15 July 2012

Missouri River: Meditation #1

The river lay before me, placidly darkly taupe in its whispering rush past the city. I stood on a platform overlooking the water, the heat of the sun-blasted board soaking up through my shoes. I was at the confluence of a lull in the noise of cars and trains, with no one there to share the overlook. My hands rested on a tube steel guardrail, dull brown steel clasped in my sweating hands. I could feel the humidity rising from the water.

Across the muddy divide, the far bank stood thick and green with trees. Perhaps it was heat or fatigue, but for a brief moment I felt like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, facing the Marcomanni at the River Danube. What tribesmen were waiting for me in that dusty green, that I could vanquish with my cameras and guile to assume the title of "Germanicus?"

Ha. I chuckled. My brain was reacting in strange ways to this extended heat wave in the heart of the country. There would be no victory arch erected for me. I did not come here to conquer, only to take pictures. I suppose the triumph of my return would be the reward of captivating images, should I be so lucky and skilled to make them. For most, the film would tell all, and that would have to wait.

The river flowed on. Small sounds reached my ears: the burble of water flowing against a channel marker. Buzz of insects in the underbrush and trees. Faint murmur of traffic from the bridges in each direction. The wind picked up momentarily, a small sirocco whirling its way downriver. What I did not hear was trains. There were no trains. It dawned on my that the lack of those rail sounds were what made me feel as if it was unearthly quiet down there by the river. I turned to peer at the tracks behind me.

Beads of sweat trickled down my neck, mildly shocking me with coolness as they lodged themselves along the camera straps criss-crossing my shoulders. "Photo-bandolero!" I say to myself, film canisters my ammunition, cameras my guns. The silver-brown rails glinted in the sun, and a movie played in my head.

Along comes a train, a miles-long ouroboros of freight and coal, and I somehow managed to climb the security fence surrounding the walkway over the tracks. The diesel leviathan rumbles slowly beneath my feet. I wait, holding my breath, until a car full of coal comes into view. I lean out to jump, spread-eagled and trying not to scream. I sink to my knees in anthracite and pray my ankles aren't broken. I'm off, heading into the golden west on the back of a metal serpent, to see what I can see and bring it back. The shaman begins his dreamquest, atop a mound of coal...

I blink. The solidity of the deck beneath my feet radiates rough warmth. Above me, a bird peeps and it calls me back to earth. There is no train. There is no coal. I am alone with the exception of a lone jogger coming up the trail that parallels the train tracks. The wire of the security screen is digging into my forehead, where I had rested it while studying the tracks below. The gunmetal ribbon of the rails winds it way along the river, heading west and into the industrial district far upriver beyond the bridge.

I step back from the screen, looking around to see if I have been observed. There is no one, which is good, I think. That way the look of wistfulness that must have been on my face would remain my own. There were no trains that afternoon, no stepping off of my soul on its search for something I have yet to define. I only know it is out there, silent and beckoning, waiting for me to meet it. Someday, I will. The river knows this, rolling to its own inscrutable rhythm, and it tells me I must do the same.

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