Slate grey ballast, like the fragments of my life, myriad and sharp edged, interlock underfoot, puzzle-pieced, and holds solid.
It only turns to loose, jagged scree when I step beyond reasonable limits, which, sad to say, is often. There’s a mile of track down to Trestle Pool. A mile of rail along which place and time and perception are transformed. A modest mile, a pittance on the map, but a light-year for the continence. I could dip into this tailwater from a county’s-worth of trailheads, turnouts, and small streamside church gravel lots, but I almost always start my day here; not because the fishing is good or it’s an easy way in, for neither is particularly true. I walk these tracks because they change me in ways that I need to be changed. When I time it just right, I arrive as the turbines two miles upstream stop spinning and the reservoir’s release is pinched to a trickle. The sparks they’ve spun out have sped down the lines into town where there seems not enough happening to consume them. It’s hard times in these hills. I park the truck and rig up in the small clearing next to the mill. Nerves still jangling from roads and cities and modern adult life, I try to take it slow, but can usually be counted on to miss a snake guide in my industrial haste. It’s the hurry in me that breaks and forgets things. It’s the hurry in me that I need to shake.
And it’s the hurry that sends ballast stone tumbling as I climb to the tracks and start downgrade. Awkward steps, the ties at odds with my gait, lengths too long or too short, never just right. Lengths somehow indivisible by stride. Short, short, long. Long, short, long. Short, stumble, shit! It feels like life. I’d balance the rail like a gymnast’s beam but for the carbide studs in my wading boots. Walk the line. In time, as the river bends to come alongside and I find a rhythm, the cadence becomes obvious; obvious, once I’ve stopped trying to think about it. The gates have been closed but the water’s still up and roars in concurrence with that which I’ve brought to this place; the pressures of progress and expectation and want. The 10am freight creeps up behind, crawling along at notch 1, adding its rumble to the din and moving me from the tracks. It trundles by and I pitch my frustrations into the open boxcars, sending them like hobos to parts unknown. The temptation to join them is strong.
But as I approach the trestle, the clamor falls away, trains and waters and pressures alike, and recedes into the background as gentle white noise. The frenetic fluid surges, the coal-driven horsepower, the dammed up tensions are no longer required to drive amp or ambition and a natural quiet settles in. I leave it all on the tracks, all the crap, all the churn, and carefully climb down along the trestle’s edge, down along the wet branch feeder that it sturdily spans, and find my feet at the edge of the pool as the waters fall away and the river is revealed, as am I. I walk these tracks because they change me in ways that I need to be changed. Just a mile. Just a precious mile.