November 30, 2009

Shameless Holiday Book Plug

Gillian Ferris Kohl of KNAU-FM and I pose for a post-interview photo at the Flagstaff Amtrak station in September. To hear the NPR radio interview online, see the link below. (Ken Rattenne photo)

The holidays are upon us and it's time for a shameless plug. The Route 66 Railway book is slowly approaching the end of its first printing -- I can't believe it's been over a year since the release!

As with any small publisher, distribution has been a chief obstacle. Most sales have come with little help from the big chains (we're looking at you, Barnes & Noble! At least Borders carries the book in a few stores). A national distributor has expressed interest in selling R66R, but unfortunately it's been a slow process working out the details between them and LARHF, the book's publisher.

Needless to say, the past 13 months have given me a real education about the publishing industry and the trials of getting noticed without a major publisher. However, the response to R66R has been extraordinary and I greatly appreciate everyone's support.

So, if you know someone who needs the perfect holiday book (hint, hint, wink wink), send them to, which was updated today with new retailers in California, Arizona, and online. It's only a partial list, of course. Signed copies are also available -- email me at elrondlawrence(a) for details. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.

ON THE RADIO: In September, NPR affiliate KNAU-FM in Flagstaff did an interview about Route 66 Railway at the ex-Santa Fe passenger depot. The 4-minute radio interview can be heard at the 66rails site, but here's a direct link just in case: (Be sure to read the introduction before playing). Thanks to reporter Gillian Ferris Kohl for a fun afternoon and to KNAU radio for their support! Thanks also to friend Ken Rattenne for filming the unedited interview on his cool HD camera.

PHOTO-OP: While at the annual "Route 66 Days" event in Flagstaff, Ken snapped this portrait of yours truly with lovely "Miss Route 66ers" Hillary Ekstrom (left) and Darian Burns. If only we could add thought balloons . . . you'd hear something like:

Me: "It's good to be an author."
Them: "What did he write about? Trains??"

November 19, 2009

No. 43 and Looking Ahead

Union Pacific's Coast Line near Aromas, Calif. - August 2005
(click to enlarge all photos)

Birthday #43 has come and gone, and it seems like a good time to make a few new year's resolutions (January 1st can't have all the fun, right?). Priority no. 1 is very short term: finish a Coast Line feature article for the NRHS Bulletin magazine... this frakking piece has been in suspended animation longer than the astronauts in Planet of the Apes! As of this writing only 300-400 words remain before the 16-page opus is a wrap. It's my biggest article since the book, and it's good to get the rail journalism juices flowing again.

Next: more frequent blogging. Between Twitter and Facebook, I could easily get spend months dispatching bursts of 140-character prose and eventually succumb to full-blown writer's ADD (friend Dave Styffe swears that FB should be called Timesuck). Either service makes a blog post feel like an epic. It doesn't help that I've approached the last few blog entries like mini-features, complete with the usual procrastination that accompanies any magazine project. So the new goal is shorter, more frequent entries. Seeing how this post began Nov. 19 and went live Nov. 24, I'd say there's nowhere to go but up. :-)

A quick aside: tonight my Epson V700 scanner was acting up while trying to scan some old Kodachromes, and in a desperate attempt to jump-start the thing I grabbed a photo from a small stack of prints. Who would have guessed that it was a vintage birthday snapshot? But lo and behold, here is yours truly with my mom and dad, Jill and Chuck Lawrence, at our home in Fontana during the early seventies.

This year it took a bit more effort to douse the birthday candles . . .

Since this is fast becoming another epic, I'll sign off. It's time to get back in the saddle. A personal symbol of hope is this sunset view of Mecca, California, near the Salton Sea, on a night when things weren't going well. The next day brought a drastic comeback filled with photographic surprises. So this is a reminder of resolution no. 3: to keep looking forward. Happy Thanksgiving!

Mecca, California, July 2009 (EL photo)

November 4, 2009

The Road to Palm Springs, Part Two: Finding Shulman

Alexander Steel House, blt. 1961, by Donald Wexler (click all photos to enlarge)

There's a movie making the rounds on the independent film circuit called Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. I haven't seen it yet -- it shows around the country in week-long engagements -- but whenever I follow its progress, I can't help but think back to a Southern California road trip last July. While scouting out ideas for a new book, I ended up in Palm Springs for a night and had an encounter with Julius Shulman . . . even though I never met the man.

One of the leading architectural photographers of the 20th century, Shulman and his pictures played a major role in crafting the image of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and the “Southern California lifestyle” to America and the world during the 1950s and 1960s. Until this spring, I barely knew Shulman's name and recognized only a few of his landmark images. That all changed thanks to an NPR story that opened my eyes to the "modernism" movement and his incredible body of work.

So when I made a unexpected detour into Palm Springs and visited the Orbit In (see last post), Shulman was on my mind. I was hunting for the mid-century modernist architecture that he helped make famous, and I quickly learned that Palm Springs is Nirvana for modernism fans. The visitor center resulted in some great tips and a $5 map of the city's restored homes, motels and other architectural gems. Was that $5 well spent! I made my way to historic steel structures designed by Albert Frey, William Krisel, John Lautner, Richard Neutra and other giants of the time.

Grace Miller House, blt. 1937, by Richard Neutra

That evening, after dinner, I walked along the city's own "Walk of Fame" -- and the first Hollywood-style star I found bore the name Julius Shulman. I stayed there for a few moments, appreciating the serendipity of finding this roadside legacy. Then I moved on, ready to escape the hot summer night.

Shulman's star on the Walk of Fame, Palm Canyon Drive

Waking early, I spent the morning capturing more Desert Modernism landmarks; eventually I ended up back at the city's distinctive visitor center (the former 1965 Tramway Gas Station). During a nice conversation with a book buyer regarding Route 66 Railway, I mentioned Shulman and how he and the city had inspired me on this journey. His face suddenly changed.

"You do know that he died last night?"

"Who?" I replied, in denial.


At 98 years of living the fullest life imaginable, Julius Shulman had passed away in Los Angeles . . . and for all I know, it happened when I was gazing at his star in the desert town forever linked to his work.

In Shulman's LA Times obituary, this quote stuck with me: "Modernism really was about a belief in a promising future, a belief that our problems could be solved easily by progress," said Craig Krull, whose Santa Monica gallery represents Shulman's work. While I can't quite agree with progress being the sole savior of our ills, optimism is something that comes through loud and clear in Shulman's elegant images. As 2009 nears its end, we need all the optimism we can get.

More Palm Springs images:

Coachella Valley Savings & Loan , blt. 1960

Palm Springs Visitor Center, blt. 1965

Palm Springs Tramway Alpine Station, blt. 1961-63

Next visit? February.

For more information, Desert Modern fans should visit

August 9, 2009

The Road to Palm Springs, Part One: Reaching Orbit

Orbit In entrance, July 16, 2009 (click all photos to enlarge)

Those of us who follow Route 66 and other old highways are all too familiar with vintage motels that defy age and cultural obsolescence, but typically cling to life by a thread and some well-placed duct tape. So it was a thrill to arrive in Palm Springs one hot July day and discover that the city's modernist movement has sparked the rebirth of several mid-century motels. Not only do they look better than ever, they carry a cool, upscale atmosphere and rank at the top of any Palm Springs traveler's must-see list.

Some personal backstory: midway through last month's photo trip (read here), I'd fallen into a bad slump after an evening by the Salton Sea where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. So I'd departed Indio with plans to head back to LA. While entering Palm Desert, a little voice suggested taking the long route back via Highway 111. I hadn't visited Palm Springs in over a decade, and being a fan of photographer Julius Shulman -- who had captured so many timeless images in this desert town -- the timing seemed right. Besides, I'd heard about this restored motel called the Orbit In . . .

That afternoon, with the mercury at 116 degrees, I stumbled upon the Orbit In with its atomic-era sign and closed gate. As I approached to peek inside, manager Jade Nelson spotted me and invited me in for a tour. For the next 40 minutes it was 1957 again, the year this hotel opened as The Village Manor. Portland residents Christy and Stan Amy purchased the aging motel in 1999; aided by Shulman's photos, they transformed it into today's Orbit In. The mid-century hotel reopened in March 2001 and Shulman himself was a guest at the grand opening party, signing copies of his book Modernism Rediscovered. In 2002 the Orbit was joined by an expansive sister hotel, the Hideaway, located nearby.

Julius Shulman was on my mind as I snapped photos of the courtyard in gorgeous late day sun. The Orbit lies at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains which add a stark, beautiful backdrop. As shadows slowly engulfed the pool area, it was time to tour "Atomic Paradise," one of the Orbit's nine rooms with decor straight out of a mid-century design museum.

The heat eventually drove me to the outdoor bar and its phalanx of misters, where I enjoyed the company of Jade and a fun couple who'd recently driven Route 66.

My thanks to Jade for an ultra-cool afternoon. If you're a fan of 1950s desert architecture, or looking to escape the bland sameness of today's hotel chains, check out the Orbit In. Their website is Yes, it's a shameless plug. Yes, I hope to return as a guest.

August 4, 2009

Snapshots from the Edge

Desert Speedboat, West Palm Springs
(click to enlarge)

I was waiting for enough free time to write something witty or insightful for today's post . . . but the way things have been lately, that might not happen 'til August 2010. So, here are a few snapshots from a pivotal trip to Southern California last month, shooting new material for a possible second book. The roadside-related project isn't exactly on a fast track . . . but it also won't take 18 years like the last one. :-)

Squeezed between two weekend weddings, these 5 days of shooting took me to wonderful extremes of geography and culture that make California famous, as well as some unexpected high and low points. Bottom line, I was happy with the first "test drive" for this concept -- a good sign. Hope you enjoy the samples below. (*click images to "biggify")

Safari Inn at twilight, Burbank

Tramway Road, Palm Springs

Signs, Echo Park, Los Angeles

Union Pacific eastbound, Salton Sea

House of Spirits liquor store, Los Angeles

PS - Watch for photos soon from the amazing "Orbit In" hotel, one of the highlights of an impromptu stay in Palm Springs.

June 30, 2009

Odds N' Ends at the Dawn of July

Fireworks, Florida style. Watching in awe are (L to R) Natalie Scott, Gregory Scott and Kat. Thanks to friends John and Debbie for dinner and a show. (click photo to enlarge)

FLORIDA: Okay, after visiting friends in Sarasota, I'll admit my long-held belief that Florida has nothing of interest is as misguided an idea as I've ever had (and there have been plenty, believe me). We were greeted by an outrageous lightning storm, toured the Ringling Museum, drank Key West brew, road-tripped to Anna Maria Island, ate alligator and Salty Dogs . . . and had the best steak of my life at Bern's in Tampa (thanks to my loving family for a killer Father's Day gift!).

The world's biggest miniature circus -- yes, I appreciate the irony.

The humidity was thick, but not as bad as New Orleans. Another landmark moment: we finally ate at a Steak n Shake, that vaunted cathedral of cholesterol revered by Midwest railfans. The next evening, while driving home from San Jose we stopped at an In-N-Out, thereby completing the holy grail for burger aficionados.

Florida is F-L-A-T . . . but she's a beauty when the sun gets low.

In other news . . .

HEMMINGS MOTOR NEWS REVIEWS R66R: A large envelope arrived Friday with pages from the August 2009 issue of Hemmings Motor News, a major car collector magazine . . . and a review of Route 66 Railway! Editor Jim Donnelly gives the book 3 of 4 stars ("Worth Reading") and adds that more car photos would have easily earned the "artful" book a fourth star. (They are a car magazine, after all . . .) Donnelly noted that "the vaunted tale of Route 66 has been told on paper and celluloid innumerable times, but not like this." Check out Hemmings' website at

UPCOMING EVENTS: Plans are in the works for book signings at Route 66 Days in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Route 66 Rendezvous in San Bernardino, Calif. Both events will be in September . . . more details as they shape up.

RAILROADS OF CALIFORNIA BOOK: Author-photographer Brian Solomon has released his latest book, Railroads of California. It's a beautiful hardcover featuring photos of classic and contemporary trains across the Golden State. His writing and photography are at their usual top-notch form, and I'm pleased that he used a few of my photos. It's available at online retailers like Amazon and Karen's Books, plus hobby shops, etc.

MORE BOOK STUFF: Planning has begun for a second R66R printing, with a mid-July meeting at LARHF to plot things out. The trip to Southern California will also include a brief road trip to shoot material for the next book idea (God help us). No details yet since the idea is still evolving . . . stay tuned.

June 12, 2009

A Deal to Die For

While visiting my home town of Fontana, Calif., a few days ago, we stumbled upon this funeral home "special" along Sierra Avenue. Sure, other shots from the trip are better but I couldn't wait to post this gem:

I'm sure the "two for one" special is next . . .

June 11, 2009

"Wow" Meets Warp Speed

"Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence." -Leonard "Bones" McCoy.

I've been meaning to update the blog with some thoughts about Star Trek, the movie we've been awaiting for 2-plus years. Well, now that Kat and I have seen it four times and the movie has passed $225 million in box office . . . there's not much left to say but "wow." Director JJ Abrams, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and all of the amazing cast knocked this one out of the park.

One movie a year gets this kind of attention from the Lawrence family. On opening night, Kat and pals Sydney & Alyssa were photographed for the online version of the Salinas Californian: (hopefully it remains online a while). We tried to catch the IMAX Trek show during its 2-week run, but the only close screens were the lame "Mini-max" versions in San Jose. However, friend Rob Curtis came to the rescue last week during a visit to Southern California . . . he spotted a 9:40 "encore" showing at the Edwards IMAX in Ontario, Cal. We happily joined the Curtis family for two hours of amazing visuals and sound. If you can find a real IMAX show, it's easily worth the extra dough.

The best way to sum up the last month is this: A) finally, Trek is cool again, B) finally, optimism and fun are cool again, and C) this is the best I've felt to be Trekkie in almost 20 years. Special shout-out to, my favorite site for daily news and interviews. Is it too early to start counting down for the sequel?

The new crew (minus Spock, who's off-camera) . . . they nailed it.

April 26, 2009

History and Hope in San Bernardino

We lived in San Bernardino for 10 years, before the Ketchum job offer whisked us to Silicon Valley and eventually the central coast. When I was growing up in nearby Fontana during the 1970s and 1980s, San Bernardino was always the "big city." Santa Fe's towering locomotive repair shops were there, along with Fedco and the Central City Mall (where I saw Star Wars for the first time).

Photo: View of redevelopment from the baggage area windows (click to enlarge)

Yet when we left San Bernardino in March 2000, we knew we were getting out just in time. San Bernardino was a city in crisis. The closings of Norton Air Force Base and the AT&SF shops delivered a tough one-two punch to this city of almost 200,000 . . . crime and blight were taking hold and things looked bleak. In the 10 years we lived at the corner of 25th and I Streets, we endured three break-ins, a smashed truck window, and a botched late-night car theft. So when it was time to go, we didn't look back.

The restored 1919 San Bernardino passenger depot

That's why Sunday, March 1 -- the anniversary of our move north -- was such a great day. While in southern California for a bunch of book signings and talks, I'd agreed to appear a "Railroad and History Book Signing Day" at the beautifully restored Santa Fe passenger depot near downtown 'San Berdoo.' The station is a big building, boasting a Spanish-Moorish architecture, and was once home to the railroad's dispatching and division offices. Today it's home to the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum and its fascinating collection of railroad and Inland Empire memorabilia.

Museum interior (top) and semaphore signal lens study (below).

I've been in San Bernardino plenty of times during the past nine years, but I hadn't visited the museum since it opened in 2008. The authors' day allowed me to once again stand in the passenger lobby where for decades our family waited for Amtrak's Desert Wind and Southwest Chief trains. Even better were the visits from family, friends, railfans and retired Santa Fe people (plus I sold a case of Route 66 Railway books, which is always cool). After the event it was time to tour the museum and gift shop, which occupies much of the station's west end. It's a marvelous place and a must-see destination. The station is located at 1170 West Third Street; hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Authors Greg McDonnell (left) and Glen Icanberry (center) chat with photographer Richard Sugg.

Last but not least, I finally had that long-awaited spark of inspiration for the next book. I've been evading the "what next" question for months, because frankly I had no idea what was next. Now I do. :-) It was a landmark day on many levels.

Let's hope this great museum and the surrounding redevelopment is the beginning of a long-anticipated renaissance for San Bernardino. Every September, the Route 66 Rendezvous car cruise event attracts hundreds of thousands of people. Thanks to the efforts of museum volunteers Steve Shaw, Glen Icanberry and others, people are finding more reasons to come back.

Below: Ray Miranda (top photo) and Bob Drenk (lower), both retired Santa Fe railroaders, stopped by the museum on March 1.

March 29, 2009

Kodak Moments from Winterail Weekend

From left: El, Ted Benson, Jim Shaughnessy, Jeff Brouws, John Gruber and David Styffe at the California State Railroad Museum in Stockton, the day after Winterail. The Shaughnessy photo exhibit will continue at the museum through August 16. (Scott Lothes photo - click to enlarge)

The dust has finally settled after a whirlwind month that saw a six-day trip of book signings and talks followed by a weekend selling books at Winterail in Stockton -- a town famously referred to by railfan Donald Gill as "The Paris of the great Central Valley of California." We had an amazing day with Route 66 Railway book sales . . . that evening, the "Route 66 Rails" multimedia show played to a crowd of 1,000 rail photography fans. Several big talents who helped with the book were at Winterail, including Ted Benson, Dave Styffe, Gordon Glattenberg, Hank Graham, Tom Gildersleeve and Richard Sugg.

Between sales I managed to snap a few photos of authors, photographers and other notables who stopped by the table. Here's a sampling:
Author Joe Strapac with Doyle McCormack (l), caretaker of SP Daylight steam engine No. 4449 in Portland, Oregon.

El and Gordon Glattenberg, who photographed many of the 66 book's vintage color images.

Ted Benson (far left) with author-photographers Jeff Brouws and Jim Shaugnessy (l to r, seated), who were selling copies of Jim's marvelous photography book, The Call of Trains.

Photojournalist pals Brian Plant and Chris Goepel.

The family that sells together . . . Kat, Laura and El in a quiet moment.

The following day Ted, Dave Styffe and I caravanned up to the California State Railroad museum in Sacramento to see Jim Shaughnessy's photo exhibit and book presentation. Both were well worth the drive north, and photographer Scott Lothes was kind enough to take a group portrait.

Dave also updated his famous "Top ten lies told at Winterail" list this year. Not to steal his thunder, but highlights include:

7. "Yeah, I took a shower today, why?"
4. "One more lantern and that's it…my collection will be complete."
2. "My wife really wanted to be here this year, but…"

If you're on Facebook, visit his profile to read the full list . . . hopefully they will appear on his Unauthorized Observer blog. I'm just glad that Lie No. 10 no longer applies to me: "My book should be ready next year."

Coming next: photos from the book signing trip to Southern California.

March 20, 2009

To the Frakking End

So many things to write about, and so little time . . .

We just came off a fantastic Winterail weekend, and I'll be posting pictures soon -- plus photos from the great southern California mini book tour. But that needs to wait for a day or two. Tonight I'm saying goodbye to the best show on TV: Battlestar Galactica.

Five years ago, I never dreamed I'd be saying those words above. All I remember then was the news that Ron Moore (a former Star Trek showrunner) was planning a "reboot" miniseries of the 1978 classic -- OK, "classic" may be a bit much, but for us kids swirling in 1970s Star Wars-mania, it was like getting a weekly fix of a galaxy far, far away. So what if the good guys were on the run and the bad guys looked like walking toasters? The ships were awesome and the characters were cool. And who's going to argue with Lorne Green as Commander Adama?

Take an FTL jump to present-day, and I can't imagine anyone other than Edward James Olmos as the great Admiral Adama. But the entire cast is amazing . . . as are the writers, who have redefined sci-fi with stories about war, politics, terrorism, sex, religion, and more. BSG is the only show that's truly tackled our post-9/11 world, and every week it asks the tough questions: are we worthy of survival? How far do we push our values and morals in the name of survival, without losing what makes us human?

Oh yeah, and then there are mind-blowing space battles, scary metallic Cylons and humanoid Cylons that look like supermodels. There's also Bear McCreary's amazing music, maybe the best EVER in television. (Check out his first-class blog HERE). And of course, there's "frak," the greatest curse word in TV history.

BSG "does bleak well," as one critic has said, so it's not for everyone. Eddie Olmos and Mary McDonnell are routinely robbed of Emmy nominations (she plays President Laura Roslin, the former secretary of education who becomes president after a sneak Cylon apocalypse). Heck, the show won a Peabody and countless other awards, yet the Emmy crew plods along in clueless bliss. But this isn't the time to dwell on such matters.

Bluffing is pretty much pointless

BSG is about a family that's born amid the worst of times, and how they hang onto each other to keep hope alive. These characters -- Apollo, Starbuck, Col. Tigh, Baltar, Helo, Sharon, Six -- have become real to me, and I've laughed and cried with them for five wonderful years. The best shows know when to quit, however, and now it's time to say goodbye. I have a feeling that BSG's legacy will last for decades, long after other shows from the era are forgotten. It's been a frakking good ride. So say we all.

Fun LA Times Battlestar stories:

The Tighs Toast a Final Goodbye (where I learned my favorite new word, "drunkalogue")
The 'Battlestar Galactica' Drinking Game

Public relations, Galactica style, at the blog:

March 10, 2009

Books, Beers, and Bono

No, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa didn't make the show, but I couldn't resist the view.

I know, it's been a few months since the last blog post, but it's been a busy winter. First up was the completion and debut of the new "Route 66 Rails" program -- an 18-minute show based on the Route 66 Railway book. It looks like I'll be playing every Rotary and Kiwanas Club meeting between Salinas and Monterey, but hey, they keep inviting me . . . February 28-March 3 saw the first mini "book tour" in my old stomping grounds, with signings and/or talks in downtown LA, Pasadena, and San Bernardino. What an amazing six days: the books sold well, the shows ran smoothly, and people stayed awake! It was a great homecoming, topped off by some wonderful reunions. Watch for photos soon.

Next up is Winterail on March 14, where the show will get its biggest screening yet. Laura and Kat will be joining me in lovely Stockton, and we'll be selling books in the dealers room. Be sure to stop by and say hi.

The recent blitz of events pretty much killed my blog writing, but a rebound is around the corner. For now, this sums up the current sad state of affairs:

Pass me another Moretti!

By the way, U2's new CD, "No Line on the Horizon," is every bit as awesome as I'd hoped. After a week of near-constant play, my faves are "Breathe," "Moment of Surrender," "No Line on the Horizon," and . . . well, just about everything else. Greatest. Band. In the World. Check out their hysterical "Top 10 List "on Letterman HERE.