On speculative rambles, Knoxville childhood, and trains

by Jay Hardwig

Lately on Friday evenings, about the time I am unlacing my shoes and falling prone on the couch for my long-sought week-ending nap, I have heard an old sound, slow lowing and mournful, come down the railroad tracks. It is the steam whistle from the River City Flyer—I live not a quarter mile from the tracks—and every time I hear it I want to up and sing a Hank Williams song.

It is, if you are not on the precipice of a long-sought week-ending nap, a pleasant sound, rich with history and emotion. I've heard enough old folk songs to know a bit about the meaning of a train whistle—a new town, a new life, no more of the same old shuffle. Northbound, westbound, southbound—it hardly matters, just as long as it's bound somewhere. Somewhere new. It is a symbol of freedom—freedom from pret' near everything—and as such it's downright romantic.

There is also a romance, quite alive thank you, for the old steam engine—along with the steelside boxcar, the Pullman sleeper, and the red caboose. But mostly it's the engines. Marvels of machinery and grace, belching their by-products into the once blue sky, chuggedy-chug, clackety-click, and so on down the line. A simpler time.

But my romance is not for whistles, and it is not for trains. It is for tracks. I love the tracks.

Mostly I love to walk 'em drunk.

I learned to walk the tracks as a boy growing up in Knoxville. I took the tracks to school, a couple of miles each way. (And here I don't mean to invoke the image of a dilapidated Appalachian childhood: far from it. But it is how I learned to walk the tracks.) It was my brother who taught me the trick: it is not in hitting every tie, for that stride is too short, nor in hitting every other, for that stride is too long, but in skipping every third tie by hitting the front of the first, the back of the second, and the front of the fourth. It is almost as graceful in its own way as the Texas Two-Step, and once acquired, it is as natural to practiced feet as the cornfield shuffle is to an Iowa farmboy.

I learned, too, to balance on the rails, and hop from one to another—a span of 56 and three-quarter inches, by my measurement—without falling off. (My brother, again, holds the family record for tracktop distance, having once walked the whole way home balanced atop a single rail—a span, as I have mentioned, of at least two miles). I learned to leave a discreet footprint in the hot pitch that seeped up from the ties, and to feel the tracks for warning of an oncoming train. If a train did chance along, I was not too old to appreciate the compressive power of a locomotive, and in my time I laid a good number of pennies, dimes, and bottlecaps upon quivering rails. And if the train that passed was traveling slowly enough, I might just hitch a ride, pulling myself up onto a carside ladder and leaning back and into the wind. (I never did get to pull up into an empty boxcar, true hobo style, and sing Jimmie Rodgers tunes on a cigar-box guitar. The boxcars these days are duly chained and locked, the better to keep out the riffraff. There's progress for you.)

I learned that, at least in Knoxville, there really was a wrong side of the tracks. To the south, where we lived, were the rich and the middle-class; to the north was a stretch of Sutherland Avenue synonymous in our town with body shops and poor white trash. We had a friend from those parts, one Dave Wilson, who would meet us on the tracks every morning to walk to school, him coming from the north and us from the south to find a sort of socioeconomic détente along the tracks themselves; it was a no-man's-land, a demilitarized liminal space where high-blown social distinctions had no quarter. We would walk to school together, spread out on the rails, my brother and I rapt while Dave Wilson regaled us with farmer's daughter jokes and plots from Ray Bradbury books.

Finally, I learned that the railroad tracks were a really bad place to go to sleep. About once a year, I would read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel about some poor fellow who was killed, or at the least dismembered, while sleeping on the railroad tracks. Generally, these casualties were of the transient class, and often they were quite intoxicated at the time of their demise. But no matter how many times I read these accounts, I could never understand why, even in the thickest of alcoholic stupors, these unfortunate gents didn't realize that the railside ditches, if a little more uncomfortable, might be a safer place to pass out than on the tracks themselves. It has only recently occurred to me that perhaps these accidents weren't accidents at all, but suicides—although the paper never played them that way—and the true story was one of a hard and crappy life come to an end passed out drunk under the wheels of a train. Still, there must be better ways to go.

When I graduated high school and moved away from Knoxville, the railroad tracks came to be less concrete and more symbolic in my life; gradually they took on that mythical cast that is at once poetic and absurd. (Poetic for all those reasons listed above; absurd because, after all, they're just railroad tracks.) Of all of the hometown stories I told in college, none seemed to hold as much hardscrabble charm as my tales of the rails, and over the years I used the stories of the luckless bums passing out on the tracks to great effect. And when, after college, I sat myself down and wrote a bad novel, I was careful to place some of the defining scenes on the railroad tracks. It seemed then, as it does now, a philosophical setting. These days, my railroad stories don't impress much anymore—not at parties, anyway—and I'm not sure I have another bad novel in me. With these avenues blocked, I try, in the main, to keep my fascination to myself (until now, anyway), and wonder if I will ever outgrow it. And while I wait, I walk the tracks. And when I do, I walk 'em drunk.

Now, please know that these are not the walkin' blues but are a speculative ramble. The difference is fundamental. In the walking blues you take to the road with a serious hurt and an elevated sense of self-pity and walk till your feet hurt, finding in the distances some slim source of salvation. I had a friend once who professed to a case of the walking blues, and would drink a bottle of bourbon before hitting the road, and on at least one occasion woke up in the morning to find himself in a distant cornfield, with no recollection of how he got there. I have no tales so tawdry. I do not walk with my blues: I am more likely to stay indoors and listen to old Robert Cray albums, although sometimes a bottle of bourbon does get involved.

A speculative ramble is a more relaxed and Thoreauvian task, wherein the object is to lope about and allow strange thoughts to enter your head as they will. The idea is to relieve your mind of some of its oppressive daily responsibility for a moment, and engage instead in some good and pure idle speculation. The walk should be long but the pace relaxed. Like the walking blues, there is no clear destination, and it helps to be drunk. Unlike the walking blues, however, you are not likely to wind up in a cornfield for the night, because you are not so blinded by unkept love that you neglect to turn back in time, and not so absorbed in self-contempt that you will refuse to ask for help should you get lost. It is the best of both worlds, I believe.

I do this at night. I generally take a six-pack or some whiskey, although I imagine several other spirits could be used to similar effect. (Vodka, say, or tequila—although somehow I think a flaming rum punch is not apropos to the task at hand.) Occasionally I will stop somewhere and buy a cigar to go. (With the sudden popularity of cigars, it's gotten that you can find a decent stogie at even the humblest of convenience stores. Of course I do no such thing: when I want a cigar, I want a cheap cigar, a Tampa Nugget or perhaps a Swisher Sweet or, at the very best, a 99 cent Garcia Y Vega.) From there, it's out and onto the tracks for a long and pleasantly fruitless walk. I crack a cold one and settle into the familiar gait.

Mind you, I have learned the lessons of the News-Sentinel well, and I never get so very stewed as to lay down on the tracks for a nap; nor do I care to get what the experts call stumbling drunk, mostly because I favor my knees without bruises. No, I prefer a gentler drunk, solid in its way but not incapacitating, effusive but not sloppy, celebratory but not yet confessional. That great American philosopher William James once wrote that drunkenness expands, unites, and says "yes," while sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says "no," and I couldn't agree more. And it is on these walks that I am at my most expansive, that I am bound by a sure and certain love to all that exists in the universe and that has existed, and that might exist in the future, in this and all possible parallel universes, and I generally stay so bound until the end of my walk or until someone in a passing car hurls a vicious insult at me, whichever comes first, and, truth told, I'm never sure which it will be. It is part of the excitement, in my mind.

Should you fear that a train might sneak up on me while my mind is in this way unbridled (contemplating perhaps the lesser constellations, or, more likely, a barbecue sandwich), and thereby expand me to even greater dimensions, both by length and width, well then I'll happily wager that you've never been on the tracks when a train passed by. I am not, as a rule, a particularly alert man, but I'll say this: I've yet to be surprised by a train.

And so I ramble on (there's that durn Hank Williams again), self-satisfied with my railroad gait, my cosmic concerns, and my cheap cigar, and I ramble on indefinitely, indubitably, until, inevitably, I look up and I am home. Home again, to the same old shuffle. (Mind you, I love that shuffle—but, love it or not, it's still the routine.) All that's left to do is to wait until the next time that lonesome whistle blows—trashing my week-ending nap, natch—and to dream again of a night cold and clear on which to walk the rails.

It is a different sort of experience, I suppose, than the railwalking of my youth. Then I walked to school, now to nowhere; then I had my brother, now I am alone; then I thought of physics, now of metaphysics; then I smashed things flat, now I just get smashed. And I haven't hopped a train in years. It was a more innocent time then, and raw, and unencumbered, but dumber and more stubborn too. In just as many ways as I miss it, I am glad to be shed of it. But the walks, then and now, have this in common: the hard-won railroad gait, a certain low and lonely feel, and, of course, the romance of the rails. Even at 14 I was not immune; even now I am not beyond it. Let's hope it stays that way. Another cold one, Casey Jones?