Sleeping with trains

Storms in the forecast mostly missed us, though more than once the rumble of thunder came close. I heard the booms from a few scattered fireworks before the rain set in, drowning out the big Fourth of July celebration at the nearby amusement park. I could barely keep my eyes open; the intense humidity we’ve been having makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Sitting in my chair, trying to read, my attention kept wandering outside, where the rain was delivering its urgent message to the grass and the leaves. A beautiful music even if I don’t understand the words, I thought, and I lay down on the couch with my head toward the screen door.

An hour later I woke up in the darkness. I was covered in sweat – I felt as if I were drowning in my own clothes. The temperature couldn’t have been higher than 70, and fell to 65 by morning. But with this much humidity, the slightest exertion is enough to overload the body’s cooling mechanisms. How in the world do fat people survive? I stumbled upstairs and got undressed, crawling into bed with only a thin sheet over me. Even still I woke again around 1:00, drenched in sweat as before. Possibly I had been having overly energetic dreams, I thought, but I couldn’t remember a thing. Which was odd, really. It was raining again, very softly. A freight train blowing our crossing sounded as if it were many miles farther away. I realized it was the first train whistle I’d heard since before the holiday.

Perhaps I’m not so different from my suburban cousins, who say they can’t sleep when they visit us because of the lack of traffic noise. They’ve taken to staying in a motel right beside a busy highway instead. I wonder if I haven’t gotten to a similar point in regard to the sound of trains? Having lived here almost continuously since the age of five, with the main east-west trunk line of the old Penn Central Railroad winding right around the entrance of the hollow less than a mile and a half away, I’m so accustomed to hearing trains at all hours of the day and night that I barely notice them anymore. But on major holidays when the trains aren’t running, something just doesn’t seem right.

The trains infiltrated our dreams from the start. Both my brothers report having the same dream that I often had as a kid. We’d be walking home from school – the bus didn’t go up our hollow – when we’d hear a train coming right up the road behind us. We’d run as fast as we could through the tunnel of trees, which at a certain point morphed into the steep stairs and hallway of my parents’ house, straight into our bedrooms. We’d start awake, then, with the long wail and the rhythmic pulse of freight cars ringing in our ears.

When we moved here in 1971, two abandoned houses still stood down at the crossing, remnants of a once-thriving village that actually predated the railroad, which came through in 1850. The last kids to grow up in those houses are in their 70s now. Two of them, brothers, are regular visitors to the crossing area, which is also popular with train spotters for the dramatic views it affords of locomotives coming through the gap. One of the brothers brings his wife, and they sit on lawn chairs about fifty feet from the tracks, near where their house used to sit. “We just come here for the sound,” they told me once. “Can’t ever get enough of that.”

Needless to say, from fifty feet away the sound of a train can be almost deafening, especially the high-pitched scream of the occasional rusty wheel. “That didn’t make it hard to sleep growing up?” I asked. “Hell no! Even when the whole house would shake – which it did just about every time – that didn’t bother us. We got so we loved it.”

How did they make it through the holidays, I wonder? And how well do they sleep now, in their adult lives separated from a sound that once had been such a constant – a sound that for over a hundred years nearly defined the American landscape, full of inchoate longing for the great wide open? I try to imagine that rocking – like sleeping in a large ship and rolling every fifteen minutes with another series of swells. Such regularity at sea would seem supernatural, I suppose – Morse code, an SOS, a warning from the god of storms. Rocking in the bosom of Abraham. When my friend Dave the Voudun initiate comes to visit, he always takes the time to leave an offering down at the tracks: a few gold coins and a shot or two of rum for Ogun, orisha of the forge.

A modern-day Elijah would probably denounce this temptation to see and hear divinity in the powerful by-products of human ingenuity. Only in the pauses between the trains should we perhaps listen for that “still, small voice” that sets the hair on end and the heart on fire.

Elijah may have been the first to advance a critique of storm and earthquake as automatic expressions of transcendental power. Nothing’s automatic, of course. Surrounded by the too-quiet wilderness, surely the prophet longed at first for more pyrotechnics. The 400 prophets of Asherah and the 450 prophets of Baal had been unable to match his single-handed feat of calling down fire from heaven. Having once felt that kind of power, what human being wouldn’t want more and more – wouldn’t come to believe that salvation itself lay in such a mastery over the elements?

The true modern-day Elijahs, I suppose, are the ones who bear unwelcome messages about the need for humility and restraint. For now it seems possible that this long dream of power may soon lead to a violent awakening, through storms of unimaginable ferocity. Perhaps. Coffee mug in hand, I pad out into the still-dripping garden.

I had just been examining my tomato plants the evening before, and their change overnight is astonishing. Each main vine looks about six inches longer, with new flower buds and clusters of rootlets sprouting from every bend. With an almost animal-like intelligence the three plants – all volunteers – are reaching eagerly toward the garden’s open spaces. They are luxuriating in the very humidity that makes me feel trapped, unable to see or think clearly. When I pant, do they welcome the extra carbon dioxide, I wonder?

I bend over and try to move one vine to point it in a more advantageous direction, but it resists my tutelage. When I come back in to type this post, I bring the smell of tomatoes with me – that pungent scent that once reminded more God-fearing folk of witchcraft and poison. But one man’s religion is another’s sorcery, I think. And it turns out that all the while I slept, the steady rain and rush of engines had been following endlessly branching tunnels across the earth.

Some railfan pictures taken from the Plummer’s Hollow crossing can be seen here, here and here. (From this site.)

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