You may remember that back at the end of the year I spent some time in the Georgia Mountains, staying at a lodge at the approach trail to Springer Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. I mentioned in my post that it’d been a while since I’d been in that country—this is my story of heading there the first time, in the summer of 1985. The photo to the left was taken in front of the falls in late December. The second photo was taken from a ride somewhere in the Georgia or Southern North Carolina Mountains, back in '85. This story really is more about my first adult train trip in the US. Since taking the train to the trail in '85, I've covered over 21,000 miles of Amtrak track (and much of that track I've covered many times). I've written about this two week hike twice before. One blog was about a man we named "Cornbread." The second blog was about another interesting character we came across while hiking this section of trail. In the second story, I changed the names.
I wait, my backpack resting against my thigh, and look up the tracks for the lights of Southern Crescent. The night air is heavy, warm and moist. It’s 1:30 AM and the train is 30 minutes late and I tell my friend that she can go home if she wants. But she, like many of the others who have brought friends and family to the tracks, waits. We make small talk. Finally, a light is seen in the distance, growing brighter. The locomotives blow by, as if the train is going to pass us by, then the metal wheels squeal and the train comes to a stop. An attendant steps off, sits out a stool and those of us waiting make a line and begin to climb aboard. I give Paula a quick hug and thank her again for the ride, shoulder my back and board. A minute later, the whistle blows, the attendant picks up the stool and boards the train as the cars jerk and continue their southbound run through the night. Next stop, Spartanburg, but I’ll be asleep by then.
I stow my pack overhead and take a seat next to a man who’s already fast asleep. A few minutes later the conductor comes by and collects the $30 for my ticket. I lean back my seat and close my eyes, attempting to sleep to the swaying of the car and the clicking of the wheels. Although tired, I'm also excited. I haven’t been on a train in the United States since I was a kindergartener and my class rode the Seaboard Coastline from Southern Pines to Vass. Or was it Cameron? Tonight, I’ll ride a couple hundred miles through the Piedmont, from Gastonia to just north of Atlanta. I watch as we race through small towns, the lights of the crossbars and the stoplights blinking on deserted main streets. Finally, I finally fall asleep. A few minutes later I wake up shivering. The AC is running full blast and the car is cold. I grab my sleeping bag from my pack, unzip it and wrap it around me for warmth and fall back asleep. A couple hours later, the attendant shakes me, informing me that my stop is in just a few minutes. The guy next to me is awake and he asks if the lounge car is serving coffee yet. Not until 6 AM, he’s told. I stuff my sleeping bag into its bag and secure it back to my pack, and then sit back down to wait.
I chat a bit with the guy beside me. He boarded the train in New York and is going home to Mississippi. He's curious as to what I’m doing on the train with a backpack. I tell him that I’ll be meeting friends in Gainesville and we’re heading up into the mountains to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. I learn that he’d grown up in the South, but like many African-Americans of his age, he had to leave if he wanted decent work. I don’t tell him, but as he’s telling his story, I’m reminded of photograph a friend had taken in the mid-60s. Phil was working for the Charlotte Observer at the time and caught on film the faces of three black boys looking out of the window of a northbound train. He titled the work, “Chicken Bone Special,” a nickname the Southern Crescent earn as hardworking families from the Deep South, with little money in their pockets, would head north for work with a basket of fried chicken to tide them over.
The sky is pink when I step off the train at Gainesville. A sense of loneliness and abandonment washes over me as I walk across the platform as the train pulls away, resuming its journey toward Atlanta, then Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Hattiesburg and on to New Orleans. I can tell right away that this isn’t the best part of town. The rails run between industrial buildings, many abandoned, with their dark windows reflecting the morning light. Those who got off the train with me are all met by friends and family. Soon, I’m the only one left. A cab driver asks if I want a ride, but I tell him that I'd be meeting friends later in the morning, but ask if he knows where I can get some breakfast. He points to a diner down the street and I head that way. Going in, I’m aware of the stares, as drop my pack on one side of a booth and sit in the other a big breakfast: poached eggs, corn beef hash, toast and plenty of hot coffee. As I eat, I pull out A Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut and begin to read. I stay, long after finishing my breakfast, drinking coffee and reading. It’ll be noon before Reuben and his brother are to arrive and pick me up at the train station. I have plenty of time to kill.
I sit in the diner for a good 90 minutes, waiting for the sun to get up into the sky, before heading out to see the town. I walk around and find a park where I place my pack against a tree, using it as a backrest, and sit, continuing to read. Later, as the stores begin to open, I spend time looking at antiques. It’s a safe hobby as I’m surely not going to buy any to add to my pack. I head down to the train station an hour early, thinking I can find a bench there to sit and read, but am surprised to get there about the same time as Reuben and company. He’d hired the janitor at his law office to drive them in his wife’s station wagon. I dump my pack in the back of the wagon and crawl in the backseat. We make a short stop for burgers, and then drive toward Amicalola Falls. The Appalachian Trail begins at the top of Springer Mountain, but it requires a hike to get to Springer. We skip the falls, as we take a Forest Service road that takes us within a couple miles of the Springer. We unload and say goodbye to our chauffeur, shoulder our packs and hike off into the woods, not stopping till we get to the bronze plaque bolted on rock, identifying the summit. We stop long enough to take a few photos, and then head down the trail, following the white blazes toward Maine.
Reuben and I are out for two weeks, and won’t stop till we reach Fontana Dam at the beginning of the Smoky Mountains. Bill, his brother, will hike with us the first week, getting off the trail just south of the North Carolina border, where his wife will pick him up.