Over coffee in his office, located in one of Concordia College’s oldest buildings, writer and photographer W. Scott Olsen details his love for adventure.
From his bookshelf, he pulls out a photo book filled with distant places — one of many, many books accompanied by odds and ends like tea and an old camera case, all centering around the two crafts he’s most passionate about.
“There are two artistic threads to my life, writing and photography,” Olsen says.
The two have gone hand in hand since the start, with his passion for photography growing out of taking visual notes for the stories he wrote.
Olsen has spent a career writing books about the joy of traveling, taking in new sights along winding roads and sometimes from high above as he pilots a plane.
For Olsen, traveling has never been about the destination; it’s about the experience of setting out in search of new adventures.
This anticipation is at the heart of his newest project, “Scenes from a Moving Window,” which he devised some time ago to travel around the country via the romantic notion of an American railway system. All the while, he would document scenes in black-and-white photographs as they pass by.
“This trip has been in my mind forever, to get on a sleeper car and ride all around the country, watching the entire country go by,” Olsen says.
With the idea in mind, it wasn’t long before Olsen was packing a bag and hopping on the train to circumnavigate the country he’s already seen much of via car. But this adventure was different.
“I am just over 60 years old now, at a time in my life now when dreams are important. Not because they’re going to set a course for who I wish to become but, instead, because if I don’t act soon it will be too late. To ride the passenger rail all the way around the country, even for somebody my age, sounds cool,” Olsen says in the prelude to his book-length series of personal essays detailing the experience.
With the focus off the immediate road ahead, Olsen was able to shift his attention to distant landscapes and document them through the perspective of his camera lens, with the relaxed nature of train travel heightened by the thrill of photography.
“I counted one time. I had two seconds when the train was up to speed to see something, decide I want a picture of it, raise my camera, focus and hit the shutter release before it was no longer in my field of view,” Olsen says.
Along with the extensive log of photos he took, including the more than 200 published online in “Scenes from a Moving Window,” Olsen uses detailed notes of the trip to paint an even more vivid picture.
Unlike any other trip he had taken before, the writing and photography that resulted from the two-week barrage of content demanded a new format.
“When I decided that I was going to do this project, I didn’t think about how it was going to come out — I just assumed it would be like everything else,” Olsen says.
As it turns out, the project took on a new form. Rather than publishing it as a book, like the dozen he had before, Olsen is taking a note from his favorite serial authors and making people wait.
“Scenes from a Moving Window” kicks off on The Empire Builder train from Fargo to Seattle, Wash. Additional segments are set to release in serial form online over the next several months.
“This (trip) has come to me in a lifetime of travel and I get to sort of distill it,” Olsen says.
In his distinctive professorial voice, Olsen stows away facts about geography and natural disasters throughout his essays. He ponders the exploration of lands by Lewis and Clark and hints at the chaos of the Wild West.
“At 4:20 in the morning, an avalanche dropped out of the mountains and through the forest, which had been clear-cut above town for timber, pushing the trains off the tracks and, along with the station, 150 feet downhill into the river valley,” he explains in one passage.
“At the bottom, the trains were buried in snow, sometimes seventy feet deep, and water. No telegraph meant no calls for help. Locals pulled out the survivors. It took a week to gather the dead, until July for the last human remains. Ninety-six people died. Only 23 survived.”
The serialized travel project is crammed with so many rabbit holes down train history, lore and tragedy, that only a natural teacher could come out with such a finely threaded story.
Through scrupulous notes, he outlines the people he meets, often from across a dining table or in the observatory car, telling stories about where they are from and where they are going, without a care about how long it takes to get there.
To read “Scenes from a Moving Window” and keep up with the latest stories and photos, visit blog.cord.edu/movingwindow/.
In addition to his personal projects, Olsen also contributes to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and several aviation magazines. He also writes book reviews and criticisms and hosts podcasts for Frames Magazine, LensCulture.com and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and first appeared online on Monday, February 22, 2021,