I first fell in love with trains after watching Stand by Me when I was a kid. It’s a story about a group of boys that decide to take an adventure in search of something. Their way out of town? The train tracks. These tracks lead them on a journey that shapes all their lives in very different ways. At the core of this journey is a sense of freedom that resonated with me. I would daydream about hitching a pack on my back and wandering through the secret crevices of America all the while creating deep bonds with my fellow travelers. From that point forward, trains symbolized the possibility of living a truly unique and inspired life. They symbolized an untaken path, an alternative way of traveling. Something different.
Eventually, the likes of Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits came into my life. Waits’ gravelly, sandpaper scraped voice took my love for trains and created magnificent sculptures of freedom loving train jumpers and other-side-of-the-tracks poets waving poems around like trainmen’s lanterns lighting my way away from my small hometown into big cities and tall mountains. From boyhood dreams to adulthood meandering, the symbolism of trains has always found a way to seep into my world view.
I took all of the weighty connections trains have developed for me in my head and I went traveling on my own journey, searching and experiencing. I filled my backpack with all my camping gear, a few choice books (I’m pretty sure some Gary Snyder made its way in there), a journal, and some clothes and set off. For three years I stretched myself out across this country: Baxter State Park in northern Maine, up and down California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and plenty of places in between. It felt good to have everything I needed on my back, a home wherever I laid my head and lit a fire. I learned more in those three years of working in the woods than I did in my four years of college.
That journey eventually led me here, to Marietta, where my wife & I bought a house and settled in. The train comes through every few hours, just a few yards away from our front yard. I hear that train working in my garden, sitting at Shanks weaving tales with friends, eating dinner with my wife in our kitchen, and I can’t help but feel light and free every time I hear that rumble of steel on steel or the low call of the horn. I no longer feel the need to pack a sling and “walk those tracks” away from the place I live, but it’s nice to know that right out my front door somebody could and somebody will. I’ll look forward to hearing their stories.
I finally got back in the saddle of my bike today. When I had younger legs and bigger lungs, I used to ride everywhere and every day. But for too many inane reasons, I haven’t ridden as much as I used to. It was my way of exploring a place, and I missed it. So this afternoon I finally pumped up my tires, put in my headphones, filled my water bottle, and set out on a ride. I live down on the far end of town, in brick row, so I went up on 441 and headed towards Maytown. My goal was to complete a nice big arc from my home, to Maytown, then back to Marietta on the Charles Greenway.
It didn’t take but one block for my legs to remember the motion and the rhythm of pedaling. I slowly got into a good pace and started to feel a good burn in my legs. I had to drop the hammer to get up Maytown Road, but luckily The Doors and Ray Manzarek’s manic rhythm greased my gears. I rounded the circle and turned my wheels down Vinegar Ferry Road, towards the river.
As I coasted down the road towards the River, I took note of the geographical placement of Marietta. From my vantage point, I could see that Marietta sat just a bit lower than the surrounding area, pretty obvious considering all the natural laws of rivers, land, and watersheds. However, something more of awareness of people, and of community, grew out of that view.
One thing I love about this town is that people seem to be here deliberately. They seem drawn here like salmon are to their headwaters, like mayflies are to the river in June, like my smelly old dog Sid is to cheese. Just as I was drawn to move to this town, I’m now drawn towards it once again, riding downhill towards Riverfront Park. Gravity pulls my bike and I towards the banks of the trail along the river. I ride until I hit those banks and take a sharp left onto the Greenway, winding through cornfields and silver maples.
The town itself has its own type of banks that defines it. We live on the banks of the river and the banks of River Road. The town, its buildings and roads, can’t go over those banks, but the community can grow. There’s something beautiful about that idea – a community growing in its geographically constrained area.
Like the water of the Donegal and the Chiques, I have found myself on the banks of the Susquehanna in this little town on the elbow of the river. Maybe it’s simple geography that drew me here, or in matters of bikes, simple gravity. But I like to think it’s something more. Either way, no matter how I got here, I’m pretty darn happy to be able to finish my ride with the Cherry trees of Front Street flashing by in my peripheral.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.