Last summer, in the company of friends, my wife and I went hiking along an old railway line in the Ontario north country. The right-of-way—a narrow slash through the bush, now largely overgrown—cut and curved its endless path ahead of us. Still visible in the grass were chunks of pitch-blacked ties, no longer lying in perfect file, but strewn hither and yon, as if by some careless hand. No trace of rails remained, for it’s a hundred years and more since last a timber train huffed along that route.
Near the lake, a trail intersected the line, a logging road unused for years before we came, a route from nowhere to no place. Young trees, waist-high, stood randomly where once the creaking wagons rolled, weighed down by wood for the insatiable logging trains.
One sign remained, a solitary sentry through all the years—a St. Andrews cross, no longer white if ever it was, clinging to a pitted post to warn of trains that come again no more. Its comrades on other lines proclaim, in stark, black letters: STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! But this sign stood mute, alone, forsaken. And yet, steadfastly on guard.
I reached out my hand to it as we passed by, feeling the rough-hewn wood of its ancient post, and I was touched by its devotion to duty. An apt sentiment from a source I couldn’t quite pinpoint came to mind: They also serve who only stand and wait.
Further on, close by the lake, the abandoned line sat high on gravel banks. And there we stopped, to rest, to read, to paint, to write. We scrabbled down through scrub and dust to water’s edge, beneath an end-of-summer sun that skipped and danced its way across the calm, cooling water.
We lingered awhile in silence, content simply to be looking at what was there to see. The trees that rimmed the lake reached tall to the sky—but also, reflected as in glass, plunged down to the depths—each greener than the others. Waterbugs, countless little boatmen, skittered atop the surface, for all the world like shooting stars across the roof of night. Dragonflies went blitzing by, blue-green-bottle bodies darting and shimmering like liquid fire. And there, against the cobalt sky, a great blue heron winged its way from view.
No one spoke. We sat and listened, for there was much to hear. The water lapped, embracing the shore, then rolled back on itself. A loon called, hauntingly, from far down the lake, and a bullfrog added in his thrumming call. A breeze sighed softly through a stand of silver birch and maple. Behind us, in the bush beyond the rail line, a branch or tree came crashing down.
Later on, we swam, the water closing round us like a satin veil. Frothy trails of foam flowed behind us, quicksilver tails, as we thrashed along, spurred by fantasies of monstrous fishes down below. And each of us, in our own way, celebrated our being there in that place and time.
On our way back out along the right-of-way, we paused once more by the old logging road. No wagon rolled, no bullwhip cracked, no whistle sounded its mournful call. The warning sign seemed out of place at first, a superfluous relic from a once and distant age.
And yet…and yet, it served us still, for didn’t we pay heed? Nary a train would ever pass this way again, the last one long-since consigned to the halls of history. But that old sign had helped us, nevertheless, to find what we might easily have missed. The wonders of a world were there, but wonders that too often go unseen, unheard in our pell-mell rush to…to where exactly?
It’s only when we stop, to look, to listen, that we can truly see, that we can really hear.
That solitary sign, stalwart against the march of time, still showed the way.