Freight Train, Freight Train, Goin’ So Fast…

I was thinking Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and the romance of America’s wide open spaces.

Instead it turns out that the freight train rumbling through a wooded ravine near my writing studio a dozen times each day probably isn’t carrying hoboes and adventurers and descendants of Tom Joad. It’s more likely carrying Clorox bleach, or Pine-Sol, or Glad trash bags, or Hidden Valley salad dressings, or Brita water filters, or Burt’s Bees natural personal-care products.

Turns out this freight train, which seemed so poetic, is rather prosaic.

The trains run along the Norfolk Southern’s north-south mainline between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, passing through Amherst, Va., which is home to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’m in the midst of a fiction-writing residency – and to the Clorox Company, which manufactures all of those products. The freight trains service the Clorox facility here, according to the town of Amherst’s website.

My writing studio at the VCCA is at the crest of a hill in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on property which used to be a horse farm and where a few horses, lots of cows, coyotes, deer — and a woodchuck, which I spotted this morning peeking out of one of its holes in a nearby pasture – share space with about 30 artists, writers and composers.

So while I have been hearing some not-very-desirable sounds, including the hum of the nearby highway to Lynchburg, I-29, and the snap of hunters’ gunshots in the nearby woods and fields, I also hear the neighing of horses, and the barks of coyotes, and the hoots and screechs of owls — and the lonesome whistle and mighty rumble of that freight train.

The freight trains are carrying bleach and plastic trash bags and salad dressing and Pine-Sol? So what? It still makes me think of this song by the late Elizabeth Cotton, sung here by Pete Seeger:

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Back in Old Virginny

blueridge
It’s so quiet, so dark, so Virginia…so not New Jersey. There are at least six thousand stars in the sky – about 5,990 more than I can typically see in the night sky of Central New Jersey.
The train whistle I hear isn’t the Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station…it’s a freight train bound for Lynchburg — and maybe bound for glory as it barrels toward the city of the smug zealot Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, a city where you can walk into a wonderful friendly place called Dudley’s and order brains and eggs and grits for breakfast, and to that I simply say “No, thanks, y’all,” to both the scrambled brains and to the late Mr. Falwell’s self-righteous and scrambled-brain brand of religion.
Last night I heard the yip and bark of coyotes in the woods. Tonight I think I also heard the screech of a bobcat and a hoot owl’s hoot. This is what you call authentic. I half-expect to hear a knock at my writing studio door to find John-Boy Walton and Daniel Boone and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos inviting me to the hoedown over in Danville.
Time for a little mood music on a Saturday night in a place that’s lovely, but clearly and definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line:

Walkin’ After Midnight (a Virginia Serenade)

And so the crickets chirp, but slowly, on this cool October night, and the soft autumn moon lingers over kudzu-draped trees. On cue, a freight train rolls along the tracks down over the ridge, barreling toward Lynchburg.

And Elizabeth Cotten sings:

And then, on cue, starts the coyote serenade, and I wonder if hoboes on that train tonight  hear that lonesome howl.

And I’m thinking that a song by Virginia’s own Miss Patsy Cline would be the perfect soundtrack tonight as I sit writing in my studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

And this evening has been as refreshing as a sip of sweet tea and as sweet as a magnolia’s first bloom.