A freight train sings me an iron lullaby

The screech of the rails, the blast of the horn say all is well.

Toby Hollis/Morning Sentinel/AP/File
A freight train crosses the Kennebec River in Winslow, Maine.

Winter nights in rural Maine are marked by a dense silence, reinforced by the snow-laden landscape. As someone who grew up in a city, I am acutely aware of this and sometimes find myself straining, as I lie in bed, for evidence of civilization beyond the walls of my house. Every so often I receive it – the passing rumble of the freight train.

The railroad tracks lie not 500 feet from my front door. I drive or walk over them every day, and when I do, I often take time to glance down their length, to where the shining rails coalesce and disappear into the woods in the distance. I may even get to see the train itself. I watch as it approaches, slowly and inexorably, its boxcars swaying on straining sleepers. As I sit in my idling car before the blinking warning lights, I have a front-row seat to one of industrial America’s great shows as the behemoth clanks and squeals past me, its engineer ensconced high up in the black diesel locomotive like a pasha. 

Seeing the train by day is always a treat, but hearing it in the dead of night is comforting. 

Long before it reaches the crossing I can sense its approach. It’s not quite a rumbling yet, but rather a perception that the earth is being disturbed in some deep, subterranean manner. And then I hear it – the industrial gnashing of metal as the boxcars yaw and bang. Finally, after these preliminaries, the climax: the air-splitting blast of the horn, two long bleats, one short, and a concluding long. Once past the crossing, the train clanks down the line toward Bangor, falls silent, and I drift off to sleep.

There are people who wrinkle their noses at the idea of living near a freight railway, as if it were unseemly. Now and then I am asked if the noise bothers me. Bothers? The only time I was bothered was a few months ago when, inexplicably, the train ceased running. I walked down to the rails and stared to the left and right, like a parent anxious about an overdue child. What on earth had become of my train? 

I asked around town, but all I got was corroboration by others who lived along the line that it hadn’t been heard from in the longest time. I took my consternation to bed with me on a particularly cold night, and I determined to call the railway in the morning to ask about its well-being. But no sooner had I made this resolution than I heard it: the premonitory disturbance of the outside world as something large and muscular crept upon its surface. And then the clanking, and the yawing, and the triumphant blasts of the horn. You might wonder how such a racket could put me to sleep. But, like a lullaby, that’s exactly what it did.

I know this is an idle fantasy, but I’ve been trying to contrive some (legal) way of getting a ride on the freight train. I am mindful of something the great travel writer Paul Theroux said: “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

In this light, just yesterday, while I was splitting wood at the edge of dusk, I sensed it: that earth movement in the distance. Dropping my maul, I ambled down the snowbanked road to the tracks and waited. She loomed, she rattled, she approached, and finally arrived in all her majesty. I looked up at the train driver. He looked down at me. His smile acknowledged that he knew what I wanted. I realized he couldn’t take me with him, but it didn’t really matter: I was already swept up and on my way.

All that remained was the night, and bed, and silence, and the arrival of the next train to tell me that all was well.

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