Inevitably, I find myself walking the tracks back home, humming some Charlie Parr song about rivers and cedar. I tend to be drawn towards rivers that run parallel to rail lines. It is here, in these crevasses that wildness and industry collide and, hopefully, coexist, that I find so much beauty. Oftentimes we think of nature and wildness as some idyllic, far-away "thing" or "place" when it's really right in front of us. If we aren't able to find the wildness in the spaces where we live, we'll never truly be able to appreciate any sort of wildness.
Maybe it's because I fall asleep every night to the calls of trains running the Susquehanna River a few hundred yards through the woods. Maybe it's my early love of Stand By Me and the journey of walking the rails and that boyhood bond that shapes life. Maybe it's the music I obsessively listen to that connects me to place and time- Dylan, Parr, Jerry, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Gunn. But there is it, frozen backwater full of sycamore and young maple that holds my attention, that buries itself in the palm of my hand like a pebble I rub with my thumb.
The skulking creek branches towards sunrise with orange
creamsicle stained rock, covered in the spittle
of mine spill striking through the Appalachian mountains
that have folded into ridges and valleys,
Worn thin from the erosion of age.
There's beauty in its coarse recovery
into a watershed that holds
thriving wild brown trout.
This stream was killed, years ago, by acid mine drainage. Now, thanks to remediation, brown trout have found a niche among stained rock and rhododendron. It's a wildness of recovery, of the melding of steel and water.
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 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.