Friday, June 5, 2009

Trains in the Distance

I just arrived in the land of my youth, Minnesota, after two days on the road. I usually stay in North Platte just because it's the place I run out of steam. A friend, Murad Sayen, had mentioned in an email that it has a huge railyard, lots of trains coming and going. He has photographed some amazing railroad graffiti and is a wonderful artist. He did a painting he titled "Night Train". It has been acquired by collectors, but I've included an image, as it's a nice reminder of when trains and train stations were more a part of our consciousness.

It reminds me of the trains of my childhood. We lived a quarter of a mile from my grandparents house, which was next to the tracks. I heard stories of my grandmother, Lila, feeding the hobos who rode the rails back in the Great Depression, the one in the 1930's. I suppose their place was "marked" by those who knew she was willing to feed them, which was the practice then.

As a child, I had the train schedule memorized and would run down the dirt road, hot sand under my barefeet , and get to the top of the hill in time to watch the trains go by. I loved their mystery, their strength, the sound of the whistle which always blew as it passed the crossing next to my grandparents house. I dreamed of ridin' the rails myself, going someplace else, anywhere that would take me away, to be heading out west where destiny awaited. I knew then I was pulled to the West in some romantic, maybe even karmic way. It spelled excitement, adventure, a new way of life that I thought would fit me to a T.

My cousins had lived down the highway, but moved to a town a couple of hours away when I was eight. It might as well have been in another universe. Except for the trains. Each summer my sister, Jane, and I would be put on the train to visit them for a few days. We loved the trip, seeing a bit of the backcountry as we went. I felt special, as though my mundane existence was suddenly loaded with possibility. The open road, of sorts, which has always appealed to me.

We spent a few days doing foolish things, like racing their horses at full gallop down the dirt road, which was forbidden by my Aunt Lorna; piling into my Uncle Fay's new hammock, which, of course, broke. Stupid stuff kids do without thinking...

We thought our cousin, Mark, was the coolest guy we knew and loved him madly. Shelley, his sister, was our friend, but Mark was a guy, mysterious, the Other. His was a life of adventure, breaking the rules. No playing with a dollhouse. I didn't want to pretend to have a life, I wanted the real thing; one adventure after another. I guess I still do.

We rode the train back a few days later, often in the dark, and it was always bittersweet. We liked knowing we were going home, but hated to have the adventure end.

I still love to see trains as I drive cross-country, sometimes near Wagon Mound, which carries with it that western, "where the deer and the antelope play" feel to it. Many of the boxcars say Santa Fe on them. It seems, looking back, sort of prescient, as though I was getting messages then, whether I recognized them or not, about my life, the direction it would take. I believe we get signs everywhere once we start becoming more aware. But, that's for another time, a different post.

Paul Simon has a song, one of my favorites, with the line, "Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance...everybody thinks it's true." It's about love hanging on for dear life, but it speaks to me of the longing that I have come to associate with trains and limitless possibilities.

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