Music was the great equalizer but exacted its own unyielding toll. It could uplift and resuscitate or deconstruct with ruthless efficiency. But no matter the genre, it was the single universal relevance binding us together, at once a source of solace and suffering, and always partaken of behind closed doors.
Our rooms in Grants were surprisingly spacious but mostly devoid of furniture. Mine contained a small bed and nightstand, a table and chair and a small refrigerator that rarely held anything other than liquid nourishment. A pinup tacked to the wall added the single acknowledgement of a more promising existence beyond the gritty confines of our banishment. I don’t remember a television but if there was I never watched it. At all hours of day or night a disparate medley of music cloyed the hall like the commingled fetor of desperate men reeking of sweat, poor hygiene, cigarettes, booze and despair.
It was here that I first heard the sorrowful refrains of country music’s saddest songs. What I had dismissed as low-brow entertainment suddenly resonated on a personal level. While classical could certainly stir the senses, lyrics were necessary for genuine melancholy, and the words of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and others seemed written expressly for me. It was as if they peered deep into my soul to unearth my most intimate secrets, and in so doing assured me that I was not alone.
At night, with my back to the looming bulwark of the San Mateo Mountains, I thought of the thousands of other faceless people listening with me to the same songs in the same unfeeling dark. I wondered if they were lonely, too, if their wives had left them for other men, if their prized ’68 Mustangs had been repossessed, if everything they’d known had been corrupted and despoiled. If they like me were the dispossessed. Ours was the music of the broken-hearted and the imprisoned, the song of the working man cursed never to succeed. I might not be entombed within the cold gray walls of Folsom Prison or be listening for whip-poor-wills too blue to cry but I had the rolling thunder of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe gearing up to hurdle the Continental Divide, and like old Hank I was so lonesome I could cry. And sometimes, in the sanctity of my room with the music turned up to mask the sobs, did.
Early on a Sunday morning Union Pacific’s No. 844 backed out of Marysville’s dead-end docking spur and joined the main tracks, bound for Texas.
Fifteen or so miles away as the crow flies I nosed our truck down a wide road bordering the tracks and Frankfort’s towering grain elevator. According to Internet satellite images a narrow lane branched off the main thoroughfare to follow the tracks a short stretch on the east side. A fellow train-watcher had told me of a place to the southeast where a small rise provided an aerial view of a long sweeping curve of tracks, but for now I wanted something that spelled out rural in nothing less than iconic terms. If I could get the elevator in the background, I’d have my shot. The question was whether the road was a road and not a ditch, something the resolution of the satellite image failed to clarify.
Three men waiting for the train waved as I angled past. The road was rutted and narrowed as it progressed with the main thoroughfare cutting away into town. Beyond it a lane meandered on, adorned with piles of iron and steel and construction materials. No signs forbade access so I drove to its end and then back, keeping an eye on the elevator. Once I was fairly certain of my position, I parked and walked the tracks with the camera glued to my eye to fine tune my selection. I then backed the truck into a spot about 20 feet from the tracks, climbed into the back and waited.
The morning was unearthly still. A few birds called from a nearby yard and fell silent as if in expectation.
Visibility down the tracks was only several hundred yards. I studied the other watchers for their reaction but they appeared almost disinterested. A pair of pigeons wheeled around the elevator before winging out over the lowlands flanking the Black Vermillion River. My ears rang fiercely.
The men stirred and walked onto the tracks. I listened harder and hearing nothing felt an inaudible shift, a subtle mutation coming from the air itself like a whisper of breeze so faint it seems imagined. A hand cupped behind my good ear brought a muted roar and an indistinct chuff that resolved into a rhythmic chuff chuff with an underscore of metallic clattering that joined it note for clamorous note. I dropped my hand and gripped the camera and stabilized myself against the cab of the truck and felt the chorus gaining in force until the nearby tracks set up a thin keening and the air shuddered as if alive, the tempo increasing to a chuffclatterclatterchuffclatterclatterchuff and a single horn blast splitting the morning with a explosive white plume billowing above the trees and the coal-black face of No. 844 rolling into sight wreathed in a pearlescent mantle.
I was grinning like a love-besotted adolescent who’d just reached first base. I wanted this moment to never end but continue unabated for all time but the engine was moving fast and the lowering gates adding a new dimension to the rhythm which was soon matched by the ratcheting of the shutter and a throbbing roar that drowned everything as the train roared past. I panned the camera to follow and let the buffer fill until the shutter stilled. And still watched breathless and dizzy through the viewfinder, unwilling, unable to break contact, memorizing every detail from the early morning sun gilding the boxcars and the undulant plume to the graceful curve of the tracks and how they caught the light so it seemed the train rode on twin luminous shafts intangible as air, and passing around the bend No. 844 chuffed and clattered out of sight and forever into the deepest recesses of my being.