Railroad tracks that vanish off into the distance fascinate me. They are tracks with no train and no obvious destination. I think this fascination has something to do with hope. Maybe I hope that what’s at the end of the tracks is better than where I am at the moment. But I really don’t know.
Just a few weeks ago, I set out in search of the grave of my maternal great-great grandmother, Sarah. She is buried in a Quaker cemetery on the north end of tiny Amboy, Indiana. I found the grave, all right, with its worn monument covered with a tawny lichen. It has been there more than 125 years.
I believe, but don’t know, that Sarah came to Amboy on a train from Ohio, on these same tracks. The old Pan Handle line split in eastern Ohio, and this spur, to Chicago, cut by the north side of Amboy. I had Nebra drive to these tracks on the east end of town. I stepped onto the tracks and saw that they vanished into the far-off northwest, toward Chicago. The tracks passed through patches of forest, and I wondered if some of those trees witnessed Sarah coming in to town that day to begin her last big adventure. It was exhilarating to think about. I felt close to her.
More recently I stood on yet another set of tracks, these on the northern edge of Petoskey, Michigan. This was the old Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad line. The view north led to nowhere in particular. They just vanished in the distance. No trains travel on the line these days, and the old station has been remodeled and turned into business offices. The rails are rusty and grass threatens to hide the wood ties.
It was on these tracks that the family of the great writer Ernest Hemingway came into Petoskey for its summer vacation beginning in 1899. A steamer from Chicago would unload the clan at the dock in Harbor Springs, north across Little Traverse Bay from Petoskey. The Hemingways would then board the GR & I train for the 10-mile ride. Once in Petoskey, they would board a second train on a smaller line that would take then west to Walloon Lake where they had a cottage.
These tracks also provided the young Ernest with the closing scene of his farcical novella, “Torrents of Spring.” Yogi Johnson and an “Indian squaw” are walking north up these tracks in the dead of winter with no clothes on except for shoes. They are followed by the Big Indian and the Little Indian.
“Night in Petoskey,” Hemingway wrote. “Long past midnight. . . . The town asleep under the Northern moon. To the north the tracks of the GR & I railroad running far into the North. Cold tracks, stretching North toward Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Cold tracks to be walking on this time of night.”
So I stood there, on a sweltering August afternoon, and thought of Hemingway and what it might have been like to be there with him at a time when he was young, confident and hopeful.
That was decades before he blew his brains out in Ketchum, Idaho.