The first time I made this trip, my kid sister was graduating from Tulane in the winter of 1988. The Virginia hills were covered in snow like powdered sugar on a funnel cake, light and airy and subject to cover your entire face and clothes. Horses and cattle stood in groups, noses facing south away from the wind. In the afternoon gloom, lights flickered in farmhouses. As the Crescent hurtled down the tracks, I imagined the life of the people on those farms in a winter like this, long and cold. So different from my life in the City with the constant action and activity. Looking out the window, it seemed like nothing moved here, like nothing had moved in six months or six years. There was a stillness to the place that gave my restless heart no small anxiety. The snow was white, not the dirty slush that stood for months on the north side of buildings in New York. The train passed over a river still unfrozen and flowing freely. I thought about my sister and tomorrow’s celebration. It had been hard for her after I left and Dad died. Every Sunday she went to see Mom and listen to the rambling craziness that inhabited her mind. Kelsey would call me afterwards, saying I should call Mom, maybe even visit. It wasn’t something I could do and we both knew it. She was always the better human being.
On this trip though, it’s spring and the farms are alive with activity. A tractor sows the fall’s bounty in a black, fertile field. Cattle amble through hay up to their bellies, contented. On many farms, fruit trees bloom pink and white and I imagine I can smell the nectar attracting bees from miles away. Spring is that moment of promise for what may be in the future. The northern Virginia Piedmont has many orchards, acres and acres of apple and peach trees aglow with flowers this time of year. As the train moves farther south into North Carolina, the terroir changes. The bucolic farms of Virginia give way to a more industrial farm, often filled with tobacco or cotton. The farther south we go, the more hardscrabble and difficult life seems to become. Farmhouses look ransacked occasionally with cars parked in blocks out front, chickens and goats running through the yards and half naked kids running crazy through the yard.
The train is moving too fast this trip towards a future I don’t want to reach.