You Can Hear the Whistle Blow a Hundred Miles

It also happens to be a plan that ministers to the agitated traveler. If you’ve ever experienced rush hour Interstate traffic in Nashville or or Atlanta, whether you live in one of these cities or are only passing through, you know what a gift these new routes would be, especially if other provisions of the infrastructure plan — like expanding public transit and simultaneously making cities more pedestrian-friendly — are also carried out.

Aside from enhancing the walkability and breathability of our communities, there’s something about a train that reaches out to meet the yearning in the human soul. Perhaps it’s the rhythmic rocking of steel wheels on a steel track, as soothing as the motion of a rocking chair. Perhaps it’s that trains figure so prominently in our folk songs, linked to escape or adventure but ever joined to the tracks that point the way back home. At a deep, atavistic level, train travel is different from driving, different from flying, different even from riding the bus.

I wept all the way to Charlotte that Sunday in 1984, gazing out the window at the Alabama Piedmont and then at the plains of western Georgia, but it was dark by the time we reached North Carolina, and all I could see was my own reflection.

When they turned off the cabin lights and my seatmate closed her eyes to sleep, I tucked my book under my arm and made my way to the club car. There the overhead lights were off, too, but a single light shone above the table at each booth. A few people were reading. One was playing a hand of solitaire. I don’t remember if nobody was talking, or if the sound of the train moving down the tracks simply masked their quiet voices. “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone.”

As I made my way to an open booth, darkness gathered outside the windows and in the corners of the car. Darkness swept across the floor and curled around the ceiling, and that’s when an old man at the far end of the car started to play a slow, sad song on the harmonica. It was the kind of music that fills a silence with longing and gives a voice to loneliness, and without needing any words at all. The aching kind of sound you would swear you could hear a hundred miles.

I know you think I’m making this up, or only misremembering myself as the tragic heroine of a movie where Willie Nelson plays a cameo role. But this part of the story I remember perfectly. Those thin, plaintive notes reached through the shadows and found me as I sat down alone, my eyes suddenly too blurred to read.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”

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