Following the tracks



Walking along the railroad tracks, I never could decide if it was easier to stretch my stride from one tie to the next, or if I should follow my natural rhythm, letting my foot land sometimes in the crushed stone ballast and sometimes on wood. I wanted the walking to be easy, unconscious. It wasn't. The smell of creosote and alfalfa still comes to me when I concentrate.

In the late '80s, my family and I moved to Colorado, and the curving Appalachian hills, jumbled briars and fenceless yards of my youth gave way to the dry, flat grid of Western suburbia. The postage-stamp yards and matching streetlamps of my Front Range neighborhood pained me, but I lacked the wheels that might have taken me into the real wilderness of the Rockies. So I turned to the rust-line of steel that offered a semblance of freedom, if not the lost-in-the-woods kind I had relished in Pennsylvania.

The tracks ran east-west, but I only walked west, away from our neighborhood with its manicured golf course. Once outside the confines of concrete and sculpted fairways, I found cornfields, a few spotty cows, and a slough I claimed for my own. There were red-wing blackbirds posted every 20 yards, their songs so constant I hardly noticed them. Toads - bumpy, khaki-green - startled me when they hop-plopped! into the slough and broke the songbird silence. The hollow dunking noise raised my eyes for an instant. Then I was back on task, watching my footfalls, hearing the crunch of stone and wood beneath me.

When I first started exploring the open country of the tracks, I was afraid I'd get crushed under the metal wave of a coal train. But then I realized, from the train whistle that rode the wind into my bedroom at 10:30 each night, that only one locomotive ever used them. At 13, 14 and 15 years of age, that lonely whistle was my anthem. I felt like no one saw or understood me for who I was: a confused girl trying to come of age in the last few years of the 20th century. The tracks were out of bounds - a no-man's-land - and I wanted to be the kind of girl who crossed lines, made discoveries, shocked the world.

So I continued to trespass into the fields and, although I imagined that an old-time railroad boss might materialize to punish me, I was chased off the sandy bank of "my" slough only by a furious farmer on his ATV. I wore my sweaty escape like a badge of honor. I liked to toss the phrase, "I'm going to walk the tracks," over my shoulder as I went out the door on a Saturday afternoon, hoping my parents would feel the danger I knew lurked in my actions. Instead, they nodded over their books and newspapers and let me go.

I went without a house key or book or bottle of water. I just walked. And I sang as I walked, sang Springsteen ballads and tunes most people reserve for campfire circles, including "O Susanna" - I sang that the loudest, and it gave my gait a lift that carried me easily from one sticky tie to the next. I also sang John Denver songs, loving in particular the line, "Talk to God and listen to the casual reply ..." It was a relief to be alone, free from familial expectations and judgment. I couldn't carry a tune, I knew - I had once been told not to sing so loudly in church - but I liked to belt out praise anyway. Out on the tracks, there was no one but God to hear, no one to tell me who or how to be me.

I found odd things in the gleaming limestone ballast between the wood of the ties. A worn-out leather shoe, scraps of twisted wire, a turquoise stone amid the sea of white ones, a desiccated fish. The fish was maybe 10 inches long and translucent brown. It had died and dried in an arched position, its over-large mouth screaming wide. I leapt off the tracks when I saw it, then crept back to take a closer look. There was something wonderfully wild about the twist of that fish's body and the mystery of its beaching on a Colorado shore. I coveted that fish and was of a mind to pick it up and take it with me, find out the species, learn how it could have gotten there - maybe even mount it on a wooden plaque on my wall, the way fishermen do.

But this discovery was more than a trophy - even as a teenager, I sensed that the creature was like those fossilized fish skeletons that make dark, watercolor strokes on sandstone and remind us of the shadow-places within. Those inner wildernesses, where body and soul and voice retain childhood freedoms long forsaken, still lived somewhere inside my civilized, groomed persona.

Along the tracks, I was becoming freer, more willing to hop the fence, break the rules, and sniff out what was real. So I left the mystery fish there, but carried its message with me as I headed further west, the bloody, living sunset on my face.

Catherine Fink is a teacher in Los Angeles, where she writes overlooking the railroad tracks that follow the L.A. River through the wilderness of the city.

Following the Tracks
Christopher A.
Christopher A.
Dec 28, 2008 09:23 AM
This was absolutely beautiful. Expertly written. Where can we read more of the author's work?