When I was in my teens and early twenties, I’d sometimes run out to meet the Burlington Northern trains as they made their slow progress through the Colorado town of Fort Collins. Because the tracks ran down the center of a busy street, the train came through at a crawl. It was easy to swing aboard one of the freight cars and ride for a mile or two, then jump down on the edge of town where the engines dug in and the train accelerated.
If I mentioned the train to my friends, they thought my attraction had to do with that ride. They were wrong.
What I really loved about the Burlington Northern was standing in the glare of its headlight and then feeling the basso profundo thrum of its engines as it passed me by. The throbbing diesels washed the air with vibrations, made my bones quake, and sent shivers through the ground. That was what kept me coming back to the tracks: the sound, the shaking. When I’d grab on to a freight car ladder to ride behind the engines, it wasn’t so much for the thrill of the ride as for the nearness to the source of that sound.
A similar power had washed through me years earlier at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport. Night after summer night, I had gone to stand just outside the runway fence and watch the jets take off. It was the sound I loved then, too, the energy that bathed me, that made me vibrate in sympathy with the roaring engines. One night a cop came by and, before telling me to move along, asked me why I was doing this. What was the attraction of standing in the path of umpteen tons of rolling steel?
I couldn’t tell him that the rumble of the engines almost seemed to speak to me. I doubt he’d have found satisfaction in that explanation.
He might have figured that I was exhibiting a case of adolescent hormonal madness, a common malady. Teens are loaded with undirected energy, and sound can sometimes help them to direct it. Electric guitars and an explosive beat can channel and drain off some of that animal excitement. Jet engines, perhaps, were my Jimi Hendrix.
But that wasn’t it. Something deeper was going on. I didn’t have the words for it then — and now that I do, I’m reluctant to use them. It all sounds a bit preposterous. I haven’t even outgrown my obsession, so I can’t look on it with bemused distance. But here it is, in all seriousness: at the end of the runway or the edge of the railroad tracks, I hear an echo of godhead. I experience the sublime.
It embarrasses me to say that. After all, we’re supposed to be awed by nature. We’re supposed to find the sublime in waves crashing on a rocky shore or the silence of snowy fields, not railway and airport noise. I’m afraid of being lumped with those Victorians who thought smokestacks beautiful because they expressed man’s dominion over nature.
I’m not without my connections to the land. I love the curve of sandstone and the vanilla scent of ponderosa pine. An hour of lying on my back and watching clouds restores me. I have my secret chants for the animals I meet, recognizing my relation to them.
But nothing goes to my core like a jet turbine or a diesel-electric locomotive.
If there were a spiritual analogue to political correctness, I would obviously fail any test for it. How can I see the divine in engines that burn fossil fuels? How can I say that a walk to the railroad yard is a pilgrimage, that I hear epiphanies in the roar of engines made by General Electric?
I can’t win any points from engineers, either. The sound that I love, the vibrations that dance in my bones are merely, from an engineering perspective, an unintended byproduct, an inefficiency; and my reaction to it is pure emotion, not the admiration of a reasoning mind.
But that emotion is strong. It’s the feeling of standing in the shadow of something immense and powerful, even loving. Against all reason, those roaring engines make me feel comforted and loved, as I sometimes feel at the height of a violent thunderstorm. Here I am, the sound says. Here I am, surrounding you, overwhelming you. Here I am.
And when that sound penetrates my bones, when I feel it up and down my spine, I don’t stop to think about whether engine noise is or isn’t an absurd source of reassurance and passion. I don’t wonder for long at the precise sources of the presence I’m experiencing. I don’t try to analyze whether what I love is a product of the machine or merely speaks through the machine. I just answer as I’m moved to answer:
I hear you. I feel you.