A few weeks ago, I finished reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, book that encourages exploration of the everyday landscape to find the beauty and history that lies mostly ignored next to shopping malls, beyond the interstate and buried deep in the woods. I love Stilgoe’s writing. I hold a deep wonder at the everyday, seemingly mundane world around me and to read someone else’s thoughts and ideas, which have been thoroughly researched, is so exciting and inspires me to no end. I have been fingering and turning over the ideas he presents in Outside since I finished reading it at the beginning of the month, pondering over electrical lines and smiling to myself about the rails that crisscross and snake through the area around my house.
Stilgoe points to Sundays, the day of rest, as a good day for exploration. I woke up this past Sunday from a nap after a exciting weekend, filled with visits from much-loved people in my life, around 5.30pm. The air was brisk despite the warm weather. It was filled with the sharpness of autumn, with wood smoke. I glanced around the suburban neighborhood that I live in, listening to the quiet with the interstate out in the distance. That sound, that lovely sounds of dried leaves blowing, scraping along asphalt came with the stir of the breeze. I walked out past the neat houses, past the planned, curving roads to an intersection I know well. I caught the bus there my first two years of high school. When I first started the type of exploration that colors my life, there was a barn across the wide rural road. It sat behind a large oak tree. I often found myself inside this barn, walking along the cross beams, since the second floor had fallen in. The photographs I took on a particular, gorgeous snowy day hang in my parents’ house now, the only records I have of the space.
The land was cleared for a development that was never built my senior year of high school. The land still stands empty and is currently used as a place for growing trees by a local nursery. I’ve watched 10 year old tress being pulled out of the ground, like an infected molar, from this field. On this day, however, there was no witness save for a fox, bounding across the road, pausing to watch me before disappearing into dead stalks of corn.
The houses along this stretch of road are, for the most part, older. Their history stretches back to when the area was wide, open cornfields and farms. They have witnessed the selling off of the land, to massive companies who put distribution centers that are miles long. Lightening rods extend just beyond the chimneys.
The houses and their arrangement are the opposite of the place that I live in, less than a mile away. They sit close to the road. They are worn and small. I like to picture myself living in house like those that dot Ruppsville Road, tending a garden in the summer and holed up against the cold in winter. The cold that I am quietly excited for, as it means big sweaters and boots and the way snow makes the world still. For now I watch the leaves fall from trees and pull warm socks up to my knees.
The light was fading, disappearing behind the lip of the earth. Walking along the white line that marks the road, I lingered at corners, meandered onto the grass that lines the side of the road. I took everything in, letting the details settle into my head. A dog barked as I started off the road, toward the bright empty parking lot of one of those enormous distribution centers.
I was dumbfounded by the immense, dead space and the “nothingness” of the building, sitting so close to so many places with personal, quiet history. The massive structure was impersonal and so boring compared to the places I had just been admiring. So, I walked away and onward, eying the shining rails across the street.
I started really seeing railroads and the space around them after I watched The Station Agent, a gorgeous movie that follows a train-enthusiast and his story of moving to a small rural New Jersey town to live in an old train station. I started thinking about them because of Mr. Stilgoe, who has done quite a bit of work on them. I also started seeing them because of the surprisingly large amount of train enthusiasts who’s photographs I print at work; their passion and consistency in which they obsessively photograph trains warms my picture-making, exploring heart. I find myself thinking about the rails after I bump over them in my car. As I scrambled up the fat gravel and stepped over the rails, I looked down the tracks in both directions, coming and going. I couldn’t stop thinking about the small bits and pieces of railroad history that I’ve retained. The rails gleamed in the dying light as walked in step across the ties.
I headed home in the dark, my pace quickening. I stopped looking around and started moving quickly along the side of the road, glancing behind to watch for cars, since I stupidly wore a dark sweatshirt. Racing across the street to the development, I pondered dinner and Monday morning.