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Riding the rails

 

January 11, 2010



I love trains. And that is a good thing because my home is plunk across the street from the tracks. I never did figure out why my Dad built his house here, where the trains practically run through the living room. He never did say. Maybe Dad liked trains too. I remember summer times when, out in the fields, we would hear the whistle and stop our work to watch the Empire Builder roll by. To this day, when I hear that lonesome whistle blow, I bless Hank Williams and fight off a hankering to hit the rails. Back in high school my friend Charlotte and I daydreamed of adventures, long bicycle trips, heading down the highway. We had no money, but we each had a bicycle. Bikes were different in those days. They had one speed and only went as fast as one could push the pedals. We planned elaborate trips to Chicago or Denver or San Francisco, our luggage a change of clothes and a bar of soap wrapped in canvas, tied on the rack in back. We planned to stop in small towns along the way. We imagined ourselves sauntering into the local café and offering to wait tables (Her) and wash dishes (Me) in exchange for food and maybe a cot in the back pantry. Then we would head down the road again in a few days. In our minds she and I criss-crossed the entire continental United States. We never once considered any risk or danger to ourselves. Our dreams never came to fruition. Once we graduated high school, we both got married, an altogether different adventure, much more risky and dangerous. So I have never hitch-hiked or biked around the country, but I ride the trains when I get a chance. Living where I live, trains are ever-present. Each train has a different whistle tone. Often when the Empire Builder halts on the tracks right outside my front door, I stand on my porch, lean on the railing, and wave to the passengers. In the middle of the night a 2:30 freight rumbles through town. For some reason, I always hear its whistle, and it is a comfort to me. Much of the train traffic, though, is just wallpaper, background scenery. Yesterday afternoon while I took a break from my work and sipped a cup of tea, I opened the door to watch a westbound freight slow nearly to a stop as it rolled through town on its trek toward the sea. Two men with a shepherd dog on a leash jumped from a boxcar. "Hoboes" I thought. My imagination shifted into overdrive. The hoboes would see me standing in my open front door, cross the street, and say, "Ma'am, you got any work we can do for a bite to eat." I would point to the snow shovel, the ice chipper, and my driveway, piled high with crusted snow. While they worked I would go into my kitchen and make them thick, hearty sandwiches, brew a pot of coffee and carry it outside for them to eat. I would get a pail of water for the dog, Ralph. I would scrape together something for the dog to eat, perhaps the left-over meat loaf. In the stories that came out of the Great Depression the woman always carried the sandwiches outside for the hoboes to eat on the steps. I would ache to know who they were and where they were going, but I would not ask personal questions; the Code of the West, you know. Before they continued their journey, they would have chalked my door with the secret symbol, letting other travelers know I was an easy mark for a bite of food. However, these two men did not cross the street. They did not clear my snow-filled driveway. I noticed that both men carried hiking packs that looked like state-of-the-art models. They wore insulated clothing and parkas, the kind you buy from LL Bean. There was nothing shabby about this duo. The men removed their parkas and stood alongside the tracks for several minutes in conversation. They had a relaxed look about them. The dog looked well-fed and well-groomed. I wondered why they had taken to traveling in a boxcar. I know times are tough but these two did not appear destitute. They looked like they might have the rail fare along with a sheaf of credit cards tucked in their wallets. One man took a map from his backpack. After a few minutes, they tied their coats to their packs, slung the packs onto their backs and hiked down the street toward the highway and out of sight. A part of me yearned to grab my own pack and hurry to catch up with them, to go wherever they were headed, to go beyond my everyday life. Oh, heck. I finished my tea, closed my front door and went back to work. (Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem, was gone most of 25 years and recently came home to find she no longer really fits in after learning to look at things from many different angles. Join Sondra in a discussion on her blog http://montanatumbleweed. Blogspot.com.)

 

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