Sunday, July 5, 2009

ON THE RIGHT TRACK


Just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies Bryson City, North Carolina, population 1411, a small village in the Appalachians not far from hardwood forests and the white waters of Nantahala River. During the Fourth of July week-end, we visited this town and spent three restful days at West Oak Inn, enjoying 80 degrees temps in the daytime and 62 degree temps in the evening. Bryson City is located in Swain County, which includes over 40% of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is near Fontana Lake, a site that boasts the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains.

I visited Bryson City in 1983 when it was just a small hamlet with a declining economy and stayed at the Fryemont Inn, now a major hospitality center in town. In 1983, Bryson was a dry (no liquor) town in a dry county, and during my recent visit I was surprised to see wine lists in restaurants and alcohol being sold in local stores. According to a clerk in the Smoky Mountain General Store, the conversion of the town from “dry” to “wet” didn’t alter the economy so much as the coming together of many entities to form the Great Smoky Mountain Railway which began running excursions to attract visitors to Bryson City. Today, over 200,000 passengers enjoy rides through beautiful scenery along the Tuckaseigee River, crossing over the Fontana Lake Trestle and into the Nantahala River Gorge.

I’ve been a train lover since childhood (when I coveted my older brother Paul’s train one Christmas), and I revel in the progress being made to restore some of our railways in the U.S. The American Heritage Railways purchased the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 1999, and the railroad schedules nearly 1,000 excursions yearly: Mystery Theatre Dining excursions, a wine-tasting train ride and Gourmet Dinner trips. For children, the railway features railfests like “Peanuts, the Great Pumpkin Patch Express.”

I visited the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, which featured 7,000 model trains and one model train layout that spanned 21’ x 45’. The museum showcases models of trains from the earliest days of rail transportation to the present day, and the sleek replicas of trains made the small electric express I display every Christmas look like "The Little Engine That Could." The museum was a bit of unexpected serendipity for our week-end adventure in the North Carolina mountains.

The museum model trains evoked a bit of nostalgia in me as I remembered the last train ride I made during the 70’s when I traveled on the Iranian Railway from Ahwaz, Iran in the desert to Shimiran at the foot of the Elburz Mountains in Tehran. It was a precipitous ride on narrow rails overlooking deep gorges not unlike the Nantahala Gorge, which is framed by high cliffs that keep the gorge shadowed most of the day. During the Iranian train ride, we stopped at Qum at daybreak and watched women shrouded in chadors fill their water jugs at a small well near the train stop before we went into the dining car and ate a breakfast of crisp nahn, orange marmalade, and tea. The overnight train ride occurred on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and I was surprised to see Iranian men consuming many bottles of Tuborg beer during the trip.

I didn’t schedule a train ride on the Great Smoky Mountain railway, but I hope to return to Bryson City for a mystery dinner train ride in the near future. My one book purchase during the Bryson City adventure was a volume entitled TOURIST TRAINS GUIDEBOOK, a guide to railroad museums and places where trains run throughout the U.S. In case any of you train hobbyists are interested, the book describes 453 excursion trains, trolley rides, rail museums, and historical depots across the U.S. For those who once aspired to be train engineers, some places allow aspirants to operate a locomotive.

From my chapbook MORE CROWS, here’s one of my train poems:

FEAR OF DYING

Midnight train shrieks,
a warning signal,

the whistle of velocity
moving toward that final destination,

and in cold darkness, an old redcap
announces this place...

too far from home.
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