity of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Upland Sandpiper nervously watching me

Long-billed Curlew opening its impossibly long and curved bill

Juvenile American Avocet foraging among flies along the edge of a prairie pothole

The other sound that I associate with the Great Plains is the call of the meadowlark. The first time I drove across the country, now over 40 years ago, I was on the way from my Michigan home to fight forest fires in the California mountains. I had just read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, about his journey to rediscover America by traveling the back roads. I did some of the same on my trip, and I recall driving through Kansas with the windows open on a hot spring day–this was before air conditioning isolated most of us from the sounds of the outside world–and hearing the constant melodies of meadowlarks perched on fenceposts and telephone poles. I’ll always associate the prairie with that experience.

Western Meadowlark bursting into song

When I first visited the sandhills back in the mid-1990s, I photographed an old gas pump in front of an abandoned building, where an old steel advertising sign faded in the prairie sunlight. On this return trip, I discovered that the pump and old sign have since been removed, presumably by antique collectors, leaving just a sad old building in a row of sad old buildings. In fact, this town of Whitman is trending toward an agricultural ghost town as the Great Plains depopulate.

I photographed the Jewel Diner in Mullen back in the 1990s; there is now just a concrete slab where the diner once stood

When I photographed this building in the 1990s, there was a classic old gas pump and two old metal signs; these are now gone 

Old and abandoned buildings in Whitman, as the village slides toward being an agricultural ghost town during my 2012 visit

Old false-front building in Whitman in 2012

In the nearby village of Mullen, I photographed the Jewel Diner years ago. This abandoned diner was in the classic old tradition of 1930s era art-deco diners, but it was tiny and cute as can be. I remember being thrilled to see and photograph it. Since then, the diner was removed and installed in a steel barn owned by a private collector. Here is what I said about the Jewel Diner after first encountering it a decade-and-a-half ago:

“Just before photographing this ghost of an old diner, I stopped for lunch at a small town restaurant just down the road. After seeing what other patrons were eating, I ordered the local specialty — a dinner plate-sized (really!) slab of breaded and fried pork served with mayo on a huge bun. We’re not going to talk about my cholesterol level right now, thank you.

After rolling out the door and down the road, I immediately stopped to photograph this jewel of a diner. With the art deco details, it would have been the most modern building in this Nebraskan sandhills town back in the late 1940s. When I took the photograph in 1999, the Jewel Diner had sat there closed and empty, probably for several decades.

At an art show in Cincinnati, one woman was thrilled to see this photograph. She told me that she was raised in Mullen and frequently ate at the Jewel Diner all those years ago. Recently she returned to the town and found that the diner had been moved–apparently to restart its career serving up chicken-fried steaks and home fries.” 

I camped one night in the Nebraska National Forest–yes, you heard that right, the Nebraska National Forest. To anyone who has driven the endless miles on Interstate 80 across this prairie state, the notion of a national forest here sounds silly. This is an unusual national forest, however, one that started in the dreams of a University of Nebraska botanist named Dr. Charles E. Bessey. He thought that with the rainfall in the Sandhills, there was enough moisture to support trees. He convinced Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that his idea was sound, and they convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to support the idea. So in the first decade of the 20th century, a small army of planters planted trees in the grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills. These 25,000 acres of trees became the Nebraska National Forest in 1908.

A segment of the sandy Circle Road leading through the hand-planted trees of the Bessey Ranger District in the Nebraska National Forest

Pine forest along the Circle Road

Junipers scattered at the edge of the national forest

The Scott Lookout Tower, built in 1944, still operates as a fire tower in this land of dangerous range wildfires

Bottlebrush Squirreltail Grasses wave in the wind in the moist landscape around a windmill

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery grows tree seedlings and other plants for reforestation efforts; it is over a century old, having been established during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt

Prickly Poppy looks like an unlikely cross between a thistle and a poppy

Though the Nebraska National Forest never became the supplier of fenceposts and timber than Dr. Bessey had imagined, it is still an iconic and fascinating part of the Great Plains. There is even a fire tower where visitors can climb and look out over the entire expanse of this unit of the forest.

Circle Road leading up and down and around the Sandhills

There is a loop road through the forest, which I decided to drive in my van. I soon discovered that roads through the Sandhills are made of … sand, so they make for interesting driving in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Where I entered the 20+ mile road, there was no sign stating that it was for four-wheel drive vehicles, so I decided to try it. I found that it was awfully iffy going up the sandy dunes in my vehicle, but as long as I kept up my momentum, I was all right. So, I probably crested 150 hills by gunning the engine and maintaining momentum. It was a relief when I finally got to the other end of the loop road and back on gravel–and at that end of the road there was a sign saying “four-wheel drive only.” This was the day before my adventure getting stuck in the Sandhills, so I guess it gave me a false confidence.

To many coastal Americans, this is flyover country, but I just love exploring these remote places

I left the Sandhills late in the day after getting freed from the sand. When I drove into the town of Alliance, I found roads everywhere in the town blocked by police, and it was hard to get through the town to the freeway. Later, I checked the news and found that a man was barricaded inside a pharmacy with an assault rifle and other weapons. He had shot and wounded two police officers and the pharmacy owner (who was a hostage until he made a daring escape) during a botched robbery attempt, and was under suspicion for a murder in a trailer park nearby. He was later found dead after the swat team went in that evening. I was reminded of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s dark song about a murdering rampage across the prairie fittingly called “Nebraska,” in which Springsteen voices the murderer:

“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”

Yes, there is. But there is also the kindness I found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Thank you, unknown rancher and rancher’s daughter. for helping a stranger in a strange land. And make sure the water below the surface stays clear and clean forever.

Colt nursing in this wide-open and beautiful land, which I think of as the gateway to the American West

For more information about the Nebraska Sandhills, go to the following sources:

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Nebraska National Forest

Keystone XL Pipeline (if you Google this, you will find arguments on all sides of the pipeline issue)

Nebraska Sandhills

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

HEALING THE SOUL ON AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER

August 13, 2011

After a family trauma that left me grieving, I chose to go home to Seattle by Amtrak rather than Delta, so that I could use the slower form of transportation as a way to quiet my sorrow. I hoped that the passing American landscape would sooth my soul.

I boarded Amtrak in Ann Arbor on a muggy summer morning; I was among the first at the station, but gradually the platform filled with about a hundred day trippers and overnighters, most going to Chicago for a Monday outing. In the seat in front of me, a little girl going to Chicago with her parents looked forward to going to the zoo, which her patient mom and dad explained repeatedly was the city of Kalamazoo–not the zoo of her imagination. After we passed through Kalamazoo and they didn’t get off the train, I think she got it. Her mother explained that they woud be visiting a museum and an aquarium, and that her little daughter was going to walk with a penguin.

Amtrak slowed repeatedly on the trip to Chicago, once stopping because of a signal light that may or may not have indicated an oncoming train (best to be prudent!). The Norfolk Southern, upon whose tracks Amtrak runs along this route, had designated parts of the tracks a 15 mph zone, so we crawled along past houses, farms, and fields. Then we had to pull over to stop for a faster freight train. After all this, we were over two hours late getting into Chicago.

Walking toward the train on the platform at Chicago’s Union Station

The lady conductor sternly gave us a lecture over the intercom that the delays were not Amtrak’s fault and “don’t go complainin’ to Amtrak–call the State of Michigan and Norfolk Southern if you are going to complain!” I was’t going to complain. Heck, it’s all an adventure to me, so I just chuckled.

At Union Station, we detrained and walked the platform back to the terminal, ears cowering next to the giant, hissing beasts. It would have been even more atmospheric if the locomotives had been black behemoths hissing steam, like they would have been 75 years ago when men were men and steam was king, but we live in a kinder, gentler age when oil is king and men are unemployed.

Inside Union Station it was anything but kinder and gentler. The place was packed. There was a lot of milling around and a lot of asking Amtrak employees where the portal to the next train woud be. I had to ask three employees before I got to the right gate, since the signage was so poor. But I at last arrived in the steerage waiting room, where people sat and stood and sprawled against every available wall. The place was packed. And hot. A giant fan worked overtime to ineffectively cool the room and effectively silence the announcements.

Upper Class train travelers, who book sleeping compartments, got better treatment. They walked into a darkened space with frosted glass doors that looked like the VIP lounges for first-class air travelers. But our waiting room made for a richer experience, if you like noise and heat and watching Amtrak cops chatting inside their sterile, air-conditioned office while the rest of us sweated outside.

After waiting a half hour, the young woman sitting next to me said she had never ridden the train before and wondered if she was in the right place. I asked what train she wanted, and she said “the Empire Builder,” and I assured her that she was in the right place. We waited. I asked about her trip and she had taken a bus from Tennessee to Chicago, and she was taking the train to Libby, Montana to see her fiance. I asked what he did for a living, and she said

he was retired military, a cop, and an EMT. Sounds like Superman, and he’ll be a good protector of her. I sensed that this shy and pretty woman, approaching thirty years old, had rarely been outside Tennessee. A vigorous older man sitting on the other side of me had a strong southern accent that seemed like what I had heard in rural southern Indiana or in West Virginia. He had a longish gray beard and an easy affability that allowed him to wait patiently and with a sense of humor.

Finally, a big woman from Amtrak sternly told us that the train was boarding and to show her your ticket as we passed. To each of us, she loudly admonished us to get in line “SINGLE FILE” after we passed her unsmiling face. She missed her calling: she should have been one of the occasional battle-axe teachers I observed in my youth (my favorite cartoon, Frazz, features one such teacher, Mrs. Olsen, to great effect).

We boarded. I sat down next to a man from Seattle. With typical Seattle reserve, he didn’t even glance up at me. But in 24 hours next to him, he did open up and say that dinner was “OK, but expensive.” And he said his steak was overdone. In my experience, a person could be stranded in the Seattle airport for a week and nobody would ever, ever talk to him. In contrast, I once waited in the waiting area of the Marquette airport in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the sparkle of people chatting with strangers reminded me of the tinkle of stemware in an expensive restaurant. Coastal people, in general, are jaded and prefer separation, perhaps because they live packed so close together. Rural Midwesterners, by contrast, prefer connection.

The train shrieked and groaned out of the Chicago station: something was clearly wrong with our train car’s rear truck–it had a rubbing metal sound that occurred every time whe went around a curve at low speed. Had I been on a plane with that sound, I would have been praying!.

We passed derelict warehouses and factories, and overgrown yards, and enough rusty metal and graffitti-adorned buildings that the route felt like Chicago’s unofficial back alley–a fascinating place to dig for photographic treasure, but not a great place to live your life. Looking out the window at a dead end dirt road below the support columns of a road bridge, I saw a late model dark SUV with five beefy, unsmiling guys standing around it, one on a cell phone. The quick glimpse reminded me of a TV mafia story just before some guy got cement shoes to be used for his final dive into the Chicago River.

The woman sitting across the aisle from me was from Michigan. A hint: if you want to talk to somebody on a long trip, sit near a small town Midwesterner. She is from a rural area near Battle Creek in southern Michigan, and had been on the train from Kalamazoo. She told me then about being struck by lightning a few years ago: a tremendous bolt of lightning hit her house, then traveled in via the old wiring, slammed into her shoulder and out through her fingers and back into the wall. Meanwhile, she was knocked unconscious, tossed eight feet across the room, and burned and bruised on her arm. She awoke to her dog licking her face and the walls on fire around the room. She got out just in time … thank God for dogs! And for women from Michigan to entertain us with great stories!

On we snaked through Milwaukee, with more urban grunge. Farther on, up through Wisconsin forests and lake country. On to Minneapolis, where I fell asleep. I heard the next day that young people enjoyed the lounge that evening, with guitars and beers late into the night. Strangers on a train connect more effectively than strangers in virtually any other situation, perhaps because the surroundings and seats are comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed. Life stories are readily passed.

Night in a recliner seat. Stiff neck and need for coffee at dawn as we raced across the prairie. The pothole country of North Dakota gave us displays of brilliant American White Pelicans and red-stained Sandhill Cranes who had groomed their feathers with oxides from the mud where they feed. One young man ahead of me in the car was moving to Portland on this trip, accompanied by his guitar and by a potted Venus Flytrap that sat on his tray table. He said it looked much better than when he had started the journey and had the carnivorous plant sealed in a plastic bag. Apparently meat-eating plants like to breathe as much as meat-eating humans. His colorful left arm was covered with bright tattoos, looking much like all the other young people flocking to Portland in the great exodus of the decade. Portland is the glittering “City That Works” along the Willamette River, where commuting on bicycles is cool and food vendors in mobile food carts descend upon the city by the hundreds. There is even a funny TV show exploring this hip, young culture: Portlandia.

Three friendly young people were independently making their way to Rugby, North Dakota, which is kind of opposite of Portland in its hipness quotient. Still, one young woman had a bead of blue inserted in her lip piercing, so she wasn’t totally uncool. Her mother had moved to North Dakota from Wisconsin because the housing and land prices were so low and jobs were plentiful, with the lowest unemployment rate in the country during this endless recession. The shocker when she got there was that the jobs paid very little, so she had to get two jobs to make ends meet. Nothing is ever easy.

The prairies went on for hundreds of miles, punctuated by tiny towns with skyscraper grain elevators. The breadbasket of America, with the harvest starting in the golden fields. Not everything was golden; the town of Minot, North Dakota, had been the site of once-in-a-century flooding, and there were still farms and outbuildings surrounded by giant lakes where there should be no lakes. In the town, a sports park had been deeply gouged for its soil, which had been mounded high around some lower-lying buildings to provide a fortress against the flood. The train slowed considerably through this stretch, as the roadbed was just a bit over the waterline.

I had carried much of my food on the trip, but used the cafe to stoke up my alertness with periodic doses of coffee. Each morning, when we coffee drinkers got in line with puffy faces and uncombed hair, the lady attending the cafe laughingly greeted us with “How many?” We must have looked desperate for coffee. On the second afternoon, the train took on boxed dinners provided by a restaurant in a small Montana town, available for ten bucks. These included broasted chicken–a mostly western specialty I hadn’t enjoyed in some 30 years, as well as a roll and some good old-fashioned blackberry cobbler. The Dining Car offered more options, but was expensive for those of us on limited budgets. Most of the Dining Car diners had meals included with their private sleeping quarters.

We took on three private cars, which were attached to the back of the train while stopped at a Montana town. The Michigan woman decided to go check out one of the private cars, but as she walked close with her camera, several big guys with aviator sunglasses came out and gave her the evil eye, so she backed off.

Looking back at one of the private passenger cars hitched to the train

Michigan woman is a lover of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as am I. She spent many weeks of her childhood in the U.P., and said that her first taste of whiskey–at age 11–came from John D. Voelker, an ex-Michigan Supreme Court judge who became widely famous under his pen name of Robert Traver. He wrote the classic Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a popular 1959 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The success of the book and movie allowed Voelker to retire to his beloved U.P.–he was born in the U.P. mining town of Ishpeming–to pursue a career of writing and trout fishing. As a teenager, I had read his wonderful book about fishing and whiskey drinking, Trout Madness, and had been captivated for a time by the classic and romantic sport of fly fishing.

Harvest time on the great American prairie

Two guys from the same Montana town–but who didn’t know each other–boarded the train in eastern Montana and plunked down in my end of the car. One immediately rose and walked down to the cafe to get a beer. Alas, the cafe was closed for 45 minutes for a staff break. From that moment on, I heard stories about craving beer. One guy was a construction worker whose long-term job was cleaning up an old lead mine site, which had heavy arsenic contamination. He said they were removing the contaminated waste and dumping it in a lined pit on the mountain, which would be sealed over when the job was complete. He was a vigorous thirty-something with a friendly and open Montana personality.

The other guy who came on board said he was really ashamed of something he had done, but he didn’t feel like talking about it. Finally, the cafe opened and the two guys got their beers, and that loosened them up. The younger guy, a twenty-something who now lived on the coast, had gone back to his small town for a wedding, and was arrested after the wedding and pled guilty to a DUI charge by a cop he had gone to school with (as in: “sorry, just doing my job”). He had his old acquaintance take his picture behind bars, as he was wearing his tuxedo. Now the guy faced the possible loss of his job, which involved driving, and a permanent stain on his record.

The other guy topped this story with his own background of two DUIs; the second one had cost him confiscation of two vehicles and spending seven days in jail. He figured that it cost him over $20,000, which probably didn’t include the long-term raises in his insurance. Both guys agreed that in their small town, lots of people thought drinking was the only thing to do. At least drinking on a train is a relatively benign activity, unless you are going to be driving right away when you reach your destination. I drifted to sleep as the Amtrak attendant shuffled the noisy drinkers off to the observation car so that we teetotalers could get some shuteye.

When I awoke, all the people I had talked to had vanished at remote Montana stops in the night. I changed clothes in a changing room, then lurched down to the dining car–staggering because the tracks are pretty rough in places. It reminded me of being on a small ocean-going ship during a storm. I was seated at a singles table with three others who had no dining companions. I turned out to be the most talkative of the bunch, which will astound and amaze everyone who knows me. Two of the other three were from Seattle (remember my comments above about Seattle reserve?), and the other was a lady from Oswego, New York, who was going to the Seattle area to see her son, whom she hadn’t seen in five years. Five years … really … what’s the son’s excuse for that?! She and her kids had often been to the nature center I once managed in the Syracuse area, near her hometown of Oswego. One of the Seattle guys owns a sailboat for navigating Puget Sound, as well as a cabin in an old gold-mining area of the Cascades; he said that if he is down in the Olympia area, he’ll look me up for a sailing trip on the Sound.

Breakfast, for me, was an excellent spinach and cheese omelet, with American fries and good coffee. The service was good, but the table setting was not the storied linen tablecloths of the classic days of train travel. The tablecloth and napkins were paper, the coffee cups were styrafoam, the china was plastic (though not made in China) … but at least the flatwear was classic metal. After several cups of coffee and pleasant breakfast conversation, I went back to my seat and enjoyed the view of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

The channeled scablands were formed when ice dams suddenly broke open during the ice age, sending unbelievable sudden surges coursing through the thick volcanic basalt formations of eastern Washington, ripping away solid rock and creating networks of channels. Now only the remnants of those natural catastrophes remain: basalt cliffs rise above sagebrush valleys, telling stories that geologists were able to piece together from clues on the landscape. As the train thundered westward, hawks and Great Blue Herons constantly fled the noise and commotion, flying away from the tracks and small wetlands toward distant refuge.

Speaking of noise: the train is not nearly as noisy as might be expected. The engine was so far ahead that I could hear no engine noise and I could only faintly hear the train’s whistle–used when approaching highway crossings–when I thought about listening for it. Inside the train cars, there was a constant soft hiss from the ventilation system, which creates a soothing white noise that I found relaxing. There is no clickity-clack of the rail joints these days, since the tracks are now made using long stretches of continuous welded rail.

Approaching Stevens Pass in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, the train was again delayed, this time by a freight train having engine trouble on the west side of the pass. The Conductor estimated a delay of an hour. Actually, delays of Amtrak trains are common, because freight trains have the right-of-way on tracks operated by private railroads. For these railroads, Amtrak is an inconvenience–but also a source of revenue, so they probably don’t want it to go away.

Several National Park Service volunteers boarded the train in eastern Washington, and went on the loudspeaker to interpret the passing landscape for us, adding to the richness of the trip. They told us about early settlers and Indians and the Columbia River and the apple orchards and such. They did not, however, tell us the history of one of the greatest train disasters in the history of America, which occurred along this very route over Stevens Pass. Perhaps Amtrak and/or the National Park Service are afraid of upsetting delicate sensibilities, but the Wellington Train Disaster is a great story.

In late March of 1911, two trains were stopped at Wellington in a place very close to where we were stopped on our journey. Except that it was the dead of winter, in a blizzard. They were stranded for six days in the blizzard; on the seventh day an avalanche roared down the mountains, sweeping the train cars off the tracks. When it was all over, 96 people were dead in the greatest natural disaster ever to hit Washington State (that is, until the next big earthquake …). To read more about this event, which “celebrated” a 100th year anniversary in 2011, go to Wellington Train Disaster. A long tunnel, built in 1929, dramatically reduced the avalanche hazard for train travelers.

Crossing the Columbia on a steel railroad bridge

During our one hour delay–without avalanches, thank God–riders patiently occupied themselves. Lots of books were open, but no Kindles, perhaps because coach passengers on a train tend to be traditional. My part of the car had four Macs in operation (one guy working on a spreadsheet, one gal watching a movie, one guy writing code, and me writing this story), and occasional PCs. One lady knitted. One played solitaire. Several slept. Some chatted to seatmates. One demonstated something to the attendant on an iPad. Many used iPods or similar equipment to listen to music or watch recorded video. But it was all the books that impressed me most; people who ride trains still like to read–a slower-paced activity in this digital age. Considering that we were running four hours late on this route, there was little grousing about lost time. In a sense, the delays were a gift of quiet personal time for us–a rare commodity in this caffeinated and over-stimulated age.

The Empire Builder chugs through the open landscapes of eastern Washington State

Traveling on, we reached Puget Sound and snaked right along the edge of the Sound in what would be prime real estate if the railroad tracks didn’t run there. It gave me a view of a part of the region that I had never seen before. Finally, we arrived in Seattle, creaking our way through a tunnel before arriving at the King Street Station, which I officially designate as the armpit of Seattle, the status of which may change pending future renovation. Tired, I detrained and wheeled my suitcase 0.7 miles to the ferry terminal, so I could take the last leg of the journey home on a ferry across Puget Sound to Bremerton.

Would I take Amtrak again? Absolutely! This is a civilized way to travel, on a human time scale, that is more energy efficient by far than planes and cars and is kinder to our sense of time (with no jet lag!!!!). The seats are comfortable, and the quiet time without the constant distractions (for me) of radio and television and the internet gave me many hours of quiet work and reflection and observation. The Amtrak attendant for our car was new in her job and couldn’t have been any nicer to all of us. I made friends with two people, Dave and Wyn, and gave them my contact information. What more could you wish for on a trip with total strangers?

The trip was also inherently beautiful, an unwinding mural of the great American landscape, from the lush midwestern farms and decaying rust belt cities, to the endless prairies with big skies, to the towering Rocky Mountains, to the dark fir forests of the Cascades, to quiet Puget Sound with hardly a ripple on this pleasant summer afternoon. All this made for a stunning trip loved by most everyone on board.

The journey succeeded in another way. It salved my soul a bit, after the death of my mother, with the gift of time and quiet and the fleeting friendship of fellow travelers.

We reach the shore of Puget Sound north of Seattle

A note about the photography: I played with the camera a lot during this journey in order to give a poetic and impressionistic feeling for the passing landscape. I overcame the challenges of dirty windows and sun glaring in and high rail speeds using long exposures and quick grab shots. There are no second chances for photos at track speed, so I had to use all my accumulated skills to get these photos. And I came away pleased.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Mendocino on My Mind

April 26, 2011

A simple seaside cottage in Mendocino, with the blue Pacific distant

I first heard of Mendocino two years after the Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of hippies to San Francisco. In the spring of 1969 I drove west from Michigan in a bright red Opal; I was heading to California for a summer of fighting forest fires. At a campground in Nevada, a friendly fellow camper came up to me and told me all about how he had “dropped out” of society and was currently part of a small theater troupe in Mendocino–a place I had never heard of. He had a hippie van and long hair, and I asked him if he regretted dropping out. He said “Lord no!” and seemed amazed that I would ask the question.

Two years later, my wife-to-be and I went to see a movie in Ann Arbor, where we were in college. The Summer of ’42, a sad and romantic tale about a young woman who lost her sailor husband in World War II, had a character even more beautiful than the star, Jennifer O’Neill, and that was the lovely village of

Rustic fences and open meadows characterize the bluffs here

Mendocino. Perched on cliffs above the blue Pacific, with flowery meadows, weathered picket fences, and lovely old wooden homes, the town seemed like the perfect American village–the kind of small town we admire in our collective imagination.

During the summer of 1973, my young wife and I went to California, where we spent a five month summer camped under soaring Douglas Firs, with me fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During some days off, we took a trip to Mendocino and had a chance to experience this lovely village first-hand. We didn’t realize it until then, but Mendocino had been something of an artists’ colony since the 1950s, and I remember buying a piece of earthy stoneware that was innovative for the time. There was also a bookstore that had lots of wonderful do-it-yourself manuals inspired by the contents of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was the closest thing to the internet that we had back then. I remember leafing through some books about building your own house, but realizing that I didn’t have any talents for building a house. But plenty of hippies of the time did, and ramshackle houses sprouted along with marijuana crops back among the Redwood groves in the endless ridges and steep valleys of the Klamath Mountains. Those remote wildlands became one of the eminent pot-growing regions of North America, for better or worse. As we drove through the area, I recall singing lyrics from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the footloose wanderers of that era: “If you’re drivin’ east to Reno, or north to Mendocino, I hope you find your rainbow’s end …” (from the 1971 song Cabaret).

I returned to Mendocino while attending college in Utah during 1975. An “Animal Communities” class I was taking, taught by esteemed ecologist Dr. James MacMahon, did transects (straight lines where a biologist records data on plant and animals observed) recording animal life from the shore and out

The beautiful rocks of Mendocino Headlands State Park

into the ocean, so that those of us living in the mountains of Utah could have a sense of the structure of an entirely different kind of animal community. It was fun to see an octopus and sea stars and all the other varied tidepool life. The rocky beaches of Mendocino are incredibly fecund; naturalists can see Gray Whales migrating offshore; Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions basking on rocks; seabirds nesting on the offshore rocks; and all the wonderful invertebrates that occupy the tidepools. I recall driving through town, and it didn’t look like much had changed.

By the late ’80s, established in a career in Upstate New York, I was a long way from Mendocino, but once in a while the little village would show up unexpectedly in the media. Murder, She Wrote was the prime example. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, the mystery series starring Angela Lansbury was actually filmed on the left coast, featuring Mendocino as the fictional Cabot Cove. Since Mendocino was founded by New Englanders, it had that look and feel. Residents of the little town enjoyed the occasional on location filming visits from Ms. Lansbury and Tom Bosley, and sometimes locals were hired as extras for the series. One home that is currently a bed-and-breakfast, Blair House, became Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series.

By the early 1990s, I had switched careers and became a photographer. My photographic travels took me to Mendocino one spring circa 1992, where I was enchanted once again by the early American coastal architecture. By the early

The village is perched on a headland terrace above the Pacific Ocean

1990s, yuppies had displaced hippies, and the town had a different feel. Art galleries were marketing more to people with money, and the gallery scene was big in town. The VW bus I was driving seemed like an anachronism in a place now dominated by Lexus and BMW cars drivien by the tourists. I wandered around town with camera and tripod, thinking again what a lovely place this would be to live if I could afford it, which I couldn’t.

A flowery path and a water tower among the Victorian homes

Nearly 20 years then went by in the blink of an eye, until I next had an opportunity to visit Mendocino. My old VW van had burned in a highway fire years ago, and my hair was grayer and shorter, but I still liked the look of the town–which has remained almost identical through all these years thanks to the officially designated Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which carefully limits what owners can do with their property. In those 20 years, the shops that went from hippie to yuppie had now transformed again. The art galleries were fewer, having been displaced by nail and hair salons, an organic coffee shop, and more higher-end clothing boutiques and jewelry shops–all representing what I’ll call the “California Me” style, in which personal indulgence has become the accepted norm. There are undoubtedly hippies still out in the woods growing pot, and I’m sure that high-tech and banker yuppies

Classic Victorian details and a rustic water tower

who made fortunes during the bubble eras have second homes in the area, but the typical tourist these days is someone with the personal funds to enjoy a lovely bed-and-breakfast, and spend the days visiting wineries and brew-pubs, shopping in boutiques, and enjoying other indulgences. Once again times had changed.

And times will continue to change. I’ll probably return to Mendocino in a decade or so, if I am lucky. What changes in American and Californian society can I expect to see on that next visit? More gray-haired people? Undoubtedly; after all, that is the trajectory of my baby boom cohort. A new dominance of electric cars? A sudden influx of craft whiskey and vodka distillers?  Vast lavender farms to equal those of Provence? State sales of the headlands to developers in order to raise money for California’s beleaguered government? Hopefully not the latter …

Times change; fashions come and go; and some of these changes are reflected in this remote, offbeat village. Fortunately, the look and feel of Mendocino has remained relatively unchanged in the whirlwind of bigger changes that blow through American life. The unchanged look of this charming little village perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is an anchor in the storm of change sweeping America.

Calla Lilies along a picket fence in this quaint village

Main Street in Mendocino is a collection of cute shops

A beautiful home, undoubtedly occupied for over a century

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

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