|Those were the opening lines to “The Burlington Line,” a song I wrote back in the mid-’70s. “A song I wrote” really isn’t the most accurate description; I actually was playing the part of scribe/narrator when I scribbled the words down. It could just as easily have been a diary entry from my Amtrak pilgrimage to the west coast in the summer of 1975.
Once I had made up my mind to begin my quest west (it was a spur-of-the-moment thing one Sunday afternoon at a family get-together), I asked my sister, Jann to drive me to Nashville’s old Union Station. I threw my suitcase and guitar in the trunk of our old ’64 black Falcon, and we drove off while my relatives stared incredulously as if they were being punked.
Once we arrived at Union Station, I bought a ticket to Portland and waited in the old terminal for the Miami-to-Chicago train, which would launch the first leg of my trip.
It had been years since I had been in the old Union Station, and it was a sobering sight. Built in 1900 as a highly-castellated example of late-Victorian Romanesque Revival architecture, after the decline of railway service to Nashville in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it had fallen into ill repair; it was tired and sad, but still very beautiful. Most of the inside of the terminal had been closed off, except for a small area that served as the station’s waiting room. As I pondered all the generations of people who had traveled through the old station, my reverie was broken by the arrival of my train, which I gratefully boarded to shake off the foreboding shadow the old station had cast across my path.
Soon we were skirting Nashville’s northern suburbs, and as the Tennessee sun began to sink, the train streamed northward on the old tracks of the L&N.
I had been on that stretch of tracks before; one of the highlights of my second grade year at McGavock Elementary School was the celebrated and always highly-anticipated “Train Ride Field Trip.” This field trip was one for the agesmy teacher, classmates, and chaperones were taken by school bus to Union Station, which, at the time (it was the late 1950s), was still a transportation contender in downtown Nashville. We all buddy-system-boarded a north-bound passenger train, which took us through northeast Nashville on to Gallatin, where we exited and took the long journey back to the elementary school via the more familiar and by then, mundane, asphalt highway.
I briefly reflected on that long-ago trip as we blew past the old Gallatin terminal, but as we approached the tunnel north of Gallatin, I immediately realized that this was the stretch of tracks that Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his men had pulled up, twisted, and re-routed a century before during Nashville’s occupation by the Union Army in the early part of the Civil War.
In fact, the very tunnel that my 1975 Amtrak train was entering at that moment had been closed down by Morgan and his men; they had captured a train, loaded it and the tunnel with explosives and sent the locomotive at full speed into the tunnel, where it encountered a log blockade in the center. The resulting explosion closed down the L&N and the Union Army’s supply into Nashville from the north.
Years later I chronicled this and other of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s exploits in a Civil War concept album (equilt.com/johnmorgan.html). The specific song about the Gallatin tunnel incident, “Black Clouds Above the L&N” (equilt.com/landn.html) was written from the point of view of Basil Duke, Morgan’s brother-in-law and second-in-command. Duke survived the war and later went to work as chief counsel and lobbyist for the L&N, the very railroad he had spent years trying to destroy.
As we crossed into Kentucky, it had already begun to get dark. As I watched the twinkling lights from the houses that backed up to the tracks, I drifted off to asleep. When I awoke, it was early morning and we were rolling into Chicago. Chicago found me running through its own Union Station, suitcase and old guitar in hand, breathlessly catching the North Coast Hiawatha, the train that would take me to Minneapolis and then, on to Seattle, where I would jump on a west coaster that would take me down to Portland.
I don’t remember much about that first night as we rolled west across the prairie. I do remember waking up the next morning as the train began its long trek across Montana. I had fallen asleep in the double-decked skyliner car and I was awakened by Montana’s famous big sky, falling all around the train like an electric blue drop cloth. That whole day was a picture postcard; the train meandered through the Montana mountains, stopping off for an hour at a time at Billings, Livingston, and Bozeman. There were cowboys and Indians on horses at each of the stations, waiting patiently for the train. It was as if they were wanting to verify and validate Hollywood’s westerns from the ’40s and ’50s. It was Disneyland meets Bonanza, in real time.
After Butte, once again the Amtrak sun was hanging low, and I decided to treat myself to a meal in the dining car. The dining car was set up like one would expect, but the table space was much more limited than that of a restaurant not on wheels. Consequently, the hostess had no qualms about seating me with whomever was sitting by themselves.
For my dining partner, she chose an elderly gentleman who was gazing over his menu at the mountain landscape as it blurred past the diner car’s windows. He was facing the back of the train, so the landscape that he was watching was quickly fading away behind the train in the early evening shadows.
We exchanged pleasantries, but I got the impression that he would have been perfectly happy eating in silence. However, after our food arrived, still looking out the window, he said, “I worked 50 years for Burlington.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The Burlington Line,” he said. “Now, it’s Burlington Northern. We’re running on the Burlington Northern’s tracks.”
“Oh,” I said.
“My wife passed awayit’s been years ago. I’ve been back east visiting my children. This will probably be my last trip back east,” he said, his voice trailing off.
It made me a little uncomfortable, so I tried to shift the subject. “Where are you getting off?” I asked. Behind him I could see we were approaching a tunnel.
He hesitated briefly and then answered, but at that exact moment the train entered the tunnel and the engineer blew a loud, long, lonesome whistle, “WA-A-A-A-A-A-A-AH!” I saw his lips moving, but the train’s whistle drowned out everything throughout the dining car. I felt like it would be impolite to ask again, so I just nodded. I told him I was headed to Seattle and then on to Portland, but he didn’t elaborate on his destination.
“Best of luck to you,” he said, smiling and folding his napkin as he got up to leave. “Nice meetin’ you.”
“You, too,” I said. I paid my check and returned to my seat a few cars back. It had gotten dark, and since there wasn’t anything to see out the windowswe were in the middle of the mountainsI pulled out my old dog-eared paperback and settled back in my seat.
An hour or two later, I felt the train slowing down, and I saw what I figured had to be a station coming into view. It was an eerie sight, though; the evening fog had rolled in and had all but swallowed the tiny mountain train station. There were a few lamps bravely trying to penetrate the fog, but the station’s sign was impossible to make out. I quickly pulled out the roadmap I had been traveling with to see if I could figure out where we were. There was nothing on the mapwe were apparently in the middle of nowhere.
I leaned close to the window, and as I did I could see that my elderly dinner partner was exiting from the passengercar in front of mine. He sat his suitcase down on the misty platform and looked up at the train. I knew he could see me, because the inside overhead lights of my car had come on as soon as the train stopped, and I could see my reflection in the glass. He nodded at me and gave a slight wave, then turned with his suitcase and was absorbed by the fog. By then, the train had slowly started moving on down the tracks. I moved quickly to the back of the car, still peering out the windows to see if I could get a glimpse of the station’s name or of my friend who had vanished into the night. Suddenly, as the train began to slowly pick up speed, the fog parted just as we passed the center of the tiny building, and that’s when I saw the name. First, the “P” and “A” were the only visible letters.
“There goes Pa,” I thought, still scanning the night for the old man. But then, the rest of the sign came into view, for only a split second: “PARADISE.”
I went back to my mapthere was still no “Paradise” there. I looked around the car. Everyone was either asleep or engrossed in a book or magazine. It was like a dream. I pulled out my notebook and wrote down what I could remember.
About six months later, long after I had returned to Tennessee from the west coast, I stumbled across the notebook with the lines of old man’s story scribbled down. I finished the song, which I called “Burlington Line,” in a couple of hours, and I’ve been playing it in coffeehouses, theaters, taverns and cafes since 1976.
My friend, Tim, and his wife, Joanna, came to hear one of my bands play at Lena’s Coffeehouse in Atlanta back in 1993, and “Burlington Line” was on the set list (here's the link to the live recording from that concert that night: http://www.equilt.com/BurlingtonLine.mp3).
After the concert, we all came back to our house, and pulled out our instruments.
“Play ‘Paradise’ again,” Tim said.
“Do you mean ‘Burlington Line’?” I asked.
“No, the train song,” he said, “Paradise.”
Tim and Joanna left Georgia for Texas a few years after that, and they later settled in Little Rock. Through it all, Tim and I stayed in touch, and he often brought up the song. “Tell me again about that old man in your song, ‘Paradise.’”
“Burlington Line,” I’d correct him.
“Yeah, Paradise,” he’d say.
In December of 2009, Tim was helping with his church’s Christmas Eve Service. About an hour before the service, he got a call from his doctor saying that the test that they had done a few days before had come back and had shown that he had cancer at the base of his tongue.
In the years to follow, Tim had numerous surgeries and chemo treatments, but through it all, he remained steadfast. In fact, when he was eventually diagnosed as terminal, he told me that “hope should be our final destination,” and he founded Hope Terminal, with the tagline, “Give it, receive it, believe it.”
During the last few years, Tim and I had numerous conversations about Paradiseand about “Burlington Line.”
“I want you to play ‘Paradise’ at my funeral,” he told me.
“‘Burlington Line?’” I said. “That’s a train song. I’ve never sung it in a church, so you’re gonna need to write me an excuse to sing it, and that is if it ever comes to that; you may end up outliving me. You never know.”
And come to think of it, that really was the point of the song. You live life the best you can, and hang on for the ride, and then you get off when the train stops at your destination.
But, as it turned out, I did play the song at Tim’s memorial service one crisp Saturday afternoon in late January. The last few times I spoke with him, he reminded me of his request for me to play it. “Here’s a song called ‘Paradise,’” I told his family and friends as I strapped on my guitar.
That night, as I drove back to Atlanta from Little Rock, I took a detour off of Interstate 40 into downtown Nashville. Driving down Broadway brought back a treasure trove of memories from my childhooddowntown Christmas parades, beautiful spring mornings in Centennial Park, and sweltering summer family reunions at my Aunt Lola’s downtown “mansion.” Most of my family is gone now, so it was a bittersweet tour.
Driving by Union Station, I was startled by its brilliance; it had been restored and is now an award-winning Marriott hotel. It sparkled in the Nashville night like a polished, cherished and priceless shiny jewel. I couldn’t help but think about my friend, Tim, the old man on the train, the Burlington Line...and Paradise.
David Ray Skinner