Off Track

I’m not quite sure when my love of trains began. Perhaps it started when I was small, and my father used to take us to see the circus trains as they rolled through the countryside on their way to Milwaukee. I remember watching the gilded wagons atop flatbed cars. They were red and shiny gold, embellished with tigers, snakes and dragons. The train would go slowly… both for the spectators to watch, and to protect its precious cargo.

Perhaps it was the model railroad my father had in the basement, that piqued my interest in trains. It was a huge gorgeous set-up, complete with tunnels and trees and an engine that blew smoke. That is, it WAS gorgeous until my brothers played “army” on it and blew it to bits with firecrackers. As I watched, in my mind I imagined WWII German trains decimated by Allied forces. In reality, it was my brother’s behind that got decimated.

I recall being young and stupid, and my younger brothers and I would jump on the ladders of trains that went through the center of our small town. Riding them for short distances, before fear overtook us and we hopped off, tumbling. The danger! The thrill! The foolishness, geez. I would often imagine what incredible destinations I could go to, if I could only decide whether or not to just hold on.


My father, at one time, was a diesel mechanic and I do know my love of trains began with him. We often took trips to railroad museums or he would take us to rail yards near where he worked, to watch the trains change tracks. To this day, I love the rumble within the ground as a train passes by, and both the strength, and the raw power that trains have and represent.

And then there are songs about trains, too many favorites to mention! In my teen years I loved R.E.M.’s  Driver 8 and I would eventually ride the train that they sang about in the song, the Southern Crescent. I would play that song over and over, filled with longing and melancholy that the lyrics burned within me.

“The walls are built up stone by stone
The fields divided one-by-one
And the train conductor says
“Take a break, Driver 8, Driver 8, take a break
We’ve been on this shift too long”


Even now, an action as simple as waving to the engineer and having him wave back, well… it brings a smile to my face and produces a simple happiness, like that of a child. I had that interaction happen last week on my daily walk, and that wave made my day.

When I hear the horn of a freight train, I get goosebumps, like when one hears those first few notes of your favorite song come on. My family laughs at me, because sometimes when I hear a train horn in the distance, I have been known to leap into my car, to try to get to the tracks in time to take photos.


I have been blessed to be able to have taken several long-distance train rides across the country, and am planning a few more. Some of the most beautiful sights I have seen, have been from the window of a train. Whether it be the sunset while crossing Lake Ponchartrain, or the countryside through the mountains of Colorado, trains take you where you could not otherwise go. I call it seeing “raw America.”


There is mystery and longing, a romantic notion of freedom and a wild heart, that trains are associated with, at least for me. But as Zig Ziglar has said: “Everybody says they want to be free. Take the train off the tracks and it’s free – but it can’t go anywhere.”

Life’s constraints keep us on track, yet there will be mysteries around each bend, even though we may think we know our destination. There will be events in our lives that will try to, and possibly succeed at, derailing us momentarily in our travels. But with a thunder and roar and with wheels of steel, we shift gears, power through… and of course, trust the Engineer.

One thought on “Off Track

  1. I had forgotten your “interest” in trains. My fascination goes back to my much younger days when I would sit on a bridge near the switch yard in Neosho Missouri and watch the last of the steam engines shuffle cars between local businesses & the ice plant.

    My grandfather was a fireman for the Kansas City Southern & later was the operator of a interlocking tower where the KCS crosses the Frisco line.

    I also had a aunt that was a telegrapher for the Frisco. Lots of railroad history.

    You mentioned the horn congering up memories, I remember when I heard the first “Diesel Engine” horn and thought how boring it was compared to the whistle of the steam engine.

    Sadly my model railroad empire is piled up against the walls in the basement, had a good run for 30+ years in Oak Creek. It does still live in several videos on my laptop.

    Take care, think if you, Joe & the boys often.

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