Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday

20170205_150553

February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.

 

Advertisements

Coyote

Coyote

 

The logging has been over a long time and

The forest is coming back.

Still, the logging road is well-used, especially by

locals looking for a place to dump an old refrigerator and

teenagers sneaking out to the woods to party.

 

Saplings brush the sides of the truck and

I pull in the side-view mirrors

So they won’t get knocked off.

Branches lash the open window.

Sunlight filters through the canopy overhead and

reflects off the windshield and the junk lining the road:

White enameled appliances riddled with bullet holes,

rusted steel drums and five gallon herbicide cans,

a sofa with foam leaking from a few dozen holes in the fabric,

tin cans and rotting plastic garbage bags,

soiled disposable diapers,

faded cardboard beer cartons,

empty bottles and cans,

cigarette butts,

empty packs of Zig-Zag rolling papers,

scorched fire rings—

all covered with a thin layer of leaf and pine needle mulch, garnished with poison ivy and pine cones and lacy ferns.

 

The road ends beside an eroded

red clay gulch fifty feet deep.  A couple of

wrecked cars have been pushed over the

edge and lay at the bottom beside a pool of

water surrounded by more junk.

 

I untied the rope from the bumper and

drag the coyote to the edge,

roll him over with the toe of my boot.

It slides down the bank and splashes into the pool,

floats for a moment,

and sinks.

 

The coyotes had been singing up and

down the valley for the last week, a wild chorus setting all the

neighborhood dogs on edge with lust and jealousy,

and I had listened to them myself,

enjoying the wilderness encroaching

into our safe subdivision.

But someone must have minded.

 

This was not how I had planned to spend my morning.

 

 

Night Walking along Black Creek: A prose poem for Jim Harrison

Black_Creek_MS

Black Creek, Mississippi

Night Walking along Black Creek

For Jim Harrison

 

The year the coyotes were so bad the boy would sneak out of the house after bedtime and stand at the edge of the pasture, watching his father’s truck make long slow circuits of his cattle, counting the match-flares as he smoked his Camels and cradled his shotgun.

In the national forest, he walked the bluffs above Black Creek, navigating by feel and sense more than by sight. He shinnied tall thin saplings all the way to the top, until the tree trembled beneath his weight and the slightest lean would lower him to the ground, where he would release the tree and hear it spring back into the sky. Robert Frost called it “swinging.”

He practiced walking silently; surprised animals bedded down for the night–deer and bobcat, exploded at his feet and bounded away into the deeper shadows.

Along Black Creek, water flowed over a gravel shoal, punctuated by the slap of beaver tails and the bass drone of bullfrogs; snakes and muskrat rippled the water, swimming upstream.

Eddies of white foam sheltered behind sedimentary rocks and logs and cypress roots, while the clear smooth surface of the water became a deeper part of the night.

Everywhere the rich smell of rotting logs and leaves, dirt, swamp gas, animal musk, pine trees, and water. The soft whisper of hunting owls gliding overhead, tree-frogs ratcheting, the call of whip-or-wills and night hawk screams, the groan of trucks out on the highway, which couldn’t be heard during the day but whose sound carried better at night, and finally, as if in response to the whine of the truckers’ tires, the song of the coyotes gathering for the night.

coyote

 

Fourth Summer

 

hose

She is learning that water can be drank from a hose,

that dirt is for digging,

that girls don’t have smokestacks,

and that some people don’t like frogs but I do.

 

We have been watching the videos of her first summer,

most of it spent in the hospital, when she was so small

that she took her first bath in a pink plastic wash basin a little bigger than a shoebox

and the green hospital pacifier swallowed her face.

“Is that me?” she asks.

 

Tonight as we walk she carries the doll Natchez because he’s “too tired to walk,”

and cradles his head with her arm as she’s seen us do with her sister Stella.

“Natchez has a boo-boo. He fell out of bed and scraped his leg.

I put a band-aid on it, a Cookie Monster band-aid.”

 

Later, Stories read, her teeth brushed, prayer finished, and she’s tucked in bed.

“Girls don’t have smokestacks?” she asks as we talk over the day,

touching the cleft between her nose and lip.

She strokes my beard and says “it’s soft,”

then touches my mustache and asks “what’s that.”

“My mustache,” I say, and realize for the first time that’s what she means by smokestack.

“No, girls don’t have smokestacks,” I tell her, and she looks disappointed,

“but girls can do some things that boys can’t.” She thinks about that and seems satisfied.

 

Beards are soft, and sometimes the water coming out of the nozzle stings her lips,

good things to know, but she also knows that the water jetting from the nozzle makes the

grass and flowers grow, and sometimes it can become rain filtering down out of a cloudless

sky, bringing coolness and a reason to dance.

Kitchen Inventory While Brewing Coffee

 

The sound and smell of brewing coffee fills the room;

paneled walls and dark stained cabinets resist

the graying light slowly chasing away the dark,

illuminating ten years’ worth of scratches and scuffs and stains.

 

Dents in hollow-core doors,

wallpaper border peeling at the edges.

Cabinet hinges squeak upon opening to reveal

ten years of accumulated marriage:

Survivors from three different sets of tea glasses;

tin cans, Tupperware, and opened packages of ingredients

purchased for forgotten meals. Drawers open to

non-scratch spatulas with melted handles and blades,

spoons chewed by the garbage disposal and forks with bent tines.

 

No amount of mopping can make the linoleum floor look clean again.

Avocado colored refrigerator and stove,

trash compactor that has hardly ever been used, a

model for which replacement bags can no longer be found,

all once seemed a good idea.

 

How could a man and woman without children or pets

age a house so hard in such a short time?

 

Twelve years ago we

planned and built the house together. Every day after

work and all day Saturday and Sunday we framed,

roofed,

wired and plumbed,

hung drywall

laid linoleum and carpet,

installed appliances, and dreamed.

 

Matt joked with me about how hard I worked,

said I’d “make a good Mexican.”

He meant it as a compliment.

 

It was a solid, well-built house.

I imagined spaces for children sleeping and playing,

and where Matt and I would go to get away from the kids.

We built the biggest house we could afford at the time,

and now it seemed small and dingy,

not even big enough for two people,

let alone the children we’ll never have.

 

The house has aged, slowly and almost

imperceptibly,

like Matthew and me,

and now I am forty-four and live in a

house that I would glance at once,

if passing on the road,

but not bother to look at again.