A few months ago, just after Christmas, my dad and I were chasing trains to the northwest of Decatur, Illinois. We didn’t see much rail action, but I was happy because we made it as far as Lincoln, the home of William Maxwell. I looked around (admittedly, not very diligently) for a plaque or whatever recognizing the guy whom I thought surely had to be the town’s greatest contribution to literature. There wasn’t a marker, and also it turns out that Langston Hughes lived there as a child. Henry Darger spent some time there, too, apparently unwillingly. On this topic, the Wikipedia entry cannot be improved upon:

[Darger] was institutionalized in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, with the diagnosis, according to Stephen Prokopoff, that “Little Henry's heart is not in the right place.” According to John MacGregor, the diagnosis was actually “self-abuse” (at the time, this term was a euphemism for masturbation, rather than self-injury).

I claim limited expertise on this subject, but I believe that “self-abuse” is euphemistically operational to this very day. But so anyway, let’s say that Maxwell is for sure Lincoln’s most famous literary native son. He’s often on my mind when I’m in my home state because his novels They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow are set there, as are many of his short stories. My concern springs not so much from his descriptions of the physical aspects of the central part of Illinois, which are lovely and apt, but because of his slow, graceful ease with time and event. I recently came across something that Henry James wrote about William Dean Howells, and it’s equally applicable to Maxwell: “[H]e likes things to occur as in life, where the manner of a great many of them is not to occur at all.”

I suppose that’s a big part of why I so enjoy spending time in that part of the country: a great many things don’t occur at all. So you pay very close attention to the things that do.

Which brings me back to putative topic of the first paragraph: trainwatching. This is something that my father and I do as much as we can whenever I’m home. It’s his hobby, really; I’m just along for the ride and the agreeable companionship. I often photograph the trains, but I mostly make pictures of the towns and fields we traverse. And which further brings me back around to the leisurely pacing in Maxwell’s books. Because while there are occasions when we may slightly exceed the speed limit to get ahead of an interesting locomotive, the vast majority of the time is spent waiting in some spot for the trains to come to us. I.e., nothing much is happening at all.

This, I have come to learn, is glorious. And it was indeed something to be learned. Because at first – unless you really really dig trains – waiting around for even 20 minutes or so in the middle of corn and soybean fields, or maybe a tiny town, is not easy. (And that’s not at all a long wait for a trainwatcher.) But once I started to relax and see what happened in a little spot of nothingness, in the course of 20 minutes, or 40, or an hour – that’s when things changed a lot for me.

Where there seemed to be no pictures at all, suddenly (insofar as something can be “sudden” after half an hour) there was nothing but pictures. That one tree became utterly remarkable. (OK, maybe not such a good example for me, as I am pretty much floored by all trees.) How about: this fresh patch of blacktop on the county road, or that pile of leftover railroad ties, became utterly remarkable.

I started to wonder if this kind of seeing could be willed to occur without the waiting around, but it doesn’t seem to work. And the surprising (to me, at least) truth is I’ve come to enjoy the waiting, in itself, immensely. Last summer, dad and I drove an hour south to Shelbyville, to where the Kaskaskia River is dammed (to form Lake Shelbyville, natch). The top of the dam, on which there is a roadway, provides a view onto an aged trestle railroad bridge that dramatically spans the river downstream; dad (an engineer, not of the train-driving sort) had calculated the time of year and day when the light would be most flattering on the engines. Both the Union Pacific and the Norfolk Southern use this particular bridge, so rail traffic was assured. We left at dawn on a sunny June day to hit Shelbyville at peak viewing time.

We waited for four hours on top of that dam for a train to arrive. It was wonderful.

Have you ever stood in one spot to feel the sun move overhead for four hours? Until then, I had not. Even in the height of summer, the shadows change substantially. And thus the world changes substantially. When we finally heard a train whistle after all that time, it snapped us out of some strange sunburnt reverie. And funny enough, that whistling U.P. train was followed relatively quickly by an N.S., so we had photographs of both lines on the bridge and the mission was accomplished.

But back to December, when that old sun was hanging quite a bit lower in the winter sky, which is not a bad thing when one is photographing the all-black engines of the Norfolk Southern; all the lines and contours, every rivet it seems, stand in a relief that’s somehow both sharper and warmer than when the sun is shining straight down. As I said, the day had been uneventful, but finally on the return trip we saw an eastbound stack train (a “hot” train in railroad parlance, meaning that it generally has priority over most other trains wherever there is just a single track) outside of Milmine. It passed speedily and we ourselves drove east, heading home for the day. But after a few miles we were surprised to come upon that train once again; it had stopped entirely, an unlikely occurrence.

So here’s where you’re probably going to need to take a quick look at the map below, which is old and not entirely accurate in 2015, but is nonetheless good enough for our purposes and astoundingly beautiful to boot. (Also: are you bored? If so, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.) We approached Bement (my dad’s hometown) going north on a county road that crosses the east-west train tracks. Still slightly to our east was the Bement railyard. Which, consisting of two mainline tracks and single siding track with switches between them, is just about the minimum that would qualify as a “railyard.” And yet it’s an important feature because the north-south rail line terminates into the east-west line in Bement in a logistically compromised way.

Bement and environs

See that curve to the west of where the lines meet? See how it should be mirrored by a curve to the east but isn't? What that means is that an eastbound train can go north with no problem, just as a southbound train can head west. But a westbound can’t go north, and nor can a southbound go east – at least not without stopping after the curve, decoupling the engines and driving them around to the other end of the train, and then recoupling and taking off. So the yard serves an important traffic flow function in addition to being a place to reshuffle the railcars among various trains should that be necessary.

And that’s just the backstory. The situation on the ground that day was that the hot stack train was sitting west of town cooling its heels because it was blocked by some quite unusual and heavy activity in the yard. To oversimplify: in the Bement yard, there were six locomotives in two groups of three, as well as an entire train of railcars ready to go somewhere, and more cars waiting on the siding.

As we arrived, the engines began coupling and decoupling elaborately, to what end I could not imagine. But my dad could imagine, and he did. Because he knew the rules, he could see the possibilities. We stood there for at least 45 minutes to watch the slo-mo ballet of engines, and I suppose there was an aspect of chess, too, because each move was prescribed by the track configuration. For example, one set of engines had to move a mile or so out of town in order to get to an unblocked set of switches and thus change tracks, and then come back in. All the while, dad is predicting what will happen next; his masterstroke was to surmise that there must be yet another train sitting unseen somewhere to the immediate east, biding its own sweet time.

I can’t pretend that I was focused on the action at every moment, and anyway it unfurled so slowly that precise attention wasn’t crucial. My mind wandered to the other writer fellow whom I’m happy to associate with east-central Illinois: David Foster Wallace. He grew up in nearby Urbana (not Philo, as he might have had us believe) and later taught at Illinois State in Bloomington. The Pale King, his unfinished last novel, is set in an IRS office in Peoria. The book is meant to grapple with the idea of radical boredom (via the operation of the tax code), and how transcendence might be achieved by meeting that boredom head on:

Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like “deadly dull” or “excruciatingly dull” come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.

I guess that’s what I’m getting at, all this telling you about trainwatching with my dad – feeling directly, with full attention. According to Wallace, we try to distract ourselves from said attention: “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real,” as one seasoned IRS agent says to a newcomer. “There may, though, I opine, be more to it . . . as in vastly more, right before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.”

As in: the size of a freight train? From the “Notes and Asides” that accompany The Pale King:

It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

Of all the gifts my father has given me, which are considerable indeed, this may be the greatest: that of close, direct attentiveness (the “natural prayer of the soul,” according to Benjamin), at least on a few rare and wonderful – blissful – occasions. I am grateful, and lucky beyond belief.

Oh, and I wasn’t going to leave poor old Langston Hughes out of this central Illinois literary lovefest. It’s a pleasant coincidence that a poem of his is the only one I have ever committed to memory, likely because of its brevity. It’s called “Luck,” and although I once recited it at a wedding, it also seems appropriate to the present case, to my present case.

Sometimes a crumb falls

From the tables of joy,

Sometimes a bone

Is flung.


To some people

Love is given,

To others

Only heaven.