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Railroad Magic June 20 08

What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing

but I cross it like a cart-path in the woods. I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.

—Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau could have given the Fitchburg Railroad which ran near his Walden estate a little more credit. But then, having by his own admission never taken an interest in where the tracks ended, Thoreau clearly missed a great deal of what lay along the way. That’s a sad loss to one widely credited for clarity of vision—because railroads are magical.

Oh, the magic is a humble kind, but it grows on you. It’s the subtle magic of rekindled senses. Walk a mile or two on a railroad track out in the countryside in the late afternoon, and you’ll be gently swept into an unforced progression that opens your eyes, clears your mind, and deepens your capacity for enjoying things that are simple and free.

Railroad magic starts with deceleration. You slow down—first with your feet, down to the pace of a walk, and then inside yourself. What’s the hurry? There is no hurry. michigan railroad magic

You start to notice things you normally don’t pay much attention to. The slant of the afternoon sun burnishing the landscape. The smell of newly mown fields stretching toward the tree line under a blue vault of summer sky. A grove of sunlit poplars dappling the foreground with dancing shadows. A woodpecker tree standing like a soldier at attention near the woods edge.

But now, stop…listen. Hear that drawn-out, distant sound of a horn? Train coming!

You step off the track, well off to the side, and wait. Soon, you hear the horn again, louder this time. The train is approaching the crossing a quarter mile from you. You can hear the gathering rumble of the engine, the squeal and the rush of freight cars…and now, here it comes, closer…closer….

..and with a roar, a cloud of smoke, and the smell of diesel fuel, it’s upon you, racing past you with a clatter…

..and just like that, it’s gone.

Railroad magic is a magic of contrast. It sets drama and peacefulness, life and death, within mere yards of each other. The tracks are a boneyard, marked with the remnants of deer, raccoons, and possums whose last thought, on seeing the headlight of a locomotive rushing at them in the night, must have been, “What the…?”

Yet, there in the austere setting of the railroad bed, life boldly flourishes, stubborn and brave under the June sun.

Arteries of the nation that connect town to town and commerce to commerce, railroads wind through places the highways will never take you. In their own way, they’re as much a part of the Michigan landscape as our lakes, fields, and forests.

Can you hear that far-off horn? It’s sounding an invitation from the place where civilization kisses the countryside, calling you to slow down, listen, think, and deepen your life.

That’s railroad magic. Go take a walk down the tracks and let it do its work.









Written by Dave.