My Aunt Flip and Uncle Walter lived in a small white frame house right smack by the railroad tracks near Charlottesville. Fitting, since Walter worked for the railroad too. I was very young when they lived there so I don’t remember any details except that the house shook when the freight trains would barrel by.
Lucky for me, when I was a little older my cousin Stephen and his family moved to a house right next to railroad tracks in Roanoke County. As a boy I spent lots of time there anyway but having the railroad tracks – and the trains that run on them – right there made visiting my cousins even more of a draw.
The first thing you must know about living along railroad tracks is just how loud and earthshaking a big diesel locomotive can be, especially when powered up sufficiently to haul a few hundred hoppers, tank cars, autoracks, and boxcars – or combinations thereof. When spending the night with my cousin it sounded like the big trains were going to clatter and roll right through the bedroom. I found it fascinating that one would get accustomed to the sound; the brain saying, in effect, “that noise has been determined to be regular and normal. Particular response from the organism is not warranted.”
Walking along the tracks was one of our favorite pastimes. Although I must point out that then as now it is wholly illegal and not a recommended endeavor. Now with that out of the way, yes we loved hiking down the tracks, exploring, listening for an approaching train. When we’d hear one we’d hide in the weeds and cower as the behemoth approached and wailed past. It made the hair on the back of our necks stand up.
We never tired of our forays along the tracks. Sometimes we’d walk on the ballast next to the rails, sometimes we’d walk between the rails, skipping unevenly the ties. And sometimes, of course, we would stride the very rails themselves – for as long as we could without falling off.
Beyond the railroad track theme and all of its distractions, Stephen and I had some of our best childhood discussions as we strode the line, conversations ranging far and wide as we crunched through the ballast or hopped between rails and ties.
Sometimes we’d place pennies on the rails, hoping that the next train would transform them into something weirdly delightful. Such seldom panned out that way; the coin having been rattled off the track prematurely. But the thought of it was exciting to us anyway.
Now and then on our travels along the tracks we’d discover a hobo camp, a spot where a transient rail rider spent a night. There might be signs of a small campfire and maybe an empty tin can or two. “Wow,” we’d say with hushed voices. The thought of hobos riding the rails to distant destinations was heady stuff to us. I can’t say that we really wanted to be railroad hobos, but the idea of such a lifestyle was fascinating and romantic nonetheless.
One bright day we were walking along the tracks talking about this and that and we turned and looked behind to see a big N&W locomotive bearing down on us. Whoa! Our little legs had never moved so fast as we scurried to safety, diving into the vine-covered shrubbery beside the tracks. The train had sneaked up on us, the sound of it partially drowned out by the din of heavy equipment working nearby. Anyway, it took a while for us to calm down after that.
Sometimes we’d find a train creeping along slowly, slowly, slowly and then stop altogether. It was a very eerie feeling to be in the presence of a silent, unmoving line of massive boxcars. One particular time that we experienced a stopped train was, looking back on it, especially memorable. As the minutes of stasis ticked by our levels of bravery and curiosity increased. We climbed up on a car for a few seconds, jumping off when our anxiety peaked. Soon we lingered aboard the boxcar, clinging to the ladders welded to its side. “Hey, look at us!”
Stephen was standing on the ladder at the rear of a car as I clung to the ladder at the front of it. We chattered with nervous banter. Then the train moaned and screeched and started moving. Too scared to do anything else we just hung on and stared wide-eyed at each other. Slowly at first, the train gathered momentum. Stephen and I, frozen, gripped the ladder rungs with newfound strength. The train moved faster. We hung on. Not having fun.
Finally, after a half mile or so of hitching a ride we came to our senses and jumped off. The speed of the train had gotten fast enough to scrape us up a bit upon hitting the ground but not enough to break any bones. We talked breathlessly about that episode for months.
Except where they cut through towns and cities, railroad tracks are like narrow ribbons of industry, slicing through fields and forests. I liked the nature part of our railroad track rambles almost as much as the train part. It may have been ferociously noisy when the train was going by but otherwise it was silent. The bees buzzing, the birds singing, the wind waving the grass and the foliage. There were snakes lounging in the warm sun, foxes to be glimpsed, deer gracefully leaping the tracks. We’d harvest wild asparagus for Stephen’s mother.
And oh I can smell it now, all of those odors associated with such a juxtaposition. Especially when I link it with the heat of summer. There’s the pungency of creosote, the vapor of diesel fuel and steel and industry, all backed by the aroma and visuals of nature ever encroaching on either side of the line. Honeysuckle, wild rose, blackberries, luxuriant foliage.
I’m so grateful that the circumstances of my youth, the unbridled nature of it, allowed me to play on the railroad tracks.
It’s funny. We live next to train tracks today, a multi-track yard, but I can’t get to them. A thick stand of trees and shrubs stands between our place and the tracks, not to mention a stout fence. But that’s ok; I don’t plan to roam the tracks anymore anyway. I’ll leave that for my childhood memories.
But sometimes at night I hear the groans, clanks and screeches of train cars on the move, the rumble or far-off murmur of a locomotive working. It takes my mind back to those days of walking the tracks, to my childhood and some of my earliest adventures where I got an inkling of just how exquisite this life can be.
– Johnny Robinson