Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Into the Mountains

The train depot was small and picturesque, a quaint wooden structure painted in dark gray, originally built a century ago, located in what looked like the heart of the tiny mountain town. Everything surrounding it was neat and pretty in a cute little girl way, from the antique-looking storefronts, the powerwashed boardwalk with decorated handrails, to the cheery welcome signs on wrought iron lampposts.

I walked into the crammed ticket office and asked a smiling young woman behind a bulky, outdated computer monitor for two adult tickets.

"Closed car or open air?" she inquired.

I hesitated. It was not too cold outside, but wind chill was certainly to be expected on a moving train.

"The train won't be going fast, so it'll be just a breeze," she said helpfully.

Open air then, I decided. Car number twenty-nine seventy-five, near the end of the train, she said. Like most girls I saw in this area, she was a bit chubby with rosy cheeks, pleasant with an underlying recalcitrance.

The train was imposing, huge and silent, like a dignified monster. We followed the track to the designated car, where a big bearded man with a profuse belly was waiting. His face was ruddy, his name tag read Jack, and Jack warmly welcomed us aboard.

The car was almost empty. We sat down on a long bench facing a row of open windows, next to a middle-aged couple. They were both plump, the woman very chatty, the man less so but willing to join in with an occasional remark or two. They hailed from Augusta, seemed to lead a small contented life, and were quite excited to spend a few days sightseeing away from their neck of the woods.

"Augusta?" I said. "That's where all the good golf courses are."

"Yes, yes!" The woman beamed. "But all we've ever played is miniature golf, isn't it, Eddie?"

Eddie seemed embarrassed and looked away. To my surprise, people were quickly filling up the car. A resounding horn blow, then the train shuddered and started moving. Outside, the neat business district promptly vanished, replaced by a shabbier part of town.

The countryside appeared, shaggy and pale. The grass here still showed a faded green, but most deciduous trees had already shed their leaves, their bare arms looking like dry bones. Now and then a rugged farmhouse appeared with horses grazing behind white fences, lending life to an otherwise drab and lonely landscape.

The train was chugging along a narrow valley, between steep hills and a meandering little river. Abandoned dingy cabins well into decay and a disused rusty bridge attested to a hardscrabble past, while newer homes dotted the wooded area across the stream. This place was known for recreational trout fishing, and back at the station I had picked up a brochure on rental cottages catering to those who loved the sport. My guess was that at least some of the well-kept properties half hidden among the denuded trees were occupied by renters wearing waders with rods in hand.

I stood by an open window, the crisp cold air pressing against my face, lifting layers of stress from my mind and dullness from my body. Elation was swelling in my heart, and for the first time in a long time I felt confidence rushing in my veins again. We had hoped to see the fall foliage on this trip, and had been disappointed to find all the leaves gone and a bleak view of denuded forests awaiting. Yet now on this train moving through a scenery I had not cared to see, I felt invigorated and happy. The gray bare trees now looked silvery in the sun, and in the stiff shape of their unadorned branches and twigs I found unexpected beauty.

The conductor in his black uniform came to punch our tickets and signed a souvenir book I had purchased outside the ticket office. The river was getting wider, patches of its surface were gleaming in the sun. Presently we saw a curious V-shaped barrier in the water, crudely constructed from rocks, spanning across the river. The conductor explained that it had been built by American Indians approximately five hundred years ago to catch trout. He said the trout swimming from upstream, obstructed by the barrier, would gather at the tip of the V only to be caught by fishermen. "Does the trap still work today?" I asked. "Sure," he answered. "If you come this way in summer you'll see people using it." Five centuries old and still working, what an ingenious contraption.

A few more miles, then the train was crossing a bridge and we were asked to stay clear of the windows; sometimes sticking your neck out for the scenery was not such a hot idea. The bridge rumbled in thunderous menace, then became silent once we were out of its reach.

The train ended at a little town straddling the border between two states. A line, purported to be the state line, was painted blue in the asphalted surface of a parking lot adjacent to the station, ran to a street corner and ended up a lamppost where a sign declared Georgia territory left of the post and Tennessee territory on its right. Like thousands of tourists must have done before, I posed for a photo with the blue line between my feet. For a brief moment I actually believed that each of my feet was in a separate state, then I realized that it was just a gimmick to excite the unthinking tourist. A geographical border determined by a two inches wide paint strip on the ground? Yeah right.

The town had just a few blocks with a languorous limpid river running through, the same river we had seen on our way here. Buildings were modest but spruced up enough to be picturesque. Strolling around the business section it occurred to me that the lifeline of this place was visitors like us, who came on the tour train and spent a few bucks on food and souvenirs.

It's lunchtime. We picked a BBQ place called Georgia Boys, which had caught our attention by some teenagers jumping and waving in front when the train had been pulling in. There were tables in the front yard and on the veranda, where a few customers in thick jackets huddling over their food in the chilly air.

The interior was unexpectedly small and spartan. Three little tables and a few flimsy chairs on a utilitarian linoleum floor. We joined a line at the counter, all fellow passengers from the tour train. The woman who was taking orders, like most women we'd seen in this area, was overweight with a look of shrewdness underneath the polite demeanor.

We sat down at a table and a tray was brought out, on which barbercued chicken, toasts, coleslaw were served on paper plates and tea in paper cups. A pink lady apple, said to be freshly picked, was offered to each of us. The tea and coleslaw were too sweet for my taste, but the chicken was moist and passable, which sort of explained the numerous notes of compliment from customers cramming a bulletin board on the wall. Crude but adequate was my impression of the joint, and inexpensive as well.

The same could be said of the whole bite-size town. There was nothing visibly sophisticated or expensive here in the few narrow streets lined with small stores and modest homes, yet enough vigor existed in the air to make one feel pleasantly alive.

There was much less excitement on the return trip, probably because there was nothing new to expect and people were also a bit worn out, like in an old marriage or a job held for too long. Only the chubby woman from Augusta was raving about how wonderful the trip had been for her, and how surely she would tell all her friends back home about it. I couldn't help smiling and mentally sent my best wishes for luck to her friends.

The hilly landscape was gliding by while I was musing about being carried as if on a train through the vicissitudes of life. The places I was passing through might be warm with sunshine or cold and gloomy with rain, insipidly familiar or disconcertingly outlandish, I had no way to know for certain beforehand. One sure thing though, if I took chances to venture out then I'd have a fair chance of getting something worthwhile. It also dawned on me that every location I saw along my way had already been seen and likewise every situation I might find myself in had already been experienced by other people who had come before me. Like King Solomon had once said, there was nothing new under the sun.

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