Railroad tracks have always been first and foremost conduits, pipelines of people and property. They carry the immense weight of a century of travel, traffic which leaves no physical trace. Much more powerful are the myriad sensations left by the ghosts of a hundred thousand trains hurtling through, traversing a continent in a few days, bound for anywhere and everywhere.
And there always seems to be a wrong side of the tracks... zoning boundaries, old city regulations - empty factories that gasped their last breath a quarter century ago still hold sway on the fortunes of the folks living near the graveyards of manufacturing. Free-willed, spiritually intoxicated nomads used to pass through, and share their lives and knowledge - but the hobo jungles are mostly empty now, victims of peacetime and the corresponding slow death of America's industrial machine.
The essence of railroad tracks remains long after those trains are gone - their surroundings abandoned, ignored, left to the sun, the rain, and those specks on the whitewash of society which slowly fill in the void. The old right-of-ways remain, though roots and vines may envelope ties and tracks - overgrown sidings stay level and straight, vanishing towards points surveyed before world wars clouded our vision and inflated our collective ego to the point of arrogance.
But nobody has the money to tear it all down and start anew, and road maps still show tracks where none have been for years. New construction slowly overcomes old infrastructure by attrition, in patchwork paving, section by section. The attentive visitor to city byways sees rails alternating with concrete, blinking on and off as the streets progress.
Viaducts still bridge lonely fields where switching engines once bumbled up and down the lines. Their trackbeds lie under grassy strips now, like Incan chalk paintings miles long on desert plateaus, traces visible from single-prop planes buzzing lazily overhead in the afternoon sun.
Mileposts and signals lean drunkenly under overhead frameworks rusting thinner each year. Drowned by the pungent odor of creosote baking in the sun, rusting barrels of rainwater and sturdy ties still stand firm in the path they have held for many human generations.
THEORY AND PRACTICE
The mathematics of railroad tracks cannot be ignored - thousands of miles of parallel lines, congruent angles formed by grade crossings, sunken circles ringed by concrete where roundtables once rotated massive steam power - degrees of slope, width and elevation all play a part in describing the infinite terrain of railroad tracks.
Networks of rails contain seemingly infinite possible pathways to follow, all connected and inseparable from one another. Abrupt twist and turns follow rules set forth by physical limitations of locomotives and the cars they pull. On road maps, train yards bulge from the main-lines, pregnant with steel sacs and potential energy.
Buildings crowd in on endless corrugated steel alleyways, past dusty loading docks welded shut for decades. Gravel and rusty spikes litter the path. Bold calligraphy and illegitimate letterforms cut sharply across walls and fences, arresting the eye with color, at the same time dripping with the pain and joy common to all creation.
These are universal truths.
The steel has memory - we who ask for its remembrances hold untold secrets, gathered from sombre sanctuaries. Our drug is silence, coupled with solitude. We ask for nothing more, and rarely receive it. We explore every path, pay homage to every siding.
At home, warmth and wall-to-wall carpeting provide a bland but safe counterpoint to the gritty miasma of the railroad right-of-ways. But the distant horns always have the power to remind us of the past, evoke visions of the future - and finally, return us to the present.
Bucks County, PA