Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Yesterday was my one-year anniversary of my coming to West Virginia. I've been asked many times why I'm here in and that's kind of difficult to pin down and there's several reasons.

I guess I could say it started when I was a child. As far back as I can remember I loved trains. I'd ride my bike to the Torresdale station and sit and watch the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains and freight trains (later to become Amtrak and Conrail) for hours on end. I always wanted to be an engineer. But as I got older, it wasn't "what was expected" of me.

So, for a long time I did what "was expected of me", not for myself. Always doing things for other people. What job I had, where I lived, what kind of house I had...

It was oppressing.

So when my marriage fell apart last January it was time I finally "Shit or got off the pot". I hated where I was, who I was and what I was doing. I wanted to finally do what I wanted to do.

One day last April I was looking in the classifieds in the Prescott, Arizona newspaper and saw an ad for a railroad maintenance company. Free training, travel...

I applied and they actually hired me.

The company flew me to their headquarters in Hamel, Minnesota the first week in May for a two week training session. I completed the training and then they assigned me to a machine in the field. I was to be part of a six-man shoulder ballast cleaner crew and I was flown from Minneapolis to Charleston, WV. My crew boss picked me up at Yeager Airport and drove me to what would become my home for the next few months... The Comfort Inn in Beckley, WV.

I just fell in love with the whole area. The views, the greenness, the people... Everything. It reminded me so much of where I grew up hunting, fishing and camping in Potter County, Pennsylvania. It was also so different from Arizona where the scenery is bland and people are selfish and self-centered.

For the next several months I worked the hardest I've ever worked since I was in the army. Out at 5AM. on the tracks and not back to the hotel until 9 PM, six days a week. I'd come back to the hotel looking like a coal miner. I was so filthy I looked like Al Jolson with the blackface in one of his now very un-PC minstrel shows...


I really have to give the girls who worked housekeeping at the hotel where we stayed a big hand. They had to scour our rooms daily. I'd take hour long showers just to scrub the dirt off and the tub and shower would be black with dirt when I was done. They were definitely underpaid putting up with our dirt.

Anyway, we worked the double-track from Hinton, WV all the way to Vanceburg, KY last summer, straight up though the New River Gorge. Some of the most beautiful scenery in Appalachia. It was some hard work and I was making very good money. But more important than that, I learned so much about the railroad and what I'd need to do to become an engineer and more importantly I learned so much about myself. First thing I'd need to do is move to West Virginia permanently.

So I had a few incentives, one being, well, I'll quote Jimmy Buffet...

"Some people say that there's a woman to blame..."

But that wasn't the main reason. A big reason, but not the biggest.

The opportunities for jobs on the railroad are astronomical here, contrary to popular belief that this is a depressed area with no jobs. The jobs are there if you are willing to work. I got here permanently in September and was working full time in one week. And the railroad it's a little harder, you have to want it bad enough and be tenacious. I've been on three interviews with Norfolk Southern railroad and I'll keep going until they hire me. I've got one this Thursday, so wish me luck.

So now here I am, in the most beautiful area in the country, surrounded by the nicest people. I really do love it here, and I'm happier now than I've been in such a long time.

I feel alive for the first time in a long time.

So I'm glad I let those "county roads take me home to the place I belong..."

West Virginia.

Copyright 2005 Thomas J Wolfenden


Becky said...

I'm with you. I'm not a mountain native by birth, but I've adopted the mountains as my home now and I wouldn't trade it for the alternative I had before in the big city for nothing.

Lisa said...

My little guy LOVES trains too. And I do too for that matter. We go on a lot of walks and when we stop to watch a train, there's always a few people in their cars watching my little guy's reaction to the trains.

Good for you for finding a job you are passionate about.