July 2, 2016

Trains & Vultures (This is not Baltimore)

I wished several times today I'd had my camera with me, but oh well. Word pictures will have to suffice. 

Rode a stretch of the C and O Canal between two  historic train depots. Had a delayed start thanks to the fact that they're still active depots-- At the one where I chose to begin, the barriers were down at the crossing of the one road leading down from the parking lot to the towpath (and a boat ramp and campground), and there sat a train that seemed to stretch from one end of the town to the other.  Every now and then it'd shudder, the couplings between the cars would clank, it'd move forward a few feet, then go still and just sit there again.  Got tired of waiting after a while and rode to the end of the parking lot and then onto a gravel road that led up past a lumber yard and into the woods.  Doubled back after a bit to find the train gone and the tracks crossable.

Few other stretches of the C and O towpath illustrate as well as this one the building race that took place between the canal and railroad companies.  For a handful of miles, there are only a couple hundred feet between the tracks and the canal. Taking a break at one of the old lockhouses, I marveled at the creativity of railroad graffittos as another long freighter oozed by. Those graffiti guys really should be graphic artists. Despite much of it being illegible, the fonts they come up with are often pretty spectacular.  

If you wanted to learn about the variety of rails and rail-tie fasteners, the maintenance yard behind the station at the far end of my ride would be a good place to start, with weed-grown but neatly labeled sections piled with rusted iron pieces.  I was especially curious about the sections of rail lying under the sign that read "FROGS".   Stood for a long time in front of a partly boarded-up and condemned maintenance building with some terrific brickwork, watching a grey-headed black vulture preen and stretch its wings on the sill of a glass-less second-story window. Another was perched at the edge of a hole in the roof.  I expected them to become alarmed and fly off, but they didn't.  The one in the window just sat there and looked at me while I looked at it, then it preened and stretched, and stretched and preened, occasionally turning to look into the room behind it.  It looked back into the room often enough that I began to wonder if they were a mated pair with a nest in that room.  The one on the roof periodically shrugged its shoulders and half-lifted its wings behind it.  Like all vultures, they were butt-ugly and absolutely gorgeous at the same time and I wonder how many people would understand what a huge kick I got out of standing there watching these two that were so relaxed despite my presence.

Almost lost my bike at the end of the ride, thanks to another train across the crossing in the same place as the one at the beginning of the ride.  It'd apparently been there for a while, judging by the number of cars and fellow bike riders waiting on the road up from the canal and boat ramp.  I struck up conversation with an older gent who'd ridden down from his house in town, just a block or so up from the train station.  He said it was the first time in all his years living there that he'd gotten stuck by a train like that.  We watched a couple of kids climb up the ladder at the back of a freight car at the road crossing, scurry across and down the ladder on the other side.  

After chatting a few more minutes, the old guy said he was tempted to do what the kids had done, if only he didn't have his bike with him.  I suggested we team up, one climb the ladder onto the platform at the end of the freight car, the other lift up our two bikes, then one climb down and the other hand the bikes down.  Well, he didn't quite get the plan.  We walked over and he immediately lifted his bike up onto the platform, then climbed up after it and began lowering it down the other side, saying he just wanted to see if it'd work.  Teamwork would've been more efficient, but he obviously didn't see it that way so instead of waiting for him, I said "Hell with it" and lifted my own bike up as he was climbing down the other side.  Got it up onto the platform and was trying to get it balanced enough to let go and climb up when the train gave a bit of a sigh and began to move. So I grabbed the bike and began to pull it back down, only to have the front wheel turn sideways and become lodged against the handrails of the ladder. The train was only up to walking speed but gradually quickening and I only had so much pavement left before it moved beyond the road crossing.  Visions of my bike hobo'ing its way to who-knows-where flashed through my head as I stretched and struggled to reach up and straighten the handlebars, while the older gent stood in the road on the other side of the train and called over "Sorry 'bout that, darlin'!"  Then desperation won out and I got the wheel straightened and yanked the bike down and as the train picked up speed behind me I turned around and grinned a grin of crazy relief to the folks in the pickup truck who'd watched the whole pecadillo and said "Oh well, that's the chance you take when you try to cross a train!"  Then I stood and leaned on my bike in giddy patience as a seemingly interminable number of freight cars went by.

Sitting in the car scribbling all this down so it could be typed later, I watched yet another train go by in the opposite direction.  On one of the cars was a simple graffiti in clear black lines:  "I SEEN A MAN DIE 2 DAY".  


Had a laugh when I stopped for Chinese food on the way home--  The fortune in my cookie read "Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgement."



2 comments:

sean said...

Great story! And no need for photos. I could see it all in my mind. Glad you didn't lose your bike (or worse!).

(Re: vultures...my friend in Columbia, SC, lives near a cemetery that borders a rock quarry. Whenever I visit and walk through the cemetery there is always a large group of vultures perched on the hilly border between the cemetery and the quarry's edge. Given your interest in both cemeteries AND vultures, I think you'd appreciate the sight!)

KaliDurga said...

Ooooh, I would love to see that SC cemetery. I'm sure you've seen many of the Calvary Crosses around Maryland (the sets of three crosses usually planted in the middle of a field along the road). One of my favorite sights was driving along 70 once, just past Mt Airy, when I passed a set of Calvary Crosses with about a half-dozen vultures perched on them. A striking sight on multiple levels.