Hope, love & nostalgia

As I was preparing to stomp around for my daily photo-fest, it occurred to me that I have strayed somewhat from my own purpose in starting this blog, and in doing so, perhaps misrepresented myself to some extent.  While I do love the trails around here and will continue to use them as fodder for my writing, I am not a great naturist by any means.  What I really set out to do was to find something every day that made me happy and photograph it, not take photos that make me happy in themselves.  What really drove this home to me was that yesterday I posted two photos of butterfly-like creatures and I don’t even like butterflies!  I like the photos, but not because of their subject matter.  And to be perfectly honest, if those photos were hanging on someone’s wall, I wouldn’t even ask who took them.

So today, I decided to do something different.  Rather than looking up a trail and exploring it, I walked down the street from my house, walking along the road that I don’t like to walk along because of the high speed limit and lack of sidewalk, and went to the train tracks.  I do love train tracks, and trains, and all that they entail.  On my walk down there, I did take a couple of photos, like the dandelions on the left. I love dandelions, both when they are yellow and cheerful and when they are puffballs waiting to be blown away.  I do not understand why they are hated, but I respect my neighbors enough to recognize that I’m the odd one out on this one and I don’t grow a garden full of them.

And for those of you who are following this blog because you love the nature photos, don’t worry.  I will continue doing my trail walks, because I love them.

Mostly I didn’t take photos on the walk down to the tracks, I thought about trains and why I love them, and I hoped that one would be sitting on the tracks.  There wasn’t, but I did come to understand that my love for trains comes down to hope, tinged with nostalgia.  It’s very likely that hope is always tinged with nostalgia, or is nostalgia that is always tinged with hope?

When I see railroad tracks, my thoughts turn to getting away.  I used to think that it did not matter where I went, that anywhere was better than here.  Lately, I have become more focused on the where.  Rather than taking whatever life gives me, which has frequently been wonderful, I am hoping to finally go in a direction that I have chosen myself, and that will be satisfying, both geographically and in my career.

Nostalgia reminds me that train travel is no longer what it was.  When I was younger, my brothers and cousins would hop the trains as they moved slowly past my grandmother’s house and take them wherever they could.  Usually it was to the switch yard downtown, where they would have to turn around and come back.  There were always trains going back and forth then, so they could make some decent mileage and know that they could make it back.  Now the trains are much less frequent.  Going downtown and back would take all day, or even overnight, as some days all the trains seem to go one direction.  The trains here in Gainesville don’t even run every day, so there is little chance to hop one at all.

My father was a train lover, specifically steam engines.  As a child, I spent many weekends in the back of the van as we chased a steam engine on an excursion trip from Alexandria to Front Royal, or Harpers Ferry.  We would stop at strategic spots and take videos of the trains as they went under the overpass we were on, or we would try to get ahead of the train so we could stop at Heartland Orchards, where they sold fresh apples and the train ran right past the apple stand.  Seeing tracks always reminds me of those days, where every hope we ever had still had a chance of being realized, and where love was as simple as riding in a van with my family.

Even without my particular baggage with trains, I think that I would love railroads.  The tracks themselves are manmade, and completely honest.  Wood ties are wood ties, steel rails are steel, the rocks are rocks.  There is no pretense, nothing trying to look like something it isn’t.  More than that, there is a clear struggle between the built and the natural environments.  Tracks go through rural areas and urban ones, each with their own stories.  Generally, though, there is a natural buffer left between the rails and buildings, or at least almost natural.  Trees may be planted, but they are generally left to their own after that.  Weeds grow in fascinating abundance near the rails, even pushing up between them at times.  These edges, the clash between nature and man, are the most fascinating places, reminding us that even as we worry about what we are doing to our environment, nature is always there, waiting to rush in.

Even though I am not there to see them, the trains that run past the land where my grandmother’s house stood continue to inspire me, so much so that they played a large role in my thesis project.  The house itself has been gone now for almost seven years, destroyed in Hurricane Ivan.  The railroad, however, rebuilt their tracks quickly, allowing the trains’ whistles to sing a song of hope, of connection to the larger world.  The land of my ancestors is being reclaimed by nature,  but as long as the trains continue to run, there is hope that the intersection of nature and man will once again occur on that very land, where nostalgia and hope now live.


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