This was our first outing together in years. Lifetimes ago this tunnel had been an initiation of sorts. We went over some of the details we remembered, talked about how much more information was available these days, and how we had only seen a train come through on Youtube as we stitched together country back-roads on a cool early autumn night. The first fallen leaves pushed aside by the draft of car. We saw a shooting star, my colleague commented that it had been a long time since he’d seen one, always busy or working when a meteor shower made its way to our corner of the solar system.
Upon first entering the tunnel we were greeted with the sounds of falling and running water. Coming down from the ceiling and running along the side of the tracks. Though there was only a single set of tracks, the tunnel was clearly wide and high enough to support two. There were scars on the top of the ceiling where it had been expanded. The smell was more than faintly toxic. Diesel soot covered all surfaces. Mixing with the humidity and water it becomes a fine silty mud which appeared gray by our flashlights. It was cool and wet enough to be a little uncomfortable.
This world of gray is punctuated by occasional trash and rail related debris. Mostly empty beer and soda cans which were reflective enough to stand out. Occasionally the jagged rock face of the cave was interrupted by a brick facade, some which appeared to be in good condition and cleaner than I’d expect. In other places the brick was crumbling and shattered, as if some parts were new or newly repaired while others were thought to be beyond help. On either side of the tracks is gravel mixed with soot mud, giving way to more mud. The most efficient means of traversing the tunnel is along the middle of the track where sediment has built up almost high enough to bridge the gap between rail ties.
The journey was drenched in silence. After the water at the entrance fades the only sounds are those of walking and breathing. Foot strikes consistent like a low dull drum upon water logged rail ties covered in gray, modest echoes on faceted gray rock walls. Time and distance blur down there. You simply walk and keep walking until you arrive, there are few landmarks or distinguishing characteristics to gauge how far you’ve traveled. I had not thought to research the numeric markers on the wall before going, so I couldn’t tell how far we had come or had left to go. It became warmer as we made our way through the depths, and this added comfort made it easier to turn inward. Much of walking was done without conversation. Though our lights were effective at illuminating distances I found myself consistently concentrating on stepping on the next rail tie.
PHONE CALLS FROM THE DEAD
At regular intervals rail phones were installed on one side of the tunnel. These were placed reasonably far apart and illuminated by fluorescent lights installed inside the top of the cabinet each phone was housed in. Each cabinet door has a window, so of the perhaps half of the phones where the door was closed some dim light would bleed out into the dark. For the other half where the door was open the cold light spilled across the tracks and on to the opposite wall. In either case the light was dim in comparison to our flashlights and could only be seen at a distance when we turned our lights off.
The phones were artifacts I clearly remembered from years ago. The silence was broken by reminiscing about those days, trading stories and jokes. I recalled how we had gotten our name. Though for me the asylum had come years before, as an organized group this tunnel had been our first real expedition, and it just so happened that we had convinced a group of ladies from Smith college to join us for that first outing. Obviously this raised the stakes to our collective pride considerably, so we chose a modest title to illustrate the values of our fledgling collective. I made a note to get pictures of the phones on the way out.
After some time I began to hear the low moan of an engine. My colleague suggested that it might be the vent, our destination. Distilled in the dark the sound of this or any other machine was not particularly welcomed, and this was not something I remembered from before. As we got closer it became clear that this was indeed the vent fan, it is simply such a massive apparatus that it does not sound like any other vent I had heard.
I pulled myself up on a thin rope while trying to get footing on the wet slanted rock face covered with diesel soot mud, now black rather than gray. My colleague was considerably better at this than I, and preceded me on the ascent. After perhaps 15 feet another thicker rope, what appeared to be 11mm shock cord made for better going.
At the top of the rock platform, still quite far below the vent opening and machinery we paused for a break. It is the bottom of a drain for diesel fumes and rain with broken bits of wood and junk scattered everywhere. This was exactly as I remembered it, a wreck at the bottom of a hole straight into darkness where and for which many lost their lives.
After gracelessly sliding down most of the wall and beginning the trek back I looked up from the rail ties I had been trying to walk on. I saw a distant gold star. My heart broke in silence, then my terror jumped up, turned off the flashlight and kindly turned around and pointed it out to my colleague. He suggested it may have just been a phone. This could not be, as fluorescent lights do not project forward and the types found in the tunnel fluoresce cold whites and pale blues, nothing close to gold. This light had to be incredibly powerful for me to see the star pattern of the end of the beam profile. I was not able to hear any sound from what it might be attached to, meaning it was very far away. Such a light, especially for a incandescent (given the deep gold tone) would have needed to be driven by an immense power source. It could only be a train.
Lights to dim, running back. I felt sluggish and out of shape. Had there been a clear exit I’m not sure I would have made it. He thought we might be able to make it to the vent. I disagreed, not knowing how far away the train really was or how fast it was coming. We decided to hide on either side of a phone booth, as the shadows of its light would make us difficult to detect, especially from a moving platform. We shook hands. “It has been an honor.” Then I told him no matter what you do, do not fall asleep.
Sitting down I was certain that I was choosing the particular spot of my last moments. We had begun to hear the engines. We waited as the rumble, the vibrations, and the light slowly grew to impossible levels. I felt the train through the rock I lied against and through my bones. As it got closer and louder the less and less I could hear my own thoughts, the less that I had any thoughts to hear. My last thought was how fatefully funny it was that I would die like this. My dad committed suicide with Carbon Monoxide, I guess I always thought I had made better choices than he had… By the time I saw the front of the first engine there wasn’t any me left inside my head. Holding my breathe I was pushed outward in a trance, just taking in the sights and sounds of my death.
The train was the most beautiful and vivid thing I had ever seen. The main lamp was blinding brilliant. The other lights covered the tunnel with yellows and reds. The engines as clear as the heartbeat of god shook the world. I think there may have been three to five engine units. The cargo started to pass by, box freight containers, then coal hoppers some with graffiti, then flatbeds loaded with truck trailers. At some point the train started to move much faster. It had come down the tunnel at around 5 mph, but then sped up to nearly 40. I assume that once the engines cleared the tunnel the conductor wanted to be on their way. For which we were and are quite thankful.
As we were near the vent most of the exhaust simply went up and out rather than sticking around. Had we been further from it the fumes may not have vented fast enough. Had we been in the vent itself we might have been overcome by the concentration of fumes. The train seemed to be quite long, so when it accelerated it pulled in considerably more fresh air from outside like a vacuum. It seemed to have even pulled in part of a fog bank. When the train had finally passed the tunnel was covered in mist that smelled like the river. At the end of it we were left in silence and fog laden darkness.