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Janisse Ray: Track Back – A Love Letter to Riding the Rails

The following article written by Janisse Ray, whose book is Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, appeared in the January/February issue of Orion Magazine.

I set my bags down and look south, beyond the main crossing of Jesup, Georgia. The tracks are empty, weeds growing up all around them.

Dusk has fallen, and in the golden remains of day the dilapidated station looks almost beautiful. It suffered a fire and now rots grudgingly away, boulder-sized holes in its roof, circled by orange police tape. Beyond it, the parking lot is rough, unpaved, without marked spaces, and no one will appear to say, “Not here,” or to charge. Across the street, a tattoo artist works late.

I think back to the first time I caught the train, some three years ago. My folks had driven me to this rail station, which, let’s face it, is not a station.

“Stand out here by the track,” my dad had said. “Wave hard. They have to see you or they’ll roll on.” Forty years had passed since he’d been on a train. “And get ready. The train won’t actually stop. You have to jump.”

“The computer knows I’m waiting,” I said. But I was out by the track anyway in the early evening light, pinks and oranges gilding the sky, the smell of a pulp mill in the air.

Obscured by a curve at the southern edge of town, the train enters Jesup unexpectedly. First came a loud and long whistle, and then, right on time, the train reared into view. Crossing bars came down and a bell began to jang. The train swept up with a terrific racket, clicking and clacking, rails creaking, brakes screeching. For a minute I thought, My dad is right, it isn’t going to stop, but it drew up short. A conductor let down a staircase between two cars. He wasn’t hurrying.

I struggled aboard with my big bag. Inside, the car was bright, clean, and spacious, a carpeted aisle dividing pairs of commodious blue seats. I lifted my luggage to an overhead rack, sat down next to a large window, and waved goodbye to my parents standing lonesome by the track. The Silver Meteor was pulling out, heading toward New York City, where I would be by eleven the following morning.

Continue reading this article at Orion.

Janisse Ray’s book, Pinhook, is available now. She is also at work on another book for Chelsea Green, to be published in 2012.


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