Trains

We rode a train recently, the Tennessee Central Railway, on the Super Fall Foliage Trip to Cookeville. Friends Bernie and Tracy went along. The train car, built in the mid-1950s, didn’t appear to have been updated in a while with upholstery, carpet, and curtains that were old and musty-smelling. But we expected to ride on an antique so, no problem. All part of the experience.

We sat in seats facing each other and enjoyed hours of laughter. Leafers, Bernie called us, due to the nature of the tour. The fall foliage was just so-so, probably prettier at higher elevations, but we had a blast anyway, talking, walking through the cars (a challenge when the train is moving at a good clip) and getting acquainted with the volunteer conductors.

Both of my grandfathers worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad so I have always had C & O paraphernalia in my home, from model trains to pictures of mascot kitten, Chessie, asleep on a pillow. When I rode on North Carolina’s Tweetsie Railroad at age six, I was so convinced the train robbery was real that I hid under the seat with my mother’s pocketbook, praying the thieves wouldn’t see me. In my fifties, when I rode the Durango, Colorado, narrow gauge railway, I had no trouble at all imagining that I was headed to Silverton to either mine for silver or dance in the saloon. Railroads have that effect on me, transporting me in time, seeming to make possibilities real.

I wondered what possibilities would become real on this ride.

It took approximately four hours to reach Cookeville and, not surprisingly, we were hungry by then. We found Uncle Tom’s (no, they keep correcting me, it’s Father Tom’s) pub where we enjoyed the best beer cheese soup ever. We checked out the shops afterwards, completely taken by the cute West Side Cultural District.

One shop, Caravan, had trendy clothes, décor, and other cool stuff. While I was perusing their greeting cards, one of the employees approached Bernie and Tracy. “Are you train people?” she asked. Train people? She said it the way she would refer to boat people or homeless people, as if we were illegal immigrants or something. Train people.   Harrumph….

We headed back to the depot where we found live music, home-baked goodies for sale, and lots of people milling around. Almost a carnival atmosphere. But then I saw them: a group of guys, two or three of them, hugely overweight with guts hanging out of their t-shirts, gigantic jeans held up with suspenders, with long, bushy beards. Definitely backwoods. Most likely all named Billy Bob. Are they going to board the train? I wondered. I had not remembered seeing them on the trip out.

We joined the rest of the crowd and were finally back in our seats. The return trip seemed much longer; it had been a full day and we were tired. Tracy and I walked up and down the train cars numerous times for the sake of movement and to ease our boredom. As we were about to go out the door of one car, I stiffened. There they were: Jim Bob and Joe Don, long beards and guts reaching to their knees. Looking—no, more like, staring—at us. This was the moment the train ride transported me elsewhere, to backwoods Appalachia with uneducated people who would readily shoot a stranger. Were we really headed to Nashville or would the train take some ancient spur to get these boys home? As we walked quickly past their seats I couldn’t help but think, paddle faster, I hear banjo music. Not too thrilled with the possibilities that were coming to mind and definitely ready for this day to end.

I know it takes all kinds of people to make up this world, even the backwoods, redneck types. I hope I’m trying to describe, not label, but I guess we had some labels put on us, as well: leafers and train people.

All part of the soup called America.

And all enjoying a ride on an old train.

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