A Train in the Middle of the World

Jeremy B. Jones


The first train out of Riobamaba every morning leaves behind smoldering volcanoes and jagged, snow-covered peaks to aim at what is routinely named as “the most difficult railway in the world.” We’ve climbed atop the roof of a train car to watch as the mountains flanking the tracks lose their snow but grow steep and rocky as we rush onward toward El Nariz del Diablo, the Devil’s Nose.

Before we can make it, the train stops. At a station in Alausí, it releases the passengers who want nothing to do with this. Nothing to do this falling train, with the devil waiting below. They vanish down slender streets or hop onto antsy rickshaws and don’t look back. The rest of us, have a last meal of beans and plantain and climb back on to chug deeper down.

But, really, we’re going nowhere. The tracks will end at the base of El Nariz. Down in that valley waits only a ruined building, a remnant of the town of Sibambe. No roads, no people, no way out but for the train on which we’ve come. This is a descent into nothing. But we have come for the ride, to witness the engineering feat. The audacity of sending a long train into a small, steep space in the middle of the world.

A century ago, these tracks were laid upon the graves of slaves and indentured workers: men brought from the Caribbean and China to drive the steel from one burgeoning Andean town to the next. Brutal labor, rampant disease, and uncaring gravity took more lives than it left as the rails worked up the mountainside. As we descend and the brakes squeeze and the train lumbers to a stop at each switchback, I’m peering into the ravine, noticing a speck that must be what’s left of Sibambe. In the narrow space between the gorge and the tracks, the workers run alongside to detach cars and rearrange the train so that we can shift directions, like a constantly reorganizing millipede. The men’s shouts echo in the emptiness waiting below. They multiply there—down in the space that we have yet to occupy, humming like voices of the past lifting up from nowhere only to disappear in the empty blue sky.

As we start and stop and fall, I’m comforted that these mountains won’t explode like the angry ones farther north. But for a moment, upon the rumble of the engine, I consider what’s packed inside this soil: the voices and lives, the dangerous past now nothing but an empty stop at the end of a Saturday. And I wonder if they won’t somehow build up, shake this mountain, and send us tumbling down. Instead at the bottom, we pile off into the ghost town, snap a few photos, and finally begin the slow charge up the mountain to civilization.

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Jeremy B. Jones is the author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland, winner of the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction. His essays have twice been named "Notable" in Best American Essays and have appeared in The Oxford American, The Iowa Review, and Brevity, among other publications. He hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and earned his MFA from the University of Iowa. He teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University.