I walked from Hoosick Junction to Arlington with another 10 to 15 miles ahead of me before I’d reach Manchester. My head jolted and I flinched from the distant train horn pounding through the mountains like a loud snarl, echoing, as the train inched closer towards me. This happened right as I reached the sign for East Arlington, 2 miles ahead. I laughed. I had heard what I thought was the southbound train roll through Bennington at 3 AM that morning while sleeping beneath pine near Lake Paran. Now, almost 15 hours later, she putted north headed for Rutland.
Through miles and miles of roads meandering up and down the rolling hillsides, not once did I see a railroad crossing sign, until now. I only witnessed a collective radiance burgeoning across the deciduous landscape surrounding me, spreading like wildfire in a sheen so colorful and mesmerizing, that I didn’t even care about trains in the slightest.
I wanted to walk, to explore, to wander through the wide open spaces and roadways, to run through the colorful fields picking apples, to walk in the woods where the pine needles crinkled underfoot and the mushrooms hid in plain sight, to listen to the earth sing its song, a song only heard in one’s solitude. But, now this, this opportunity was too close to pass up, too easy and coincidental. I listened, following the noise.
Just a few hundred feet down the road was a railroad crossing. I pranced along, changing my path, and figured why not? “I’d have been a fool not to stop and check it out,” I thought. At least then I could watch the train roll by, judge her speed, see the consist and continue on down the road, that is, if catching out wasn’t practical. So I rambled on towards the rails with a chipper step about me, anxious for the train to creep on by, just slow enough for me to snag a ladder and hop on up inside or so I dreamt anyway in my wide-eyed, cheery daze.
When I reached the crossing however nearly all hope diminished. Defeat disseminated my mind. I slumped. I just stood there, took off my pack and sipped on my water jug nonchalantly, waiting, hoping the idling cars beside the tracks would leave.
I studied the two vehicles parked on the other side of the road from me, a silver pickup truck and a green Jetta. Of which, I saw a lanky, old man with short, gray hair, a pronounced jaw and stubbly beard wander towards the other car. At first I thought it was a drug deal, but then I watched two young hipsters step out of the Jetta, both short in stature, and slender, a few inches taller than myself. The driver sported a well-groomed beard and black hair, wearing spectacles like Teddy Duchamp from the movie Stand By Me, and the other kid, the passenger, hid behind a baseball cap and mask.
The quintessential standard for today’s society. It’s the new normal meant to fight disease, cure hunger, stop inflation and provide affordable healthcare for all, decimating airborne sidewalk pathogens since March of 2020 and bolstering one’s immune system enough to withstand the harsh conditions of luxury dine-in eating and the indulgence of booze. Previous uses in history include robbing banks, stores, concealing one’s identity, covering one’s face during the cold winters. Maybe he was sick, sparing his friends, I didn’t know. It was just odd to me, seeing it this far out in the countryside, in the outdoors.
None of them said much of anything to me, other than mumbling, “hello” and merely nodding when I wandered by, almost like I didn’t exist, which didn’t bother me. I looked rather destitute in my attire wearing holey jorts covered in a thick film of grainer filth and a near-transparent t-shirt destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but whatever. I didn’t give a shit. I was out here by choice and some necessity, fucking around, looking for more work to pay back “the man” who so graciously cares about our well-being, especially essential workers, the plebians and the rest of the worker bees during these harsh times of crisis, hypocrisy, and uprising.
I really just wanted them to scram so I could bag my ride and not have to walk the harrowing roads after dusk. The less they noticed me and sought out conversation after the usual exchange of common pleasantries, the better.
And as such, they stood there, hands-in-pockets, wallowing in the pottery, sculptures, and whirligigs displayed on a nearby lawn, bickering about aesthetics and what to purchase as I watched their noticeable peculiarities over this ugly junk sprawled out across the yard. They all seemed entirely uninterested about the approaching train until that guzzling engine bellowed louder and louder slowly nearing the crossing. Their attention diverted to the steel. Then oddly enough, as the blue and white GATX leaser trickled on towards us, sputtering up plumes of dark smoke, wheezing and gasping for breath, the train stopped right in front of all of us. “What the hell is going on,” I thought. Maybe they stopped for the foamers to take pictures or they’re just milking the clock to squeeze out the old, comfortable 8-hour day, just passing time, saying “hi” to thy neighbors. I really had no idea.
I just kept sipping from my jug, my knees slightly bent, watching the conductor on VRS step out of the engine and climb down the ladder onto the ballast.
“What’s goin’ on?” scoffed the old man in a sarcastic tone. “They got you directin’ traffic now in these busy parts?”
The plump, teddy bear of a man, stood there with his Pillsbury face jammed up against the radio speaking railroad jargon. He turned and looked at the old man, “crossin’ lights are out, just safety protocol.”
He motioned the engineer to drive the train forward waving his meaty hand, the horn screamed piercing the air, and yet, once again as she crept through the crossing. Santa Claus turned around and sternly looked me up and down furrowing his bushy eyebrows for a split second before getting back into the cab. I waited patiently as she picked up speed, just long enough for them to reach the curve and be out of sight.
The train no longer crept, it rolled smoothly and quickly now. Between the film roll of grainer hoppers passing by I saw a glimpse of six legs, standing stationary, as the art buffs watched the train from just feet away on the other side of the tracks. I wrestled into my pack straps swiftly, flinging my bag up and over my shoulders, securing it tightly. I galloped around the bend, past the graveyard of railroad ties all cattywampus about the curve, past the steep slope of ballast, to the only level grade. I didn’t have much time to catch a ride, but just a couple of seconds with only a few more cars on the train. The bolts spun round and round, faster and faster and I could barely count them on those wagon wheels rolling by me at a callous speed. But, I ran alongside her anyway and didn’t hesitate, holding the ladder of the first grainer that had a porch, just a couple cars from the EOT, and pulled myself up and in, riding dirty face on that short train headed for Manchester.
My heart thumped popping out of my chest as sweat trickled down my scalp and into my eyes, stinging, while I regained my breath. I clapped my hands and watched clouds of dirt and grime emerge into the air. These tones of grease and shades of muck only worsened once I hid in the foxhole. Years of filth occupied these walls in a suffocating pharm party of chemicals and dust spreading across everything in a malignance. My forearms turned a musty gray along with my once tan-colored jorts while my pack coughed up clouds of smoke with each prompt smack of my hand. I laughed. I had spent the whole day reading, sitting by Lake Shaftsbury, enjoying the fresh air, soaking in the beautiful autumn fire decorating the shore and found a spigot to wash up in nonetheless. But any trace of a shower now disappeared in the span of a few minutes when I hopped on this freight train.
I crouched in the foxhole as the pretty blazes melted from the trees turning into distant blurs while she skipped along the tracks towards the city. Autumn was here in full force now and I had made it back to Vermont just in time to see it blossom into a masterpiece of God’s hand.
Under the frowning sunlight dipping down below the horizon and the fervent forests dashing out across the landscape, any depressed feelings of hopelessness and lack of purpose I experienced earlier in the day had vanished. Now I looked at the heart of nature, its passion chiseled around me in the mountains, this loneliness, this apathy and these frustrations in life seemed to molt away under beauty. She rolled on into the sunset and I jumped off at a curve to walk deep into the woods for another night under a roof of star-lit sky.