Fifteen years or so ago, I climbed aboard our former big black truck to travel to Limestone, Tenn., to fetch two blond grand-lovelies for a journey epitomized by “over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Our American gothic grandmother is Nana Hazel.
I am not always good at getting where I am going if there should appear a trail, lane, or highway I’ve not noticed before. I do like to explore, to wander; my eyes love to take pictures; my ears love to record sounds.
Other than a brief slow lane or two from here west over Afton Mountain over past Charlottesville south, it was a quick zip of a drive. I made much better time than anticipated, leaving opportunity to explore and poke about Jonesborough, Tenn. One fascination of mine to which I bow, is a train track. There one drives beneath an ancient elevated trestle. Twice I saw freight and coal cars clicking overhead. I gawked and gawked, for it had been ages since I’d seen such a sight. A flood of memories overpowered me. The whistle shocked my silly mind into thinking about transportation in general.
It made me think about how much transportation in this country has changed over time, even in just my seven-plus decades. As a lad walking, streetcars, trains and a borrowed neighborhood car were the transportation modes of choice.
America’s natives must have been in great shape (as opposed to my pear shape); they walked for most of their existence. Horses were a late mode of travel facilitated by the early European explorers.
As later colonials arrived on this shore, oxen, horses and mules met the ships, then pressed back the forest, dammed creeks and rivers. For the most part, however, they crept up and down the coast by boat, invading the wilderness after building primitive bridges and constructing rope-pulled ferries.
Rivers became liquid avenues inland, thanks to the steam engine. Cities, ports and landings became emerging hubs of encroaching civilization. Catholic missionaries who had gone north into Canada began floating the rivers, especially the Mississippi. Mission churches dotted inland landings as they did the Spanish coast. America resembled bookends holding together culture and civilizations of the vast American Heartland.
Though America had a coastal economy, a few of the bravest detoured off west, into the wild. Trading posts, forts and encampments became neighborhoods. Even rivulets of inland trekkers were still dependent upon sea and river travel.
Wasn’t long before immigrants, slaves and prisoners sliced long and straight into the heart of America to lay tracks for the mighty steam locomotive. Like the coastal neighborhoods of old, life along the tracks grew. Settlements became cities. Eastern pickets replaced barbed wire. Web-like paths brought travelers to the train and back out into the homeland. Life along the tracks grew steadily as life along the dock fueled towns, cities, ports and villages. Jesus was carried into every new neighborhood. Houses of worship and schools—using the Bible as textbooks—were considered the measurement of success whereby a neighborhood found its worth.
Well now, America then seemed to view the shore as recreational opportunities. The dream of owning a plot of land whereupon one could nurture and coax from the soil food for both table and pantry is reversing. Like in the cities, which sprang up along the ports and tracks, folks are now wanting to live stacked two or more high and sidled alongside their next-door neighbor. The bare minimal amount of yard is optimum—especially nice if one doesn’t have to tend even that micro-spot.
These days the train stations are mostly antique stores, restaurants or designer boutiques for the nouveau riche. The stations of my Richmond youth are museums, failed malls and junk stores. Away from the highways, all along the rails, many stations, where car traffic is thin, are simply abandoned. Such is the case across the tracks from my travel lovelies in east Tennessee. The pristine American architecture still hints of past glories. Bricks fall from chimneys while shingles drop from rooflines. No whistles blow. No porters beckon.
Today most trains stop along the tracks to fetch travelers from plastic covered way stations. Load your own baggage.
For me, air travel too has peaked—especially since this pandemic has choked us: ‘tis neither fun nor exciting, just the drudgery of standing in line to be stuffed into a tube, hurled through space, and rudely received on the other end. Few neighborhoods grew up along the runways. Planes were even noisier than trains.
In cites inland, dockside and in river ports, Churches, like train stations, find new lives as apartments, stores, food establishments, and so forth.
I started thinking about all this in terms of neighborhoods. Most American cities are trying to revitalize their core assets. Parking spaces for automobiles are a necessity if any new neighborhood is to survive. That brings me to this conclusion. Neighborhood will always be defined by our mode of travel, not our faith commitment, nor working skills.