Soon forty trains a day were coming through. Then fewer, fewer, as trucks carried the load and railroads grew less important. The technology of one age becomes the romance of the next. It’s romance the young man is after. Caving through the dark hill. Poking a light up to see the brickwork used to surface the walls when the solid rock turned to schist. The young man, in anthropology at Columbia, imagines men sweating down here, imagines the dust and damp as they embedded the brick.
The tunnel, he can see as soon as they walk in, wasn’t built for foot traffic. It’s too narrow. What do we do if a train comes? Press against the wall? Will there be room? Of course a train won’t come, but what if? They walk on tiptoe through mud, through pools of filthy water. God. We should have hard hats against falling bricks, the young man thinks. He’s sweating now mostly from anxiety. As the pinprick of sunlight dissolves into darkness, all of a sudden he knows: he’ll lose his job. Nothing to do about it.
After a while they can see pretty well in the dark, avoiding the litter between the tracks. Bricks, garbage, detritus from trains-not much romance after all. Clammy: breath comes cold and thick."Yuck," a girl says. And someone else: "How much further?"
As a kid Joel liked backpacking; when I was home from college he made me go wilderness camping with him. He loved climbing-rock climbing, tree climbing. By twelve he was a Star Scout. He was an imaginative child, a storyteller, an explorer. This was his kind of adventure.
Ahead, a white light. "There, that looks like the end!" The children run ahead, and Tim calls to them, "Wait! Wait up!"-but voice dissolves into drone in the dark. And he can barely see them. His flashlight turns them to shadows.
The light is closer now, and they can see it’s just an electric light high up on a wall.
As they go on and on, an hour, two, they begin to look over their shoulders. There’s another light up ahead. And they walk on. Again it’s a lamp. But what’s that up ahead?
The tunnel is absolutely straight, end to end. Yet in another sense not at all straight; a dark maw of possibilities swallows sound and shape; and within, invisible branches lead to invisible branches. From time to time, the children come upon niches carved in the wall where track walkers used to flatten themselves for trains to pass in case they were caught in the tunnel. The engineer couldn’t see much, couldn’t hear much: sound is swallowed up. If something went wrong-say rock or brick on the tracks-the track walkers would affix small charges to the rail, to explode when the train passed over; that would make enough noise to get the engineer to stop the train.
What can stop the train now? Maybe someone sees them walking in. There are no houses nearby, but cars pass pretty often on the two-lane road that goes along the Deerfield River. Maybe there’s a fisherman or a kayaker looking for a spot to put in, and he thinks, What are those kids doing? Or the other counselor finds the Western entrance in North Adams, and he waits, he waits, and waiting, he begins to get uneasy. And he goes to the tunnel mouth and yells. And someone, an old man, a local, notices and stops. Says, They’re doing WHAT? And the counselor drives to a phone, hands shaking so hard he has trouble dropping in the coins, but finally he calls the Police, and the light that the children see in the tunnel, it's strobe light, red and blue and white. The State Police have called to block the train that’s nearly at the Western end of the tunnel. And it’s a State Police car that greets the kids at the mouth. And no one’s known enough to be really scared. "Most of you would have been killed," the cop says. "Sucked into the train or suffocated." He backs out of the tunnel and the kids follow him. Into life. And the counselors are both sent home.
Or no one sees. No one stops the train, and the other counselor, standing by the Western mouth, tries to flag down the train that’s creeping around a bend towards the tunnel. He screams, he waves his arms, he points, but the engineer doesn’t see him or doesn’t understand. And now, fifteen years later, living his life, playing with his son, the counselor replays the afternoon, and in this replaying he realizes what’s going on and calls the State Police in time.