It was a ritual for all seasons, one that required no discussion, and even less in the way of thought or planning. We would push our chairs away from my grandparents’ dinner table, leave by the back door and enter the woods behind the horse pasture. Scraped and bloodied, we would emerge some time later into a clearing, a linear scar carved into the forest—narrow and unbroken—running east and west to both horizons.
Ascending the gravel embankment, we would fall to our knees in the shifting rocks, place our hands on the wood ties, and bend forward until our cheeks rested on the cool metal of the rail, our ears pressed to its smooth surface. And we would listen.
Through all the childhood Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings, when my cousin and I would observe our pilgrimage to the train tracks behind my grandparents’ house, I never heard the sound, the one that, as our favorite Westerns had taught us, preceded the approach of an oncoming train. But there was something else, always, a distant echo that would reach the ear as if through water or subterranean depths; maybe a whisper of electricity, or only the wind coming through the pine trees at our backs.
Or maybe it was a memory, etched in steel, of the sound that I would lay awake and listen for on summer nights, the deep animal roar and metallic clatter that would echo through the house long after the train had passed, leaving the world in its wake too silent, too still.
For someone of a certain age, from a certain place, the sound of a passing train conjures an entire world, an entire history and emotional universe that answers to no logic or sense of consequence beyond its own reality. A world of hobos and drifters, their arcane symbols scrawled on doorways and alleys, communicating a freedom barely conceivable to most. And the ghost stories: the dead conductor whose lantern light is still visible along the tracks in Maco; the screeching wheels and screaming passengers that some say can be heard each August along a railroad bridge in Statesville; and the unnumbered phantom trains and engineers that haunt our songs and literature.
Like most legends, those surrounding railroads are tied to the grim facts of everyday tragedy, of children losing limbs while attempting to outrun or climb aboard a passing rail car; of men and women who simply give up, pull their vehicles onto the tracks, shut off the engines, and wait.
That world, the real and fantastical, can still be glimpsed in the work of photographer Mike Brodie, who spent three years riding the rails and documenting the community of young vagabonds and squatters he encountered along the way; in the stories of Central American migrants passing through Mexico on a train, known simply as “The Beast,” that has become as much a symbol of death and desperation as freedom and escape; and in the intermittent talk of restoring the once significant rail line between Wallace and Castle Hayne, part of the original Wilmington to Weldon Railroad along which rebel troops transported supplies during the Civil War.
The tracks me and my cousin once walked, as well as my grandparents’ rambling, oak-shaded home, have long since been torn from their roots and leveled, replaced with mini golf courses and storage units. They can be added to the roll of the irreplaceable and the holy recently erased and scrubbed from the world.
In all our time along the tracks, I can only recall seeing it pass once. We hid, crouched in the woods, not in fear, or not merely fear, but more precisely from some sense of awe and reverence, as if to simply stand there and gawk at the gleaming engine and graffiti-streaked freight cars would have been a show of disrespect, a betrayal of the hours we spent walking aimlessly towards the horizon, kicking rocks, balancing on the rails, and stopping, every so often, to press our ears to the cool metal, and listen.