a railroad is like a lie


Mark Twain said —

“A railroad is like a lie you have to keep building it to make it stand.”

It’s summer here in Talent, Oregon.  The local railroad near my house stands silent.  No trains have come here for some time.  I walk down and look at it.  And wonder: does it give new meaning to Mark Twain’s words?  Or perhaps it gives the lie to them.  Or maybe both.

The longer I stand there, looking.….the more I see.  Small, subtle changes.  Shapes.  Sounds.  And, yes….the colors.  Are they….changing?  Ever so subtly?


Then there are the words of Jim Harrison —

“If you live on the railroad tracks the train’s going to hit you, Grandpa used to say.”

Words to remember.  If I get too hung up in the details.….in the colors.….will I pay attention when the train comes?

I’m reading a book by Haruki Murakami right now.  His words come back to me —

“Some people get a kick out of reading railroad timetables and that’s all they do all day.”

Not me.  I do more than just read the timetables.  I walk down to the tracks.  And wait.…


And wait.….

Something is happening to the colors.  They seem to be.….bleeding out.   Leaving.….what?  A monochrome world?  A different parallel universe?

Or perhaps a world in which, as Carl Sandburg suggests, buildings may give birth to – or beget – railroads.

“So time passed on. And the two skyscrapers decided to have a child. 

And they decided when their child came it should be a *free* child. 

“It must be a free child,” they said to each other. 

“It must not be a child standing still all its life on a street corner. Yes, if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.”

So time passed on. Their child came. It was a railroad train…”

But here in Talent, Oregon, the tracks are empty.  No child has come.  No train.  No sounds.  Even the once vibrant summer colors have gone.…

A world of blacks and whites and grays.


But I’m still here.  Waiting.…

What was that?  Did you hear it?  It’s so faint, almost impossible to make out.  More of a vibration, really.  Have to kneel down, put your ear onto the metal track….and listen.

I think it’s coming.

And.…..so are the colors, once again.  Bleeding back in….


Mark Twain was right.

“A railroad is like a lie you have to keep building it to make it stand.”

7 comments on “a railroad is like a lie

  1. Adriana Degetau says:

    So time passed on. Their child came. It was a railroad train…!!!!!

  2. “All travel is circular. I had been jerked through Asia, making a parabola on one of the planet’s hemispheres. After all, the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home. ”
    ― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

  3. Fucking Paul Theroux. He’s so great. I forget sometimes. Thanks for reminding me, Roberto.

  4. Stephen Greenberg says:

    Where I live now, Garfield Heights, OH, there is a park across the street. On the otherside of the park, down a steep ravine is a railroad track. And every hour, almost, the freight train roars by, though it doesn’t really roar, it is like a machine of thunder rattling. On another note, the room my son sleeps in used to be his Grandfather’s gun room, filled with bullet-making parts and old revolvers, lugers, et al. When he died and the room became Noah’s nursery I had to clean it out, exorcize the demons, burn the sage. And then painted it blue. I put one picture on the wall. An old print of a freight train. And of course, as my son began to grow and wonder, he always talked about trains and, of course guns –

  5. Cool, Stephen. Here in Talent in southern Oregon, the freight trains used to run daily and nightly a dozen years ago, but now they have stopped. What you say reminds me of the lyrics of an old (and great) blues song by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Mystery Train”. It started out something like this –

    Train arrive…..it’s sixteen coaches long
    Train arrive……it’s sixteen coaches long
    Well that long black train take my baby and gone

    I’ve always loved the sound of train whistles.

    And fog horns.

    Make me think of the Ray Bradbury short story about the last lonely surviving sea dinosaur, a ichthyosaur or something, that comes to the coast on foggy nights to listen to the fog horn calling – and howls back to it, thinking the fog horn….is its long lost mate.

    And damn, you’re right, some of them can be pretty insanely loud as they come by. I’ll have to come visit sometime.

    • Stephen Greenberg says:

      You should visit. Get up at midnight and visit the train muse. (didn’t Elvis sing that song?)
      I met Ray Bradbury a couple of times, most recently a few years ago at a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara. He was wearing shorts and seemed like he was about sixteen, though he must’ve been in his eighties. It was the weekend O.J. thought he was a train engine and led the cops down the tracks of the San Diego freeway –

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