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.

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