The Whistle Stop
Trains, tracks, and passing through life's phases.
Down a small and straight tree-lined street, next to the train tracks, there is a small town with a great little butcher shop. I park under the old-growth trees and look up at the sun streaming through their greenery. A still photograph of the scene would convey the very picture of summer, but the leaves rustle with a cool whisper of encroaching fall.
(P.S. My intense love for fall is well documented in my book HALF WILD: A prayer for a generation of roaming malcontents. You can get it on Amazon and Etsy.)
A small bell rings overhead as I walk into the butcher shop and observe the bounty of goodness spread out before me. They offer a curated selection of local, humanely-raised meat and everything you need to go along with it. Seasonings, stocks, and sauces sit next to beautifully prepared stews and sausages. This is more than food to me, this is a pharmacy. I need the healthy protein to balance out the glut of frozen custard and cheese curds that find their way into my mouth whenever I visit Wisconsin.
Like a squirrel with winter on the mind, I begin to build my pile of goodies on the counter: T-bones for my birthday dinner, pastrami, meat sticks for my golf bag.
Just outside at the train crossing, lights flash and barricades lower and a distant rumble grows nearer. I lean on the windowsill, nestled between meat freezers, and watch the cars roll past. Mechanical thunder fills my ears, loud and tolerable only because it’s temporary. Tattooed arrays of graffiti flash by in a dizzying kaleidoscope on their way north. The impromptu gallery will roll through cornfields and cow pastures and a hundred small towns like this one on their way to wherever the track takes them next.
Trains have always felt comforting to me. Even in their comings and goings, they remain rooted in their tracks. Their motion is ever-forward and mostly straight. They announce their arrival with a whistle that sounds familiar from a distance and makes me feel nostalgic for something I can’t quite place.
Cycles and sacred cows
The motion shakes loose some eager leaves from nearby trees and I feel like I’m inside a snow globe, watching this train go by from a cozy room full of my favorite food. I am lovingly held inside the little shop that shares my values of doing the right things the right way in pursuit of the natural order. The death that underscores the store’s existence serves the greater good of the food system and the people that enjoy the fruits of the generous ruminant.
These cows lived well, munching grass and turning solar energy into protein and fat-soluble vitamins that power our purposeful lives. Their defecation enriched the topsoil that makes the upper Midwest notoriously fertile. The death that followed was righteous and in service to the well-being of the farmers, butchers, chefs, and myriad mouths fed by their flesh. To celebrate with steak may sound decadent, but it is the food that connects me most profoundly with the reality of the natural order of this world. I am grateful for every life-sustaining bite.
Outside, the train barricades lift, and the waiting cars proceed across the tracks and through town. I return to the counter to pay. Despite the changing weather, another birthday, and another year of drastic and unexpected changes, I feel grounded.
Chinese medicine recognizes fall as the moment of shifting balance between the frantic yang energy of summer and the deep yin of winter. This dance plays out in my body. I feel manic this time of year like I’m running at full speed through a fog. I am called to hunt and gather and prepare. For what, exactly, is hard to know. After a long day of shopping, cooking, and eating like my life depends on it, my body craves deep rest and fireside sessions with a good book.
I eat the birthday t-bone, grilled to perfection, back at my mother’s house. She lived here for almost a decade, which was a record for our family. We never lingered anywhere long and so we never had to stay and watch things change. We passed through other people’s lives on our parallel timelines like the trains passing through town, collecting graffiti and goods.
Evidence of absence
We were the leaves that sprouted, shined, withered, and blew away. Like an ice-cold wind on a sunny September afternoon, I feel her absence with every molecule. In her house, in the town she chose for her well-earned retirement, the memories are starting to pile up. There’s nowhere to run to avoid noticing all the things that aren’t here anymore. And I have to face the things that are. Evidence is everywhere. Her Christmas mistletoe still hangs in the kitchen doorway. Her cookbooks line the shelves. Everything in this house is her. She lived and died here, and I’m eating a steak, celebrating being somewhere in the middle.
Outside, I can see the pond where I scattered Koda’s ashes. Mom died in the front room where people at her parties would stash their jackets. Echoes of laughter from her Christmas Open House live inside the walls. This house, like every house that is lived in, became haunted by the memories of everything that happened here.
By moving around, we missed out on the nagging reminders of how fleeting life can be. The beautiful thing about the chaos of constant movement is that it distracts you from the depth of experience in favor of constant progress. You don’t have to just be there and sit with it and allow yourself to be confronted with the mortality of everything you have ever loved. Instead, you can wrap yourself in the comfort of the distraction of whatever comes next.
Life and death at the supper club
Someone told me once that Wisconsin is a Scorpio. I don’t know how that works but it makes sense. It’s undoubtedly beautiful with deep woods and clean lakes, wickedly cold and miserable, and often both at the same time. It gives generously and takes relentlessly. As the winds howl and snow rages, a warm hearth and a hot dish wait inside. Communities huddle together against the elements over fish fry and Packer games. Death is a harvest, and even if it takes until May 1st, spring brings new life. It’s the nicest place that will mercilessly destroy you.
At least, that’s my relationship with Wisconsin. I have come here time and again to watch things die and something new take their place. I came here when it was time to say goodbye to Koda, and traded a life of loving companionship for solo travel and adventure. I come here now to bury my mom’s ashes at Holy Hill, and will leave to share my book at a writing conference in Iowa.
I will rumble along, a year older, with new graffiti sprayed across my sides. A big red broken heart with “MOM” in the middle. A sun rising or setting. I will follow my tracks, laid down in the direction of the horizon and the things that matter most. I will chug along, powered by my values and vision (and grass-fed t-bones).
I will follow my tracks and trust, blowing my whistle as I go.
Can’t ever get enough of your writing. It always draws me in. I particularly liked all the metaphors to how endings lead to new beginnings.