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Overlooking the Columbia River and the Empire Builder, near Trinidad, WA

Overlooking the Columbia River near Trinidad, WA

Sometimes something as simple as a phone call can change your life in ways you didn’t expect.  This happened a few years ago when I got a call from Amtrak’s ad agency, Arnold Worldwide. The assignment– to create grand landscapes and aerial photographs of the historic Empire Builder route from Seattle to Chicago.  I think it was Photo District News that first called this the “Great American Photo Assignment” in print and that is exactly what it was.


North Dakota as I remember

How often does a photographer get a call to just go out for five weeks and photograph whatever he wants?  The only caveat that there needed to be a train or the tracks in the shot.  This trip would take me into countryside I would never have had a reason to visit without such a commission.  Traveling near summer solstice, the days turned out to be incredibly long this far north.  To get the best light meant only 4-5 hours of sleep at night. During the middle of the day-when we weren’t scouting or trying to catch up on sleep-we found ourselves totally enamored with the towns and the people along the Great Northern Highway.

All during this trip, I felt that there was another story to be told.  There was just this odd sense that we had found America again, the way it was in more simple times.  Although I did come away with some casual photos,  I find it hard to truly divert my attention to something else when I am on assignment.  But I knew that I would have to come back when I could spend more time.

Zephyr route across Utah

Zephyr route across Utah

This fall, I will be returning to follow the Great Northern.  I will also retrace the other east-west route we did the following year, the California Zephyr. As I leave Texas, I will head to Nebraska to catch the Zephyr’s path to Chicago.  There I begin to retrace the Empire Builder back to Washington and down to Portland.   After a few days in Portland, its off to the Bay Area to catch the western end of the Zephyr and travel back to Nebraska where I started.  A journey of about 9000 miles.

John Volk in front of his shop.  The trailer was made in his shop.

John Volk in front of his shop, where he made his trailer.

Although I certainly will be doing some landscape photography along the way, my main focus is going to be the people and the towns. The small towns and the near ghost towns- those lost to the super highways, the end of the steam trains or the economics of modern farming.  Last year I started my “Americans” series and my hope is to add to this collection.  With any luck, I will again see some of those I met the first time and still hold a place in my heart.

Will the ice cream shop in Harlem, North Dakota still be operating?  Will it have been successful for the mother and daughter that made their first Root Beer shake with my directions (wrong directions, but still pretty good!)?  Will John Volk, 90, still be there working in his elaborate workshop in that remote town that only has a handful of residents left—he and his wife and possibly one other family/resident by the look of it.  Will I get chased by those dogs in that abandoned railroad town that we befriended with choice pieces of beef jerky?

Stay tuned!

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