When walking through a city, or a suburb, or a section of forest, I feel an enormous sense of relief when I come upon a set of railroad tracks. It is as if the fears and doubts and anxieties of daily life abruptly vanish. The vise grip that civilization and this world have on my head loosens, and for a moment I can breathe freely. The train tracks persist in the shadows of our stark, digitized 2001: A Space Odyssey future, relics of the time when iron behemoths and Pullman passenger cars cut through the inky-black primeval wilderness on their diesel-stained voyage through the night.
In this endless matrix of streets, cars, cell-phone towers, businesses, houses, jobs, and families, the train tracks are a trapdoor exit, a gap, an exception where silence and lawlessness still reign.
If highways and roads are America’s veins, the hundreds of thousands of miles of tracks are like those chakra diagrams in acupuncturists’ offices, the hidden flows of energy that affect the body as a whole. It’s as if the vapor of several hundred years of America’s daring and rugged spirit is contained within the wafting, intoxicating smell of hot railroad tar. It is the last truly American place, untainted by the regrets of modern progress.
Most people know that in the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin off the banks of a little pond outside his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, to live there for two years while writing a book called Walden. What is less widely known is that his cabin was no more than 300 feet from a set of railroad tracks leading into Concord, and that it was only a 30-minute walk down the line to get to his mother’s house.
On a recent visit to Walden Pond, while I was awed by the pristine site Henry David had chosen for his experiment, I saw that without the tracks—that lifeline, that trail of bread crumbs that could be followed back to civilization—his long hermitage could have been an unending hell. Thoreau had found the best of both worlds, the thing we all want—nature and civilization together in one tidy package.
I can only imagine that on some lonely, cold nights in his little cabin, when he was missing his friends in Boston, wondering why he had moved back to his birthplace to grow string beans, the sound of the train whistle echoing through the woods in the dead of night steeled his will to the task at hand and reminded him that while he was alone, he was still a part of humanity.
I grew up in the suburbs of central North Carolina, a gentle and compassionate eastern wood, where the freight train was a vital part of the texture of the landscape. In high school, on late autumn nights as multicolored leaves fell in my neighborhood, I listened for the din of the high school marching band in the distance and the whistle of the train as it chugged through dense deciduous forests and my spirit surged with excitement for the future and all that was left to be done.
I spent my formative years on the tracks. There was something magical about the way you could part the foliage or walk down a clay gully behind the CVS parking lot and suddenly enter a hidden world.
Just after I turned 18, on a crisp fall afternoon, I hopped my first freight train out from downtown Raleigh with my friend Doug MacPherson. Those pleasurable hours spent lying around on tarry pieces of lumber, trying to figure out the mysterious shuffling of cars and locomotives in the yard, are seared into the marrow of my bones—like a puzzle you don’t understand that begins to make sense the longer you look at it. My friend Cricket, a veteran train-hopper, gave us a little hand-drawn map to help us navigate our way once we got into the Linwood yard in western North Carolina. His advice was the stern warning given to most first-time riders: “Stay down and don’t let anyone see you.”
As our train creaked out of Raleigh, we promptly ignored Cricket’s advice and sat up on our grainer porch, visible to all the cars stopped at the railroad crossings. There was something incredible about waving to all the drivers as we passed—when they saw us, their faces lit up and they pointed, mouthing, “Look, hobos!” It was almost as if by riding on the porch of the train we had made them believe in mystery again, the contemplation of the unknown.
The scenery along the tracks is completely different from that seen through the window of a speeding car—there are no gas stations, billboard advertisements, bars, sidewalks, or pedestrians. It is a world of disused lots and shadows cast from backyard floodlights, stray dogs howling, underpass bums drinking, concrete monoliths, and telephone poles engulfed by kudzu. Once you get out there into the open country and away from the roads, you see pristine nature, untouched by the withering hand of civilization.
With our ragged map, heading on to a strange place, Doug and I felt as if we were a pair of early Americans—pioneers far from home on a great adventure. And so began my contorted, largely unfulfilled love of riding freight trains.