I dreamed about railroad tracks last night. It’s the only thing I remember about the whole dream – just the tracks -silver rails glinting in the sun and stretching as far as my eyes could see, black sticky railroad ties lined up in perfect symmetry, and glittery limestone.
When I was a young girl spending summers on my great grandparents’ farm in St Paul, Kentucky, I spent lots of time fantasizing about escape. Escape to where? Nowhere in particular, I just wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t there where I was. I imagined following the railroad tracks all the way to the ocean, even though I had no idea if those tracks near the house ran east-west or north-south. The ocean was a very long way off, regardless of the direction I might have taken. It makes sense that a person could never be lost if she had no particular destination in mind to begin with, and how could a person get lost with such a distinct path to follow?
My brothers and I were forbidden to play on or near the railroad tracks. Of course, we did anyway. We walked the rails to see who could go the farthest without losing balance. We’d see who could walk the farthest with his/her eyes blindfolded. We put pennies on the tracks so trains would flatten them. We’d throw rocks at boxcars when trains went by. We’d lay on the tracks and pretend we were playing chicken, but as soon as we heard a train coming, we moved off. There were plenty of ways to kill time on the train tracks.
In that area of Kentucky, tall daylilies grew all along the tracks. They wilt quickly when picked in the heat, but I made gigantic bouquets of them and put them on graves at the cemetery down the road from the farm. It felt like doing a public service – decorating graves of strangers. Some of those people really were family, but they were dead long before I came along.
Railroad tracks are a very hot place to be in the summer sun. The white limestone, even when it’s dirty, reflects the sun. The steel rails get super hot. Even so, from time to time, we saw a man or a few men together walking the tracks. The heat didn’t keep people away. That’s another reason my grandmother didn’t want us around the tracks – she called them hobos.
Hobos were usually dirty and sometimes they smelled bad. I remember one nasty, creepy guy with bad teeth. He was drunk. Very near the tracks, my brothers and I had dug small tunnels in the hillside. On that particular afternoon, we were catching toads and grasshoppers and putting them in the tunnels…I’m not sure why….it was something to do. The hobo staggered down off the tracks and walked over to see what we were up to. He asked if we had any money or anything to eat. We were not friendly to him but he lingered. He bent down and put his face near mine and said, “You must be someone’s purty little girl.” He smiled at me with those terrifying teeth. I scrambled back from him, stood up, and said “I’m not little.” My older brother stepped between us and barked “She’s not pretty either.”
It makes me smile to think about that now. He was just trying to be protective of me. The hobo got all defensive and stepped back. He smirked at us, pulled a pint bottle out of his filthy baggy denim overalls, and chugged whisky. He smiled at us and held it out as if to offer us a drink. We said nothing. I gave him my meanest look. He winked at me, licked his lips, turned and climbed back up to the tracks to leave. We watched to be sure he really went on his way. My little brother suggested we should throw rocks at him, but we didn’t. We weren't mean like that and besides, we had toads to play with.