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.




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


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

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


Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-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.



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


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.



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


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.

COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: Eagle Creek Trail to Punchbowl Falls

Punchbowl Falls, with clear mountain water in deep pools below the falls

“Gray skies, smiling at me …” 

Irving Berlin certainly didn’t pen these lyrics; his song was all about transforming gray skies and gray moods into blue skies.  But to a photographer in the temperate rain forests of the USA’s Pacific Northwest, gray skies bring the dark forests to visual life, eliminating the harsh contrast of sun and shade that can wash out the highlights of a landscape and deepen the shadows. Clouds fill in the shadows and tone down the bright spots, lending visual harmony.

With a favorable forecast of gray skies and little rain, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. for the July 1 drive from Puget Sound to the Columbia River Gorge, located east of Portland, Oregon. Coffee and Egg McMuffins got us to the trailhead by 9:00 a.m.; a bit later and we would have had to park half-a-mile from the trailhead–oh, the horror of having to walk more than absolutely necessary!

The Eagle Creek Trail was created about a century ago. At that time, the Columbia River Highway was being built to link eastern and western Oregon, and to provide newly driving tourists access to some of the sweetest waterfalls found anywhere. The (now) Historic Columbia River Highway was built to be a beautiful and scenic route; with gentle curves and graceful concrete railings, it is among the most beautiful roads ever built. Much of it was later abandoned when the more efficient (meaning faster) water level route was built through the Columbia River Gorge, and I can testify that I-84, as the new route is known, is efficient at getting us to trailheads in a timely manner, albeit with far less grace than the old curving road. There are still some drivable sections of the old highway, and other sections have become walking and biking trails.

Trail blasted into basalt a century ago; note the cable along the cliff for gripping during bad weather

Like the road, the Eagle Creek Trail was built to exacting and graceful standards. Our hike took us two miles to Punchbowl Falls, winding along cliffs and ascending some 400 vertical feet. To make the trail accessible to the urban hikers of a century ago, the trail’s planners and builders blasted part of the route from basalt cliffs. Mosses and ferns and trees now cover the scars of the blasting, making it appear as if the trail had always been there. In at least one part of the cliff-hugging trail, there is a cable along the cliff to hang onto when conditions get icy and dicey, as they frequently do in the winter months. On our hike, however, the weather was Goldilocks-perfect for a hike: not too cold in the canyon and not too hot while hiking. Just right!

The trail winds through forests of old conifers and maples, with plenty of dripping moss hanging from the sprawling branches of Vine Maples.  Then, in drier habitats, the hike passes through miniature oak savannahs of the sort we have seen in northern California, with grass and sun-loving wildflowers beneath the oaks.

Looking downstream from near the top of the falls, where Eagle Creek scours a gorge

The hike has its own sound track, so iPods are not needed. Waterfalls roar with continuous thunder, while feeder creeks add a tinkling melody. In the trees, Hermit Thrushes sing the avian heart-tugging equivalent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, while Pacific Wrens continually perfect their too-long-and-complex-for-AM-radio songs. Conversations of delighted waterfall-watching families add to the feeling of being in a place that has been special to generations of Oregonians.

Upon reaching the Punchbowl Falls overlook, we were disappointed that so much vegetation has grown up that the falls are largely obscured (hey Forest Service: you’re supposed to be the experts at cutting trees … get with the program and do some selective trimming!). I crept down a precarious path leading to the top of the falls and got an unobstructed view downstream into the canyon below the falls, and was able to see much of the plunge pool formed by the waterfall–which gives Punchbowl Falls its name.

Classic view of Punchbowl Falls; visitors have arranged rocks to make a small jetty so that people can go out into the stream for this view

After a two mile hike to the falls with its owner, this retriever wisely chose to cool off by immediately plopping into the cold creek

Then we backtracked to the side trail leading to Lower Punchbowl Falls, and here found the classic and unobstructed view of Punchbowl Falls. I tugged on waders and fly-fishing boots and proceeded to take the split underwater and above water photographs you see here. We spent a long time on the gravel beach here, luxuriating in one of those Garden of Eden places where nature has outdone herself.

River rocks line the bottom of Eagle Creek; the first time I saw a photograph of this falls, some 40+ years ago, the photo showed a fly fisherman working the plunge pool below the falls

A lovely flower of the oak openings variously known as Herald of Summer or Farewell to Spring; the genus name is Clarkia

Seep Monkey Flower thrives in wet soils found near springs and seeps along the trail

Aleutian Maidenhair Fern thrives along the dark, moist cliffs of Eagle Creek

Water drips onto the stream surface from cliffs high above; Lady Fern and Aleutian Maidenhair love the moist, dark habitat along the cliffs

Diamond Fairyfan, another species of Clarkia, blooms along the Eagle Creek Trail

Green reflections in a very green place

Downstream edge of the plunge pool below Punchbowl Falls

Split view of the rocky stream bottom and Punchbowl Falls

Trail Notes:

Check the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area website for current information about rules, regulations, and fees.

Gorge trailheads are frequent locations of vehicle break-ins by gangs and other assorted thugs. One photographer I know had his van emptied of $10,000 in photo equipment in a few minutes; I also heard from family about a young couple visiting from out-of-state who had their rental car broken into. Be forewarned not to leave anything of value in the car.

Weather conditions here are variable; have layers of clothing and sturdy hiking shoes.

For more information:

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Historic Columbia River Highway

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

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

PORTLAND COOL: Bikes, MAX, and Food Carts

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

RING AROUND THE SUN: Changing Weather Ahead

Cirrus clouds and a 22° Halo around the sun, with contrails signaling jets passing overhead

Eyes and cameras raised, squinting at the glaring sun, we were amazed as an unexpected phenomenon took place in the sky. There was a perfect halo circling the sun, showing the faint colors of a rainbow. Nature once again put on a great show, this one visible from the park where I was showing my photography in suburban Portland, Oregon.

Sky phenomena are the result of physics, so bear with my numbers and technical information. My photographs show several aspects of the phenomenon, which is known as the “22° Halo.” It was quite wide in the sky, and I barely captured the whole circle with a wide 24mm lens. The rainbow prism is almost precisely at 22° out from the center of the sun. There is a second ring visible in the corners of the photo; this is a 46° Halo, which is supposed to be rarer than the 22° Halo. The sky color inside the 22° Halo is darker than the sky color outside the ring.

A faint second halo appears at 46°

These halos are caused by incoming thin and wispy cirrus clouds, which are often a harbinger of coming rain after a sunny day (indeed, it rained the next day after this halo). These clouds consist of tiny, hexagonal ice crystals; when sunlight passes through the crystals, it refracts out at the 22° angle and separates into the colors of a prism.

That’s the extent of my technical knowledge, but once again, seeing something new in nature revived my sense of wonder. And isn’t that one of the wonderful aspects of being outdoors?

Another view of the wispy cirrus clouds with the sun, signaling a change in the weather 

One word of warning: I was extremely careful in pointing my camera at the sun and looking through the viewfinder not to look directly at the sun. The human retina is fragile and can be burnt beyond repair. Don’t look directly into the sun!

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