Down South: Riding The Rails
By Tom Poland
A rainy night, but not in Georgia. Talking a woman and I were when far off a locomotive sounded its mournful horn. With a sigh and wistful look she said, “I’ve never ridden a train. Have you?”
“Yes. Several times” … then memories of riding the rails in Europe spirited me away.
Spain. I boarded a train in Valencia where the night before I re-read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, appropriately enough. From Valencia I traveled to Alicante to the Mediterranean. There, Alicante’s unclothed sunbathers stood in ankle-deep water. It wasn’t what I imagined.
To Italy I flew, where I boarded a train in ancient Rome with its tawny and white walls, red bricks, green cedars, and gray Coliseum. On to Venice and the Grand Canal, glittering lights and gondolas, bridges, and frescoes.
A long time ago, I rode Amtrak’s Silver Star to Deland, Florida. Caught the train after midnight and soon I was hurdling through darkened countryside. That was my first train ride aside from boyish days on the Tweetsie Railroad. I’ve not ridden Amtrak since.
In 2001 sister Brenda and I rode those trains through Spain and Italy. The trains were sleek and smooth. They shot us past castles and colorful villages. Abandoned cars slept their rusty sleep in silver olive groves. Italiatrain whisked us from Rome to Venice, like being in a spaceship. I remember stopping in Bologna and its cavernous marble, ornate station.
Those journeys were adventures, but how I wish I had worked on a train. To get paid to rid Southern rails. That seems idyllic. How nice to be on the other side of crossings as cars idle, drivers cursing as we lumber through. Work is work, however, and I’m sure reality would bring me down to earth. Still, to ride the rails for a living. It seems, well, it seems exotic.
The romance of riding the rails, the allure. Hoboes jump on trains to get to the next town, in the Old West outlaws robbed trains, driving that golden spike connected the West and East. And hearing a train in the dead of night? And that red locomotive in Dr. Zhivago roaring through the snow Unforgettable.
Trains … I didn’t grow up near one although I could hear trains in McCormick from Granddad Poland’s farm. Placing a penny on the rail? Never did that. Hitching a ride? Never did that either and maybe that’s a good thing. A buddy told me that he and boyhood friends hopped atop a slow train from a bridge up around Rome, Georgia. The train accelerated, going much faster sooner than they imagined. Too scared to jump off, they ended up some sixty miles from home. Their surprised—and annoyed—parents had to come get them.
I always stare at locomotives. I want to ride in one, but when I’m driving I don’t like crossing tracks. It scares me a bit, and the bump doesn’t do my car any favors. Just once, though, I’d like to ride a train through a small town, laying on that horn. I’d love to look out from a locomotive’s cab. Like standing in a rail bed and looking straight to the horizon, it’d give me a new perspective.
Thunder rumbled. The rain pattered, then splattered, drumming its song on the patio where we sat, a place called The Bistro, and the train sounded its horn again. To this music the woman said, “I really want to ride a train.”
“Do it in Europe,” I said, though she didn’t seem the type, “and if Europe’s out of reach, call the train folks. Tell ’em you’re a journalist looking for a story. If you can’t locomote your way by olive groves, journey through peach orchards. That’s in reach, and it might even be better. Might give you a new way to look at things. Things you’ve missed.”
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”