Lakeside Story

In September, I shot the wedding of my good friend Dave Honan and his beautiful bride Cortney. Since this wedding was just outside Seattle, and since this is my website you’re looking at, it should come as no surprise at all that the decision to drive out there for it was both the easiest and least surprising choice I’ve made in a while. My companion on this trip was the versatile and similarly self-employed Laura, whose stuffed animal business took a back seat to the duties of DeLorme navigator, food choice maker, and assistant wedding photographer.


Among the many things we did on the way there was a trip through some of my favorite terrain on the continent- the area west of Salt Lake City along the former Western Pacific and Southern Pacific lines that eventually meet in Wells, NV to head west through Palisade Canyon. Our mission was pretty specific this time, which stands in stark contrast to my normal western trips that are dictated by a complex math equation involving how many places I can get to if I deprive myself of enough sleep for the three days needed to make it back home before some very pressing engagement. Well, this time I left a full eleven days between departure and the wedding I had to shoot, and this left plenty of time for the foolhardy, but oh so awesome endeavor I’m about to explain.


2012 is Union Pacific’s 150th anniversary. UP, like most modern Class 1s, is extremely conscious of its image to the public, and to that end they maintain a stable of pristine vintage locomotives and passenger cars. This equipment tours the system to celebrate big events, important railroad functions, and sometimes I think they just take it out for fun, because if I ran a railroad, I know that’s what I’d do. Among this sparkling museum-like collection of railroad history is their lone steam engine, 844. It spent most of 2012 going from place to place to help celebrate the railroad’s sesquicentennial, and in late September it departed its homebase of Cheyenne, Wyo for an eventual terminus of Sacramento, CA. This meant we’d be in the same general part of the country as 844, and a plan was born.



The Plan.



West of SLC, but not yet to the lovely oases of Wendover or West Wendover (two distinctly different places, which if you’ve been there, you understand why) is a massive expanse of salt, craggy mountains, and, if you go far enough north from Interstate 80, the western shore of the Great Salt Lake. From a sightseeing perspective, I don’t think there’s much draw, but from a train nerd perspective, there’s a massive reason to brave the nearly thirty mile-long gravel road that winds its way from the off-ramp: SP’s Lucin Cutoff.


Because I’d hate for you to have to leave this page to google what the Lucin Cutoff is, I’ll explain it in a few long sentences: The original transcontinental railroad went from Omaha to the west coast, and its most treacherous, most all-around-pain-in-the-ass, slowest stretch of track happened to be just north of the Great Salt Lake, near Promontory. Remember reading about the Golden Spike in grade school? Well, this is the neck of the woods where that happened. In 1905, the Southern Pacific  said “hey, this whole bottleneck north of the lake seems like a real mess, what if we just built a bridge OVER it and then reaped the monetary benefits of shippers using our new, easy way through Utah?” (paraphrased quote, may not be factually accurate) and built a massive, twenty mile-long wooden bridge over the Great Salt Lake, that also nearly bankrupted the railroad. Seriously, think about that: it was 1905, in the middle of a state completely devoid of trees, and they built a gigantic timber bridge over a lake. Awesome. The bridge continued to serve the railroad well into the 1950s, when they began constructing an earthen fill to replace the aging structure. Not quite as cool, but still, this was something I had to see.


844 was slated to depart Ogden on September 22nd, so the idea was to get up to Lakeside and survey the shooting opportunities the afternoon before, and then camp out that night. Here’s the thing about the drive to Lakeside- it’s LONG, and pretty spooky in its overall desolation. The many signs warning you of unexploded ordnance, military exercises in progress, and to “drive at your own risk!” would be enough to scare off most people, but we were on a mission involving trains, so throwing caution (or common sense, whatever) to the wind was imperative.


The roads weren’t bad, for the most part: pea-sized gravel, nicely maintained, it all felt sort of like a really easy rally stage on an old Colin McRae game. That is, until we came to the end of the military installation and passed into Huge Potholetown, Utah, adjacent to Upper Rocky Switchback City. Mind you, I was in my Subaru WRX, a fine vehicle for many things, but getting up a gigantic rocky hill? White knuckles, copious swearing, and a fair amount of luck got us to our vantage point for the next 18 or so hours:

(click all photos to enlarge them)



The Trains.



Here’s the thing about camping a few hundred feet above a lake to the east and a massive dry lakebed to the west: you’re going to have a lot of warning of oncoming trains. I was getting scanner reception for thirty miles in both directions, and were it not for the smoke in the sky from the late-summer forest fires out west, I would have seen trains from just as far away. This was the first time I’d ever experienced anything quite like this, and the fact that we were pretty much the only two people for dozens of miles was a weird feeling. The wind was fierce, especially once the sun had gone down, but considering we were on the highest point in the middle of a flat expanse of land, this was not surprising. The coyotes calling from hilltop to hilltop all night was a bit unnerving, I’m sure they were as interested in us as we were of the passing trains. And the trains were plentiful! From the moment we got there, UP had them running like streetcars all night, to the point that getting out of the car to shoot them all got a bit tedious. Eventually, a fitful sleep came over me after a few hours of some of the most fun night shooting I’ve ever done. Moonlight, stars, and trains twenty miles away- there aren’t a lot of places where you’re going to see that!



The Main Event.


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Morning arrived, eventually, with the sun shrouded by clouds. This wasn’t a massive deal for me since the shot I was going to get of 844 was directly into the morning sun. The freight trains dried up in preparation for this special move, so we were left with some time to make tea and eat a fantastic car trunk breakfast of Triscuits and avocados, which sounds horrid but was really quite good and would keep us full for most of the morning.


Around 8:30, 844 toned up the dispatcher…


…and in a little more than a half an hour, a VERY short train with curious little puffs of smoke following it, slowly crossed the lake in front of us. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this train was completely dwarfed by the lake, even at 300mm it was hilariously small, as you can see:



As per their plans, the train parked itself at Lakeside siding for a half an hour to do routine maintenance. This worked out wonderfully for my purposes, because that happened to be directly below our perch, so many pictures were leisurely snapped while the tool car guys did their thing:



The sound of the idling steam (do steam locomotives idle? I’m a bad railfan for not knowing the proper term) and intermittent whistle blasts reverberated off the walls of the hills and mountains that surrounded the lake’s shore, and the whole area was awash in the glory that is UP 844. Seemingly just as quickly as the train had arrived, though, it was gone, its drivers thundering across the lake’s salt-crusted evaporation ponds, and eventually out of sight. What an experience!

CP 88

I was back in the Lehigh Valley for Thanksgiving. It was something of a drive-by visit; got there Wednesday, and left on Sunday afternoon. This did not leave much time for anything other than seeing family, and driving to see family, so I only got out to watch trains once.

I grew up in Bethlehem, and lived there until I was 21, when I moved to Indiana. Every time I come back, for holidays, for business, whatever, something is different – a housing development where a cornfield was, a new supermarket where the old one used to be. That goddamn casino. Things like that.

What stays the same, though, is how it feels to be out and about in my hometown at night. That’s the only time it still feels like home, and when i prefer to do most of my photographing when i am there. Everything seems to slow down, and it feels like I am the only one out there. In an area where more and more New York and New Jersey transplants arrive every day, it’s a tough feeling to find, that solitude and quiet.

And of all the places I like to be at night, it’s the south side of town, along the river, that is my favorite. What, to the railroad, is called CP 88 (a control point, eighty-eight miles from New York City), has always been my home office when watching trains in Bethlehem. Situated between two of the three bridges that span the Lehigh River, seemingly insulated from the hustle of the revitalized South Side, 88 is the best place to just sit, and let the trains pass by.

It’s rare that my social life and middle-of-the-night train nerdy life intersect, but I think I have had a conversation there with every single person in my life of any import. Since about 99% of the time spent along train tracks is spent looking at those empty tracks, good conversation is a must, and that has always been the place to do it.

At night.

My parents got divorced a few years ago, and when married people own a house, and then they get divorced, that house has to get sold. Part of selling a house with two grown kids’ worth of stuff in it means lots, and lots, of cleaning, throwing out, packing, and boxing up. Every time my mom comes out to visit from PA, she brings a new pile for me to try to find a place for in my tiny house. In 2006, she brought me a rather sizable stack of books, and a huge mess of train stuff from when I was much younger than I am now.

Among the pile of books were two binders, one of which had my once-coveted list of Conrail freight schedules. This means nothing to most people, so I will explain, briefly. Conrail was the railroad I grew up with, the railroad that went through most towns on the east coast, up to 1999, when it was bought by Norfolk Southern. Well, at least the part that I care about, was bought by Norfolk Southern. Whatever. Most of my earlier memories of trains involve this railroad. So, every six months, Conrail would publish, for all of its railroad employees, a paper list of every single train they ran, complete with times through every pertinent town along the way, so the train crew knew when to be where to drop off or pick up cars, and things like that. Something of a simplified explanation, but I’m the one writing this, so tough nuts.

About 20 miles from Bethlehem, there is a town called Alburtis, which is well west of most of the development and sprawl that I dislike about the Lehigh Valley. Just a small, asleep-by-ten-PM, western end of the Valley kind of place. It is also perfect for sitting and watching trains in the middle of the night. Back when I was a teenager, Alex and I (along with any number of other dudes who seemed interested at first, but quickly found that waiting for hours in the middle of the night for a train sounds far more awesome than it really is) would sit along the tracks for hours upon hours. We didn’t have all that many friends, we didn’t sleep, ever, and especially in the summer (but as we got older, the winter, too) we’d be out insanely late, just sitting along the tracks in lawn chairs, talking, drinking Turkey Hill iced tea (which is about as central PA as it gets. It also isn’t really very good) and watching peoples’ TVs flicker on their walls as they slept.

Being complete nerds about trains, we always knew what was coming, and when, and relied heavily on listening in on railroad radio frequencies on the trusty Radio Shack 10-channel Realistic scanner, to know what was happening on the line we were sitting next to, but also on our freight schedules. Despite the fact that only railroad employees were issued these things, somehow we always ended up with stuff like freight schedules, roster information, lots of Operation Lifesaver “Stay off train tracks, you’ll die!” propaganda, etc. Most often played was the “we’re just young dorky kids who are studying about trains for a project at school” card (worked every time, by the way) and in turn, we got tons of free, informative pieces of railroad stuff.

In England, people who like trains are called “trainspotters”, and with good reason- the entire (well, not entire, but large) reason to watch trains in the UK is to see every single locomotive on the British Railways system, which in a country that small, isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. Trainspotters have their book, and when they spot a locomotive they haven’t seen, they check it off the list. Most people who like trains here are the same way, namely, the engines are the most important thing, and everything else be damned. i was never really like this, at all, as discussed previously in this here blog. As I’m am sure you’ve picked up by now, most of the reason I like trains, or anything really, is because of the details. The history, the context, the effect on other people, the sound it makes, everything. So, to bring it back to what I am (ramblingly) talking about, not just what engine is pulling some train. My favorite part of watching trains in the middle of the night growing up was that at night, all the really important trains ran. Trailers, containers, UPS trucks, the mail. Stuff like that. Trains, that only days earlier were in California or Oregon or some other port on the west coast, that by the time they were passing me were only hours from the other side of the continent from where they started. The daytime was for locals and manifests, trains anyone could see, but the wee hours of the morning were for the important stuff.

Being a link in that chain, no matter how small, always really struck me. A lawn chair in the gravel along some train tracks at three AM doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but knowing what you’re watching as it goes by, knowing where it’s going and where it’s been, always really did something for me. Still does. So, instead of trainspotting for locomotives, Alex and i saw our prey somewhat differently – it was all about the actual train. Knowing that if we stayed up until sometime after four am, we would see MAIL 4 – a fast, long, loud-as-hell train, pulled by four or five smaller, four-axled engines, as opposed to fewer large, six-axle models (smaller locomotives were better for acceleration, which on a train like this meant less time wasted accelerating back to track speed after a setoff or red signal), a train that ran through Alburtis so fast it seemed like it was on fire – that was a huge catch for us. Definitely, this was an accomplishment, a feather in the hat of personal feats. You knew you had stayed up long enough to beat the railroad at its own game, somehow. You had seen a train that, by going past at a particularly insanely late/early time of day, you somehow weren’t supposed to get to see. Talk about a good night.

So then, going through this pile of old books, i found my old Conrail freight schedules, in the binder I carried around in my backpack like it was a bible. Now, not that freight trains have ever run “on schedule,” even remotely, but knowing the general timeframe of how a railroad worked, when they ran what train; that was vital information for me as a kid. I had it memorized in no time, could tell you (and by “you,” I mean every bored teacher, relative, friend or parent. Oh, my poor parents. The patience of saints, those people.) when ALPI left Allentown for Pittsburgh, or when TV-61H made its way out of Bethlehem, and tell you, if you were still listening, where you could take me to see these trains pass.

But so it all came back to me as i went through the pages: the summer nights spent listening to crickets, hearing a train blow its horn ten miles away as only an echo, knowing that in a matter of minutes, it would be thundering through whatever small town we were in that night – Alburtis, Bowers, Lyons, wherever. Any of these Reading Line towns where we knew we were the only people awake, the only people watching this happen. It was as if it was all happening just for us, all the noise of the passing train, and then nothing. Back to the quiet that hung like fog in the summer heat. Even in the middle of the night it was still hot, it smelled like corn and a distant dairy farm. You could hear the streetlights hum.

Sandcut, CA

When we got to Sandcut, it was late, close to midnight. I wanted to get some shots of this iconic SP signal bridge at night, so we set off after a late dinner at the truck stop in Tehachapi, where the topic of conversation among the local knights of the road was, and I kid you not here, immigrant Canadian truckers, and their penchant for relieving themselves while they drive. You just cannot make that sort of thing up.

So off we went, west on 58 towards Bakersfield. Finding Sandcut in the daytime is easy enough, just look for the signal bridge as you drive down the road along the tracks. At night, though, I can’t tell you how many times I have driven right by it. The above photo may make it seem like there was plenty of light (long exposures do that, after all), but out there among the orange groves and back roads, it is really dark – the kind of darkness that feels like it’s hanging right in front of your face the entire time, close enough to touch. That’s the kind of night this was; flashlights and stumbling over rocks while carrying a tripod and camera bag to the spot.

The cool thing about this part of the line, is that at night, it is eerily quiet. You’re far enough away from the highway so that the trucks don’t make any noise, there’s not all the wind you have up on the top of the hill, and aside from the occasional farmer driving by, it’s just you, some train tracks, and the steady breeze through the orange trees on one side of the road, and the onion fields on the other. You know how sometimes when you stand really still, it sounds like the place you’re standing is speaking only to you? Sandcut at night gives me that feeling.

Of course, that gets flipped on its head the moment you hear a train on the radio. The detector at 328 goes off, and you know it’s a matter of minutes before the signals light up and the train is on you, having just a few miles ago negotiated some of the steepest grades on the west coast. Now that the train is done with that, it’s 60mph running all the way to Bakersfield. In the middle of the night, in the thick, black darkness of a dusty place the rest of the world would think nothing of, as that train blasts by, all lights and wind, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Kempton, PA


Kempton is about a half an hour from Bethlehem, and is the home of the Wannamaker, Kempton, and Southern RR. Its six miles of track run through some of the nicest PA Dutch cornfields around, and as far as touristy steamtrain operations go, it’s this or nothing for me.

A lot of old men who were there the first time, and folks my age who pretend they were, seem to go totally ape over steam trains. I’m not really that guy. That being said, going to Kempton has always turned me into an awestruck little kid, excited to sit in the open-air car behind the locomotive to get as covered in soot as possible.

The above photo is from this summer, along the Ontelaunee Creek, between Trexler and Steinsville.

Monon Farewell


Smedley, IN

The Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville RR, a/k/a The Monon (since Monon, IN is where the railroad’s two mainlines crossed each other) stretched from the top of Indiana to the bottom. Through countless ownership changes, two world wars, and even the storm that severed its now two halves in 1993, the Monon saw trains pass through its Indiana towns daily for the better part of a century. Recently, thanks in large part to the demise of our nation’s ability to actually make any of the things it uses, train traffic declined to levels not seen in decades. What this meant to lesser-used lines like the southern half of the Monon, was that it went from a decently-used secondary mainline to Louisville, to a one-train-a-day relic, on its last legs, waiting for a stroke of the pen to turn it into a bike trail.But, before we get all boo-hoo about things, let’s take a step back, because there are some important facts about this line that make it unique, and worthy of all this adjective-ridden praise. The main draw of the Monon, to anyone who is as nerdy about trains as I am, is that the signaling system on the line is upwards of ninety years old, utilizing mechanical semaphores instead of the regular old lights you see on most anyone else’s signals. This is actually the last line east of the Mississippi using these signals, so, yeah, kind of a big deal. The other, more widely appealing reason for this rail line being so much fun, is that there are two stretches of track that run directly through the middle of an active city street. Street running is rarer and rarer these days, for obvious reasons, but yet, the Monon happily disrupted two cities on a daily basis – Bedford (J Street, which forms the west side of its town square), and New Albany (Fifteenth Street, which was the greatest place to see near fatal train-on-car collisions, if that’s your kind of thing). Combine these two awesome railroad features with the beauty of rural (no, like, reallyrural) southern Indiana, some fast back roads, and the fact that the trains never went fast enough that you’d lose them on a chase, and the Monon was my favorite place to spend the day shooting trains in the whole state. Didn’t hurt that it starts only thirty miles south of Bloomington!

Now, obviously, the charms of this line were not lost on the rest of the world (…of people who care about trains) so, when it became apparent that CSX was going to shut down the Hoosier Subdivision (their name for the Monon’s southern end), the masses descended on Bedford, or Mitchell, or Orleans for the twice-weekly southbound movement of the Indiana Railroad, to chase it south. CSX had long since moved their mainline freight off the Hoosier Sub (more on that later), so the only trains taking this route were INRD’s, between Jasonville and Louisville. The glory of their trains, was that they’d run like clockwork, so if you showed up in Mitchell at 9AM on a Tuesday, you’d know you were going to see a train. This level of certainty is rare when it comes to finding a train, and it also meant you were chasing the train on some days with fifteen of your closest brand-new slow-driving out-of-town friends. Not always perfect, since railfans are some of the most socially…interesting folks in the entire world, but hey, meeting new people is what life is all about, right?Well, CSX shut down the Monon in June. They moved the remaining traffic to another equally beat up stretch of track, the Louisville & Indiana Railroad, with the difference being that those tracks belonged to, indeed, the L&I, and not CSX. A chapter of railroading was now finished. People online boasted to any who would listen that they had shot the last movement, ever, on the Monon, that they’d seen history written, right in front of them, that nothing would ever grace the jointed rail of this historic section of track, and so on. Hyperbole is big on the internet, for sure, and train people are some of the best in the business. Of hyperbole. Which does not pay a penny. But I digress.

Fast forward to mid-July, 2009. CSX was doing trackwork on their mainline south from Vincennes to Evansville and into Kentucky, and had to re-route trains onto another rarely-used mainline, the former B&O between Vincennes and Seymour. The internet buzz was not nearly what it was over the Monon, because they do actually still run trains on the line, albeit very occasionally. Well, let’s face it, I’ll take any opportunity I can to hang out in southern Indiana and shoot trains, and for some detoured trains on a bit of track that rarely sees anything of any interest, hey, I’m all over it. The normal route is St. Louis to Vincennes (where they’d normally turn south onto the line being worked on), and then onto Louisville, but the detour took the L&I from Seymour. So, Vincennes to Seymour was the target. Thanks to some guy-who-knows-a-guy-who-works-for-CSX connections, a close friend of mine was able to get me a rough schedule for when I could expect the detoured train, so away we went for US 50.We caught the train just east of Shoals (where a lot of the midwest’s gypsum comes from, bet you didn’t know that!) and banged off a few shots between there and Mitchell (including a spot called Georgia, which seems awfully funny to me) where, much to everyone’s surprise, the train stopped. Seemed odd, wasn’t the plan to go to Seymour and head south there? Well, not so fast, there, chief! As it turned out, the fellas who assembled this particular train in St. Louis were unaware that the L&I was unwilling to handle another railroad’s hazardous material shipments without prior approval, approval CSX never got since they didn’t realize the train had hazmats on it until somewhere around Washington, IN! So, instead of following the detour route of every other train that week, this ONE train, the one that I was chasing, was to head south on the Hoosier Sub to Louisville. The crew was to arrive sometime around 3PM, reassemble its now-cut apart and tied down train, and start down from Mitchell at 4PM. It was taking the railroad a while to find a crew qualified to run on a line that, until a few hours earlier, was out of service, and this accounted for the delay. Delayed as things were, such good fortune is not to be squandered with impatience, so I sat in the parking lot of the Michell depot, read a book, and waited out the afternoon.

And so with all the other train shooters somewhere else, all the internet railroad geeks talking about something else, CSX ran its last through freight down the Monon. No fanfare. No caravan of rabid photographers talking about the epic event that they alone were documenting. Just me, my Pathfinder, and a train, under the same cloudy skies that had accompanied me on how many of these chases over the years. I shot the train at my favorite spots – Orleans, Leipsic (remember what I said about rural? Yeah.), Campbellsburg – all the best places to shoot the blades. As evening descended, and descend it did with all the cloudcover, I got to Smedley, IN, a “town” that consists of two farm supply stores and a church, and incidentally, a place I had never, even once, shot a train. I’d always driven past it, in order to get to the next spot down the tracks, but with the train moving at a turtle-like 10m.p.h., time was definitely on my side.I set up behind the feed store, well ahead of the train, and waited. Waiting is integral to chasing trains, so that was nothing. I must have been playing Brickbreaker or something, when a car rolled up, and parked next to mine, to which I naturally thought, “Oh, someone else must have heard this train was running and didn’t get ahead of it until this far south.” Fair enough, sure. Well, no, it was weirder than that – here came two rather dainty gentlemen, meandering across the same cornfield I was standing in, to “just stop and have a look” at the blades I was going to shoot when the train arrived. I nicely explained that, hey, this was probably the VERY LAST TRAIN that would run on this line for a very, very long time, and that I’d been chasing it for forty miles at this point. Maybe they’d like to chase it the rest of the way, given the importance of what was going on, I’d be glad to lead the way. No, the guy with the moustache said, they were just passing through and thought it might be neat to see a semaphore. “Neat.” Here I was, listening to the death rattles of a railroad lovingly nicknamed “The Hoosier Line,” and these two cats just happened upon a detoured freight, detoured again at the last minute down what amounted to an abandoned mainline – there aren’t words to describe that kind of luck. I should have asked them which lottery numbers to play that night. But so the train showed up, at long last, and I decided to do a bit of a shutter drag, give the impression that this train was speeding its way south, to a future with the promise of more trains on my favorite train tracks anywhere. 1/6th of a second at f/22 makes even the slowest of trains look like a Japanese bullet train, I think I definitely got the point across. I wished my two new friends safe travels, and sped off down 60 to Hitchcock, for my last shot of the day.

Hitchcock is down (not surprisingly) Hitchcock Rd., and is one of many railroad location names with no relation to any actual town. It’s at the top of the steepest grade on the line, well off the highway, on a dead-end farm road, so it’s as quiet as a tomb until the train shows up. Talk about the perfect place to bid adieu to the Monon. I stood around at the crossing, pretending that I wanted to take something of a different shot than I usually took, but really, I was just getting antsy. I wanted the train to come, but in actuality I didn’t, because that would be it. No more lazy chases on a spring day, no more semaphores making their metal-on-metal 90 degree dance moves after the train passed, no more pedestrians playing chicken with a southbound on 15th Street. Once these rails went silent after this approaching train, they’d be silent, at least to me, probably forever. As I heard the inevitable rumble of this train heading upgrade towards me, it was, honestly, pretty sad stuff. I’m not one to be too romantic about, among other things, trains, that whole the-world-isn’t-what-it-used-to-be noise is definitely not for me, but it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t affected. I took my pictures when the train arrived, and stood there until well after the train was gone, after the rails stopped announcing their purpose with the squeaks and clicks of their departed, temporary visitor, until all that was left was me, at a railroad crossing in the middle of nowhere, knowing I’d just said goodbye to something very real.

Texas at Night


Interstate 10

My brother and I drove eight thousand miles last July. He was originally slated to go out west with a friend of his. This friend seemingly thought that telling his employer of his plans to drive cross-country didn’t need to happen until three days before the proposed start date, so after he was inevitably laughed at, and told where to stick his plans for leaving in 72 hours, I became the man for the job. Not that I minded, I’m always game for a drive.Our first stop was Austin, since the UT Art Museum (I honestly have no idea what it’s called. Whatever, it was 110 degrees and there was no place to park.) had an exhibit of Jack Kerouac stuff, and what’s better on someone’s first big cross-country trip than some inspiration from Mr. On the Road himself? Of course, little did I know, the actual manuscript for the book was not in Austin, but a mere fifty miles from our starting point, in Indianapolis. Oops!

In case you’ve never been there, Texas is effing huge. To help you understand the sheer hugeness of the place, here’s an exercise in imagination – take the biggest state you’ve ever driven across, multiply it by three or four, remove any of the defining/interesting/compelling features about that state, flatten it out, tack up some vaguely offensive anti-immigration billboards, and give it a massive 80mph daytime speed limit on I-10. You’re now in Texas, my friend.The above photo was taken sometime in the middle of the night, on a more-desolate-than-most (we even saw a scary hitchhiker, followed shortly thereafter by cops searching the countryside with spotlights!) stretch of 10. We saw a train (how often do my stories start out with that?), since trains are plentiful and also very obvious in the middle of the desert at night, so of course trying to take a picture of it in the dark seemed like a good idea. We got ahead of it, pulled off on one of the many “Ranch Access” exits, discovered that we were about a half mile from the tracks without any road whatsoever leading to them, and made other plans. Namely, we both found bushes to pee behind while the train went by, barely visible from where we were standing, just a slight rumble in the dark.

Now, not being one to give up an opportunity to stand around in the middle of nowhere with my camera and not take a picture, I set up my tripod to get some time exposures of the highway, since how often does one find themselves in the middle of Texas, on a dead-end exit ramp, under the stars? This is a tractor trailer making the streaks, and the exposure is around thirty seconds, I think. Pretty wide aperture to get some stars in the shot. Then we got back in the car and drove to White Sands.

East Chicago, IN


CP 502 – East Chicago, IN, originally uploaded by capwell.


It’s no secret that I am completely obsessed with trains. It’s also no secret that about 80% of the traveling I do, in some way, has something to do with trains, or train-related nerdery. Oh, and also, I take a lot of pictures of trains, too. Now you know something new about me!

For the uninitiated, most “railroad photography” has to do with the locomotive, and little else. The power that pulls the train, to most people, is the raison d’être for their train shooting. As I’ve gotten older, and more into taking pictures of other things, I’d like to think that this has stopped being my sole purpose for grabbing my camera and heading trackside. Take the photo above, f’rinstance.

This was on the same trip in April that yielded the 4×5 shot of Gary, and in fact, this shot was not very far from there – just past the porno store, the casino, and that one abandoned building. Alex and I were trying to cram like ten locations’ worth of Chicagoland train spots into one early-spring, early-dusk, colder-than-expected April afternoon/evening. Needless to say, on such a marathon day of sight-seeing, i think we saw all of one train, which is karmic retribution for such short attention spans, a punishment anyone who shoots trains understands all too well.

But that’s not the point of this bit of writing, at all. My point is, that many of my favorite train pictures, especially lately, are not of the train, necessarily, but of everything that surrounds it. CP 502, the name of the spot in this picture, is where, at one point in time, four railroads came together and interchanged with each other. Today, it’s one less, but still, the amount of tracks, signals, bridges, switches, everything really, makes for a really striking image. The sun was also at such an angle that it made the scene that much more, you know, dramatic. Yeah.

Oh, and the best part? This was taken from a pedestrian bridge between two sides of an active steel mill, but yet is on completely public property – a rarity in this day of post-9/11 paranoia!

Eldora Speedway – Rossburg, OH


Eldora Speedway – Rossburg, OH, originally uploaded by capwell.

For the last three years, my father (who lives in Bethlehem) and yours truly (who does not) have met up in a field just north of Rossburg, Ohio for the 4 Crown Nationals, a weekend of dirt track racing held annually each fall at the short track of all short tracks, Eldora Speedway.

My father and I have shared racing the way most stereotypical dads and their sons might share fishing, or going to baseball games (though we have done plenty of that, almost exclusively at Shea Stadium, may it rest in peace). Every year from when I was nine to when I was twenty-three, we’d drive to Montreal for the Formula One race held there each June (or, Juin, if you want to be all French about it). This was something of an excuse to walk around the coolest city in the world, buy a lot of CDs with the incredibly weak (at the time) Canadian dollar, eat multiple meals at Ben’s (another place that has since been torn down and relegated only to the memories of my ever-crystalizing “youth”) and hang out with each other. Though, some of the greatest moments of my racing-loving life have happened in the hairpin of Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, in particular Nigel Mansell’s final-lap breakdown and my hero, Nelson Piquet, taking the improbable/hilariously awesome victory in 1991 (this is seriously one of the top five moments of my entire life, I thought my head was going to explode I was so excited. And to see it in person – amazing!). You don’t realize things at the time very often, but looking back, those are some of the best days of my childhood – I can look back on these weekends, once a year right after school let out, and chart the course of my adolescence, for both better and worse. That’s a very specific window to have into your life as a youngster, and one that I’m more grateful to have as I get older. Though of course, at the time, nothing makes you feel like more of a grown-up than swearing without worrying about getting in trouble, staying up late and watching foreign-language television, and always being able to order dessert, no matter what the meal. Funny what sticks out to you when you’re a kid.

But at the center of this was always the fact that we both really, really love auto racing. My dad was brought up with Wide World of Sports, watching black-and-white footage of his heroes driving on tracks all over Europe, seeing tape-delayed Indy 500s, watching Daytona when it was still run on the beach, that sort of thing. And because of this, I was brought up watching live broadcasts on ESPN of F1 races, back when the WWL was half-financial news, and if you woke up early enough (a live afternoon race in western Europe means seven or eight AM here – ask anyone I’ve ever forced to watch one of these races with me, they can tell you), you could see them switch from stock reports to Bob Varsha’s lead-in for some race in an obscure locale that you knew you’d be the only one able to identify on a map at school on Monday. Seriously, who else in a fourth grade classroom can tell you where Spa-Fancorchamps is, but the one goofy racing fan?

And so this shared love affair/obsession continues today. Every year since I’ve moved to Indiana, I’ve gone to the 500, and almost every year, my dad has come out for it, too. In ’06, he came out for the two-night doubleheader at Terre Haute (best two sprint car races I’ve ever seen, with Daron Clayton taking both feature wins in heroic, albeit insane fashion), and now, since 2007, we’ve met up in Ohio for the 4 Crown. Two nights of camping, getting filthy dirty, and spending time doing nothing but talking about the things we love, it’s something I look forward to unlike most anything else in my year. Plus, the racing isn’t bad at all.

College Mall


This is the College Mall in Bloomington tonight, out of focus, in the rain. I shot this on my Polaroid Colorpack II, on 669. Only three more exposures left of that, and then it’s Fuji FP-100c. Hope it’s as good.

My love affair with 4×5


I somewhat lucked into my large format rig – my boss at the camera store had his Crown Graphic in the basement, and when the store closed about a year and a half ago, he basically gave it to me. I had only really puttered around with 4×5 once before, using my school’s Toyo view camera, to very… unspectacular (yes, we’ll go with that adjective) results. But so this huge, confusing machine was handed to me, with no instructions, or helpful tips (The Worst Co-worker In The World had to show me how to open the thing up, for heck’s sake – talk about embarrassing) so off I went. After a few false starts, some really terrible double exposure tragedies, and a lot of black frames, I started to find my way with this camera, and much happiness ensued.

This photo was taken inside the First Methodist Church in Gary, IN earlier this spring. Alex Lang and I were in the Chicago area for a conference, and having been here a number of times, I knew it had to be on the itinerary. Gary is something of an urban exploration mecca, with the church (site of a recent filming of the upcoming “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie), a bunch of burnt down/falling houses, an abandoned post office, and plenty of urban decay to keep semi-adventurous folks like me happily climbing around rubble and snapping pictures.

This was the first time I had taken the 4×5 into the church, and it was surprisingly easy to maneuver. A graphic camera lends itself to a portability other large format cameras do not, as it’s basically a fold-out bed where the lens rests, and a ground glass that flips open for focusing any lens other than the 135 it originally came with. The lens I used for this particular photograph was my trusty Fujinon 90mm SW, the f/8 model, which according to the internet, is the vastly inferior model and is not to be trusted with any even remotely important pictures. Having worked in a camera store for four years, I have heard about plenty of internet lens reviews, none of which have interfered with the taking, and in many cases, the sale, of many of my pictures. The only complaint I have about this lens would be when I forget to take the darkslide out of the film holder and end up missing a shot, in which case I will whine loudly to anyone around at the terrible aspects of this lens. What’s that they say about the poor craftsman?

This photo was shot on Fomapan 100, and printed on Kodak 11×14 fiber paper, the semi-matte stuff that doesn’t seem to yield any actual blacks. Still, not bad, right?

Wedding – Coplay, PA

>I’m in the midst of getting my wedding photography website set up and ready to go, and so of course I’ve been sorting through what has quickly become four summers’ worth of wedding work. In a folder inside a folder, I came across this image, which is from my FIRST wedding shoot, ever. I’d done a few assists and small ceremony kinds of things, but this was the first *real* all-day thing that I was in charge of. Needless to say, it was a bumpy ride, as anyone’s first wedding is bound to be, complete with a late limo, rain/no rain/rain/sun, questionable make-up decisions, angry women calling me “Joe” all day, and finally, the reception in a fire hall behind the old Laneco in Coplay. It was a long, strange day, but we got through it ok. I think this shot sums the whole thing up nicely.