Living above the train tracks as I do, much of my time during the tourist season is marked by the sound of the train going back and forth from town. I know the heavy sound of the diesel engine rumbling along the tracks and the sound of the steam train, whistling mournfully, bell clanging as it chuffs on the way to its destination. I know too the sound of the maintenance car, which clatters along to check the ties and rails periodically, workers sweating in the hot sun on warm days or shivering under hoodies on cold ones.
To see the train, I have to walk to the back of the property and look down the hill through a screen of trees. I can hear it long before it actually arrives, thanks to a trick of the acoustics; the sound is trapped in the basin and it echoes up and around me. Thus it is that I hear the steam train all the way up until the moment when it climbs up to the cemetery, and this is why the diesel engine keeps rumbling long after it’s headed out to Northspur. The moment the train appears is more like a sequence of moments, prolonged by nature and artifice.
I can’t quite keep time by the train because it’s not always on time and the schedule seems to shift. Sometimes it runs in the middle of the night, for reasons that remain mysterious to me. Some days it runs multiple times, and others, it doesn’t. As the season winds down, the train runs less and less frequently, with fewer cars. It dwindles down to one or two plus the engine and the dining car, and people huddle together on the open-air car if they’re determined to be there even though the weather is foul.
I’ve ridden the train a few times, usually for work-related purposes. It is a pretty trip, even I have to admit, winding through the redwoods until the train spits you out at Northspur, a small collection of picnic tables and trees and tchotchkes you can buy to prove that you rode the train. I wonder what people do when their friends and family bring these back as evidence of an adventure, because, really, who wants a stuffed skunk, or a penny flattened in a specialty machine? Do they display them for the requisite period and then tuck them away, only to find them years later and puzzle over where they came from?
I don’t know why I’m thinking about the train today. Maybe because even though the sound of the train accompanies me, it’s a totally useless and ornamental thing. The train doesn’t go anywhere, there’s no there there, if you know what I mean; it loops endlessly out to Northspur and back. You cannot take it to the City, it doesn’t connect with anything, you can’t take goods on it because it goes to the middle of nowhere and then back. It’s purely decorative and yet the tourists are obsessed with it; some people might argue the train is a means to an end, that its function is in fact to act as a tourist attraction.
Perhaps I am too pragmatic to accept this logic. I want the train to be useful not as something to draw people here but as something that the people who live here might actually want to take advantage of. I would take the train to Willits to transfer to another train to go to the City if I could, if such things existed. I suspect other people would as well; we drive here because there are few alternatives, because the available public transit that connects the Coast with the outside world leaves much to be desired.
There is an inherent inequality here, and maybe that’s why I am thinking about the train today, because it’s the equinox and that gets me thinking about equality; all things being equal, balances, the shift between power imbalances. In this metric, the one that fuels the train, the train is justified and it matters because outsiders want it to be there. And I wonder if the reverse would be true; if the train did not serve the tourists, would it still exist?
It would seem that other things that don’t serve tourists are slowly choked out or allowed to die, and this seems manifestly unequal. In a town that keeps itself alive on tourist revenue, everything must justify its existence in relationship to this; how valuable is it for tourism? Will it draw people here? Will it make them spend money? Will it make people talk about how beautiful/quaint/perfect this place is? If it cannot do these things, why should be be here?
By extension, why should we be here? Is our sole function supposed to be service to the tourism industry? Are those of us who aren’t dependent on the industry just so much chaff, no matter why we live here and what we do, no matter how many generations of our families have been here?
Sometimes I feel like I am walking around a movie set, all facades, ceilings opening to soundstages. Everything feels false and slippery and I never know what to expect when I walk around a corner. It’s all carefully constructed and it may look splendid on film, especially after special effects have been added and the lighting designer has been through and the camera crews have directed the art. But when you turn the lights off and everyone goes home, what is left?