Freight trains call up a mix of memories. From the lonely call of the night train through Kensington in my youth, to a 2003 trip along Route 66 between Tucumcari, NM and Needles, CA, with 3000 miles worth of side trips throughout New Mexico and Arizona between, almost always haunted by those impossibly long desert trains. Often in the hazy distance, their lights brighter than the sun, the miles of cars behind them a long black snake against that high desert, I’d find myself mesmerized by their otherworldliness. Wanting to veer off the road and head towards them.
My life has been marked by dead train towns. Kensington, where I was raised, was an early proto-gentrified village five miles from DC. Posh and soft, the train station still stood and serviced the woefully inadequate light rail commuter line. The old town, though, had been converted into Antique Alley. Historic buildings, of a design typical to train towns, done up in a deeply embarrassing kitsch-fest run by the type of people who always wanted to be hippies but, too late to the game, turned into cruel, idiotic, self-centered sadists. Even as a child, I harbored anti-social thoughts, typically manifested in petty vandalism, dumpster diving, and verbal abuse shouted at anyone not mounted on a bicycle.
The family seat was Silver Spring, the neighboring suburb. Silver Spring is an unincorporated monster that has swallowed all of the little towns northwest of DC, in Montgomery County.
Some even argue that Silver Spring does not exist and, for the old timer’s especially, mail can be addressed and delivered to those lost towns. Forgotten tribes that still exist under the hegemony of Silver Spring: Colesville, Layhill, Cloverly, Hillandale, Forest Glen, Four Corners, White Oak, Kemp Mill, Montgomery Hills, and on and on.
Some of those towns still have their signs up – a little “welcome to” homage to their independence, though they are all Silver Spring now. A quiet battle between Wheaton, the neighboring suburb of any substance, and the encroaching waves of Silver Spring wages today. The post office has already conceded, and Wheaton addresses marked Silver Spring will be delivered.
Strange to think of Wheaton as a dying suburb. In my youth, the draw of Wheaton Plaza and Phantasmagoria records and, later, the excellent scotch specialty pub, The Royal Mile, have made the town a frequent stop. Though old Wheaton has been uprooted. Most notably through the actions of Australia’s Westfield Corporation, which added Wheaton Plaza to their crown and began a year’s-long campaign to remove the location from the center of events. Used to be the best fireworks in the DC area on July 4th over Wheaton Plaza. You could head down there, get wasted at the Royal Mile, grab some of the best food around, then calmly climb to the top of the mall’s parking garage for an ear-ringing, glittering, front row display. Parking was easy, the Metro station was 20 feet away. It was ideal, unlike the fireworks down on the Mall in DC, where you spent more time getting to and from them in a mass of idiot people just to sit on hard earth far away from food and alcohol.
Westfield banned the fireworks, and so Wheaton lost their only venue. With the residents being priced out, and the old school businesses being closed, it’s only a matter of time before Wheaton is an inconsequential forgotten town.
Silver Spring’s heart is the so-called Central Business District. Officially the CBD, though no one uses that term or acronym. It’s Downtown Silver Spring, with a big fountain-sign on the corner of Colesville Rd and Georgia Ave. The downtown that the Discovery Channel built (the founder is a native son, and turned Silver Spring from long-dead post-train town into mini-empire in the course of about 10 years). Silver Spring the train town used to have character. Now, though it’s received a new MARC station and is a busy stop for the weekday-only light rail, it’s no longer a town about trains. It’s a town about office buildings. The service industry in America run amok. And everything carefully controlled, as the predominantly black population is forced out in favor of imported yuppie hybrids. Even the spring itself, long since dried up, is run by a circulating pump. The filthy “spring” water constantly cycles through a huge fake rock next to the spring, and is turned off for the winter. A nearby sign proudly proclaims the spring’s history. Twas here on this wee spot, etc. etc.
It’s fitting that the worst elements of my family called Silver Spring home for so long.
High School found me in Bethesda, where an old spur ran (in some cases beneath the town) just a block away. Today, that spur has been torn up and replaced by the popular Capital Crescent Trail, but it was a lonely wooded walk before. I often dodged the bus and walked the two miles home, stumbling over the tracks through forest, neighborhoods, the back end of a golf course, and over a stunning trestle crossing Rock Creek. Eventually, the line hooked up with Silver Spring, just after a boxcar graveyard and abandoned depot. My first taste of urban exploration, now long gone.
Back in my high school days, you rarely ran across people on the tracks. The kids would hang out under the bridge by the school and smoke and drink, and the occasional reflective pipe smoker would walk by as if he had stepped out of some Edwardian dream. In those days, I very much needed to be removed from the modern world, and that walk home often prepared me for the abuse and hatred that would fill the evening ahead.
Leaving Maryland for college in West Virginia found me following the train towns. Elkins, where the train was long dead, except for the occasional ghostly whistle of the vintage steam train that plied the remaining tracks through town with pleasure-seekers aboard. Though it is now, slowly, developing, the center of town was marked by a wide scar where the trains used to come in, the old station propped up against age and decay, the tracks only recently removed when I arrived for my freshman year.
Now I’m back, again, to Silver Spring. Commuting through the rapidly developing corridor that used to pour passengers and freight alike into DC’s Union Station. Now given over to the Metro, the light rail system, and the ubiquitous freight train, with the occasional Amtrak sneaking along, ferrying people to New York, Chicago, and all those places that don’t really call to me anymore. Every morning, I visit the board in Union Station before going to work. I keep looking for some westbound train, something beyond Chicago, back out to the long paved-over American frontier. Escape.