the piedmont line

North Carolina!

From the train you see the rear view of the countryside, which is always a nice change from the strip malls that blemish every major highway and the new developments, the white eczema of suburbia, Walker Percy called it.

Sometimes it’s good to be positioned by the tracks (think towns and industry) but otherwise I suppose it’s not prime real estate. All the houses that you pass are ramshackle or trailers or plain boxes, exactly alike with brick foundations and vinyl siding. But most of what the train passes through is woods. On days like yesterday, days that look like winter and feel like spring, the woods were golden gray, the pines with their snakeskin bark and the startling bright beeches among them. We passed a few scrapyards and you just can’t believe how much metal is there, twisted and bright, in mountains bigger than the train. It’s unrecognizable for the most part, but sometimes you see briefly what once was an oven or someone’s bedstead. It sounds grotesque but it’s got a certain charm. Of course, we didn’t linger.

Dad said that used to be, all tracks carried passenger trains. Waxhaw only has freight trains that go through, like most towns. But the Piedmont line could, in theory, go to Waxhaw. People used to travel by train. It wasn’t practical to drive. Dad says that all these motels are new, in the past fifty years. Since motoring became feasible. Holiday Inn. Comfort Inn. I’m feeling bleak, thinking about it.

I understand why towns want to be by a railroad. I could also understand why people wouldn’t want their houses beside tracks. Who would want to raise a child in a house where the yard is bordered by harbingers of doom a meter wide? They are shining and precise, and you don’t need an imagination to imagine things you’d rather not. But if you had no children, or a good fence, wouldn’t it be nice? Certainly romantic. Heavy ties and the smell of hot metal and tar.

Annie is usually very good on the train. It’s certainly her preferred method of travel. Mine too, because in matters of travel, her preferences are my preferences. She believes she should be allowed to walk around and visit the passengers and I let her. She enjoys the challenge of exercising her sea legs, as it were. She’s surprisingly adept at it, and very cute in her boots and little dress. This picture was right before all hell broke loose and the glory went to her curly head. I had to forcibly hold her in my lap for 20 minutes before she gave in and went to sleep. That was a long 20 minutes of many averted eyes and eventually I took my sunglasses back and stared out the window while Annie screamed a choked, gurgling hyena scream that made me sound like a bumbling killer.

Ah, North Carolina. I like the scrub and the pines, the loblollies, hickory, dogwoods, sweetgum, and ash, the glossy magnolias (Barbara Ras wrote of fig leaves as comical clown hands), and all the oaks, and especially the brambles where the blackberries grow heavy in late summer. You can usually find them around tracks because they like lots of sun. I used to make a habit of blackberry picking; I carved a labyrinth of trails with a machete in a huge berry patch behind the airstrip at JAARS and go out for several hours a day with a hat and a book. Back then, hardly anyone went back there.  That was before the dirt bike trails were made. Suzanne Edwards and I once found a wrecked plane, a little two seater I guess. It’d been there awhile, it was half buried in that red Carolina clay. There are lots of pines here. Nothing like a tin trailer surrounded by towering pines. There’s a trailer park out near Pittsboro where the pines grow so high above that they’re always moving, even on still days. It’s like a cathedral. When your surroundings are that beautiful, a house will never compare and it’s just as well. I’d rather live in one of those trailers than in a new suburb where all the trees are gone and they’ve built miles of sidewalk where no one walks and where they’ve put lampposts to light no one’s way. “Daughter of Eve, can you find your way back to the Food Lion from the lamppost?”

I’d rather a trailer in the tall pines with the blackberry bushes and the humming hot tracks behind, any day.

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