Monday, May 11, 2009

Back on Track (on the tracks); Hartford to Philly

Hello friends and family,

It has been a long time since I’ve written, but don’t think I forgot about you! I’ve been thrown out of my usual blogging rhythms recently by various things (among them New York, nice weather, being social, and sickness), but I’m doing my best to get back on track. Sorry for the hiatus, but now as I try to catch up, I’ve got even more to talk about!

Right now we are on the tracks from Hartford, CT to Philadelphia. I am alone this time, as Eric and Book have gone to Boston. It has been such a lovely train run, that until now in the evening, my promises to my self (and readers) to spend the whole trip doing nothing but writing had nearly been forgotten. After a very much-needed long sleep, I woke up this afternoon and looked out the window. We were moving slowly in the woods somewhere, and I decided that while I boiled my tea I would go out to the vestibule and have a look at the scenery. It was sunny and just warm enough to be comfortable without a second layer, and all around me was a shade of green I almost forgot could exist. Nowadays nearly all my time is spent either in a rusty gray train yard, or a linoleum and cement arena, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by the coming of Spring that I’ve been missing out on. It was so beautiful that once I had fetched my tea, I went back out there in my bare feet and ended up standing in that vestibule for three and a half hours! When I was hungry, I brought food out, and when I got cold, I got a jacket; but I could not tear myself away from everything that I saw moving past me. And not only was it beautiful, but so interesting! I’ve never spent that much time watching the world go by before, and of course the more you look, the more you see.

It is often a challenge to find out where we are on a train run, as tracks do not have the abundance of signs that highways and streets do. Instead we use the clues of license plates and business signs, and addresses painted on the sides of tow trucks. This afternoon I had an easy time figuring out we were in New York, and along the way found many town names; Catskill, Lehigh, Nyack. But it wasn’t the New York I am used to at all, indeed it reminded me of the drive up to Greensboro, VT more than anything else! It was so breathtakingly green. We went by woods thick with green trees and bushes, green floors, green moss and vines, and even the little motes that are so often in the gullies along the train tracks were filled with green algae. We went by ponds of lazy drifting lily pads, and swamps filled with cattails, yellow irises, and red-winged blackbirds. I saw a million little white butterflies, often in twos chasing each other in tiny upward spirals. Sometimes the tracks are high, and the ground slopes away from the train to brambles and bogs below, and sometimes the tracks are low in the land, and all the pine and maple saplings seem to grow, sloping, right down to the line along which your toes are traveling. We passed a snaking little brook, and there I saw the first white dogwood of the day, which was so pristine I did a double take. Right along the edge of the tracks, licking the ever-present gravel, were a million ferns, skunk cabbage, wild mint, and violets. We passed grain mills and homemade orchards, tilting silos, and quarries with conveyor belts spilling each different color of crushed rock into its own pile. I saw graveyards with thousands of upright, neat, little white and gray stones, and immense abandoned factory buildings, so forgotten that trees had begun to grow out of their roofs. I was thrilled each time the land fell away suddenly, and we were high over a bridge with rushing water far below, complete with overgrown little islands, waterfalls, fishing boats and coastal houses perched on the edge like birds.

The train always causes heads to turn, and I often see people halfway through an action, stopping to watch it go by. Car drivers on parallel streets go absent mindedly slow, gazing at the train moving beside them instead of the road, bicyclists stop and put their feet down, and pedestrians stand together, talking and smiling with their hands on their hips until they see one of us in the vestibule and wave. There was an impressive number of upholstered living room chairs and couches in the woods, I noticed, left there facing the train tracks in the clearings most suitable for train-viewing.

Sometimes we go around great big curves, and you can see the whole length of the train; beginning with the dark locomotive (which seems very foreign to me, as we rent a new one each week and I’ve never seen it parked), followed by mysteriously off-bound machinery-filled cars and generator thingies for train-crew to maintain the train with, and the indistinct animal cars. Next come the living quarters, peppered here and there with heads looking out, their hair blowing everywhere and cigarette smoke pluming behind. The pie car is in the middle there somewhere, and the private cars are on either end, so that nobody walks through on their way to somewhere else. Finally come the flatbeds, which hold everything; the first one carries the bus that we take to the arena every morning. After that are numerous wagons containing offices, company cars, props, rigging, costumes, lights, and bull tubs; everything from the Wheels of Death to all the trunks from Clown Alley.

My three and a half (maybe even four) hours seemed like just a half hour to me. The land whizzed by and changed so much. Even though the wind whips your hair about, taps your jacket collar against your teeth, zips down your shirt and chills you, crushes your eyelashes back and forces the tears out of your eyes, there’s too much to see to be annoyed. I saw a wild turkey, a dutifully yapping puppy tied to a tree, and a great big strange statue of a whale and a seal in what seemed to be just a regular someone’s driveway. As the area became more heavily populated, we passed more neighborhoods rather than abandoned houses, saw more car dealerships than old junked car lots. We passed the backs of malls and shopping strips, and shot past factories that hovered an arm’s length from the tracks with bearded, helmeted men waving. Often on train runs we go through train yards much like the ones we park in, and then there is nothing but a sea of familiarly foreign and graffiti-ed trains.

I began the journey looking out the left side of the train, and later switched to the right. Sometimes, it is a horrible decision to choose which side of the train to look out of, and sometimes it is quite apparent which has more going on. I was still enjoying the right side of the train, a few hours in, when I glanced back to the left side and changed my mind. There just behind me, sitting quietly as if I would not notice, was the entire unobstructed view of the Hudson River. Within 15 feet of the train the gravel met the water, and there were groups of men fishing, turning around to wave and cheer at us. I saw rusty forgotten cranes being eaten by the vines and trees next to the water, ancient piers turning into rows of wet upright posts in the waves, and giant metal bridges towering ridiculously high above us. There were restaurants, beaches, and yacht clubs, and beautiful houses with porches wrapping around and lilacs and dogwood in the garden. On a quiet part of the river I saw two huge swans curve and dip their necks under the water in unison. I saw so many cormorants dive and swim beneath the surface, and just one slender gray Herron fly a foot above it. Tugboats and barges and sailboats went by smoothly, and the sky was jewel blue with curving wisps of white. There were green mountains all around, and every now and then we plunged into a tunnel that was blasted through one of them. The tunnels were dark and wet, and the only light to see by was the ineffective soft yellow bulbs in each one of the vestibules, which it seems are always on.

We followed the river for a long time, and I stayed out there with it until the sun began to go down, and I was too cold to be outside anymore. Now it is late, and quite dark outside, and when I go out to check if we have arrived yet, all I can see are the closest tips of sumac and maple, the reflective tape near where the train tracks meet roads, and the moon lighting up the clouds around it in the sky.


  1. Joy, how nice it is to read your writing again! You paint such beautiful word-pictures. These descriptions sound like the words of a person discovering the world for the first time! I'm glad your train run was so enjoyable, and that you finally had the leisure to look around you. (And that you finally got to be outside the arenas and train yards!) This was worth the wait. Thanks, love. Mom

  2. I'm so glad I found your Blog, your writing is truly poet and even though I have seen so many of the things you describe your words bring them all back to life for me. Thank you.

  3. beautiful writing.reminded me of every train I have ever enjoyed