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One whistle unites two skies

I live two separate lives. One is in the sun-baked Southwestern city where I work four days a week, the other is in the cooler mountains where I camp for the remaining days. When I leave the city in my camper truck and wind up through the mountains to the little high desert valley where I live my other life, I am transported to a different world.

The spot that I call home in this other life is a grassy plot in an oasis of large shade-giving trees by a creek. It's located down a county road. Cross another county road, and go straight for 40 miles, and you'll find more mountains and little sign of habitation until you reach a copper-mining town with the exotic name of Bagdad. If you go right at the crossroad, you'll climb to a higher elevation where you come to an exquisite vista of mountain beyond mountain in all directions. If you travel there either early or late in the day, the low sun intensifies colors with an overwash of golden light and casts black shadows in the crenelations, giving deeper dimension to the view. Over the mountains, the sky is an immense turquoise bowl, sometimes filled with softening white clouds.

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But, to get to the camp, I turn left at the crossroad where it becomes a dirt track. If I arrive after dark, I sometimes startle a raccoon with the glare of my headlights.

The camp is also a bird sanctuary. (Members of the Audubon Society come here once a year to count species.) As I sit in my folding lawn chair, I am distracted from reading by a hummingbird that is checking me out.

I see him with my peripheral vision; he's suspended in the air, just behind my right ear. The friendly whir of tiny wings so close renders my book no longer of interest to me. The curious flier then looks over my camper, darts from spot to spot, hovers at a red seal before he decides that, no, it isn't a nectar-bearing blossom, and zooms to a tree.

I come out of the wash house and see a strange little dog watching me from a few yards away. It has huge ears and scruffy fur. I speak to it, and it stares at me for a long moment before turning away. I then see its long, lean body. A coyote puppy! I continue to talk to it, and it stops several times to look at me. I approach to within a few feet of the pup, when, its curiosity apparently satisfied, it saunters to the creek and slips into the brush, out of view.

In my city abode, where air-conditioning shields me, not even thick walls and closed windows completely keep out the sounds of the city. All day I hear the whine of ambulances speeding to the hospital nearby, helicopters checking on traffic, police sirens warning automobiles to stop or give way, the rumbling of trains. But these sounds are muted enough so that, at night, they do not disturb my sleep.

Here at the camp it is peaceful and quiet - until the train goes by. Its whistle bellows into the night as it approaches the crossing. Its great roar and rumble awaken me; I can hear every clack of its wheels, every screech of a stuck wheel scraping the tracks, every clank of its couplings. The earth trembles under my little camper as the train passes mere yards away. And it excites all the coyotes in the territory into a frenzy of yipping and yowling. At first I resent the train's intrusion on my peace. But, as several more trains pierce the night, I find myself laughing at the coyotes' response.

In time, I come to recognize the individual whistles as each engineer blasts out his own variation on the standard two longs and two shorts to warn of a train's approach to a crossing.

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In the city one day, as I am stopped and impatient at a barrier waiting for a train to go by, I suddenly realize that this track is the same one that goes by my high desert camp. I begin to look for the numbers on the engines and listen for the distinctive whistle of one of "my" engineers.

On weekend nights, from my camper bunk, I look out at stars that, away from city lights, are brilliant and close. I wonder if the engineer appreciates them as much as I, as he travels the rails through the dark desert night. And can he hear the coyotes' joyous call, or does his enclosed cab and the grind of his engine rob him of this unique night sound?

The whistle blows, the coyotes yip and yowl, and I laugh. The train becomes the link that binds my two lives together.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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