Part I: Introduction
I love trains. When I was little, and when we traveled to Salt Lake City, I could not wait to see the trains running parallel to the highway: trains so long it took two, sometimes three, locomotives to pull all the cars.
I have been fortunate to spend the last decade living next to train tracks. First, in a house one block from the tracks on the west side of Salt Lake City; then, after I moved to Rexburg—right next to the tracks. Trains pass by just steps from my back door.
Part II: Tone Poem for Locomotive, with Bells and Laughter
The experience of listening to a train pass by has a musical quality to it, almost as if it were a classical tone poem. Below is a recording of the 3:00 p.m. train that runs past my house. The “piece,” if you will, begins with the sound of the train’s horn, far off to the south. You hear my umbrella open, and rain falling gently onto it. You hear the laughter of a young couple hurrying down the tracks to a break in the fence behind their apartment complex.
The horn sounds, closer. You hear the “ding, ding, ding” of a bell as guardrails lower across the street to the north. The train’s horn sounds again, then closer, building in intensity—
Suddenly the train is upon us: the sound of its horn crashes down, then the rattle of the cars, one after another after another.
As suddenly as it has come, it is gone. The sound of it falls away. You hear the rain again, and the dinging of the bell as the guardrails rise up. The horn of the train sounds far off, then farther off.
Part III: Saxophones and Beasts
I earned a merit badge about trains when I was a boy scout. One of the things I learned was that each train engine is given a unique horn, with a unique sound. People could tell what train was coming to town simply by the sound of the horn.
I was pleased to learn, when I first came to live near train tracks in Salt Lake City, that this is indeed the case. Trains come and go day and night to Salt Lake. The many, many horns differ one from another. Some are pitched high, like a (very loud) flute. Some are brash and grating. One sounded like a saxophone, sonorous and mellow: and one came to town at three in the morning sounding like a great beast, bellowing its way across the desert.
Part IV: Camps of the Homeless
I was left with boxes of Drew's belongings to take to the homeless shelter; I cleaned out cupboards, as well, and ended up with a carload of things. There were lots of people outside the shelter when I arrived, standing up and down the street. When they saw that I was preparing to donate items inside, an old man spoke to me and asked if I wouldn't drive up the street a block so the officials inside couldn't see and give what I had brought directly to them. "We're cold," he said (this was March 2002). "Do you have coats or sweaters?"
I drove up the street, and a crowd of people ran behind the car, following. They were grateful for everything. The coats and sweaters were soon gone. "Are there any socks?" one woman asked. "My feet are freezing." The men were thrilled to see ties, a suit, dress shirts. "For job interviews," they said. Children took the basketball and frisbee.
A group of women thrilled over boxes of canned goods and spices. "Oh, to have spices to cook with again!" one said. "Where do you cook?" I asked. "In camps along the rail tracks," she said.
I learned later that in Salt Lake City on any given night there are 16,000 homeless people (according to the most recent census). There are 900 beds in various shelters. That means that every night there are over 15,000 people with nowhere to go. Every year, some of them are found frozen to death.
Drew would be pleased, I think, to know that some of his things helped the homeless. I told my parents about all of this, and they gathered together boxes of warm clothes. Dad and Mother drove them down from Idaho, and took them to the shelter. Dad donated a distinctive sheepskin coat, among other things. In the weeks and months that followed, I saw people wearing Drew's and Dad's and Mother's things around town. The next winter, I saw the same homeless man wearing Dad's sheepskin coat once, then I never saw him again. I don't know what happened to him.
Little did I know, then, how the homeless would come to figure in my life—or that a homeless man would one day literally save my life. Those are stories for other days.
Part V: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Wolfe, and Cats
When I first moved home and rented a house next to the train tracks, Michelle, my sister, worried me with a story about Thomas Hardy and Virginia Wolfe. Michelle had been reading Virginia's diaries, and had encountered her long entry about a visit with Thomas Hardy. Virginia had just finished writing To the Lighthouse, but it was not yet published. Hardy, on the other hand, was revered around the world, his life’s work mostly behind him. Virginia loved Hardy’s novels and poems. In 1926, she wrote to Hardy asking if she could meet him, and he wrote back inviting her to visit. She took the train to Dorchester, where Hardy lived, and he met her at the station. But to her disappointment, instead of talking about writing or about life and how to live it well, Hardy went on and on about how the train had just come to Dorchester—and how his cats, unused to it, were dying under the wheels of trains. Again and again, he said, he had been forced to gather up the ruined body of a cat he loved and bury it.
I keep six cats. Thomas Hardy lived a mile from the tracks: here, the tracks run close to my house. If Hardy’s experience was a guide to cats and trains, my cats were in danger!
I am pleased to report that my cats are terrified of trains. Before I can hear the train, my cats do—and they run for the house. If the door is closed, I hear them scratching at it. I hurry to open it, and there they all are, waiting in a crush. They leap over each other in their panic to get inside.
I couldn’t be happier.
I have always wanted to take a train trip (complete with sleeper car). Some of my friends and I have talked about riding the California Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Chicago, to see the Art Institute. Perhaps I can make that happen this year—there’s bound to be interesting music along the way, as well, and in Chicago.
I created the image above, "With a Very Great Train," on my computer in 2006. It is an homage to Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from 1 Kings 10:2 (KJV): "And she [the Queen of Sheba] came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart."