Catching up with Ben Bachman

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, September 19, 2019

Although they've collaborated for decades, author/photographer Ben Bachman and Kevin Keefe met for the first time at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's Sept. 13-15 'Conversations' event.
Of all the railroad writers who make me want to toss my laptop into the trash — and there are several — perhaps none blows me away like Ben Bachman. He’s a journalist and essayist of rare perception, capable of digging through layers of detail and implications rarely visible to most of us.

But Ben’s powers don’t stop there. He’s also one of our best photographers, blending trains with the landscape as few others can, seeing things few others see. 

So it was a privilege last week to finally meet the man, someone with whom I’ve collaborated several times in the past, but always from a distance. The occasion was the “Conversations 2019” conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art at Lake Forest College in suburban Chicago.

It was Ben’s first appearance at the CRPA event, and it was a hit. His program, “Forever West: Railroads, Mythology, and Photography,” was a stirring, untamed romp through cultural and geographical history. It was an illustrated essay, to be sure, backed by a raft of Ben’s smashing images, but the heart of it was in what he had to say in his text.

Bachman's story about watching trains from the bridge in East Deerfield, Mass. (the vantage point for this 1978 photo of Boston & Maine Geeps departing the yard), is among his many memorable pieces that have appeared in Trains over the years. Ben Bachman
As with any good writer, Ben’s own particular life story is usually in there somewhere. He grew up in Hartford, Conn., and went on to college at the University of Pennsylvania. He was drafted into the Army shortly thereafter and did a tour of duty in Vietnam, where, in his words, he “served for a year in the heat and the blood and the stinking mud of the Mekong Delta.” Talk about giving a writer some perspective.

Back in the U.S., he began his writing career, racking up credits not only in the usual railroad magazines but also in such venues as the Washington PostHartford CourantBoston Globe, and Country Journal. He wrote two books about the Connecticut River, including Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River (Globe Pequot, 1989), which Kirkus Reviews described as “a sharp-eyed, wide-ranging testimony to a rich regional piety.” 

Ben’s been at this game for more than 40 years now, first mainly in his native New England and later the entire West. He began conquering the latter about 35 years ago, when he moved to Seattle, and for a brief time I was a beneficiary of the transition.

A recent photo of railfans and a Sounder commuter train north of Seattle harkens back to to Bachman's East Deerfield article. Ben Bachman
Ben and I had done some things together in the early 1980s when I was editing Passenger Train Journal, but things really began to happen 10 years later when I was editor of Trains. A series of beautifully crafted stories showed Ben’s geographical stretch from east — pieces on East Deerfield, Mass., and the Rutland Railroad — to west — BN in Stevens Pass, Simpson Timber on the Olympic Peninsula. 

What I often find with Ben is that he gets me thinking about the railroad context in entirely new ways. He’s able to draw parallels and insights from the most surprising places, and he has a keen eye for the contradictions that are always lurking in Americans’ perceptions of themselves, or, in the case of railfans, their perceptions of railroading. 

That happened big-time in his presentation at Lake Forest, where what appeared at first glance to be a conventional panoramic look at Western railroading turned into series of fast-paced riffs on — in no particular order — Tom Mix, Cormac McCarthy, Lucius Beebe, Burning Man, John Ford, Vietnam, the 7th Cavalry, Willa Cather, Merle Haggard, and David P. Morgan. It was an exhilarating whipsaw. 

On the Nevada Northern, Dirt, the enginehouse cat, prowls among the preserved line's locomotives. Ben Bachman
Ben joins a host of other writers who, over the past couple of decades, began stripping away the myths of the West. Some are among my favorite writers. I’m thinking here of Jonathan Raban, whose Bad Land (Pantheon, 1996) showed that the building of the Milwaukee Road wasn’t always heroic, or Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1989), which made me realize that Powder River coal isn’t just a Class I bonanza or a railfan fever dream.

Ben Bachman easily belongs in that class of writers. This excerpt from Lake Forest serves as a sort of mission statement for his presentation:

“What I want to get across here is that the West is much more than a geographic region; it is a story. It is the story Americans tell about themselves, nothing less than our creation story, a story about how the United States came to be the way it is now, or the way we think it is now, or wish that is was, as well as an adventure story and a bundle of life lessons, some on the order of keeping your powder dry, others more profound, dealing with bravery and bigotry and greed and love, and it is a guide to understanding 21st century geopolitics. It is so embedded in American culture as to be indispensable.”

A Union Pacific freight passes between saguaro cactuses and the Maricopa Mountains east of Gila Bend, Ariz. Ben Bachman
Backed by his exhilarating photographs, Ben gave us a window into how we thinks when he’s out there alone on some rocky promontory, standing in the wind for hours, pondering his surroundings while waiting for that one train he hopes will catch the light the way he sees it. But it’s also about so much more than the train.

“Frontier mythology cannot be shoved aside,” Ben told us. “It cannot be ignored. There are other parts of the country where a railfan can pay attention to just the trains, and the trains only, but not in the West. There’s way too much mythic resonance, and we take it all very personally.”

Like all events such as this, my time with Ben in Lake Forest was all too brief, and early Sunday afternoon we parted ways, he for Seattle, me for the short drive back to Milwaukee. It occurred to me that I’d forgotten to ask him what’s on his lineup, what sort of alchemy he has planned for the next foray with camera and notebook.

The more I think about it, though, I don’t want to know. As both a writer and photographer, Ben has mastered the element of surprise. Let’s keep it that way. 

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