Archive for the ‘transportation’ 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.

ON THE WING: Rediscovering the Magic of Flight

January 3, 2014

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Yes, it was cramped. The five hour after Christmas flight from Detroit to Seattle was packed full, with not a seat to spare. There was a baby crying whenever we changed altitude, the audio wasn’t working on the plane’s channels, and the coffee maker was out of commission. At least I got two, count them, two little packets of pretzels!

The young woman next to me slept through four hours of the flight, but woke up brushing her leg when something wet and cold spilled on her (yes, I apologized for knocking over my water when I was trying to shift my cramped legs!). All in all, this was a typical flight these days, though we all have such low expectations that it really wasn’t that bad.

Wing of a Boeing 757 High Above Thick Clouds over the Great Plai

On the other hand, on this trip I selected a window seat so that I could look out at the passing landscape; and my wife took the window seat right in front of me, so that she could look out and also avoid having me spill a drink on her. I promised I wouldn’t kick her seat if she promised not to recline. So, we had a truce.

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

Snowy Pattern on the Great Plains Viewed from Above

Edge of a Cloud Bank Over a Snowy Farm Landscape

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

I slept through the takeoff, as I always do. My mother used to say that it wasn’t sleep at all–that I passed out because of a terror of flight, but I don’t think that is the case. There is something about the gentle vibration and noise of the jet engines that somehow reminds me of a lullaby, and I drift gently into the netherworld of dreams, awakening again only when I reach 36,000 feet, or my wife pokes me to say that the free pretzels have arrived. Or sometimes I awaken with an embarrassing loud snort that probably sends my seatmates into mental giggles, though they carefully avert their eyes.

On this flight we left the winter landscape of Michigan behind, and I woke up over Wisconsin or Minnesota, based upon the prairie landscape below. We were high above the clouds, which formed an intermittent flat layer far below, so it was only a thin layer of atmosphere between us and deep space, and only a thin layer of aluminum between our purported discomfort and the -60°F and 570 mph winds inches away.

Wint of Boeing 757 over a Thick Blanket of Clouds

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

It was an afternoon flight, and crystal clear. Sometimes there were gaps in the clouds and I could see the pattern of snow on hills and the straight scars of roads and the lake that was shaped like a snowman. Mostly it was just clouds, billowy and feathering far below. As we zoomed west, I started using my camera’s zoom to take pictures of the clouds and the Boeing 757’s wing. I like having the wing in my pictures, because it adds a graphic element that has scale and interest. Also, if it ever catches fire, I should be able to get a great photo of it!

Farther west, high above the northern plains and Rocky Mountains and sagebrush steppe, we sailed on. Clouds covered it all, but the clouds were putting on a great show as we chased the sunset. It started with a hint of gold in the clouds; then vivid orange as the sun sank below the horizon. Finally, at deep dusk the sky was the soothing blue of twilight, with purple clouds lighting up below, as if we were in a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. It was spectacular.

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Cloudscape after Sunset During Boeing 757 Flight over Great Plai

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 Descending into Twilight during Approach to

Sailing over the Cascade Crest, I spotted two familiar landmarks: the cone of Mt. Adams, where we had hiked last Labor Day weekend, and Mt. Rainier, covered with a close-fitting garment of clouds. As we closed in on Seattle, we saw the lights of hundreds of cars crossing the floating bridges over Lake Washington and recognized roads and parks we had explored.

Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier with Boeing 757 on Approach to SeattleMt. Adams and Mt. Rainier on the horizon

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

When we landed, I realized that I had taken well north of 100 photographs on this trip, and had spent most of the trip gazing out at the passing landscape. It reawakened my love of seeing the landscape from above, which is an astounding thing for a creature of Earth to see. This is as close as I will ever get to space travel, and it was wonderful.

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 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.

PORTLAND COOL: Bikes, MAX, and Food Carts

October 7, 2011

Portland leads the nation in food carts, with hundreds of delicious mobile choices–just don’t call them roach coaches!

I grew up in Detroit, where from the 1970s on, essentially nobody from suburbia ventured downtown, because of a fear of crime. As a result, the city withered and largely died, though today there are brave artists and urban farmers and other souls hoping to spur a renaissance of that historic rust belt city.

In contrast, Portland, Oregon, amazes me with its pulsing vision of what a thriving downtown can be. The heart of Portland looks like what Detroit may have been 75 years ago, with good restaurants, shops, hotels, and galleries everywhere. Light rail trains (MAX) and streetcars roll through the city and out to distant suburbs. People are everywhere on the streets, giving pedestrians a feeling of participation, excitement, and safety.

Bicyclists commuting to work across the Hawthorne Bridge

Bicycles are also everywhere. Portland has a slogan, “Bike City USA,” and over 6% of workers commute to their jobs by bicycle–an incredible number! Bicyclists zoom over four bridges crossing the Willamette River, and some cyclists double their green creds by boarding MAX with their bikes.

Hungry? Portland is the nation’s capital for food carts, with over 450 choices available throughout the city. Food carts are usually tiny trailers that each sell a limited menu of often ethnic cuisine. At noon, office workers pour down to the “pods” (pods are groups of food carts, usually set up around the perimeter of a parking lot) to get their choice of Thai, Polish, hippie, Indian, vegan, Mexican, fusion, sushi, and scores of other kinds of food. There is usually no

seating area, so people either stand around eating, take the food back to the office, or walk to a nearby urban park. I did the latter, with my excellent turkey, cucumber, and creme fraiche sandwich on a crusty long bun, where I sat near a group of scruffy teens who came to the city for the day to hang out with friends in the park. It took me back to the hippie days of old, when kids in bell bottoms and shoulder length hair and guitars would gather in parks all across America.

I enjoyed spending the day walking around town, camera in hand. On the other hand, there were all the beggars asking for spare change and foul-mouthed transients and a homeless gathering place along the Willamette. Portland certainly isn’t exempt from contemporary issues of joblessness, homelessness, and hopelessness. But it’s still a very cool city, and is a magnet drawing 20-somethings from everywhere.

Portland is a blend of modern skyscrapers, such as the Fox Tower, with delightful elements on the human, streetscape scale

A modest facade belies the fact that Powell’s Books in downtown Portland is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the entire world

The Pianobike Kid livens the streetscape in Portland with a moveable feast of music

TriMet MAX light rail trains run from the city to the suburbs, and are usually packed with passengers

Portland is known as the “Rose City” and “Bike City USA;” two residents boarding a MAX train illustrate why it deserves the nicknames

The Hawthorne Bridge viewed from Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a park named for a popular anti-growth Republican Governor who famously said, at the height of the first mass environmental movement in 1971, “Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.”

A blend of old and new, as a MAX light rail trail crosses the old Steel Bridge

I took this photograph along the bike corridor across the Steel Bridge, because I think it represents the “look” of industry a century ago

Colorful Mexican sodas lined up at the front of a food cart selling good food inspired by cuisine from south of the border

Portland is justifiably proud of itself, billing itself as “the city that works;” this sign greets visitors coming into the city

For those who want to know more about the food cart culture of Portland, go to Portland Food Carts

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

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

DETROIT METRO: Motor City Magic

May 19, 2011

Walking through the Light Tunnel at Detroit Metro Airport

Detroit was my hometown. Don’t laugh: it was a great place to live in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up listening to Motown on the radio and saw Bob Seger live at the local teen center years before his mid-1970s success. We had the Cranbrook Institute of Science for cultural visits, and one of the best metropolitan park systems in the world. My suburban school gave me a wonderful college prep education. The Great Lakes provided summer fun, and “up north” beckoned with wonderful adventures. Many families owned cottages on lakes and rivers in this land of lakes. My Dad was an engineer at GM, and many of the neighborhood men in our leafy suburb also worked for the Big 3. It was a lively place to grow up, with the kinetic energy of the postwar boom driving an economy that had its pedal to the floor.

I remember my Dad coming home one evening, eagerly sketching out the tail fins he had just seen the designers produce for the brand new 1959 Chevy Impala. We had a new Chevy or Pontiac in the driveway every year, and the auto industry seemed like the pulsing heartbeat of America. The Corvette, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and Chevy Camero were the muscle cars that all the young guys lusted after. Cruising Woodward Avenue was the thing to do on warm weekend nights.

Alas, whoever was driving Detroit’s economy applied the brakes. Hard. Early signs of trouble came with the racial tensions between blacks and whites during a decade of discontent, culminating in a major riot (which some might justifiably call an uprising) during the long, hot summer of 1967. Fires and fights raged all over the city, with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne called in to restore order. The racial divide has continued, with 8 Mile Road dividing mostly black Detroit from the mostly white northern suburbs. Hip hop artist Eminem famously referenced this road and divide in his music.

Next came the ’70s, with oil shocks and the early popularity of imports giving Detroit a two-punch warning of the beating to come. As oil uncertainties continued, the baby boomers decided that cars from America’s prior enemies were cooler to drive than Detroit muscle, which had, in any event, been tamed by new mileage standards. Jobs were starting to evaporate with cost-cutting, oursourcing, and sharing the sales with the Japanese; guys with high school educations had trouble getting good union assembly line jobs like their dads had held before them.

Whites had been abandoning the city for decades by now, and the Motor City began depopulating as opportunities dried up and the twin thugs of crime and misery held the city hostage. The road down was long and potholed, and today much of Detroit is barren of houses and business, and there is talk of farming what used to be residential neighborhoods. The story of Detroit is like a story of Armageddon, with a once-rich civilization fallen into ruins. It makes me think of Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying book, The Road.

There is no point in trying to blame anyone or any single event for the devastation of Detroit; it is what it is. All we can do is look to the future.

Which is what I did on this brief trip to the McNamara Terminal of Detroit Metro Airport. This terminal is my favorite of any airport I’ve ever been to, with a great fountain, an overhead tram, and some nostalgic shops and restaurants that celebrate the Motor City. Another point in this terminal’s favor is that my brother helped build it, including installing moving sidewalks.

The best part of a visit to McNamara Terminal is walking through the Light Tunnel, an underground walkway connecting Concourse A with Concourses B & C. The Light Tunnel, designed by Mills James Productions and featuring glass art by Foxfire Glass Works and a musical composition by Victor Alexeeff, is an experience to reawaken your sense of wonder for flying, with ever-changing LED lights behind long cast glass panels. Rather than describe it, I’ll let the pictures paint a visual impression of walking through the airport. There are moving sidewalks on each side of the tunnel, with a wide promenade for walking between the concourses. I took most of the pictures from the moving sidewalks, which kept me occupied for at least half-an-hour while waiting for my plane. Great fun!

A montage of images of the ever-changing light show

Mother and child and Boeing 747, through the lively fountain

The beautiful fountain, created by WET Design, uses laminar flow of water in ever-changing patterns; it took inspiration from the flight maps that show the curving routes of airplanes as they travel from city to city around the curve of the earth

A view showing the long Light Tunnel

Detail of lovely cast glass backlit by LED lights in the Light Tunnel

A camera’s proof that aliens live among us

If your travels take you to or through Detroit on Delta, don’t miss the Light Tunnel!

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


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