Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shut Up & Love the Rain

Former Souther Pacific wood chip car on the Portland & Western's Toledo Hauler near Eddyville, Oregon.

'Nuf said.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wi-Fi on the Train? Why Yes!

Wi-Fi notification sticker in window of Amtrak Cascades train.

Research for an upcoming article took me to the Tacoma library today, with all travel accomplished by Amtrak Cascades service and some walking. Amtrak has been touting its new Wi-Fi service aboard the Cascades and I'm pleased to note that it worked very well on both trains 500 and 509. It also meant that I could both take today's photo and publish it to my blog without so much as needing to leave my seat. Interestingly enough, the service supposedly works much better in the coaches than it does in the bistro or dining car, and that's by design. Northwesterners accustomed to long computer stints in area coffee shops were staying too long in the bistro and dining cars' limited seating, to the point that passengers actually wanting to eat something didn't have a place to sit.

The day itself has been very satisfactory. The research was less than I'd hoped for, but I did turn up a couple of useful nuggets. Best of all was the way I traveled today -- walking a mile from home to the Amtrak station in Oregon City, riding the train to Tacoma, walking the two miles from the Tacoma station to the library with a stop lunch, walking back with a stop for coffee, and now riding the train home. It reminds me of Japan, and the surprising discovery of freedom in travel without a car.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Coast Range

Portland & Western's Toledo Hauler running along the Yaquina River near Toledo, Oregon.

Just four years ago, three active railroads traversed western Oregon's Coast Range. Today, there is only one: the Portland & Western's Toledo Branch, which runs from Albany to a Georgia Pacific kraft paper mill at Toledo, on Yaquina Bay. The floods of November 2007 wiped out the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad to the north, while to the south the line from Eugene to Coos Bay currently awaits a new operator. For now, only the Toledo Hauler crosses Oregon's Coast Range. The mill generates enough traffic for service five days a week, and a small lumber mill in Toledo also ships a few carloads.

I photographed the Toledo branch heavily during the two years that Maureen and I lived in Corvallis, so this morning's outing was like returning to an old friend (the homecoming was made all the sweeter by having another friend at the throttle of this train).The lushness of the Coast Range reminds me more of Appalachia than other landscape I've encountered in the west, so I find a comfortable familiarity in the thickly forested mountains, and today's misty weather is by far my favorite for photographing this part of Oregon. I'll have to come back again soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Japanese Engineer

Japanese train driver in Sapporo station, June 20, 2007.

Between September 2005 and July 2007, I traveled in China for almost three months, spent two weeks in Vietnam, and lived in Japan for 19 months. Since returning to the U.S., I frequently field the question, “What are the people there like?”

For three years I answered by underscoring the differences, feeling comfortably smug in my firsthand knowledge of the cultural nuances distinguishing groups of people that many Americans simply lump together as “Asians.” And then last spring I finally saw the folly of that approach.

In China, I traveled with Ronald Olsen, a fellow American photographer and train-lover whose experience and knowledge of Mandarin enriched my trip far more than I ever could have imagined. Of the past 14 years, Ronald has cumulatively spent more than three of them in China. Last spring, an interviewer asked both of us about the people there. I listened, while Ronald answered.

“They’re just like us. They want a good job. They want a nice roof over their head. They want to spend time with their families. And they want to have a laugh and a beer now and again. They’re a lot more like us than you realize.”

That brings me to today’s photo. Of course I did not take it today. I captured this view of a Japanese train driver in the Sapporo station on Wednesday, June 20, 2007. It was 5:12 p.m., departure time for the luxurious overnight sleeper train Hokutousei for Tokyo. His center-cab DD51 diesel hydraulic locomotive is nothing like any passenger engine in the U.S., and you won’t find very many American engineers wearing such crisp white shirts and black hats. But just like any American engineer all the way back to the days of steam, he looks at the ground when he starts his train.

And just like any American engineer or European driver, he hopes for a fast, safe run, and an on-time arrival at the end of his territory. And right now, if he still works the Hokutousei out of Sapporo, he hopes for the day when his country has returned to normal enough that his train can again depart. This train travels along the east coast of Japan’s Tohoku region, and much of its tracks were crippled and swept away by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Japanese Disaster Relief Funds:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Small Trains

Amtrak train no. 28 crossing the Willamette River at North Portland, Oregon.

I'm back, at least for now, and I hope to add some other recent photos, backdated to the appropriate day. For now, I'll start by revisiting an old theme. My friend, mentor, and fellow photographer Kevin Scanlon and I used to have a running "competition" of sorts: making the train as small as possible in a photo that was still a "railroad photo." It was Kevin's photos from the New River Gorge in my home state of West Virginia that first warmed me to this notion. I had previously been frustrated by the gorge -- in my traditional notion of railroad photography, I couldn't find a way to photograph a train and still depict the essence of the place: the depth of the canyon and vastness of the hills. Kevin showed me that the train doesn't need to fill the frame, or even a significant portion of it, to still have its place in the composition. I've since made these kinds of photos a signature part of my photography.

This afternoon, when the sky opened gloriously above Portland, I headed to my favorite overlook of BNSF's Willamette River drawbridge, where I was treated to three Amtrak trains in the span of 20 minutes. I had photographed here before, but today for the first time I noticed the barren tree just down the hillside, with sweeping branches that would provide an excellent frame. I had to use a very wide lens -- 20mm -- to incorporate all of them, which would render the train quite small, indeed, but I remembered my "small train" photos with Kevin and hoped for the best.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Rainbow

Union Pacific freight train on the "gauntlet" in Portland, Oregon's near-eastside.

(Written on March 23.) The luck of the Irish was with me and fellow photographer Kyle Weismann-Yee on St. Patrick's Day, as Union Pacific's daily Portland to Roseville freight train, the QPDRV, threaded the gauntlet of grade crossings on Portland's near-eastside while the remnants of a rainbow hung in the eastern sky. If only it had managed to drag itself out of Albina Yard and through the 15-degree reverse curves of East Portland Junction a little faster, we might have caught it beneath the double rainbow that had appeared a few minutes earlier.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Dark Mill

The now-closed Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

(Written on March 23.) One night while walking with Maureen along the bluff in Oregon City, I was struck by how dark and quiet the hulking forms of the Blue Heron paper mill appeared since its closure on February 25. I since have gone back through my photos of its operations and identified several to re-photograph for a before-and-after project. This is one of the "after" views that I especially like: the graceful curve of the tracks between the dark, angular forms of the loading docks and wood chip facility, with just a hint of the bright town still in the background, a subtle reminder that time marches on.