Living by the Tracks

When we bought our house nearly two years ago, we had already looked at one house in the subdivision and marked it off our list on the basis that the subdivision seemed awfully far away from everything and that it overlooked some railroad tracks. When I say that the rejected house overlooked some railroad tracks, I mean that if you looked out the back window, you looked across a public street at the raised tracks maybe 100 feet away. I have the distinct feeling that if a fast-moving train derailed, its cars buckling against one another and ratcheting out from the sides of the track, this house would be obliterated.

We finally did decide on a house a little further up in the subdivision. It would take a fast-moving train indeed to reach us. It turns out that we’re not as far from everything else in town as we had thought we were — we’re just oriented differently than what we were accustomed to. We’re not right on top of everything, but we’re within 5 – 15 minutes of everything. This is a good thing. We love our house and our location. The only occasionally objectionable thing about where we live is the train, which backs up traffic in our area every once in a while, inevitably when one of us is on the way home and in a hurry to get to the bathroom or head right back out for an appointment.

There’s something intriguing — sort of old-fashioned and rural and dangerous — about living near trains. Train tracks make me think of gravelly-voiced hoboes. I can’t help remembering the older neighborhood kids where I grew up showing off the elongated pennies they had harvested from the tracks. Or the movies (Stand By Me perhaps most notably) that portray some of the danger associated with trains. And I can’t help thinking back to the numerous train track ghost stories I heard as a kid. There’s a moderately famous story that originated not too far from where I grew up known as “The Maco Light.” Versions of the story differ, but it goes basically that the rear cars of a train decoupled from the fore cars, naturally losing velocity and becoming a hazard for trains using the same track later. The lone engineer manning the caboose spots such an oncoming train and begins signalling furiously with his lantern to try to save the lives of the crew on the oncoming train. Whether he leaps from the caboose at the last minute or whether the caboose is stricken and he’s thrown off is up for debate, but the uncontested detail is that he’s separated from his head. Thenceforth, visitors to the site could see an odd light panning and bobbing around the area, and the explanation is of course that the engineer’s ghost remains, ever looking about for his lost head.

Occasionally, it occurs to me that it’d be cool to get the car up to speed and jump the tracks. My mental image of the daredevilry puts me landing the car with a whump and a vegetative crunch 100 feet beyond the peak of the hill in the landscaping that marks the entrance to my subdivision. In my mental image, I don’t toss my head back and let out rebel yell, but if my personality type were a little different, I suspect my mental me would find in himself a yeehaw that would make even the Dukes of Hazzard green with envy.

Many people seem to think that the sounds of the train might be bothersome. I believe it’s in the movie Se7en that the apartment rented by Brad Pitt’s character is assaulted by the rumblings (ok, the dish-breaking seizures) of a train that proves most disturbing. I don’t mind the train, though. In fact, I even like it a little. Maybe I’d feel differently if I lived just across the street with no substantial sound buffer between my bedroom window and the tracks.

I like to try to guess the speed of the trains from their sounds, though my guesses are usually way off. Sometimes, it’ll sound like the very apocalypse swallowing up my neighborhood, and I figure based on the roar that the train must be going about a million miles per hour, but it turns out that it’s just sitting at the intersection, apparently revving its engine. Other times, I’ll think the quiet train must be gliding slowly by, but I look and find that the graffiti on the cars is too blurred to read or that the cars are barely even distinguishable as single units. I’m not sure why, but I find the sounds of the trains comforting. The creative weenie in me wants to suggest that it has to do with emulated sounds of a heartbeat or of the womb, but that’s probably a stretch. I suppose it’s also possible that my appreciation for industry and achievement (trains are really pretty amazing, after all) instills in me a feeling, when I hear the trains, something like “the world’s still here; things are happening.” That too is probably a stretch, overthought. Most likely, it’s just white noise, an aural phenomenon I’ve come to identify with home.

The trains do make me apprehensive sometimes, though. But my own apprehension is rooted in nothing so silly (if entertaining) as a ghost story. I live in a rural area whose winding roads cross the winding tracks many times. The intersection with the outlet from my neighborhood is a favorite stopping place for trains. There are two sets of rails side by side, and my theory is that trains can’t be travelling on both sets at the same time (in either the same or opposite directions) because trains rock from side to side as they move. I imagine they’d bump one another with catastrophic results. So it’s not uncommon to see one train sitting while another’s going by, seemingly with only inches to spare between the two. It’s also not uncommon to see one train just sitting. The angle of approach to the hill the tracks sit on prevents you from seeing idling trains until you’re pretty much already on the tracks, and my heart has more than once leapt into my throat as I looked to my right only to see what momentarily appeared to be a train bearing down on me. I know rationally that the intersection is safe, but the involuntary adrenaline burst puts me on edge.

I saw an archaism as I crossed the tracks the other day. I would as readily have expected to see prospecters on a seesaw car as see what I did. A train was stopped to my right in broad daylight, its cyclopsian eye aglow. Off to the left, a man stood as if directing the train. This was odd enough, as trains use modern navigational systems now, probably tied in with GPS and fancy satellite scheduling programs. But what was really strange was that he was holding an old-fashioned lantern, red with a glass globe, and striking a pose straight out of a 19th century photograph. His head was intact, so my assessment of the Maco Light and similar stories stands. But I couldn’t help shivering a little at the idea of this unusual tableau vivant almost as a ceremony, a commemoration of some long past wreck, or as an ephemeral warning seen perhaps only by me, arisen out of the various fears and comforts I attach to the train tracks: Proceed with caution always. Look both ways. Accidents happen.

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