Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
One sound I missed while sojourning in Tennessee this Spring and Summer was the long whistle of a train going through the countryside during the night. At one time in my life, the wail of a train whistle at night caused me to feel lonely, as if I had boarded a car going Nowhere. Now, when I hear the whistle, I think that I’ve boarded an express to Somewhere! I guess you could call this progress, albeit somewhat romantic.

I once rode the “Old Southern,” as Virginians called the train that ran from Knoxville, Tennessee to Christiansburg, Virginia, and stayed awake all night because students traveling to Emory University in Atlanta decided to stage an all-night singalong, including several twanging guitars. My oldest daughter, Stephanie, then three, became enchanted with the songs, especially “Dinah, Won’t You Blow,” and her admiration encouraged repetitious singing of this ditty until early morning when the students debarked at Atlanta. The train must have traveled at a speed of 25 mph or thereabouts, and when I arrived at my godparents’ home in Blacksburg, Virginia, the woman who cooked for them said, “Haven’t you ever rid the old Southern? Horses can outrun it any day.”

The most perilous train ride I’ve experienced was on a long journey, via the Trans-Iranian Railway, that took us over desert terrain in Ahwaz to mountainous areas near Tehran, Iran, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. In Richard Frye’s classic book, Persia, he writes that the railroad was “finally finished in 1938 after great engineering difficulties over difficult terrain…” I think that this is a mild description of the terrain from Ahwaz to Shemiran, a section of Tehran in the Elburz Mountains. After a night of wakefulness among Iranis celebrating the Friday Sabbath with beer and shish kebab (!) and glimpses downward at the yawning abysses on either side of the track, we stopped at Qum about daybreak , and I found comfort in an estekan of tea and nahn spread with orange marmalade. I wish that I knew the dimensions of the train track through the mountains because it seemed as if we were on rails as thin as the lines depicting them on a map of Iran.

My daughter Elizabeth traveled by train this Spring from California to Tennessee and arrived after three days of travel sitting up and breathing hot air that she claims caused a virus to develop in her and my grandson Joel. We went to Birmingham, Alabama to fetch her, and the rundown train depot across the street from a decaying building with broken window panes inspired in me the disappearance of all vestiges of romantic notions about train travel.

Yet…Yes, just yesterday, I began reading a book entitled Railroads in the Old South by Aaron W. Marrs and was delighted to read: “The rapid embrace of the railroad by southern travelers and shippers demonstrates that railroads affected the Old South’s development…” I am still enchanted when I hear the sound of trains whistling through New Iberia during the night, as evidenced in this poem written several years ago in my chapbook, Just Passing Through:

The night hawk travels
through bleak passes,
whistling loneliness,
the Earl of travel charging space,
tracks leading everywhere
toward some isolated station,
waybill hooks still hanging,
worn bench outside,
ready for itinerant travelers
waiting to be transported…
into the “whoo” of memory.

This poem was followed by:

no covert traveler,
train boiling through high desert,
red, blue, yellow freight cars,
imperatives on landscape
going everywhere.
In the pinpoint of my eye,
miniature boxes of color
fret empty plains,
make me aware of destinations,
distant mountains
welcoming bleached cloudbanks.
We pass small stations
snoring at track side
while bright-colored cars sway
on miles and miles of track
like ants relocating,
good times left behind,
mirages passed.
A lonely figure waves
from the engine window,
face turned toward
an indifferent there
going on forever.
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