Tuesday, June 05, 2007

2500 Kilometers Later

There were only a few other people aboard the one-car local when it pulled up to the low, flat-roofed building that is the Esashi train station. There are no sidings or extra tracks at the end of the line, just the single stub of rails running into a pile of gravel and a steel buffer. The open field beside that one track told me that it hadn’t always been that way, but the weeds between the rails and the moldy ticket gates told me that it had been that way for a while.

Inside, I was surprised to find that the station was manned. An attendant sat behind the open window where only six of the one-car trains arrive and depart each day. The waiting room was neat and expansive, with racks of colorful travel brochures and three long rows of plastic chairs facing a kerosene heater. One woman sat on them.

My train had passed the high school shortly before pulling into the station, but downtown Esashi, a coastal town of 10,000 in far southwest Hokkaido, was still a kilometer distant. It was only 9:19 in the morning, and the last train didn’t leave until 7:00 in the evening, so I easily could have walked there, sought out some vestiges of the Esashi Oiwake folk music that had its beginnings in the town, or even caught a ferry to Okushiri Island, a 60 km ride off the coast.

In the end, I did none of those. I took a short walk past the convenience store, factory, and rows of apartment buildings clustered near the station, then got back on the same train that had brought me there. Almost as an afterthought, I walked back onto the platform and snapped a self-portrait with the station sign. I was already starting to dose in my seat when the train pulled out at 10:08.

That was how my journey ended, a journey of 2499.7 kilometers covering every active JR line in Hokkaido (and another 140 kilometers of a now-closed private railway). I’ve ridden nearly all of those kilometers twice, some a few more times, and some more times than I can begin to count. I’ve also spent countless hours and days exploring and photographing those lines, their surroundings, and the trains that run on them. That journey isn’t finished yet, and perhaps never will be. Far more than ticking off every kilometer of track, it’s really my main journey here…and everywhere I go.

So that’s what I did after visiting Esashi, although not along the branchline with its smattering of one-car locals. I instead rode back to the junction with the Kaikyo mainline, where express trains and container freights roar through the Seikan Tunnel at the rate of three or four every hour. Maybe it comes from an American longing for distant horizons, but I feel a much stronger connection to those long-haul trains of the Japanese mainlines, than the puttering, all-stations locals of the branches, atmospheric as they may be.

Looking back on my railway roamings throughout Hokkaido, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time along the mainlines. There are five other stub-ended branchlines in Hokkaido similar to the Esashi Line, with one-car locals rolling out and back to distant terminals. I’ve done little more than roll out and back once on those lines myself. The places where I’ve lingered are the places where night trains glide along with their sleeping patrons between Hokkaido and Honshu, where expresses link distant cities with the populous interior, and where freight trains haul away the agriculture bounty of every harvest.

Along those lines, I’ve worn out the leather on two pairs of boots. I’ve slept in the waiting rooms of rural stations and camped in the hills to be in position for the sunrise. I’ve spent nearly-sleepness nights just to see the way the full moon glints off the winding rails. I’ve waded streams, dodged snakes, gotten stung by a two-inch wasp (no exaggeration), hacked through six-foot high weeds, and crossed mountain passes on snowshoes. And out there, along those steel rails, I’ve experienced moments of such complete sensory perfection that they defy both words and images to capture them.

Still, I ask myself why I do it. Why shiver in a tent when I could be in my warm bed beside my wife? Why eat instant noodles off my campstove, alone, when I could be dining and drinking with friends? Why trudge out the long kilometers between stations, heavy pack on back, just to find that perfect angle for a photo? Why sit on a hillside swatting black flies and mosquitoes when I could be writing at my desk or reading in a cushy armchair? Those moments of perfection are indeed great rewards, but even considering them, the equation defies conventional logic. And yet I’ve been asking myself these same questions for years now, and something tells me that I’ll keep asking them for all of my life.

James J. Hill, the man who built the Great Northern Railway across the northwestern U.S., said at his retirement, “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure. This railway is mine.” For me, I wonder if there can be any one railway, or indeed any one entity of any shape or form, that can ever be my own “great adventure.” There are times I’ve doubted it, but at those times, perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.

Hill’s adventure was an outward one, embodied in a physical entity. But who’s to say that another man’s great adventure can’t be inward? For me, then, I think the great adventure of my own life is taking place inside myself. It’s my own journey to discover just exactly who I am, and what I’m capable of. That journey will last my lifetime, and even then, I don’t expect to arrive at a destination. But even an inward journey must follow some path. I’ve found none better than those parallel steel rails, stretching off to the horizon.

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