Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sidetrack -- Full Moons over the Colorado

We boarded the legendary California Zephyr at Union Station in Chicago. Took a sleeper car and headed west, with Heather a reasonable approximation of Eva Marie Saint and I, sadly for Heather, what passed for Cary Grant.

Bridge repair across the Mississippi forced a detour straight out of Chicago. We ran non-stop all the way to Omaha NE on Union Pacific rail, the 1st time passengers have ridden that track since 1955, or so I was told. Should you think that unimportant or obscure, try telling it to the folk gathered at odd spots along the way to record the event for digital posterity.

We disrespect the railroad in America. That’s extraordinary, considering its outsized role in our history.

Most old depots have long since fallen to decrepitude, with shells of some now retrofitted into sparkling cloaks for shopping malls promised to revitalize faded downtowns. From track level, the old Union Pacific Station in Omaha is a rusted derelict hulk, though I hear it remains magnificent inside. I’d have happily shown you a haunting image of the thing except both times we paused in Omaha it was but briefly and in dark of night. Still, I saw enough as we went to know that riding the rails expressly to pick over the bones of Railroad Barons’ grandiose monuments to themselves would be an interesting gig.

America’s collective back is turned to the railroads that built the larger part of it. Instead of stopping near city squares first brought to existence ‘cause the train stopped there, rails course past backyards and junkyards and endless remnants of once vital industry, offering a ghost tour through the echoes of an America much different than today’s.

Even with all that, the Zephyr lives up to its legend.

Climbing through serpentine switchbacks out of Denver, the train then traverses once all but impassible mountains. And amidst such wild magnificence are found cultural curiosities, like this whimsical fence near the station in Fraser CO.

Along the way there’s much to marvel at, not least the incredible ingenuity it took for folk to cut track through mountains. Notable is the Moffat Tunnel, completed in 1927. At 6.21 miles in length and topping out at an elevation of 9,234’ it’s the highest elevated, third longest passenger tunnel in America. And should you think that unimportant or obscure; by turning a key in Washington D.C., President Calvin Coolidge set off the final blast that “holed through” the Moffat Tunnel while from the heart of the mountain that signal event was broadcast nationwide via radio.

Once the Zephyr deposited us in Salt Lake City, we rented a car and toured a bit. In Park City we saw more old hippies, new hippies and wannabe hippies gathered in one place than at any time since 1974. It was there I wandered into the shop of Michael Fatali and there was reminded that for all the antique craft applied and the various trials that inform my own field work, when put next to an authentic Master Photographer/Printer, I’m a documentarian.

Humbling aesthetic context aside, the next morning we headed off to our cabin in Zion National Park.

I have to think that when white folk first wandered up the Virgin River and found themselves in its great canyon, some fell straight to their knees with the sight. Towering above the river and the elegant Cottonwoods that flourish beside it, great towers of rock rise to the sky like mighty sentinels celebrated by Greeks in ancient myth.

Of the ‘Big Three’ critters that roam Zion, I saw two: the BighornSheep, of which by the 1950’s there were none left in the Park and a California Condor(!), of which there remained only 22 free flying in the entire world as recently as 1987. Today the sheep are returned home and some 130 California Condors again soar over the vast American West, including the one I saw off Angel’s Landing.

The 3rd beastie of that aforementioned Big Three is the Mountain Lion and as I’m not anxious to meet one face to face whether in Utah or the U.P, it’s all good.

In a robust day and a half I made 200 exposures using the Mamiya. Later I learned that Kodak’s discontinued the film I used. Thankfully, there remain other good options on the market. But like the railroad during decades past, what practical cultural value film retains is fading ever faster. And with that my creative obsolescence gains speed by rolling downhill.

I can’t burden Zion with interpretation. That’s a task best left to poets and painters. But in honor of having ended more than 40 years association with Kodak product while there, here’s a short shot of spring at Zion National Park -- captured with a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II D shooting 120mm Kodak E100G transparency film, requiescat in pace:

I closed my stay in Zion by shooting ancient petroglyphs in high desert on a sparkling morning. We found these courtesy of a fellow traveler’s detailed instructions. All roadside signage is removed, due the casual disrespect shown by tourists when signage leads them too easily to sacred places.

Then after a fine weekend passed in the company of creatives gathered together in Salt Lake, we boarded the train home. Of everything we experienced, perhaps the most curious was cultural.

For a lengthy stretch, the California Zephyr follows the path cut by the Colorado River. This includes through canyons inaccessible except by kayak, raft or train. For reasons inscrutable, it’s long been the habit of river rats both male and female to moon the Zephyr (brief partial nudity) as it goes by.

Don’t often see wildlife like that along Superior…


The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was once honeycombed with rails. Trains hauled poor folk into the region for work then hauled out the product of the work those folk put in. Resources exhausted, people were left to fend for themselves. Rails that once fed the region have been scavenged, there being only poor folk left to haul and there’s little profit in that.

Heather fondly remembers that on our first northwoods trip together, the call of trains beguiled the forest through the night. Now the railroad is just another cultural memory like the axmen and the miners, with old grades serving for rough roads or snowmobile trails. Having ridden the Zephyr out to the western wilderness and back, I suspect we’ll now pay a bit closer attention to those remnants we find along our way.

For all the wonders of Utah and the greater American west, the thing that struck me most about the place is how arid it is.

They told me there’s a swamp in Zion, but it’s a postage stamp of moist land off the Virgin River otherwise hemmed in by hard rock. My home turf of the Ottawa National Forest is ‘round about 100,000,000 acres of forest and maybe a quarter of that is real swamp -- the sort you can too easily get lost in if you’re careless.

All the time I was out west, increasingly with each passing moment and no matter how much in awe of my surroundings or how good a time was had, I positively yearned to be near water. 

Especially big water, as in Superior. And when the wind is hard out of the north, I can smell that from here.

It’s good to be home.


  1. the image with the ski fence interests me, as i am the one that built it. i wonder if you were in my yard when you took it, or if you asked permission. i'm guessing no...

  2. Professional courtesies aside, working in areas where folk sometimes protect their property with shotguns instead of whimsical fences has taught me not to go on people's property without 1st securing permission. That'd be true of my 5-minute stopover out by you, too.

    Nice fence, by the way.