I grew up in central Massachusetts, landlocked, in a landscape that's different from where I live now. Back then, that mournful sound in the distance came from a passing train, not from a ferry or a foghorn as it does today. In my old home, the romanticized means of escape to distant lands did not take the form of wooden mast and billowing sail, it was shaped from hard steel, unyielding, unstoppable. Trains passed through the fabric of that landscape as a single thread not necessarily integral to the structure, but one that would, if plucked, leave behind a discernible gap, a disquieting space to catch the eye at every glance.
Late at night I would lie in bed and listen to the engine's whistle and the rumbling weight of each car as a train snaked it's way along tracks through the woods near my home. The sound was a predictable comfort, and when the train had passed and the rumbling no longer audible, I'd sometimes feel lonely, a momentary emptiness.
I remember, on at least one occasion, trying to summon the courage to slide out of bed, pull on a pair of shorts and exit the silent house through the back door - past the rusting Pinto in the driveway, past the shade-drawn windows of the neighbor's houses, and into that particular darkness that clasped, like folded hands, around the expanse of my woods. Through that darkness and towards the tracks I'd go, and I'd wait for the train, my unseen late-night companion. I wanted to be there as it rushed by, to feel the power behind the rumbling. In my mind, there was a faint glow like an aura around each car, and I saw myself lit up, hair blown back, inhaling deep in my exhilaration as each car roared by. In this vision, the loneliness I felt as I listened from my bed was vanquished as I stood there next to the tracks. The apprehension I felt entering the dark nighttime woods would be gone, and I'd turn back towards home, transformed and invincible, retracing my steps back to the safety of asphalt, through the neighborhood, along our cracked driveway, through the screen door and back into bed.
During daylight hours, in the summer heat, we'd enter those woods my friends, my brother and I, armored in a filmy layer of sweat, pine pitch and mosquito repellent. A symphony of sound accompanies children into the woods - a twig-snapping, leaf-shuffling, small-voice-chattering composition. We'd tromp confidently past familiar markers - the half-finished tree fort, the vernal pond that, each spring, would be teeming with tadpoles. On the hottest days, the heavy smell of creosote was discernible well before the tracks were in sight. There was a small slope to clamber up, and at the top we'd emerge from the coolness of the woods, through scratchy brambles that caught our clothes, and into full light, exposed, onto the tracks. We'd balance on rails hot from the sun, pull pennies from our pockets and lay them down. We'd hunt for discarded spikes, heavy and corroded, to bring home as trophies. With summer-dusty fingers we'd pull blackberries from the wild canes along the edge of the clearing.
More than once we plotted an adventure, a plan to follow these tracks to some exotic destination. We knew that they ran right through our remarkably un-exotic town - they were visible from the grocery store, the fire station and the industrial park - we saw them from these vantage points nearly every day. But... The potential for the exotic lay in the miles and miles that stretched unseen, hidden in woods not totally unlike ours, but maybe, somehow... different. The adventure seemed feasible - pack a lunch, bring a thermos, and just walk. And we did, we walked and walked, but always there was something to end our journey too soon: perhaps a reformulated plan that would have us doubling back to cool off in the lake, because it really was so hot after all, and we could always start our adventure over again tomorrow, or the day after.
It's been many years since I've walked a long stretch of train track. Yesterday after work we took a hike on the wooded trails behind the post office, and we followed a route that passed close to tracks that I know carry the "scenic dinner trains" through this part of Cape Cod. I headed straight for those tracks and stood on the rail for a moment, gazing down their trajectory in the distance. The moment transported me back to my childhood; there was a fleeting sense of adventure and possibility. I know where these tracks go - through the town, over small cranberry bogs, past very ordinary neighborhoods - I see them regularly.
But I know there are long, unseen stretches through different woods, and it's those unseen stretches that I like to wander to in my mind.