Passing through the loading areas of train yards is a bit like passing through a graveyard. Stories that once were, now wrappers blowing between empty coal cars. I wonder who comes to work in these lonely spots? Who sponges the graffiti and loads the tankers? Nothing moves upon the gaveled lots and so much seems left in shadow.
We all travel in circles of others. People who are connected to us by locale, family, religion, and work. When I look out the window of the train I see many lives I have no association with. Hands covered in train grease and punch clocks that mark their hours. A hundred years ago we lived in towns where we knew everyone and what most people did. I look out at these yards of old train cars and filling stations and wonder are there really ghosts moving between the rails? Is there nothing in the shadows or do I simply lack the eyes to see?
The sunset rolled in on long lines and parallel shafts of deepening orange. The clicking of the rails, with the steady rocking, left my limbs heavy in the seat. Tracters were rolling toward the barns outside my window and the swallows had taken up vigil on telephone lines. At day’s end even the birds know it is best to simply sit and witness.
I’ve worked with the homeless for many years. Maybe that’s why I sometimes ponder good places to sleep If I ever lose my roof. Crawl spaces and covered benches, or in this case, underpasses. I’m not really sure why I do this. I’ve never been homeless, not even close. Still, I look at abandoned buildings and secret stairwells and think, “I could make that work.” Then proceed to look for gas stations and WalMarts where I surmise I could get cleaned up and still go to work. I calculate how long it would take me to climb out of an eighteenth century sewer tunnel and back into housing. Oddly, I look for places that have light. Even homeless I can’t bear the thought of no sunlight.
This underpass was perfect. So many nooks and crannies and beautiful shafts of light. Note to self: In a pinch, just outside Des Moines.
We arrived at daybreak into Omaha. The station is under construction and there are pieces of its past and future, arising together, before the platform. Sleep came late, but the sun was welcome. Coffee wafted down the corridor from the dining car and few were up yet. Feet and arms littered the aisles as I slipped from the car to the fresh air of the platform. The stone and masonry were still wet from the night’s dew and the conductor pulled tight his coat. Passengers lit up for this brief stop and the long rays of the sun caught the smoke rising, as I turned to walk the station.
As I look at the images now, I wonder at all I did not photograph. Pieces of time and movement that still drift upon my mind, as if the cars were still moving in my head.
In the distortions and flashes I see my image. The bridge of my nose another geometry in a flashing landscape. Coal has already passed on the previous cars – strapped lumber, too. The rails are one of the few places in the country where a passenger goes last. Passenger trains stop for all the cargo that moves. Milk and oil tankers, flatbeds of slate and shale and bales of grasses for cattle lands. Graffiti is a color smear against the gun metal.
My reflection comes and goes between the cars and I realize this is true of all of me. I am what exists between each thought, as life exists, flashing between each car.
I attended my cousin Brent’s wedding in Chicago. This was the flower girl. I never got her name. She danced and twirled loving the feel of her dress and the power of her boots. When you are five everything goes together, because it’s never about the appearance, as how good you feel when you see yourself in it. So if you feel good about the dress and you feel good about the boots, well then, they must go together.
Boys, I’m sure, have their own thing, but for little girls it’s all about the dress. When I was her age I had a chocolate brown satin and velvet dress for special occasions. I wore it with black, patten leather Mary Janes. The skirt twirled deliciously when I spun. I’d stand in my parent’s bedroom where there was a full length mirror and dance and pose at myself. I wonder sometimes how it is we lose pleasure in our own beauty. As children it comes so naturally, but then as we age, we seem to forget. Maybe it’s the dress. Lose the swirling skirt and you lose your way. You lose the ability to be carefree and dance about for no other reason than it just feels good.
I watched her for sometime. It’s hard to turn away from that sort of magic.
Silos of the Heartland: Photos by Noelle
Worlds great and small rise and decay along the tracks. Underbellies of mediocre villages and hard edges of factories share the same trail. Worn and haggard becomes beautiful, in a countryside of weathered barns, while never enticing anyone closer. Haunting are silos abandoned while compelling to even the dullest mind to look more closely.
Heather and golden rod litter the edges of hundreds of fields, rich in the green of cornstalks and soy. Yellow are the elder stalks from earlier harvests ready for the straw-men of autumn, while bales for the harvested fields already line the lanes. The clacking of the train cars shifts as the train makes its turn heading north past the width of the Great Mississippi. Muddy spillage pours from drains as the floods of summer still fill its low banks. Barges and small crafts pass beneath the train bridge on their way to the deltas of Louisiana.
Ancient seems this story of fields and metal, floods and drought. Harvests come in that stave off the bankers and pays for the baler before summer’s out. Corn packs the pickups and soy to the moored barges to the south. An endless cycle of life and movement from field to mouth.
The moonlight helps delineate the night earth from the night sky, as the train passes through the countryside. Sometimes Black-eyed Susans and bramble flicker against the thick glass, calling of the prairie unseen. Palsied shapes of trees form along the dusky horizon, seen by little more than the absence of stars. Closer, lone farm lights appear out of the inkiness, never casting much light into the thicker shadow, before they, too, are taken by the train’s flight. I listen to the horn blow as it comes to crossings or passes through small Midwestern towns. Rocking, rocking, a steady rocking, should put me to sleep, but my mind has yet to find the rhythm of slumber. Moths and night bugs expanding and contracting around a street light still lingers in my sight from the last stop. A single liquor store to accompany the jaundiced light on a dirt road. A set of stairs, but no platform to climb into the silver car and no crossing gates or ringing bells apparent. Only tail lights of a pickup truck disappearing into a field and our only passenger, a wisp of a girl with spindly legs vanishing off the stair into the car ahead. Oddly, it is the tail lights disappearing into what looked a cornfield and not the girl that still haunts me.
Faces loom in my cabin, sleeping or peering into devices, but no voice is heard down the aisles. We are together, all of us, and apart. I turn to watch the ghostly apparitions of silos, grain elevators and roadside churches come and go in the darkness. They, like my thoughts, are but a moment on a broader landscape horribly vague at this hour. A skunk or opossum slips beneath an oil tanker in a passing lot, but we are past it before I can be sure. Through the glass I see an eighteen wheeler full of cattle and wonder if it heads for the slaughter house, as exhaustion makes the mind melancholy. Passengers may sleep, but the moon slips between the clouds, keeping me company, as if it too, traveled the same tracks. I am comforted and left lonely on this midnight ride, Chicago hours off. So I write in the dim cabin light and listen to the horn blow, with miles of track to go.
Gulls at Johnston Lake: Photo by Noelle
What if it is all to get us to let go of the cliff ledge? What if we’re all being shaken off our belief we must have security, predictability and knowledge? Every hardship a challenge to the internal structures we create to define who we are, how everything works and what is true and real?
What if all of this is for our awakening? To encourage our understanding of freedom, rather than a lesson on imprisonment. To forget everything we think we know and let go of the ledge. Free fall and trust we will fly. What if it’s the reason we chose to live? We wanted every single moment to happen, because our spirit already knew it could soar.
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