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  • I stand at the edge of a huge tangled mass of railroad tracks. Trains speed by in both directions, silver bullet trains. Keith stands beside me. We have to get to the other side. I’ve done this before, but Keith hasn’t. The rhythm of trains is a mystery to us, so we can only guess when it is safe. When no trains are in sight, we begin to run as fast as we can across the tracks. When we are about a quarter of the way into the massive mess, a train approaches fast. Keith dives for an island of grass; I dive for the woods, down a long steep sliding trail into a deep swale. It occurs to me that Keith doesn’t know the rules. Not only must we avoid being hit by a train, but we mustn’t be seen by the railroad police or the conductors or engineers, who will call the railroad police. They will arrest us (and we won’t get across the tracks to where we’re going.)

    From my swale, I see another train pass close by, above, and to my left, and climb up. Keith is there and I explain about the railroad police. He inclines his head. A man sitting among the tracks staring at us. I stare back. I wait, and when he doesn’t come after us, I decide he is not with the police, but some railroad worker or bum who is unconcerned with us.

    We begin making our way gingerly across again. A set of tracks moves almost underfoot, scaring us, nearly tripping us. It’s a switch, indicating that a train will becoming through here. At first I am frightened, then I realize the switch could be made after the last train passes in preparation for the next train, which is not necessarily imminent.

    We reach an elevated track, about 7/8 of the way across. It is fenced below, so we have to climb up over it, which turns out to be difficult, perhaps impossible. We struggle and struggle to climb up over the slippery bars and fall back over and over. Trains are coming, and there is a track below we keep falling onto. We look around for the cops. I can’t remember why we’re trying to cross here, and wake up in a panic.


    Once, in Pocatello, Idaho, I lived behind a slaughterhouse at the edge of town. There were thirteen railroad tracks right in front of the house, and the trains came roaring in over a hundred miles an hour. Right in front of the house, they applied their brakes with a terrible screeching sound. The house shook; the windows literally rattled in their frames. I had to walk across those thirteen tracks and back every day to check the mail—the mailbox was on the other side of the tracks.

    The trains came on a flat plain and I could see them coming for miles. I don’t think I ever had a real problem with the trains. I did have a problem with the railroad police, who wanted me to drive a mile around the long way and a mile back to check the mail, rather than walking across the tracks. Walking was quicker and easier. I always walked.

    I often dream of railroad tracks and yards. I think crossing the tracks may represent the crazy, busy way I lead my life. I hurtle this way and that, my friends and family hurtle this way and that, dangers of all kinds hurtle by, often seeming mindless and random, the way the cars that mow down squirrels must feel in the context of their lives.

    Where am I going, anyway? Am I 7/8 of the way across and stuck?


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