These rusting tracks still rumble with the rolling weight of history, of capitalism’s commerce, of hobos leaving home leaving family to find money because they had none and would find none neither though hunger compelled them to try, of kine and swine heading to the slaughterhouses to spill their blood and feed a nation, of starry-eyed boys and beaten-down men who knew there was a better life out there somewhere, at the wherever end of the tracks. With an ear to the cold steel, I can hear the scrape of the coal shovel, the heartbeat-belching of gray sooty smoke from the stack, the muted voices of passengers in posh swanky sleepers and in grimy third-class and in stinking boxcars and on boxcar roofs, with handkerchiefs tied at the ends of staves carrying all they had in the universe, and three-chime whistles all whispery for remoteness. These tracks seem straight, but they bend a bit just ahead and disappear behind dark pines, the tracks disappear and the train disappears and the passengers disappear and the black smoke pushes upward-outward in piston puffs while black ash falls on you and on me and on everything everywhere all at once. They all go, they go where the tracks take them. That is the only direction for this mammoth train, the direction of the tracks—where the tracks go the train goes and the ashy smoke and the skinny men and skinny boys and grimy engineers and every last sleepy weary passenger on that train goes. Where the tracks go the trains go. These tracks curve and bend and join and split in any one of a million directions across a vast continent—you pick—but the train never leaves the tracks. These are the things we say but mostly don’t say as we walk along, tight-rope walkers on rusting steel rails, you on one side, the north side of the tracks, and I on the south side, always parallel. How easy it is for you and me to step off the steel and to trapse and tromp off through the ferny woods. We simply turn. We simply change course, without even thinking, if we don’t care to think. We just go, just move, move onward to somewhere. Oh there is something in us railing us in, moving us along where we think we must go, sometimes where we know we ought not go but go anyway. And I wish I were a train and I were red-metal hot and steam-bursting and pushing pistons and grinding along slowly at first then faster in the direction I want to go, a million pounds of me pulling a hundred loaded cars, down these tracks. Someone has planned out and laid down these tracks, some smart engineers, and I know exactly where they go: ahead, mostly, with little bends and twists, but always ahead. But I am not a train, and neither are you, Frank, and we can go wherever we want at any time we want at any speed we want, and we can choose our directions for ourselves. I know this is true, but I have lived long enough, not so long but enough, to know that each day is a tie or two spiked under a rail, aimed forward—you can never go back—forward, as the engineers demand, and we keep laying ties on the beds we build, and rail after rail we sledge in the spikes and anchor solidly to somewhere. I never wanted to work laying rail, for the work is punishing and the rails crack my shins and the sledges smash my thumbs and I am screaming and I am starry-eyed and I am beaten-down from this interminable construction job, with the pay just enough to nibble and move on a yard a rod a chain a mile a league down the tracks, the tracks I put perpetually and permanently down, running off to somewhere, spanning earth and rock and snow and sand and meadows and bodies of cascading water and pooled stale water in the inexorable direction of the rails. And the ash settles and settles, so soft and light on our white linen shirts, but there is no wiping off this ash.
Photos by Caleb James Baker (c) 2020
Roger Evans Baker is a municipal attorney, homebody poet and essayist, and amateur naturalist. Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.