After you read this, please click here and watch and listen to this 2-minute, 30-second video of a moment from the North Branch of the Potomac River during the morning of June 7, 2020.

When you’re out fishing in a tranquil, seemingly secluded place, the dominant sounds are the river riffles in front of you and the song of birds above you. That’s all your ears have to handle, and it’s one of the beautiful things about fly fishing for trout in cold water — you’re usually in places as pleasant to the ears as to the eyes.

But then, a reminder of the boisterous man-made world arrives on steel wheels.

You first hear it from the distance, maybe a half-mile behind you. You can’t see it. Just hear it. Sense it coming.

It gets louder by the second, and a little surly, and pretty soon the clatter-and-squeal of American commerce crushes everything. You can hardly hear the riffly river, and the birdsongs seem to stop. There’s nothing but the sound of a massive iron snake slithering through the woods on the West Virginia side of the river. You can see it, on the ridge above the river, through small openings in the trees. It makes the oldest and most familiar sound of the modern world. 

When I was a kid in Massachusetts, such a freight train came through my town almost every night. You couldn’t see it from my bedroom window, but you could hear it. You could hear the squeal of steel and the train’s horn, though back then it might have been a whistle. I can’t exactly remember. I could be confusing real life with too many movies that included scenes of arrivals and departures and whistle stops at train stations.

Back in my hometown of East Bridgewater, sometimes the train stopped at the Woodward & Wright Last Company —  they made wooden lasts, or forms, for shoes there — and I only knew this because, on the way to school the next morning, we walked over the tracks, and there would be burned-out road flares with piles of ash next to them; workers from either the train or from Woodward & Wright had set them out the night before. Seeing that evidence of the train passing through — the thought of men working at night to keep the country moving — fostered wishful thinking about the future and the notion of moving on from that little town. 

I have slightly different thoughts now as I stand in a river and try to catch fish, and sense the iron snake moving through the woods, crushing the peace. This isn’t a complaint. I know the train is there, day after day, when I’m not, and it’s none of my business anyway. It’s the business of CSX and its customers. The big snake imposes only a temporary inconvenience: It breaks my concentration on the water and trout, it takes me back to the real world I’m trying to escape for a couple of hours. The inconvenience lasts maybe two minutes.

I always look up and wonder if the engineer running the locomotive ever looks down and sees us fishing and feels some envy, especially on a Saturday or Sunday. I feel a little guilty for fishing in front of a guy at work, if only for those few passing seconds when I can see the engineer through the trees. But the self-inflicted guilt recedes quickly because in a minute the train is gone, a long glide into the woods and mountains and the big country to the west. I hear the clatter-and-squeal fading, and the river riffles returning, and again the song of birds.

— Excerpted from “Father’s Day Creek: Fly Fishing, Fatherhood and The Last Best Place on Earth,” published 2019 by Apprentice House

2 thoughts on “The old sound of the modern world

  1. Beautifully written. The sound of a train has always given me a strange feeling. Perhaps it was because my Dad was a civil engineer, and worked on the railroads in the ’40’s

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  2. When I was a boy, as a family we would escape the heat and ore dust of the Dundalk summers of the 1960’s, and take our blue Ted Williams/Sears tent to places like Ft Frederick & Little Orleans, to camp along the Potomac… The B&O ran on one side of the river & the Western MD on the other … hearing (& feeling) that low rumble always caused a chaotic dash among the cousins to see who could get to the tracks first & get the train crew to wave to you… one of my most grand memories is sitting in a gray rowboat fishing at dusk with my grandfather on Big Pool … the Western Md would roll by on the north shore … me & my Pepa … not a care in the world … returning a simple wave from the engineer… thank you, Dan

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