6:00 a.m. Saturday morning. I’ve already loaded my car with four cameras, the tank is full of gasoline, and I’ve been studying Google Earth to the level of treasure-hunting.
Well, technically, I am hunting for treasure.
I want to photograph a train today.
Not just any train, mind you. There is a heritage railroad in South Central Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of Lancaster County, that is home to the Strasburg Rail Road, one of the few remaining operational steam locomotive excursions out there. The Strasburg Rail Road travels five miles through over a dozen Amish farms and farmlands, all in the comfort of restored passenger cars and a big-ass steam locomotive.
Hey, don’t get on my case. I could have gotten my train photography fix last year, but someone didn’t run a Holiday Train and it threw me off my game.
Now this is a series of firsts for me. It’s the first time I’ve left New York State in over 16 months. One broken ankle, plus one COVID-19 pandemic, can really do that. And I’m actually driving 4 1/2 hours each way to get to the train.
It is official. I am back. And I am nuts for doing this.
But here’s the thing. I’ve been scouting shooting locations and the path the train takes. I’ve studied the nuances of steam locomotive photography – use a telephoto lens to get sharp lines throughout the entire train, from locomotive to caboose; try to keep the photos as timeless as possible; scout appealing backgrounds and easily accessible shooting spots.
I had three spots booked out. One was at a place called the Red Caboose Motel in Ronks, Pa.; another was on a thoroughfare known as Esbenshade Road in Paradise, Pa.; and the third was at a location called Cherry Hill Road in Paradise, Pa.
I also studied the train schedules. The train left the station at 90-minute intervals, it would pass my shooting location, travel to the end of the line, then the train would return on the same tracks back to the depot. If I can gauge the proper time the train left the depot, I could estimate when it would return and get the great photos as it returns.
Location 1. The Red Caboose Motel.
The Red Caboose Motel is an interesting setup. Guests can spend the night in hotel rooms that were former cabooses and rolling stock; there’s a diner (Casey Jones’ Diner, of course), as well as a petting zoo and a buggy ride setup. Oh, and on the back of the property, there’s a “Observation Deck,” where guests can see the train as it passes the Red Caboose Motel.
All right, let’s do this. I grabbed my Nikon Df out of the car, slapped on the 80-200 telephoto lens, and …
There’s 72 steps from the base to the top of the tower.
All right, Miller, time for your exercise.
I made it up there. Wheezing a little between steps 66 and 72, but I still made it. My days of climbing lighthouse steps are long gone, I’ll tell you that.
Man, look at this view.
That’s some serious distance. And actually, from the top of the silo, I can see the Strasburg Rail Road depot way over there.
And eventually, the train pulled out of the depot, and rolled right past me, clear as day.
And I got plenty of shots as the train passed by.
Oh, you’re probably noticing something. Yeah, the locomotive drags the rolling stock in reverse, then the locomotive moves to the other end of the train and pulls everything going forward. I don’t understand it either, but if it works for them, that’s how it goes. It just means that I really only have three or four good passes with the train oriented properly.
While I was waiting for the train to return, I heard someone coming up the steps of the observation tower. A family. Mother, father, little boy. They were not wearing masks. I still had mine on. I stayed over on my side of the observation tower. I don’t care if I’m double-Pfizered, social distancing is social distancing. Also, I had a great vantage point for when the train came back, and I didn’t want to lose it.
About 30 minutes later … I heard a train whistle. Old No. 90 is on its way back.
With the locomotive facing the correct way, mind you.
I like it. There’s not as much steam coming out of the locomotive as I would like, but the day is young.
I climbed down the observation tower. Walked past the local touristy buggy ride. There were a couple of Amish men talking to the proprietor.
“Wie bischt du?” I asked.
They replied back in Pennsylvania Dutch.
I said, “Well, that’s all the Pennsylvania Dutch I know, it just to ask how you’re doing.”
The proprietor asked, “Where did you learn Pennsylvania Dutch?”
“Um, er, uh, a TV show I used to watch.”
The proprietor looked at me. “Amish Mafia?”
Background. Years ago, I would actually hate-watch the TV show Amish Mafia and write snarky reviews of each episode. Essentially, my admitting to the proprietor (and the two Amish men) that I learned Pennsylvania Dutch from watching Amish Mafia was akin to telling your World War II history professor that you studied by watching episodes of Hogan’s Heroes.
“It’s all good, man, Caleb owns part of our buggy ride operations.”
Caleb? As in Caleb Isaac Meyer, the Brethren that operated as muscle for Lebanon Levi?
“Oh, yeah, and John and Esther used to work here at the buggy ride.”
I told the proprietor, “Well, between you and me, I don’t to have to worry that I ran afoul of the Amish Mafia and that my Chevrolet might get blown up by Lebanon Levi.”
“Ha,” the proprietor said. “Lebanon Levi lives in Lebanon County. You’re in Lancaster County.”
A few more minutes of discussing the show (the two Amish men had probably heard more than enough about Amish Mafia, so they left). Then I left as well, I needed to get to my next shooting spot.
That would be Esbenshade Road.
This will be great, there’s plenty of background, I can get the shot and …
There’s no parking anywhere. Esbenshade Road is a two-lane road, one lane in each direction, and there’s no shoulder – no sidewalk – no driveway – no parking anywhere. And I didn’t feel comfortable about just parking Dracourage on the side of the road, hitting the hazard lights, and hoping for the best.
I can’t do Esbenshade road. Nopes.
May as well go to the next location. That would be Cherry Hill Road.
Oh, perfect. There’s a petting zoo with a parking lot. Parking problem solved. And I’m right in front of a crossing lane setup. Flashing lights, guard rails, the whole nine yards.
Okay, I’m going to switch things up. Let’s put the Irix wide-angle lens on the Nikon Df, and see what we get.
Okay. I like this one as well. So I’m going to switch back to the telephoto lens, wait 90 minutes, and get one more photo.
Okay, back to the car. Grabbed my 80-200 bayonet telephoto lens. Strapped it to the Df.
Went back to the shooting spot.
And about five minutes before the train arrived…
Someone pulled up, parked RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY SHOOTING SPOT, and pulled out his tripod and some fuzzy microphone to record the train as it went by.
Nuts. This foamer, with no respect for anyone else’s shot, just plopped his SUV right in front of my line of sight.
I should explain what “foamer” means. It’s a derogatory term that railroad workers use on train photographers, suggesting that they “foam at the mouth” when they see a train go by.
Look, I don’t have the right to tell anyone where they can or can’t shoot their photos. But man, have a little common courtesy. I mean, I parked in a parking lot and walked to the spot, I didn’t just park my car on the side of the road and essentially ruin the photo for anyone else. Ugh.
And then, just before the train arrived …
Someone decided it was time to do a little farming and tilling and cultivating and threshing. And since Mr. Foamer was working with a tripod and a specific location, that tractor and equipment would essentially ruin HIS shot … but since I was not operating with a tripod, and I wasn’t worried about capturing authentic train whistles, I could simply wait until Mr. John Deere moved out of my frame and keep on shooting.
Eventually the foamer got the hint, and moved his SUV to the other side of the tracks, where I could at least get a decent photo without his car appearing in the shot.
And right on time … look what arrived.
Yep. Got it. Meanwhile, Mr. Foamer was cursing out the tractor, who had the unmitigated temerity to plow at that very moment. Aww… so sorry …
It’s 10:00 p.m., and I just got home. I’m dog tired. But I took 450 photos today. Including the ones you see on this blog.
And you know what? This feels good. I haven’t had a decent photo excursion in so long … the travel, the planning, and boom the shots.
I know my legs and back will feel it on Sunday …
But these photos more than make up for it.