By Scott Muirhead • Guest Columnist
Frog Level is what remains of the golden age of the railroads, the age when bulk goods, travelers and mail were carried exclusively by train, when neither interstate highways nor 18-wheelers existed. Some might believe that age a better time, more romantic, more soulful, and I don’t know about that.
But it is impossible not to believe that 80 or 90 years ago there was something magical about a lone train whistle calling to a small town deep in the mountains. The train might have come from Winston-Salem, or even Raleigh itself, and it might have been headed anywhere! The train always stirred excitement with its arrival onto the Depot Street crossing. Its presence was reassuring; and if not exactly sacred, it was something, something larger than life.
I don’t suppose any train ever did depart that was not loaded with the expectations of the hopeful, and with the regrets and longing of a whole lot of the rest left standing in its ephemeral cover of smoke and steam. Trains took people away, even those who stayed behind. And nothing then was ever so quiet as the town when the train had departed.
Trains must have been revered. Their roaring and chugging and squealing and rumbling was big, sure enough, but the trains represented something even bigger, really big, bigger than the town, bigger even than the mountains themselves. Was it progress? Was it industry? Was it power? Maybe, probably it was. But there was more. With an ear-piercing whistle blast announcing the approach into town, and then with the click-clacking of caboose wheels as they eclipsed time and space and disappeared, the great steel leviathans spoke to us, telling us unerringly that beyond the horizon there was something more.
Then center stage, Depot Street now is forlorn. The glamour of travel, of new shipments for the department store, of the unceasing energy of commerce, most of that has gone away. The brick buildings remain, but they seem sad for the most part, as if aware they are just mere remnants of another time, faded from this world. Today the freight trains that roll into town are infrequent, and they possess no mystery, just sand for the concrete plant, and lumber for the lumber yard. Trains are incongruous in a high-tech world, mere plodding nuisances to drivers in a hurry.
Frog Level is where two worlds collide, one the lunatic fringe of wastrels, the other a loose set of ambiguous rules, variously interpreted. Above Frog Level is the contemporary commerce of Main Street with all its many shops and subsidiaries, places like the county courthouse and the ubiquitous insurance agencies. Then, two blocks below Main Street is the realm of the wrong side of the tracks, where the complexities of life are less well examined. There you will find the town waver. Anytime, most any day, he’ll be somewhere between the bridge and the car wash, ambling and lurching and punching the air with his open palm at each passing car and truck.
What day is of no more importance to him than the time of that day. All that matters are the cars and trucks passing through Frog Level, his part of town, his Waynesville. It’s where the soup kitchen feeds the winos and the junkies and the ne’r-do-wells; where the chemical company mixes and brews its industrial potions; where the old has been outpaced and outmaneuvered by the new. It is that urban stretch people drive through to get to somewhere, because for them Frog Level is nowhere.
But it is a real place of real events, where can be seen, for instance, the dashed hopes and dreams of speculators emblazoned on the store fronts of stores that never opened. For a couple of years about a decade ago Frog Level had been Waynesville’s real estate bonanza of the post-Vietnam era. Deals were struck, properties were traded and sold, leases were drawn and signed and initialed. The Smoky Mountain Railroad was coming to town, bringing tourists and their money, and the prosperity of would-be merchants was just around the bend.
Then the railroad didn’t come, and now the storefronts are boarded up or blacked out, and all those hopes and dreams have moved on down the line.
Only the soup kitchen and a coffee shop seem to prosper in the microcosm that is Frog Level. The electric motor shop and the cabinet maker and the used appliance emporium are still around, but they have been there through 30 years or more, unaffected by boom or bust. Meanwhile the bridge over Richland Creek, just down from the cabinet shop, serves as the rooftop of a communal campground where the winos take shelter from the weather and the world. They’ve got themselves a regular cardboard condo complex down there; and nowadays they even share a cell phone. Such is the domain of the smiling waver.
It’s doubtful the man knows where he is, surely who or why he is; or whether he knows society has pegged him the crazy guy who waves at everybody. And perhaps that is why he always smiles. He smiles because of all the things he does not know. And maybe he smiles at the irony residing in the fact that so much of what he doesn’t know doesn’t matter anyhow. It implores us to ponder the question: Why do we smile who know so much? The waver sure looks happy, not to know so much.
I would bet that most people feel sorry for the waver, thinking him deprived. I don’t. When I cross over the tracks and pass him by, him standing there smiling with his open palm high in the air, I am usually enroute to a place I am compelled to go. Him, he doesn’t have to go anywhere; but I do, and I am headed to the courthouse to pay another tax on my little bundle of burdens; or to one of the insurance agencies to pay a premium to protect the little bundle; or to one of the banks to deposit the imaginary wealth of a paycheck that seems ever too small.
It’s just one of the drawbacks to prosperity, but riding with me usually are my two boon companions, Worry and Stress. I never see them hanging out with the waver, but they are well known to most all of us of the dubious fortune to be enlightened and aware and playing by all the rules.
Henry Thoreau said, long ago, that he pitied the peasant trudging beneath the weight of all his worldly possessions bundled on his back; but Thoreau did not pity the man because he had so little to his name. He pitied him because he had so much to carry.
The Frog Level waver has no bundle on his back, and he smiles and he smiles. Maybe he smiles and waves to encourage us, us who perhaps he pities.
(Scott Muirhead is a builder who lives in Maggie Valley.)