In search of the ‘ghost train’

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

So begins Moby Dick, Melville's classic novel about a deranged captain's search for an elusive white whale. And while I consider myself more an Ishmael than an Ahab, I have spent the past twenty years hunting a white whale of my own. Only my hunting grounds were the woods. And my prey was a ghost train.

I've been hiking the Webb Mt. trails my entire adult life, through all seasons and every type of weather, usually alone. There have been times where I've walked it daily for several weeks in a row, and others where it might be once every other month. On average, I'd say I'm out there about once a week. But the exact number isn't important, so let's just say I've tramped that path at least 1,000 times.

It's a 5-mile loop through a heavily wooded area that features valleys, cliffs, nice views of the Housatonic River, lots of rock features, and a 1⁄2 mile section that follows some old abandoned train tracks near the Stevenson Dam.Or at least I thought they were abandoned, until the first time I heard the whistle of the ghost train.

I call it this because, while I've heard it many times, I've never actually seen it. I've spotted dozens of deer, tons of turkeys, a few fox, and even the occasional fellow hiker – but what I longed to see was the ghost train.

Many times I've been halfway up the mountain when I'd hear the mournful whistle, but by the time I scrambled to the top, within sight of the tracks, it would be gone.

Other times I'd be deeper in the woods, too far from the tracks to make a real run at it, but the whistle would ride the wind, haunting (and taunting) me from a mile away.

Some times I'd be past the train tracks when I heard it, too far to turn back. But most infuriating were the times when I was right there — a couple hundred yards or so away. Close enough to send me sprinting through the woods, heedless of the branches whipping at my face and rocks threatening to twist my ankles, only to arrive panting at the train tracks with not a train in sight.

Which brings me to the weird part: other than the whistle, the train left no proof of its passing. In the winter, the snow-covered tracks would still be snow covered after it had gone by. Come fall, sticks and branches strewn across the tracks would still be there, unbroken, even though they were directly in the path of the train.

It was kind of creepy.

And until now, I've kept it to myself. For twenty long years, I silently sought the mysterious train. Deep down, I knew it wasn't really a ghost. And I figured there was probably a logical explanation for its seemingly strange existence. But rather than ask around or research train schedules, I kept my solitary watch in hopes of a real sighting. Unlike Ahab, I wasn't obsessed with my search. Just moderately preoccupied. But, as it turns out, I was like him in that I didn't have a leg to stand on.

The mystery was solved just the other day when I was actually walking on the tracks when I heard the whistle blow. Finally, I thought, as I calmly stepped off to the side and peered down the tracks for my long-awaited first look at the passing train. Let's get a look at this sucker.

But there was nothing there.

Holy crap, I thought. For a fleeting second thinking it really was a ghost! But then I heard the whistle again. And that's when I realized what it was.

Directly across the river from the train tracks is the Stevenson Dam. A large dam that holds back Lake Zoar. A large dam with floodgates that are routinely opened. The opening of which is signaled with a loud siren to alert those down river of the wall of water that will soon to be rushing their way. A loud siren that sounds sort of like a train whistle to an fool in the woods.

So call me Ishmael. It's better than Idiot!

Mike Wood is a life-long Shelton resident and author of the coming-of-age novel, Alchemy, available locally at Written Words and nationally at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.