I woke up around six this morning to the sound of a passing train. The track is a good ways away from our house and is of the lesser active ones in town, so I haven't gotten used to the rumble yet. I can sleep through thunderstorms, Fort Hood drills, and tornado sirens, but not trains. A long time after it passed, I was still listening to the distant whistle and fading roll. The week I spent in NYC with friends in Brooklyn became a bit of a joke. We were all sleeping in the living room and every time the subway went by (very often even on night schedules), I would lie awake, unable to ignore the passing train. By the end of our week, I had the times down and made a point to wake my friends to let them know they missed the train each time. They were from the area and never even noticed the rumble of the subway anymore. I became our walking train schedule. (I sucked at catching buses and cabs) (And learned that our stop was Jay Street and not "J")
Trains have captured my attention. It's not necessarily that I like them, though I'm not (usually) terrified of them. I suppose it's just their sheer power seems to be unstoppable. Who argues with a train? Even still, each time I hear one, I revisit a certain day from roughly two decades ago.
My mom is an avid bird watcher. I remember spending many weekends in the car as we made some unreal trek to see a rare or unusual bird. To this day, I have no idea where she would hear about these sightings, but I think it's safe to say she never missed a single one. I'm not complaining. Every trip offered its own adventure, and we always went as a family, the five of us. Us kids knew the drill; you have to be extra quiet, walk carefully, and keep your eyes open. I never found it easy to pick the one Ross Gull out of flocks of countless gulls. I would try and try to spot it, but I was usually the last to see, or simply nodded that I spied it so we could move on to the next challenge.
This particular day was spent on a hike along the Mississippi just south of St. Louis. I don't remember if it was late spring or early fall, but the morning was very cool and I started out with a heavy sweater that ended up tied around my waist before lunch. Mom had found out about a nesting site of bald eagles we watched grow from clumsy brown fledglings. There was a law (I could be wrong) about how close you could get to the eagles, I think since they were protected, so new sightings were always exciting. This one was reported behind a farmer's field where it backed up to the river. The only access (other than tromping through the guy's crop) was to follow the train tracks from a crossing south of it.
So we did. We set out on the given path walking between the river bank and the tracks. It wasn't long before we climbed over the tracks and stuck to the tree line to avoid boot-sucking mud. My dad and sister took turns balancing on the rails while my mom and brother kept closer to the trees. I traced the ditch between the tracks and the tree line with my eyes glued to the ground in front of me, determined to find a box turtle. I pointed out deer, raccoon, and opossum tracks more than watched for birds. Toads and salamanders kept my attention just fine.
The trees were full around us and the Mississippi was rolling near by. The five of us walked along as silently as we could. We were coming up on the recommended area to watch for the eagles when a train caught us off guard, seeming to come out of nowhere, and sent us scrambling for the tree line. I will never be able to relate the absurdity of a loaded cargo train sneaking up on us in the middle of nowhere.
Once we clustered along a group of logs, we could only look at each other and the train and be glad we heard it when we did. Trains are loud. They are more than loud, but thunderous. How could this one be right on top of us before we knew it was coming? How can you miss a train!?! Apparently, you can.
At first, it was obvious we were all shocked and surprised, then it grew more embarrassing as we realized it just happened. We figured the mighty Mississippi and the windblown trees around us disguised the coming train. We were soon back on our way with a bit more respect for the tracks we followed.
By the end of the day, we were able to see the reported bald eagles and watched them snatch fish out of the river with ease. I never found a turtle, but had a pocket full of river-smoothed rocks and a good count of the passing barges. Two more trains came down the tracks before we got back to the car. These didn't sneak up on us quite as much. We had several false alarms, but were eventually able to tell when one was barreling toward us. We even had enough time before one of them to each put a penny on the train tracks before it was too close. (I lost my penny in this last move)
We were soon sitting at Ted Drew's Frozen Custard laughing about how insane we must have sounded to tell about a train sneaking up on us. We had a new respect for the tracks. I already had a healthy fear of the Mississippi, but train tracks didn't mean much to me until then.
To this day I am still awed by the speed and size of that train. They are a common sight around here, and this area has more unmarked crossings than marked ones. Reports come every year about some one getting hit while walking on the tracks, or a car not getting out of the way fast enough, and I am reminded about that day. The movie "Stand By Me" has always struck a chord with me. My husbands sits next to me a swears it is impossible for a coming train to go unnoticed. While I'm reliving that crazy encounter, he is going on about how if a person gets hit by a train, it's their own careless fault. I believe otherwise. I think it's safe to say that all five of us learned that day of how possible it actually is. Trains have embodied an indomitable power in my mind since.