On a train to....?

GWYNETH HYNDMAN
Last updated 12:46 19/11/2013

It was a germ of an idea; a seed dropping out of the sky and it fell during a long afternoon run at Tuapeka Mouth in March while listening to a good song.

The idea was watered in Southland, nourished, given California sun and now I am here, flying past fence posts in North Dakota as gas flares light up the prairie, listening to rig workers play cards, drink, and describe the oil that comes out of the ground here like honey.

I'll back up.

It started out like this: hey, how cool would it be to take a train from California to the East Coast, resume under one arm, and maybe just pick a town to live in for awhile?

And then I remember stopping, taking my earphones out - I had been listening to The Head and The Heart's ''Down in the Valley'' - and standing there, with just the sound of my own breath, looking at the brown hills around me in the afternoon sun,  giving this little wheatberry in my brain a bit more room to get bigger.

Lines from the song reverberated. Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways. Then I started out at a slow jog down the hill, my mind picking up speed on the tracks, and replayed the song again. I know there's California/Oklahoma/ And all of the places I ain't ever been to...

When I would run out at Tuapeka Mouth my brain would go places it didn't go to when I would run in Queens Park or on the treadmill at the gym. The hills out there always felt very allowing, very non-censoring , when I could feel a desire taking root and coiling its way to the surface.

Maybe Tuapeka Mouth represents adventures gone right. The end of that bend in the road when you wondered, hours before and at the beginning of it as you turn off the highway: ''what's out there?''.

Years ago, when I first came to South Otago to work at the Clutha Leader in Balclutha, I decided (after becoming fed up with getting lost every time I went to cover a sheep dog trial) to take a Sunday afternoon, fill up the petrol tank, pick a back road and see where I ended up, just so I could know this area better.

I started in Clinton. I got a cup of tea and a griddle scone, already buttered and raspberry jammed, from the shop on the main street, then took a right outside town, over the railroad tracks and found my first fork in the journey.

Deliberation. Then I took a right.

Then five minutes later, a left.

Then another right after about twenty minutes.

I only had a vague idea of what direction I was going in. I took roads because they were the surnames of people I was getting to know. 

Sometimes I took roads because there was an intriguing curve up ahead. I stopped at abandoned houses, parking outside the barb wire fences and climbing through them with my camera. I took walks down long driveways.  I took pictures of torn curtains rising and falling with the breeze over broken window glass.

I went out to the grave of Somebody's Darling. I sat in the grass by the Clutha River for awhile as the skies got ominous. I got a takeaway coffee from the pub -  made and brought to me by a woman who was folding tea-towels on the bar and watching television - and took pictures of laundry blowing on the line in backyards as thunderclouds approached.

And at some point I took a road with a sign that pointed to Tuapeka Mouth, and when I parked by a bridge, everything in the valley was quiet and still. A tree outside the church had leaves that were rusty red and I went through the gate and peered inside to look at the pews.

Then I went back to my car and took out my running shoes, laced them up, and headed into the hills that held the hamlet below.

I stopped on the crest of the hill and stood there, looking out, feeling that this place had a little bit of wildness to it, even though it was just a handful of houses, a few abandoned shops, and a ferry punt.

At a time when my life felt like it was starting to lose some of its soul, this place reminded me that I didn't have to go far to find places that had that an edge to them.

Last March, I stood in the same spot and wondered why it still had that feeling to it; that this is a place in the world where marching orders come floating down.

Maybe for decades other people have also had big plans that have started right here.

In the past four months that train trip across the states has been put on the backburner as I've gone into survival mode while being back in California.

I've been applying for jobs while keeping an idea on my dwindling checking account.

The idea of riding a train across America - a country I actually don't know that well - first got me thinking about returning to United States, but after that it just got tossed into the too-hard basket.

Then one night after finishing a hostessing shift at the Michigan hotel restaurant I was working at through September, I took a seat at a bar down the street.

I ordered a beer and listened to co-workers request songs from the guy on a guitar at the front, who churned out Pink Floyd and Ryan Adams tunes for us.  And then, on his own, he started playing ''Down in the Valley''.

By the time he got to refrain, there were about 10 of us all lined up, eyes closed, singing along, with passion, palms thumping on the alcohol saturated wood ''Down in the Valley/With whiskey rivers/ these are the places you will find me hiding...'' and I wonder if these people all around me that night had their own version of a cross-country rail trip that just had to get done; no more excuses.

This morning I woke up to snow on the pines everywhere outside the window.

I rubbed my eyes, sat up in my seat and yawned and stretched. Here are the peaks, here are the rivers.

Then the mountains. By the afternoon we were in the flatlands near Havre and the Great Northern was stopping to drop off passengers and pick up lunch orders for fried chicken and huckleberry cobbler.

Tonight I am learning all about life in an oil drilling town. Like when oil is like honey, it is explosive; ready to kill you. And how at Scenic Sports, I could buy both beer and guns if I wanted.

I watch the lights of the refinery disappear behind the train as we travel east, and try to picture what I will wake up to tomorrow morning.

What will I strain to see more clearly - a back road, mountains, or a prairie - and wonder ''what's out there?''

If you enjoy this blog, please vote for it in the NetGuide Web Awards here by copy/pasting in this URL as your vote - http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/opinion/blogs/sweet-home-california

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