16 May 2014

In the Heart of Dark Ghost Trains

     We’ve mentioned NetFlix on this blog, in the past, and I recently saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, on NetFlix, which contained elements that I found applicable to writers.

     In this episode, Bourdain visited the Republic of the Congo, and traveled down part of the Congo river. On the trip, they visited a railway station, with dilapidated rolling stock and ruined rail lines.

     Frankly, it reminded me of a rail station near the Jungle Warfare School in Ghana, West Africa. When we were there, running a leadership academy for Ghana Army NCO’s, we ran some patrols that encountered the defunct rail station/junction.

     I was in Ghana for work, not photo-tourism, so I took no photographs. And, unfortunately, I was unable to find photos of that junction, but I did find some that have the same attributes found there. They might give you a good feel for the place.

     It was a hauntingly beautiful sight:  Dozens of rusting rail cars—freight cars, old passenger cars, even a lone caboose—sprouting up from green growth where “The Bush” had encroached and begun to consume them. Inside the cars: ancient antique fixtures, rusted and decaying remains that would have made a railroad enthusiast’s or antique hunter’s heart race.

     We climbed the rickety steps to the dilapidated switch tower (which looked a lot like this one below) and marveled over the huge clamp-lever manual switches (left) that had once been used to shunt trains from one line to another on the switch yard below.


    No trains ran through that yard at the time. The tracks weren’t just rusted; whole sections were missing. And the sections that remained boasted not only profound ruination and tall grass, but also bushes and small trees that grew up between the ties.

    Yet, back at our barracks, late at night, we sometimes heard a locomotive hauling a train of many cars at high speed down through that switch yard. Our ears would catch the rumble of steel wheels grinding against the narrow-gauge rails, the rhythmic thump and rattle of quick-rolling cars clattering down the track, sometimes a long mournful horn blast as the engineer warned people or animals to clear the way. But no trains rolled down those tracks.
No train crossed that overgrown, ruined switch yard. So what did we hear?


     The Ghanaians said, “Oh, sir, that is the ghost train. It comes at night. It is bad luck to be at the station at night, when it comes by, because then it might stop for you. This would not be a good thing.”


Congo’s rail line in that show looks like the one I saw in "The Bush" in Ghana, but men still work on that Congo rail line. According to a 2011 BBC report, they hadn’t been paid for over four years. But, still they worked. On a railway system with nearly no rolling stock, large sections of missing track, almost no hope of revival -- though the PRC may have come through some capital to begin reconstruction.

     Meanwhile, at a defunct research facility up-river, Bourdain found a group of volunteers maintaining the large library that had been abandoned when the facility was closed in the Sixties.

     Why work to maintain a library of old, outdated research material, virtually in the middle of nowhere, for over fifty years? Without pay? Without access to electricity? Keeping an antiquated card catalogue system in rough, but working order while trying to keep the books from mildewing into muck? Why?

     To me, the answer to both questions— Why the railroad workers keep going to work and the library volunteers continue their work — seemed to boil down to a single answer. I think it’s called hopeful persistence.

     They persist in their work, in the belief it will one day pay dividends of some kind—either to them, to their loved ones, or to some future human beings who will one day benefit from all that thankless work.

     When a writer gets a rejection, I think this hopeful persistence is a good thing to have in abundance. In fact, I suspect that’s why the men in these stories appealed to me: I felt a common bond with them. Though, hopefully, my goals are more attainable.

     Here’s wishing you an abundance of Hopeful Persistence, and a long string of acceptances that renders your persistence superfluous.

See you in two weeks!


  1. Fascinating blog with wonderful illustrations and thoughtful analysis to compare these hard-working people to writers who continue writing when they are rejected. I used to have a sign in my classroom that read, "Intelligence and talent aren't always enough. Most of the time, success requires persistence."

  2. Thanks for your kind words. Sounds like a great sign (the one in your old classroom), Fran. Your students were lucky to have you.

  3. Very interesting. You might want to read Terry Pratchett's new Discworld novel Raising Steam, which is about the invention of railroads and the magic s
    Ell they seem to cast over some of us.

  4. Wow, what a poignant article. I'm not sure how you generated the emotion, but it worked. I have to ponder and come back…

  5. I agree with Leigh. Lovely post. I think it's the combination of ghosts and hopeful persistence that made it touching. And you really got the Ghanaian voice.

  6. My general answer is that these are part of something bigger than ourselves. More specific to the library and rail lines the dedicated refuse to abandon is they’re touchstones in a declining civilization. Perhaps some hope “If we maintain it, they will come.”

    I can’t say I was more taken by trains than any other boy, but a line on its way from Cincinnati to Indianapolis nearly kissed the southern border of our old farm. Miles away, a line and switch, complete with a concrete callbox formed the northern border of our other farm. In the middle of the night, we heard the freight trains rumbling through, the great lamp hypnotically sweeping from side to side, and the mournful call of those horns.

    A mile from my home in Florida, Orange County tore down buildings and opened land for a ‘flyover’ and apparently part of what the road flies over is a switchyard. In the middle of the night, I now hear the rumble of diesels and the haunting horns as the great engines navigate the rails.

    I mentioned before in South Africa, I’d hear trains with their wavering horns that sounded so much like ours here at home. I remarked to a retired railroad man that the calls of the beasts sounded so much like those in the States. “Of course,” he said. “That’s where ours come from.”

  7. This is one of the most powerful posts I've read in a while. It's redolent of so much that's happening everywhere in the world right now, it seems to me -- not just to writers continuing to write in the face of rejection, but also to teachers continuing to teach (also at little pay!) in collapsing classrooms, to physicians who keep trying to spend quality time with their patients even as the press of numbers forces them to go quickly to the next person, the artists trying to create original works in a time of instant digital productions that "look similar" but don't always have the same soul... I could go on and on. It feels to me like there is something seriously and deeply human in these efforts, and in the notion that "this precious thing must not pass away, no matter what." Perhaps the larger What Is thinks so too. Perhaps the ghost trains will continue to run even as humans try to preserve the crumbling wreckage they run ON. If so, there may be real hope.


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