Posted tagged ‘america’

SPOOKY REST AREAS LATE AT NIGHT

March 17, 2015

Crossing_America_December-94

After miles of drizzle and fog on an early December night, I needed to stop for a break. A blue rest area sign caught my headlights, and I decided to pull over two miles ahead. Rolling to a stop in front of the restroom building with only one other car visible, I scanned the grounds for potential trouble, then got out of the car, carefully locked it, and went inside. All was quiet, and nothing untoward happened.

Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in MichiganI took the photographs in this weblog post in three different rest areas during the winter of 2014/2015.

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Plains Indian Tipi Motif in a South Dakota Rest Area

For me, visits to highway rest areas are often like that: a little spooky and unsettlling, especially late at night. When I leave the comfort zone of my vehicle I make myself more vulnerable, but usually the short stop is uneventful and barely registers in my memories. It is worth remembering, however, that danger can sometimes lurk in quiet and remote places.

Shortly after I drove through Minnesota on my way to Michigan, I read a news story about a young man from Washington State who had been murdered execution-style around midnight by another man from the same state–in Minnesota’s Elm Creek Safety Rest Area. Someone reported the murder, and a red SUV speeding away from the rest area. That led to a 115 mph chase in which the suspect was shot and killed by police after crashing his vehicle in the median and emerging with a gun. Since both men were dead, the circumstances and motives were unknown. Apparently my apprehension about stopping at night is justified …

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Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in Michigan

While lying in bed this morning and thinking about writing this weblog post, I remembered a story from long ago. It seems that two guys I knew in grade school and junior high had moved to the Boston area and were working in a camera store. According to the news accounts, they forced a coworker to accompany them to a rest area, where they robbed him and stabbed him to death. I had repressed this memory for decades until I started writing this story, then it popped into my mind like a nightmare. The thing was, I could understand how one of the boys could end up as a killer, because he had always been a mean little snot, but the other kid was just a sweet, normal boy who apparently followed the other into a life of horror.

Plains Indian Tipi Motif in a South Dakota Rest Area

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Tree Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter Landscape in Michigan

Those stories and others like them feed the fear factor in my brain, but they also gave me some of the inspiration for this series of photographs. These pictures can be seen as beautiful in their own right, but they also have an edge of spookiness that is appropriate for the subject.

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Signs and Parking Lot in Rest Area along Interstate 90 in South

Tree and Photographer Shadows Crossing a Snowy Winter LandscapeAnd if you see a photographer late at night in a rest area, please let him quietly go about his work. He really doesn’t want to talk to strangers at midnight.

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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.

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

March 12, 2014

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

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.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

SILK FROST: Strange Ice Formations on the Olympic Peninsula

January 7, 2014

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaSilk Frost, known more widely as Hair Ice, emerging like fine hair from alder branches; the tiny water droplets show the ice beginning to melt as the temperature rises (an alternate theory is that it is condensation from the photographer’s breathing on this cold morning)

Overnight our Olympic Peninsula skies cleared and the temperature plunged to 28°F. That isn’t very cold by midwestern standards, where this winter is bringing temperatures and wind chills far south of -20°F, but it was cold enough to create something extraordinary and beautiful that I have never seen before.

I walked down the hill to our house, and saw a bright white patch about the size of a discarded Kleenex, which is what I thought it was and I wondered who had been despoiling our yard. I went over to retrieve it, and discovered that it was actually a patch of ice that seemingly sprouted from the ground and looked to be made up of fine hairs of ice. I was curious what it was, and I looked around to see if there were any others. There was a bigger blob of the stuff at the end of an old branch, and then I saw a couple more.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaEach of the above formations was growing from alder wood

This was a cold morning, so there was frost on the Sword Ferns and grasses around our house, but frost has an entirely different look from this hairy ice. I showed Karen, and we agreed that all these patches of hairy ice were sprouting from old branches that were either on the ground or sticking up in the air. It was distinctly different from the frost flowers we’ve seen emerging from the frozen ground around here, which are thicker and look like they are extruded.

I photographed the formations, then used the internet to try and discover more about them. It turns out that these formations are quite rare, and have mostly been observed on the Olympic Peninsula and nearby Vancouver Island, and in parts of Europe. The consensus name is Hair Ice, though the names Frost Beard, Ice Wool, Feather Frost, Silk Frost (my favorite), and Cotton Candy Frost have also been used.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

I don’t keep my yard very neat, especially in the wild patches beyond the mowed lawn and planted rhododendrons. If an alder branch falls in the forest, I’m not likely to hear it and will usually just let it be; as a naturalist, I prefer the chaos of the natural forest to the tidy landscaping around most homes. And that chaos of fallen branches is key to growing Hair Ice.

All of the Hair Ice around here was sprouting from old and decaying branches of Red Alder, a brittle tree that sheds body parts whenever we get snow or freezing rain. But where could the water be coming from that forms these hairs, which look to be as fine as human hair? This has actually been a mystery for a long time, though a German scientist described a possible association between fungus and Hair Ice in 1918. That scientist, Professor Alfred Wegener, became better known for his imaginative and long-controversial theory of Continental Drift, which has become a keystone theory to understanding the geological history of the Earth.

In 2008, two European scientists published a paper called “Hair Ice on Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees–a Biophysical Phenomenon.” In this paper they described their tested theory of how Hair Ice is formed. It turns out that fungus is indeed the key, and the Olympic Peninsula is renowned for its fungi. As we all know, fungus in fallen branches is responsible for recycling the nutrients in the wood, and this forest citizen takes its recycling responsibility very seriously. The fungus sets up a factory deep inside the branch, where it sets about decomposing carbohydrates and lipids–just as humans attempt to do with their New Year’s resolutions.

The fungus feasts on the nutrients, leaving water and carbon dioxide gas as waste products (hey, I would drink the carbonated water, but what do I know in comparison with a fungus?). And this is the key: the carbon dioxide forms pressure within the decaying twig that pushes the water outward through microscopic openings in the wood called rays. When the supercooled water meets the freezing temperatures outside, the water freezes into a tiny crystaline structure. Then, as the crystal is pushed by the water behind it, and the emerging water subsequently freezes, hair-like crystalline structures form that appear to be finer than the diameter of human hair. Together, the phenomenon looks a bit like white hairs emerging from an older person’s scalp–though I wish I could sprout that much hair from my bald head.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

We had a stretch of three days of clear nights and freezing temperatures, My photography activities on the first morning had destroyed the fragile formations, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with the pictures, so I hoped to see the phenomenon repeated on the next morning. I awoke to 26°F temperatures, went outside, and saw new Hair Ice at each of the places it had been the day before. I spent a couple more hours photographing, until temperatures rose above freezing and the ice began to melt. The next day, temperatures went down to about 28° overnight, and I repeated the process; once again, the Hair Ice showed up in exactly the same spots. It was wondrous to see something entirely new to us.

Living here on a small patch of forest on the Olympic Peninsula has taught me so much. I’ve seen Flying Squirrels coming to our bird feeders and entering our birdhouses. We have Mountain Beavers living in burrows amongst our ferns; though we’ve never seen one, we see the neatly clipped fern fronds outside their burrows (these are a Pacific Northwest mammal not closely related to the regular Beaver). Last spring I photographed three kinds of salamanders that were living in rotten wood around our property (thanks again to my messy naturalist’s aesthetic). I’ve photographed Bald Eagles, River Otters, Douglas Squirrels, Black-tailed Deer, Western Screech-Owls, and numerous other species here. The gifts of wild land continue to be a source of inspiration in our lives.

The Bigleaf Maple and Red Alder and Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar forest here has taught me a lot, and I like to keep it as wild as possible as a thank you to all the creatures who call this place home. The Silk Ice reminded me once again of how nature continues to amaze and delight.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

For more information about Hair Ice, here are two sources, though for the latter you will need to know German, though an Abstract is in English:

http://my.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/diurnal/wood/

http://www.iap.unibe.ch/publications/download/3152/de/

UPDATE: About a month later, there have been three more times when Silk Ice has appeared on the same branches in my yard as before; in each case, the overnight temperature dipped to the mid to upper 20s. On two of the days, the formations were well-developed and I took new photographs, but on the other day, there was wind and I think that most of the ice had sublimated away, leaving only one patch hugging the ground, where the wind couldn’t get to it.

On another day, the conditions would seem to have been perfect, with no wind and temperatures below freezing, yet no ice developed. The problem was, the temperature had dipped to 19°F, which was apparently too low for the fungal decomposition to proceed, so water and carbon dioxide could not be produced.

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 NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

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

May 1, 2008 North on the National Defense Highway System

May 6, 2008

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Today I am driving north from Tennessee through Virginia in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.  Everywhere, spring is upon the land on this sunny, perfect day.  Pastures are intense green with new spring grass; black cattle grazing on the hillsides look like silhouettes punched out of the green.  Along the road, the striking pink blossoms of Redbud—the most beautiful of spring-flowering trees—are at or just past their peak of bloom.  Awoke to the dawn chorus of cardinals and robins and the panoply of other breeding birds singing so loudly it would rival the roar of the truck traffic going by as I now sit at a rest area picnic table (and, yes, I much prefer the birds to the trucks!).

The night before last I took a series of night flights from Seattle to Minneapolis to Atlanta to Chattanooga, catching several hours of sleep sitting up in my cramped window seat, flying coach (of course).  Upon reaching Chattanooga I stowed my luggage in the van, then proceeded to drive 210 miles.  At which point I was nearly catatonic from lack of good sleep, so I stopped to camp for the night on a ridgetop in a Tennessee state park.  I lay down in my tent at 6:30 pm and proceeded to sleep 11.5 hours.  So I caught up enough to drive today’s 600 miles to my next show in New Jersey.

One problem with a beautiful day and 600 miles to go is that there is really no time to take pictures, except in my mind.  My favorite mind picture today was of an abandoned two-story farmhouse in the Virginia hills surrounded by a green meadow and hedgerows of blossoming Dogwood trees.  The paint on the house was all gone, leaving a weathered gray with black window openings and a rusting metal hip roof.  Simply a beautiful slice of Americana that contrasts sharply with the roadside chain fast-food places and truck stops with acres of asphalt.  

Driving up past Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, past Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters, past the Antietam battlefield of the Civil War, past Washington’s Revolutionary war headquarters, past Virginia Tech where so many young people were randomly slaughtered in 2007, past Harper’s Ferry where John Brown and his band of abolitionists captured a U.S. armory in 1859, past the Gettysburg battlefield.  The latter battlefield name has resonance in American history for Lincoln’s heartfelt address to the nation and as sacred ground, where the men of blue and gray fought so valiantly for the future.  

Gettysburg was later home to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, father of the National Defense Highway System, which was created by an act of Congress in 1956.  The National Defense Highways—now known as Interstate Highways—were created largely because General Eisenhower observed the efficiency of the German Autobahn during World War II, a system that enabled Germany to move tanks, soldiers, and supplies efficiently in wartime.  He envisioned a similar but necessarily vaster system for America, and the original 1956 plan called for 41,000 miles of interstate highways (we now have slightly more than that).  These highways would have limited access and acceleration lanes to make them faster for travelers.  Several defense considerations were important for design of the highways.  One mile in five (wherever possible) was to be straight so that it could be used as an airstrip in the event of a war or other national emergency.  These roads were to be the mass evacuation corridors from major cities in the event of a nuclear war (remember, war with the Soviets was considered possible—if not probable—in that Cold War era), so the design for speed was of critical importance.  I understand also that the design of separated roadways with a median was so that if the road was bombed with conventional weapons, at least one of the two corridors was likely to survive the bombing.  Similarly, large bridges combining all the lanes would have been more cost-efficient than the parallel bridges (for, say, the eastbound and westbound lanes), but would be less likely to survive an air attack.  Fascinating history; here is a place to start reading about it:  http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/ndhs.htm  

The Interstates dramatically changed life in America.  The interchanges proved to be great places for gas stations and fast food to serve the ever-increasing traffic.  Huge illuminated billboards cropped up to tell us of casinos and motels and attractions ahead.  Big box stores settled in along interstate corridors, using the benefits of proximity.  Downtown businesses struggled or died.  Blue highways became local instead of national routes and homespun roadside attractions became dinosaurs.  Route 66 became mostly a nostalgic memory of an earlier time.

The interstates allow me to travel rapidly from art show to art show (and indeed enabled the whole outdoor art show phenomenon), so I’m going to pause a moment and thank President Eisenhower for his vision in creating this national highway resource that has, in his words, “changed the face of America.”

At last I have arrived in New Jersey after traveling through six states today.


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