Freight Train

My father, Pure Oil.

Joseph Cordner. My father.

When I was a little kid I had a thing about trains.

Canada is a big place, and the Canadian Pacific went all across it. Not up, not down, just a shortest-distance-between-two-points-is-a-straight-line across.

A train could get me much further away than I could ever get on foot, especially in those days before I could run.

There were train tracks a few miles away from our house, across a stretch of Alberta prairie, nothing between the trains and me but a handful of barbed wire fences. Freight trains would pass in the distance, and some of them were carrying open loads of sulfer. I could see the bright yellow, and, all that distance away, I could smell just a little whiff of the sulfer. At least, I imagined I could, and imagining was as good as real back then.

I also had a thing for grain silos.

My stepfather, Black Bart, grew up in rural Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan defines flat, and every road is straight. Straight, endless, and gravel. He said if someone was coming to visit, you could see the car 2 hours away.

The horizon is a much greater distance away on the Canadian prairie than it is anywhere else.

There are a lot of grain silos in Saskatchewan, and not much else. There are a lot of grain silos in Alberta, too.

I thought I could get on a train and head east. I would head east because progress, in the Americas, always seemed about heading west, and so it stood to reason that by heading east I would head towards a past, a past when my father was still alive, a past when my hippie cousins were still little kids and not in trouble with the law, a past when my older brother and sister were still part of the family. When everyone talked about the past, they made it sound like it was a lot better than the present was. I wanted to go back there.

I reckoned no one would expect me to go east. They’d figure I’d go west. West was were young people went. It was the direction everyone would think a little kid would go. By going east, my escape would be more successful. If I was lucky I could get most of the way to Manitoba before anyone thought to look that way.

Because the horizon is so far away on the prairie, it’s easy to get discouraged and think no progress is being made. This was where the grain silos would come in. They were numbered. I would count them. With every grain silo I’d be further away.

My mother was a folkie. The first music I remember hearing was Joan Baez & Peter, Paul & Mary. Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Hedy West’s oft-covered 500 Miles is one of the first songs I remember. I was 3 years old and already steeped in nostalgic yearning. I still listen to that song.

It’s a train song.

If you miss the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles!
A hundred miles
A hundred miles
A hundred miles
A hundred miles
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles!

Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two
Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four
Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home!
Away from home
Away from home
Away from home
Away from home
Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home!

What does any of this have to do with running? Not much. Or, maybe, a lot. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a need to move. I like to be in motion.

Some of these photos are old family photos. Some of them are Farm Security Administration, Work Projects Administration photos from the Library of Congress, in the public domain.

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