When Frost is on the Pumpkin

I bought this big pumpkin from an Amish farmer’s roadside stand in late September, then set it, along with a matching companion, on each side of the house entrance. There they remained until winter, when I had to move them in order to make way for snowblowing. I set the pumpkins out in an open place, and after a freezing rain I noticed that this one was glazed with a thin veneer of ice. The patina speaks to me of age and autumn and the arrival of winter.

PRINT INFORMATION: This photograph is printed from a digital file on Japanese Mulberry paper using pigment ink. Matting is done with a thick white cotton rag mat. All materials are archival; designed to last for generations.

LIMITED EDITION: This photographic print is part of a limited edition printed by photographer Lee Rentz. The edition consists of 250 prints, which includes all sizes and methods of printing. The chart below lists the sizes available. You can see and order this photograph and others done in a similar style at LeeRentz.com/pumpkin

SHADOWS

Moon shadows. Sun shadows. Street light shadows. All it takes is a point light source that reveals the world to our eyes, while casting into shade those places not illuminated. The light examines, while the shadows add mystery. And definition. And design.

I have worked extensively with shadows as a compositional tool during the last few years, and here I present some of my favorite photographs from this era of my life.

GINGERBREAD

On the end of a sunny day in March, the sun was shining warmly upon the land, with trees casting their organic shadows across the faces of buildings. I especially liked this old farmhouse, which had just a touch of gingerbread trim left from an earlier era.

LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA

SHADOW PLAY

Spring shadows crossing a snowy field, then gliding up the front and roof of a house. These are the kinds of compositions I notice, putting a subject in a whole new light.

LOCATION: Mormon Row, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA

SNOWSTORM IN A REMOTE VILLAGE

While visiting Newfoundland in midwinter, we stayed in a cozy home once used as a cod fisherman’s residence. I walked out at night during a heavy snowstorm and photographed homes and a church in the village. The falling snow leaves a slight texture in the sky, and the warmth of lights coming from inside the house lend a human touch. There is an air of mystery in this photograph that encourages repeated viewing.

LOCATION: Dunfield, Newfoundland, Canada

WINTER NIGHT BY THE SEA

On a February trip to Newfoundland we stayed at an old house right along the Atlantic shore in a tiny fishing village. It was magical. Then it started snowing. I took this picture with a very long exposure to blur the snowflakes, which adds an interesting texture to the dark background.

This picture is one of the rare pictures where I worked on the scene extensively using Photoshop. I modified the color that came from the sodium vapor street lamps and chose instead to bring the red colors and the snowy landscape back to what they look like in the daytime, and I think it looks painterly. It is my interpretation of the scene, and I like the feeling of it.

LOCATION: Dunfield, Newfoundland, Canada

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN

Returning late from a snowshoe trip to the Mount Baker area, we stopped in the small town of Maple Falls to get a sandwich and gas. It was quiet, and the darkness beyond the brightly lit gas station reminded me of the paintings of Edward Hopper–one of my favorite American artists. I carefully composed the photograph in several ways, and this turned out to be my favorite. The name for the photograph comes from a Bruce Springsteen album, which has some of the same thematic elements as this photograph: the power of darkness, the lure of the open road, and the magic and threat of night.

LOCATION: Cascade Mountains, Washington State, USA

PASSAGE

Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon is known for the petroglyphs and pictographs along its some forty mile route. But on this autumn day, an old cabin captured my lens. The mind has to puzzle out what is going on here, and that is part of the mystique of this picture.

LOCATION: Nine Mile Canyon near Price, Utah, USA

CURVE IN SPACE AND TIME

At the end of a spectacular Great Plains sunset, I had just finished photographing a grain elevator with a wash of sunset warmth. Leaving, I immediately crossed these railroad tracks, which reflected the orange and magenta colors in the sunset. I quickly turned the vehicle around and returned to photograph this wonderful curve in the universe. Grace in steel and light and darkness.

LOCATION: Boise City, Oklahoma, USA

STREETLIGHT SHADOWS ON SNOW

It was the dead of winter with a fresh layer of snow upon the ground. I was tired from driving home at night, and stopped at a rest area for a few moments of respite. There I noticed the orange sodium vapor lights casting their eerie glow upon the snow, with tree shadows adding grace and lines to the scene. I spent a long time trying to get the perfect composition without disturbing the snow, and this was my favorite for its organic lines and rich color.

LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA

TULIPS IN SUNSET GLOW

On a spring visit to Alaska, where my brother and his wife have raised a family, I noticed the warm sunset light glowing on the walls. I picked up a camera and began photographing the shadows and patches of light all over the house. When my sister-in-law saw what I was doing, she held up a vase of tulips to create these shadows on the wall.

LOCATION: Chugiak, Alaska, USA

BLUE WINDOW AND ADOBE SHADOWS

I like visiting Taos in October, when the warm, low angle sun sets the adobe afire with color. In this photograph, I captured a classic blue-framed window at the end of a crystalline day, with delicate leaf shadows adorning the adobe, as if painted by an artist.

LOCATION: Taos, New Mexico, USA

OCTOBER IN SANTA FE

With the aroma of pinyon logs burning in fireplaces, the cottonwoods sifting golden light through autumn leaves, and the piercing blue sky, Santa Fe is a special place in October. While browsing the art galleries along Canyon Road in late afternoon, I came upon these flowers and their shadows at an adobe house. This photograph brings back fond memories of a wonderful place and time.

LOCATION: Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

RAINIER AUTUMN

I was high on a ridge at sundown, when the sun was casting long autumn shadows on the colorful autumn meadow. The fir trees, with their pointed tops, create a strong graphic statement.

LOCATION: Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State, USA

NIGHT SHADOWS ON AN ADOBE CHURCH

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church is one of the finest photographic subjects I have ever encountered. In the course of one October day, I returned three times to photograph the church under different lighting conditions. This photograph is among my favorites: taken at night, the adobe walls are graced with shadows cast by a streetlight shining through cottonwood leaves. It has an interesting juxtaposition of shadows and shape and the texture of adobe, and even has stars overhead.

LOCATION: Taos, New Mexico, USA

SHADOWFAX

Shadow of a car moving fast on a Michigan highway in the late light of an early autumn day.

LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA

DANDELION TWILIGHT

While camping in Hell’s Gate State Park, I noticed how the occasional vehicle passing by my tent illuminated the dandelion seedheads in the grass. I loved the backlit look of the dandelions and the shadows cast by the trees, so I employed my van as a photo prop and set up this picture at deep twilight.

LOCATION: Lewiston, Idaho, USA

AMISH BARN IN WINTER

This is a recently built Amish barn in Michigan. I love the simple lines of it, suitable for the people who built it, with functionality foremost and certainly no embellishment. Look at the lines of the walls and roof and shadows: how they intersect each other and how they define the blocks of red and blue colors. This is another in my series studying how light falls on buildings, inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings that worked with this theme.

LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA

BLUE SHADOWS

Amish homes near my Michigan winter home are austere, with white paint and no superficial adornment, including flower beds or foundation plantings (interestingly, many have bird feeders outside the windows to bring color and life into their lives). In this photograph, I saw the blue shadow at the end of the day crossing the simple white house and thought it added a gaudy and unexpected touch.

LOCATION: Central Michigan, USA

All of my photographs are available for sale as prints, either on cotton rag paper or on metal. Go to http://leerentz.com to see my entire catalog. If you would like one of the photographs shown here in the size I have listed below, you have the option of ordering it through PayPal.

SHADOWS PHOTOGRAPHS FOR SALE

The photograph shown to the left is simply an example; any of the above photographs are available for ordering. Please indicate which of the above photographs you would like to order. This is a 16 x 24″ metal print on aluminum with high gloss surface and incredibly rich and accurate color, ready to hang with no picture frame necessary (slightly rounded corners, stands about 3/4″ out from the wall for a floating, modern appearance). You can see a much larger selection of print sizes and types at my website: http://leerentz.com. Shipping is free; sales tax will be added for Washington State residents. I am glad to answer any questions at lee@leerentz.com

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NEW BETHLEHEM LIVING HISTORY MUSEUM

Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be: now it is infused with selective memories and applied to politics. This work of fiction explores a way of returning to the past, a past that I experienced in real time. It is filled with the details of the 1950s that some may remember and others will find entirely strange and foreign. The photograph here is of my mother, with me and my brother, taken in the mid-1950s in the suburbs of Detroit.

I first read about a new project some two years ago, during the height of President Trump’s sway over nearly half of Americans. Two Republican billionaires got together one evening for a steak dinner; over martinis they brainstormed ways to take America back to the values of the 1950s, as they fondly remembered their favorite decade.

Adam Friedman and William Rand were both born in the early 1950s, and raised by loving and wealthy families through the 1950s and 1960s. Both went to Yale, followed by Harvard Business School. After early dalliances with left wing ideas in their college years, both became fanatically loyal to the ideas of President Ronald Reagan, and they never looked back. Well, they did look back to their favorite decade: the 1950s, as did Reagan. They fervently believed in the idea of the self-made man, and considered themselves among the most successful of that genre. Let’s listen in to their conversation.

William Rand said “As you know, I have long been disturbed by America’s socialist drift. The idea of a federal minimum wage is disgusting; people should be paid what they’re worth. And don’t get me started on government regulations; you can’t believe the hoops my bank has to jump through to set up secret bank accounts for some of our friends. I just wish we could bring back the 1950s, before the age of government interference in our lives and when communists were kicked out on their ears.”

Adam Friedman replied “You’re right. We’ve tried for years to appropriately blame the government for all our problems, but people seem to love their Social Security and Medicare, so socialism is deeply engrained.”

Rand said “I would love to somehow educate children in the American Way much earlier, like they did back in the ‘50s. We turned out okay. 

Friedman said “My grandmother found a way in her generation to instill traditional values. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution back in the day, and she gave a couple of million to found a living history farm in the Berkshires. She had visited Colonial Williamsburg and loved it, and wanted to take the idea of living history into the late 1900s, a time she felt was a high point for America and when my family first made its fortune.”

Smiling, Rand responded “What did she find so enchanting about the era of outhouses and horses?”

Chuckling, Friedman replied “I’m quite sure she wasn’t thinking about the inconveniences, but she loved the lack of regulations from that era. People just seemed more independent and stalwart back then. But the point was, she invested her money in a project that pointed average Americans back to a “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps” time.”

Rand replied “Well, I never understood how bootstraps could pull up a man, but I catch your drift. I just wish we could return to the postwar period, when everyone in America knew their place. American manufacturing and style was the envy of the world and Americans were optimistic about the future.”

Friedman said “Yeah, I wish Americans were as grateful today for what we’ve given them.” 

Rand said “This is a stretch, but I wonder if your grandmother’s living history idea could be applied to the 1950s? I mean, could a living history museum be set up that would give people a sense of what it was like to live in the ‘50s?” 

Friedman said “Interesting idea. I’m betting that it could …”

And so, an idea was born. Adam Friedman and William Rand went on to form a partnership in philanthropy, or so it seemed. They hired a prominent museum consultant to brainstorm ideas for the 1950s living history project and to develop a business plan and a list of locations. Oh, and to tell the billionaires that it would cost approximately $95 million to get it off the ground. Smith and Rand initially balked at the cost, until the consultant told them that a survey showed that people would be willing to pay a high admission fee for a week-long residency in the community. Bottom line: it could work as a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit, and the investors could potentially profit handsomely, especially with a tie-in to a feel-good television series and potential movie deals based upon the values of the new community.

During the next three years, after sifting through locations throughout the East and Midwest and studying market surveys, the new corporation picked out a beautiful spread of rolling hills outside of New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not all that far from Pittsburg so people could fly in easily, and which had a perfect Christian name for the project. The county readily agreed to an infusion of money and tourism, so it put the development on a fast track. These businessmen knew how to get things done quickly, so the land was surveyed and development began within months.

For the first phase of the development, 62 homes were designed in what was to look like a postwar suburban development, with front yards, back yards, garages, driveways, and modest homes with brick or grooved shingle siding. In addition, ten homes, designed to look like farmhouses, were placed among the hills where corn and beans were soon to be grown. A town center, designed to look like a traditional small town in upstate New York or rural Pennsylvania was established, with false front commercial buildings and a town square with a beautiful wooden gazebo. Finally, a traditional wooden church and an early 1950s school building were created to round out the experience.

It is now two years later, and this reporter arranged to tour the now operational living history town with Laura Reagan, the public relations contact who works for the corporation. I had asked for an informative tour after the facility has opened, so I might see families experiencing the living history of the 1950s. Mrs. Reagan turned out to be a young woman who graduated from Michigan’s Hillsdale College about ten years before. She carried herself with the confident self-assurance that comes from being convinced you are on the side of good.

Mrs. Reagan graciously let me tour one home among the few vacancies this week. When we drove up in an electric version of a ’57 Chevy, in turquoise paint, we parked in the driveway and chatted for a few minutes before entering the house. The yard was well kept, and there were cement sidewalks along both sides of the street. Here and there, kids were riding bicycles along the sidewalks, and a touch football game was going on in the yard across the street. The children had come home from school during the lunch period and had an opportunity to play before returning to school. A young couple was strolling, consuming ice cream cones as they walked.

I said “Mrs. Reagan, it is an attractive community, and I’m amazed that you have been so successful in filling it with families so quickly.”

She said “We think there is a deep hunger in America to return to traditional values, and we mostly marketed the New Bethlehem experience through churches in the Midwest and Northeast. We tell parents that this will be a special immersive living history experience, not just a brief tour, so we ask that they stay at least a week for families to get a feel for the rhythm of living in real America.”

Me: “Real America?”

Reagan: “I know that’s a loaded phrase, but we think it represents well the America before the time of WiFi and so many screens, when families dressed up to go to church and children recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, and even prayed as the school day began. It was a time when children were safe to roam outdoors, until Mom or Dad yelled for them to come in and wash up for dinner. It is safe here.”

Me: “As I drove through the gate to the orientation center, I noticed the high fence topped with razor wire.”

Reagan: “Yes, we decided that the temptation for the outside world to invade our safe enclave was too great, so we fenced it to give our visitors peace of mind. There are also armed guards patrolling the perimeter with German Shepards round the clock, as well as a state-of-the-art digital surveillance system. But enough about that, let me show you inside.”

We walked to the front door, which she opened without a key (“Our visitors are good Christians.”), and walked inside.

Reagan gestured toward the furnishings as she spoke: “We have given each of the homes a slightly different look. This one celebrates the atomic age, with its big sunburst wall clock and kidney-shaped coffee table. It is a small, middle class house, one that might have been owned by a life insurance salesman with his stay-at-home wife. Wall-to-wall carpet was still relatively new, and this rose beige tone would go with anything. The curved sectional sofa was a classic. The home was too modest to have a classic Eames Lounge Chair, which would have been appropriate for an executive with modern taste, but was far too expensive for this family.”

A television sat in one corner of the room, facing the curve of the couch. Laura turned it on, and the fuzzy black and white picture played a vintage soap opera, “The Secret Storm.”

Reagan explained: “We have one channel that plays a schedule of 1950s classics, starting with a televised national anthem first thing in the morning, followed by “This is the Life,” a dramatized church series from the 1950s that dealt with family issues of the era. Before school, the kids get to watch Captain Kangaroo with Mr. Green Jeans, a wholesome show for young children.”

Me: “Do you broadcast these shows over the air? I see a rabbit ears antenna atop the television.”

Reagan: “Oh no. One of our accommodations to the current era is using cable technology to bring the old shows into every home with a consistent look, and without the reliance on the 1950s technology that required so much maintenance by so many people. This is all automated to keep our corporate personnel cost as low as possible.”

I look back at the rounded screen of the TV, set inside its futuristic rounded metal case. “What other shows do you offer?”

Reagan: “We have a series of soap operas for the housewife to enjoy, including “The Secret Storm” and “The Guiding Light,” which are followed in the afternoon by “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” which was a variety and talk show. After the evening news, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, we have a variety of family-oriented programs. “Leave it to Beaver,” of course, is a favorite. “Lassie” is wonderful. “I Love Lucy,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “The Lone Ranger” are popular, as are the full lineup of westerns. “Davy Crockett” and “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” are especially popular with the kids, according to our surveillance of what families are watching. Of course, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with the Lennon Sisters and the bubble machine, is always a fun variety show. But we don’t encourage families to spend all their time watching television because there is so much fun to be had outdoors playing croquet and badminton in the back yard.”

She next guided me toward the kitchen, which was compact and efficient and featured a gleaming white rounded refrigerator and electric range. The countertops were pink formica with little green and yellow boomerang shapes for decoration. The floor was linoleum in a subdued pink, with a texture that looked a bit like terrazzo. The dinette set was classic, with its bright chrome legs and red formica top. It looked durable and easy to clean, and stylish enough in a retro way for any era.

Me: “What do people eat?”

Reagan: “That’s everyone’s first concern when they think about coming here. We have a week’s worth of food available for each family in the cupboards and in the fridge and freezer, as well as a book of recipes to guide the housewife on how to cook the classics. Breakfasts aren’t all that different from what people are used to, with cereal and toast and eggs and bacon and orange juice. For school lunches, the kids take peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, with some Oreo cookies and a classic Delicious apple. They get fresh milk at school. Supper is when food becomes quite different from what people are used to, and there are no McDonalds or Burger King restaurants nearby for people to go to. Even if there were, that would be cheating because there weren’t many fast food franchises in the 1950s.”

She continued: “Our time-tested dinners include a series of classic meals:

Tuna Noodle Casserole with canned tuna, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, grated American cheese, and a topping of crushed potato chips. It is delicious. We combine it with a simple green salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumbers and radishes, topped with French dressing.

Another favorite is Meatloaf, made with ground beef and a filler of breadcrumbs. This may be the favorite dinner for people of all ages, because it is classic comfort food that never goes out of style.

In the freezer we have a good selection of Swanson TV Dinners, including Turkey & Gravy and Salisbury Steak. Each comes with side dishes of mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as mixed vegetables and a healthy dessert of stewed apples. Everyone loves the classic aluminum trays.

Ambrosia is a special favorite, with its mix of canned mandarin orange slices, coconut, miniature marshmallows, and maraschino cherries, topped with Cool Whip.

Jello molds are available, of course, for combining Jello with cottage cheese, celery, oranges, and canned crushed pineapple. Many current cooks have never made Jello, but with our instructions it is easy as pie.

Other foods available to our residents include Spam and fish sticks. Oh, and lots of canned vegetables. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried canned asparagus topped with melted Velveeta.”

Me: “That’s certainly different from what I’m used to.”

Reagan: “That’s the point. We want to take people out of their immediate comfort zone and take them back to the comfort era, when food was manufactured in clean, well-lit factories.”

Me: “What can parents do after dinner to keep the kids entertained?”

Reagan: “Let me show you the closet in the den.”

She opened the closet door and there was a tall stack of jigsaw puzzles and board games. The puzzles included some classic scenes, such as a snowy New England village and a British thatched cottage reflected in a farm pond. There were also puzzles based upon popular television shows, including one of a red-jacketed Canadian Mountie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his sled dog and horse Rex. There was another of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and several others based upon classic westerns.

Me: “Where did you get all these old puzzles?”

Reagan: “Oh, they’re not really old. They are based upon original puzzles, but we had them specially made in quantity for our New Bethlehem homes.”

There is also a stack of board games, including Scrabble–always great for adults and teens. Monopoly, of course, is the classic board game that teaches the wonderful theme that “greed is good,” and is what powers America. 

Reagan said: “Our guests also enjoy Clue, with its murder mystery theme set in an English country tudor mansion. It reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel, with half-a-dozen suspects that include Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and Professor Plum. The murder weapons are really cool; a little pewter candlestick and dagger and lead pipe. Everyone loves that game.”

There was also a stack of toys for children that encouraged use of the imagination.

Reagan saw me looking through the stack of toys and said “Did you know that Lincoln Logs were invented by John Lloyd Wright–the great architect’s son?”

Me: “No, but I’m not surprised; architecture must have been in the genes. Without their electronic games, do these imaginative toys engage today’s children?”

Reagan: “We have found them to be timeless, crossing the generations. That’s why we provide Mr. Potato Head–with potatoes available in the pantry–and an Erector Set, Pick-up Sticks, and Tinker Toys. For the youngest children we have a bag of maple blocks that they use to create buildings and bridges and boats.”

Other toys included Hula Hoops, Matchbox Cars, Play-Doh, a Doctor and Nurse Kit, and various dolls–but no Barbie Dolls.

Me: “Barbie seems to be conspicuously absent.”

Reagan: “Barbie wasn’t marketed until 1959, so we think it really belongs to the 1960s. Besides, we chose to have more wholesome dolls; Barbie has a sexual edge to her that many conservative parents object to.”

Closing the closet, Reagan pointed to a record player with a shelf of records.

She said “We also have a great Crosley record player.”

Me: “I saw that. And your shelf of vinyl is well-stocked with 12” LPs.”

I thumbed through them: Frank Sinatra, Patty Page, Big Crosby, Perry Como, Pat Boone, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Me: “Hey, you’ve even got Tony Bennett! I can’t believe he is still making records 70 years later!”

Me: “But I don’t see any early rock & roll. Shouldn’t there be some Elvis or Chuck Berry?”

Reagan: “We don’t stock rock & roll from the ‘50s. Our founders think that rock & roll was driven by sex and drugs, so we ended our music list just prior to that era. We think it makes for a more wholesome experience.”

Me: “But can’t people bring in their own soundtracks on an iPhone?”

Reagan: “Not really. Part of the agreement in coming to a living history community is that they have to leave behind the entertainment from the modern era, and almost everyone seems to obey. It helps that we paid to remove a nearby cell tower, so there is no phone reception. There is no WiFi, so people don’t need to keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We have a boy deliver a daily newspaper to each family daily. It’s filled with wholesome stories from here and the outside world, and kids love the funny pages, with Popeye and Blondie and Mary Worth and all the other great ‘50s strips. It’s called the New Bethlehem News.”

Me: “What about clothing? The people out on the street don’t exactly dress like they do 70 years later.”

Reagan: “We want to give them the whole experience, so we have a “clothing shop” as part of the orientation center where they can pick out appropriate dresses, trousers, and shirts; these are returned at the end of the experience. They bring their own socks and underwear, of course. Everyone LOVES getting into costume for their week here. Tell you what, why don’t we drive to the school where you can see the children in class.”

We walked outside into the bright spring sunshine, got into the Chevy, and drove the three blocks to the school.

Me: “I don’t see many other cars.”

Reagan: “We had extensive discussions about cars, since the 1950s were such a car-loving decade. In the end, we decided that the community is small enough that we didn’t need to issue each family a car, though they can borrow one for a few hours just to have the experience.”

When we reached the school, we parked in a small parking lot next to a Studebaker and a Nash Cosmopolitan.”

Reagan: “Those are the teachers’ cars. We wanted just enough cars in the community to give it a period feel.”

The school itself was a miniature version of what a suburban school would have been like in the 1950s, with banks of big windows, a flat roof, and easy access directly outside. On the school grounds, there were teeter-totters, a jungle gym with hard soil underneath, and a merry-go-round spinning a mile a minute with happy and terrified kids, some being thrown off by centrifugal force. It was recess, and there were probably 50 kids playing on the school grounds, many involved in a game of kickball on the school’s baseball diamond. Good times.

I asked Reagan what the children learned in the school.

She said “We don’t have a lot of time with them, about six hours a day for four-and-a-half days, so we mostly try to balance their schooling in their regular lives with a more traditional viewpoint. The children in elementary school get an introduction to cursive writing, and a lot of practice writing short essays about what they love in America. They also learn lessons about diverse American heroes, especially George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, explaining all the good things they did for our nation. There are also daily Bible lessons and a morning prayer.”

She continued “The secondary students start the morning in a similar way, with prayer and Bible study, but the subjects are different. We examine the great issues of the 20th and 21st centuries in economic terms, explaining how the socialism promoted by FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama has made life far worse for American families by giving them too many unearned benefits. This has robbed people of an incentive to work hard.”

Me: “Do you teach science at all?”

Reagan: “We do, although we have limited time, so our emphasis is on the issues surrounding science. We discuss the issues of evolution, climate change, viruses, and killing babies through a lens of morality and truth.”

Me: “Isn’t that kind of one-sided?”

Reagan: “Our founders feel strongly that Americans have been led astray by fake science, so we see it as our job to be a countervailing force. That is our essential mission, and one that we extend to adult classes here. Why don’t we take a bit of time and go downtown; that’s where we have a good bookstore, a soda fountain, and a movie theatre that plays classic American movies every night. And that’s where the meeting places for adults are.”

Me: “Sounds great. I could use a chocolate malt.”

Our drive downtown was short, only about six blocks, but I was impressed by the traditional look of Main Street. It had all the hallmarks of a traditional American town of our collective memory, with gas lights, brick two story buildings with welcoming storefronts, and a feeling of complete safety. By the time we left the soda fountain, school was out and families were walking Main Street together. Some were lined up to see a long double feature of Gone With the Wind and Atlas Shrugged. Tomorrow’s lineup was to be a John Wayne movie marathon.

I glanced into the display window of the bookshop, and wasn’t surprised to see new editions of The Federalist Papers, The Conservative Mind, and leather-bound volumes of the Ayn Rand classics. We stepped into the bookshop, where an adult book club was discussing Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman. I overheard one blond, middle-aged woman earnestly stating that “taxation is theft,” with heads around the book circle nodding in agreement.

Reagan softly said “We think it’s important that people step away from their everyday lives to consider the great issues of our time through a conservative lens.”

Me: “Does it change minds?” 

Reagan: “The people who come for a week are already patriotic Americans, so I think that most of what we do is to reinforce their beliefs and give them talking points based upon the great thinkers. We aren’t necessarily stirring them to direct action, but we give them a sense that there are many others who think as they do. It is absolutely thrilling for a lot of people.”

We quietly left the bookshop and strolled down Main Street, heading back to the Orientation Center.  

Me: “This living history center seems to be really successful.”

Reagan: “Yes, and beyond our wildest dreams. We are almost completely booked by families for the next two years. People have formed online discussion groups based upon their experience here, and some think it’s the beginning of a new grassroots political movement.”

Me: “So, what’s next?” 

Reagan: “Our founders are extremely satisfied with the financial results of the New Bethlehem Living History Experience. We don’t want to make this public quite yet, but they are thinking of expanding the idea to new living history centers in the South, the Great Plains, Arizona, and Idaho, where there are concentrated numbers of patriots. It’s looking good.”

Me: “Thank you so much for showing me around. You’ve given me a lot to think about on the way back to the Pittsburgh airport.”

Reagan: “It has been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading about your experience here.”

As I left New Bethlehem, I couldn’t shake the idea that this living history experience was like a bizarre version of a Disney theme park. Sure, the 1950s were a decade of explosive economic growth after the trials of the Great Depression and World War II, and it was a fun decade for many, in which the suburbs really came into being and “teenagers” became a thing. People who lived through those years were generally happy with their lives, and even people who had less than a high school education could raise a large family on one salary. The wealthy were with us, of course, but they were heavily taxed and the gap between rich and poor was far smaller than it is now.

It just seems to me that if the founders of New Bethlehem Living History Experience want to go back to the 1950s, they should reexamine the reasons why the ‘50s were so good for so many, instead of dropping a hazy golden myth over that decade.

Note: This story is entirely fictional and is a bit of a strange combination of a political story and details of my life as a young boy. I wanted to juxtapose details of the way people lived in that decade with the yearning among the American right wing to go back to that time and place. But going back is not an option, as everything has changed. Three quotations come to mind: 

“You can’t go home again”  Thomas Wolfe

You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”  James Sherman

“You can’t always get what you want”  The Rolling Stones

Times change, and no amount of play acting and indoctrination in a living history experience is going to change that.

The photographs below are ones that my Dad took in the 1950s, or perhaps stretching a couple years into the 1960s. My Dad had served in the South Pacific during World War II; when he returned he married the girl next door, whom he had grown up with, in 1948. I was born in 1950, with my brothers following in 1952 and 1957. It was a happy family. My parents bought a home in Detroit before I was born, and I remember playing outdoors in that neighborhood until 1955, when they moved out of Detroit to the suburbs. I lived a life similar to that of the New Bethlehem community, but lived it in real time instead of as an aspirational memory. My parents lived long lives and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

By the way, I grew up with all these toys, all these movies, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, saying prayers in elementary school, playing kickball, and all the rest, and I STILL turned out to be a liberal. Let that sink in.

THE AMISH IN WINTER

The Amish live close to the land, necessarily incorporating seasonal rhythms into their lives. After all the plowing and planting and nurturing and harvesting, the landscape breathes a sigh of relief as the world enters winter dormancy.

But not the Amish. Their lives are still busy with the daily rhythms of farm life. The horses and chickens must be fed. The children must walk to their one-room schools. Ice must be harvested. Laundry must be washed and then dried out on the line. The sawmills continue operating. Wood must be cut for warmth. Barns are built. Quilts are sewn. Sunday worship is not to be missed, as the believers gather in one home, converging from nearby homes by foot and by buggy.

It is a life apart, and that’s what those of us viewing from the outside find enchanting and ultimately unknowable, because we can only view the surface.

The photographs here represent six winters of quietly and respectfully observing these families at an undisclosed location in central Michigan.

SCHOOL CHILDREN BLIZZARD WHITE BORDER MASTER
Girls and boys walking home from school in a blizzard

Barn Raising in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Amish men from the community come together for a barn-raising

Amish Clothesline in Central Michigan
Amish laundry in black and white

BUGGY TRACKS WHITE BORDER MASTER
Buggy tracks in fresh snow

CORN SHOCKS WHITE BORDER MASTER
Amish corn shocks in a blizzard

DEEP SNOW BUGGY WHITE BORDER MASTER
Deep snow passage

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Affection among the work horses

ICE WAGON WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Transporting ice blocks freshly cut from a pond

Clothesline in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Towels drying in a winter breeze

Amish One-Room Schoolhouse
One room school

SUNDAY SERVICES WHITE BORDER MASTER
Coming together for Sunday Services

THREE SHEEP WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Three sheep with greenhouses

TURNING BUGGY WHITE BORDERS MASTER
Heading home in a blizzard

TWO HORSES WHITE BORDER MASTER
Two sleek horses taking a break from hauling buggies

Horse-drawn Buggy in an Amish Community in Central Michigan
Ready to leave

Michigan
Mother and child in an Amish barn

For more information about my photography, go to leerentz.com

RIDING AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT

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.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-42

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

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-81

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

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

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:

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.

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.