As far back as I can remember I have enjoyed the sound of train horns at night. On the farm as a child, the tracks ran on the far edge of our field, and the howl of the coyotes would often presage the rich sound of a train horn. Everywhere I have lived, I have heard these horns and found strange comfort in the sound. As I sit in the calm and cold of my living room, I hear the horn from a train less than a mile away.
I am told by my father that he took my great-grandfather to a central office in Kansas City where he had been ordered to turn in his gun and his badge from his days as a payroll guard on the trains. The trains he worked ran the mining and lumber routes winding through southern Missouri, Northern Arkansas, Eastern OK and Kansas. I was reminded of the old western films, where pay trains got held up, and men hopped off with hands in the air while the bad guys robbed them. Most of this was a fiction, but guards on trains were not. Great granddad cried as he slumped in the office chair, laying the items of his former self on the desk. My father was embarrassed, and wished he could just jump up and grab the gun and badge, pull his grandfather along and leave. It was one of the few times he says he ever saw the elder man broken. Great granddad loved trains, and so did his son, my grandfather. My grandfather had elaborate miniatures set up in his basement, and worked as a rail postal clerk, his dream job. He died as an accident in the great train yards of Kansas City’s Union Station, during the height train travel and shipping.
I have often thought about all the blood, energy, and money that went into building the railroads of this country, how quickly they fell into disrepair, and how the rails are a viable means to again transport people and goods, in the face of a looming oil crisis.
I cant say I am obsessed with trains, but I am with the sound of the horns at night, and with travel. I have what I like to call itchy feet (no relation to fungus). It is a fascination with travel, the idea of travel, and the ever-pressing need to get out and go places. I currently reside in a valley that is approx. 30 miles wideby 175 miles long. It is hemmed in on one side by rows of mountains with 4,000 ft peaks, which take close to 7 hours to get through going west on narrow black top roads. On the other, a single, long line of mountains barricades the valley, with peaks of about 3,000 ft. on average. From there, the land quickly slides down into marshes, then to the Atlantic Ocean. I have felt claustrophobic ever since I moved here. The first year I back-roaded obsessively, coming to know the strange knots of roads that seemed to twist and turn without logic, always circling back into the valley. I built knowledge of this geographic prison that rarely requires a map. Then, I got bored. I traveled up into Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia. It still seems like a very small region to me.
When we came here to find a place to live, we stayed in a KOA. A nice woman and her family were in the pool with us and we asked if there was a grocery near by. Oh yes! She replied, The food line is just down the road and proceeded to describe where the food line was. I usually do not have trouble understanding people with accents, but I shot Husband a seriously perplexed look. Food line? I said. Yes- foodline. FOOD LINE! She smiled and said it louder as if I were either deaf or stupid. Husband finally got it, Oh! Food Lion! Grinning with relief and triumph that he had understood and I had not. The woman just smiled and nodded (I thought to myself that Food Lion was one of the dumbest names for a grocery I had ever heard. So too Price Chopper with the axe logo, and several other names, but thats another essay about the identifying vagaries of regional stores.). Later she asked where we were from, and said with pride that they always vacationed at the KOAs around town, and that she had never been out of the COUNTY in her life. Yes, the county- not country. I clarified, believe me. She was a nice woman, but honestly I cant imagine never leaving the county. Not by choice anyway. Husband says my sense of direction is partly to blame for my itchy feet, as I dont really fear any aspects of travel. I take great joy in the packing-as-Tetris game, as well as the planning of a trip in such a way to leave room for random experience. And yes, I have an excellent sense of direction. Growing up my father used to backroad often, and say to me, “We are lost. How do we get home?”. We were never lost of course, but it was a good way to train a child to have a sense of direction and the skills needed to get around.
About 12 years ago on my first trip through the upper East Coast, I got off the highway at one point and wandered around a medium sized city and found a terrific restaurant in an out of the way place. I was by myself for the entire trip, which took me up to Montreal, and through many cities. Husband and I happened to be on a stretch of that same route a few years back, at a mealtime. Without telling him, I pulled off as I had years ago and found a restaurant I had been to on the original trip. No mistakes, but drove right to it through multiple back roads and turns. Even I was surprised. Dad has the same disease, and has made a competition out of trying to find a road I have not been on, then getting me to drive it with him. He has yet to find a road I am not familiar with and it irks him to no end. Worse, a couple of times I had not actually been on the road, but figured out where it was and what it connected to with enough accuracy that he was fooled. No small feat in the always-curving roads (and changing names) of The Valley.
Not that I dont get lost, but as Husband assures me, lost is a relative term. Lost for me is not quite being sure in a 5-mile radius of where I am. I know the block so to speak, but not the detail within it. Hence, I can get to a point of reference pretty quickly by following my instincts and using my skills. This happens when I am going someplace new, or after having studied maps. Husband still gets lost in our town. People ask him for directions and he shrugs, saying, Ask her. Or, he will try to tell someone he has a lousy sense of direction and they do not believe him. He often has to explain the terror he feels when he gets a couple of miles out of town. He has absolutely no mental map of where he is. He tells me The Valley is especially difficult for him, and that he misses the Midwest, where he could count on the grid structure of roads.
We sorely miss the orderly squares of the Midwest, the big sky, the rich soils, and the deep rivers. The spaces between villages and the loud, powerful thunderstorms that can rage for hours. I did not indulge in drugs or other vices as a teenager, with the exception of driving. I lived on my bicycle until I turned 16, and then I backroaded, completing ever more distant trips. There are very few dirt roads or blacktops in an approximately 150-mile radius of my old hometown that I do not know intimately, having taken great pleasure in random stops for food at diners, noting unusual architecture or geography, and reveling in historical, arcane, and natural sites.
The valley we live in now gets very little snow, and almost no storms. My husband and I lie on summer evenings and listen wistfully when a small electrical storm passes by, whispering shared memories of great storms we have known. We also listen to the sound of the train horn as it makes regular passes, and silently hold one anothers hand.
My sons get out their wooden tracks and build routes, putting their tiny engines and cars on the track and pushing them along with chug a chugs and an occasional whoo-woo. Trains maintain strong symbolism, a battered romance, and an enduring promise that is evident even to children. My father took his mother and our family with him on a nostalgic train ride this past fall through West Virginia. The train was a pastiche of various old trains, some cars from the 1930s, some the 50s, and some later. We had a meal in the dining car (a salvaged early 50s model), and then adjourned to a cheaply refurbished 1930s deco car, with wavy seating looking out wide windows. It was an interesting trip, and the two little boys enjoyed themselves very much. The static scrambled voice on the loud speaker gave historical information as we wound through a valley, and the mostly geriatric riders all smiled indulgently at the boys as they hooted and walked about the train. I only caught the faintest echoes of what rail travel must have been like, as if some ghost from the past were just out of the corner of my peripheral vision, never quite coming into view. This was not the train of my imagination, of family stories, or of the horns in the night. This was more like the wooden track and cars my sons play with. It offered little insight into what haunts me about the sound of the horn, or helping to cool the itch in my feet. I know trains are a faulty business now, mostly shipping goods across country, and not without the usual scary bunch of train “hobos”. Amtrak is a sorry excuse for rail travel, not the least because the heavily federally subsidized system offers tickets to non-citizens at half the cost for citizens. When I pursued this issue with Amtrak, I was told, Well if you went to Europe you would get cheap tickets. This in no way explains the expensive and non-rational ticket prices. I had been looking into getting Dad a ticket to visit his sister in Washington State, and was shocked by what I found in the limited routes and outrageously expensive tickets. He did not believe me at first, recalling when rail travel was like bus travel, and about as expensive. That was 50 years ago, Dad I said, also telling him it made no sense to me either. Call or write your congresspersons, your senators, people. This is a rip off, and the whole system needs to be developed.
I grew up with autos for travel, not the train. The early oil crisis of the 70s created the cars I drove, and I avoided owning a car (and came to know Greyhound very well in college) for a long time, and did not need one when living in the city. It was not until I turned 27 that I owned my first auto, and had that truck for 15 years before I gave it away. It was my buddy, my trusted companion who got 35 mpg in town and up to 42 on the highway, and never failed me mechanically. It was my turtle, with the camper shell and rolled up futon in back. It was a Mazda B2200, the stealth bomber in which I never got a speeding ticket, and I miss it.
When I turned 30, I made a trip to New Orleans to give my first paper and explore the region. Many trips else where and a few years later, I was invited by some friends who happened to be from the Nambe pueblo to come and stay for a while. I took off in my pick-up and drove out. After a long visit, I decided to continue west, winding through Flagstaff, down to Phoenix. I entered at night, and when I got up in the morning and looked out the window I was convinced I had died and gone to hell- the landscape looked like something out of my old Catholic school catechism, some woodcut landscape Dante had imagined. Then I wandered west to L.A., along the whole route visiting friends and relatives. When I headed east again I camped in my truck, but for Vegas one evening, which was enough to last this woman for a lifetime. The north rim of the Grand Canyon was a revelation, and the blacktops out of the Kaibab into Colorado are burned into my soul. I camped and followed the million dollar highway, then the back roads down into the high plains of Kansas, always behind a string of huge thunderstorms. I regret not being able to do that again, but keep saying I will soon. Husband is an excellent wing-man and CAN read a map, and I miss the days when we traveled together to the upper Midwest, out to Colorado, down to Georgia, and other points U.S. Our eldest even remembers hotel rooms, cabins, and tents, saying,Lets go somewhere from time to time, spinning out tales about when we traveled with him.
The train horn sounds again, and I feel the call to get up, to go. But it is late, one of our tiny guys has the flu, and the house needs to be cleaned in order to remove the small blue engines from the floor to avoid the sure pain they will cause if I step on them. Money is tight, and I console myself with the knowledge of a conference trip in the near future. Goodbye I find myself whispering to the train. Good night moon, bye bye train, some other time. These feet will have to itch just a little while longer.