“Yep,” said Jimmy, “That’s where the colored spike driver dude is buried.”
Every once in a while, in the summer time when school was out, we’d ride Jimmy’s horses all over the Indian paths and logging roads that stitched across the mountains near Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. Jimmy was one of the only locals who would deal with us Floridian transplants every summer without wanting to beat the snot out of our spoiled flatlander asses, and for that we were actually pretty grateful.
Jimmy, a true native, showed us things and took us places we never would’ve realized existed.
On this day we, Jim, my brother Jon, two of the three MacClarty boys Mike and Pat and I, were out riding when Jimmy pointed out that grave. It was an unassuming lonely mound of dirt nestled into a grove of pines marked with a tiny white cross and some relatively fresh flowers.
“How I hear it, he helped build the railroad comin’ up here to the old Toxaway Inn way back in ‘bout 1900. Heard he had a pretty rough time of it up here b’cause he was the only colored man on that crew and how mean everyone was to him,” said Jim. “That’s pretty much all I know.”
“If he died in the early 1900’s, who brings the flowers?”
Jim winked and flashed a crooked smile. “It’s a stone cold mystery who keeps puttin’ them here all the time. I hear tell folks set out here all night just to see who does it but the next morning there’s new flowers and no one saw a dang thing!”
“Yeah, right Jim,” said Mike, “Just trying to get us to piss our pants aren’t ya? Cut the crap.”
Jim took off his hat, grinned bigger and scratched his head. “Just tellin’ you what I heard.”
We were riding on a logging road soon thereafter. It was narrow and flanked by an enormous rock face on one side and a gut-clenching drop-off on the other. I couldn’t look over the drop off and scraped my poor pony up against the rock face the whole time.
We discovered a great wide open cave carved out of the mountainside along that road that day and made plans to come back at night to camp out. We had to get our sleeping bags, flashlights, bug repellent and the all important beer.
Quantity not quality was the agreed upon beer philosophy.
Jim couldn’t join us on the camp out.
“Y’all just have a good time on your own. I’ve been there before so t'ain't so new t' me.”
Odd. Jim never missed an opportunity to party with us when he knew there would be beer. He probably just wanted to hound dog a new blonde-blue sweetie he was pursuing. We knew how to get back up there on foot, which seemed a little safer than by horseback anyway.
So off we rambled, three flatlander guys and a girl, at dusk. We hiked the distance to the cave beneath a red glowing sunset.
The camp fire was easy since all the tinder inside the cave was dry. It had a nice high flame and our shadows bounced and wavered on the back wall of the cavern. I wondered, between sips of Old Milwaukee, if prehistoric people had much the same visions provoked by those flickering images of sparks and shadows.
I thought of Plato.
Then I had to pee.
Camp out romance is not a delicate thing. Mike, who had a marginal 'thing' for me that summer, offered to come along while I stepped out of the circle of firelight. He often thought my having to pee was really code for it’s time to make out.
“Ok. Mike, one condition: I have to hold your flashlight while I pee so you don’t try anything shady, like shine it on me when I’m in the process. Got it?”
With no moon, climbing down out of the cave was tricky. We got down on the logging road and I found a spot near the edge where I unzipped and squatted careful not douse my boots in hot rental Old Milwaukee. With one hand I yanked up my jeans and zipped them. With the other hand, I kept the beam of the flashlight on Mike who was laughing hysterically at my prissy modesty.
He missed me going over the edge he was laughing so hard.
The edge of the logging road crumbled under my feet and I bounced, rolled, smacked and tumbled down the drop until I came to a stop on something hard, cold and metallic. The flashlight skittered away and blinked off.
“Oh, that’s going to leave a mark,” I announced to no one in particular.
It hurt but no broken bones, just probably bruises and scrapes. I patted the ground around me feeling for the flashlight and felt long cold metal perpendicular to splintery rectangles of wood.
The tar stench of creosote.
Railroad track! I fell on a train track.
Eventually my fingers found the flashlight and I flicked it on to light the tracks, shiny, narrow and curving into the distance, hugging the mountainside. I aimed the beam upward to see how I’d fallen and couldn’t believe my luck at not having broken my fool neck.
“Mike?” No answer.
Just wind in the trees and constellations swirling around a very black sky.
Standing, I turned the flashlight off to let my eyes adjust. A little way down just before a curve in the track, I could see a pin prick of light. It was swinging back and forth from right to left, then left to right again. Then it went still and I heard “clang…clang…clang” of metal hitting metal.
Then the light began its pendulum motion once again coming closer to me. It was a man swinging the light. A very tall powerfully built black man wearing a hat. Who was it? John Henry the legendary guy? My mind was fuzzy. He held a lantern in the one hand and a huge sledgehammer-like mallet in the other.
I could see him set the lantern down, and then raise the mallet over his head and with a powerful stroke, he’d pound down on the track, once, twice, three times – “clang…clang…clang!”
A rumble began teasing my feet and, faintly, a whistle blew somewhere in the distance.
I called out to him. “Hey! Where’s a good place to climb back up to the road up there?”
His lantern behind him, all I could see was his silhouette abruptly straighten up and peer at me. He waved at me to get off the tracks.
And suddenly it wasn’t just his lantern rendering him backlit in silhouette.
It was a headlight. A train’s headlight. A cyclops monster chuffing its route down those rails at a furious pace.
He waved me off frantically but I had nowhere to go. Neither did he.
The rumble was making pebbles vibrate up into the air around his feet. The whistle pumped once, twice and then intoned the long lost distress wail...
The steam engine towered over him like a dragon, black smoke from the stack and white clouds from the runnels filled up the space behind him.
Unbelievably, the man leapt off the tracks in one smooth jump. He leapt off into the yawning void where it seemed there was nowhere to go but down. Straight down.
A punch of displaced air riding in front of the locomotive stole my breath and flattened me against the mountainside where I willed myself to sink into it. Hot exhalations of steam from the engine breathed against my chest, and the deafening squeal of wheel against rail as the engine and coal car sped by me, inches from me, percussed in a rhythmic clack, clack, clack.
The cars rolling by were lit from within and the people inside were laughing, dining, toasting each other with glasses held high with care so as not to spill because of the train’s lurch and shudder. The fringes on the windows swayed and the people, fleeting images of wealth dressed in long bustled skirts and formal suits were… happy.
As the whistle echoed, and the caboose lights rounded the curve, I flipped over onto my stomach and made a mad adrenalin-fueled scramble up the dirt face I had come down. I made it scratching with my fingernails almost all the way up when I felt my hand grasped by someone hard. He pulled me up as my feet found leverage on tree roots.
Mike was pale and angry. “What the hell? I thought you shined me and went back to the cave, and when you weren’t there we panicked! Quit screwin’ around!”
“I almost got hit by a train and you’re panicked?”
“The one down there. Didn’t you hear it? The tracks are right down there. It was some kind of tourist train with people in it acting out some turn of the century thing. You didn’t hear it? See it?”
All three of them looked at me in the flashlight beams with slack expressions.
"Oh and there was this guy! A worker or something. He was hammering the rails when the train came. He jumped off the cliff down there! We gotta go see if he's ok...We have to get the rescue squad!"
"Um, by the look of your forhead, I'd say you were seeing things...Let's get back up to the cave."
A bump on my head was approaching the size and shape of a quail egg, and combined with all the scratches and bruises, I decided that pressing the issue further was futile. And judging from the outlandish jabber issuing from my lips, I even doubted what I saw.
A beer and half-assed first aid later, I tucked into my sleeping bag and listened for whistles. The guys took turns keeping me awake, watching me for signs of concussion. So much for camp out romance.
In broad daylight, I found the evidence of my descent over the edge. It was easy to find with all the freshly turned dirt and the foliage broken and crushed all the way down that drop off.
I sat on my rear and scooted down to where I must’ve landed.
There was Mike’s flashlight alright.
Lying right in the middle of a clay road.
Only the faintest indentations revealed where there once were ties, one after another, and where the rails must’ve been.
There was no railroad there anymore.
Just hard pack clay embossed with ghostly corrugated indentations where once there was.
Next to Mike’s flashlight though?
One lone handmade iron rail spike. I still have it.
Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, was once a popular resort locale for the wealthy at the start of the twentieth century. The Edisons, Vanderbilts, Astors and Fords all travelled by train to the Toxaway Inn for luxurious rustic vacations on the largest man-made lake in the south.
The resort lost its luster and crumbled into memory when the dam broke in 1916 sending the lake in a tidal wave down into South Carolina sweeping folk and property along with it.
(A new dam was built in 1960, however, and the lake is back.)
That railroad spur for the privileged was built in 1900 by local crews across treacherous terrain and at great peril. One man, a black spike driver, was noted (and reviled by fellow caucasian crew members) for his practice of walking the rails at night to check for and repair damaged or poorly-constructed rail that could send a train plummeting down to its doom.
His lantern light waving back and forth is seen even now on the abandoned rail bed by those who know where to look for it.
Like this one did...
Like this one did...
The flowers on his grave? Still a mystery.