It’s a warm Saturday afternoon and the AFP has arrived in Folkston, GA for the 9th annual “Folkston Rail Watch.” Minutes after we step out of the car, I’m greeted by Dixie McGurn, the former mayor of Folkston.
“Hello,” she says. “Ya’ll must be the boys from National Geographic.”
“Well, umm..yes,” I stammered, surprised that she recognized us. I went on to try to explain that we weren’t exactly from N.G., just sponsored by them through a small grant (we always have this problem).
But before I could finish, Dixie continued, “Oh, and you’ll be having lunch with Ms. Jackson, correct?”
Now I was really surprised. Was this woman our media liaison–or better yet, the very first AFP stalker? Sadly, though, none of those were true.
As Dixie walked away, she added, “Be sure to stop by my store just up the block and get yourselves some free ice cream!”
I realized then that we were in the Georgia equivalent of Mayberry, and this was the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and your business is their business.
Just a week before, we never thought we’d be in Folkston, GA, watching trains go by. One day while driving down the Interstate, I had the mental image of these guys in Japan who stand at the edge of train platforms with video and analog cameras (I spent a year teaching English there). I vaguely knew that these people were train hobbyists, but I never knew the details of their pastime or what drew them to have such a fascination with trains. It was with that flashback to Japan, that I started wondering if such groups existed in the U.S. They had to, I figured. That night I jumped on the wonderful world-wide web and searched for “train watching festival.” Wouldn’t you know, the first thing I came across was the Folkston Rail Watch. Amazingly, though, the date read April 4th 2009. It was the next weekend! What providence!
Perhaps the most serendipitous event from that weekend was our lunch appointment with Ms. Jackson. On our way down to Folkston, we received a call from Andrew’s aunt, Susan. She was speaking with her neighbor one day and mentioned our scheduled trip to Folkston. It turns out that Susan’s neighbor was from Folkston, and her mother, Ms. Jackson, still lived there. She encouraged us to give her a call, noting that she would probably love to show us around town and have us over for lunch. We took the chance, gave her a call, and lo and behold, ended up with a lunch appointment for 12:30 pm, two blocks from the train tracks, just behind the Dairy Queen.
Ms. Jackson whipped up an amazing meal for us and filled the table with those good ol’ Southern side dishes–baked beans, cole slaw, barbecue, rolls, potato salad, and, last but not least, sweet tea. Ooh boy, it felt good to be back in the South! She was a woman of real presence and opinion who proved it with her stories of raising seven kids, being the wife of the town doctor, and living in this very house for sixty years. After lunch, she put our leftovers in a bag and drove us back to the rails. Ms. Jackson didn’t stick around for too long, though–she’d seen enough trains in Folkston.
The “watching” area was spread out down the tracks about 500 yards, marked by a smattering of people sitting in lawn chairs and individuals standing by their tripods and video cameras. Rail watchers have designated this section of tracks as the “Folkston Funnel,” because almost all the trains that run in and out of Florida have to go through Folkston. On a good day 75 trains pass through this sleepy town. The town is proud of it. Almost every store on the main street was named with words related to trains like “The Whistlin’ Dixie.” The city posters hanging from the lamp posts had images of CSX trains, and there was even a brand new train mural on the side of the town’s most prominent building.
The events that sunny morning got off to a pretty slow start. It was almost an hour after we arrived before we saw the first train come by. I learned that day that train watching is about as slow, and requires as much patience, as fishing. There doesn’t seem to be much skill in watching trains, but there are tools that help one “track” them down. Some people at the festival used scanners. They’re like CB’s, but you can only listen to what the train conductors are saying, and not talk back. The other popular device was a computer program that was essentially a hacked version of the train schedules. The user can select a certain area of the country, and see the trains in “live-view.” Before a train would roll through Folkston, the guys drooling over their PCs already knew exactly what kind of train it was, where it was coming from, and what time it was going to arrive. And what happens when a train does come by? Well, some people take pictures or video; others write down the train number; and some just watch it go by.
The more we observed the rail watching folks, the more we realized this was a true community of friends. Unlike most hobbies and sports, there is no competition in watching trains. In Folkston, the train watching community has formed around Marvin “Cookie” Williams. He arrived in Folkston in 1973 and has since then turned Folkston into the Southeastern mecca for train watching. He’s got an interesting story, but you can hear about some of it in our video. Despite the family of folks who come to watch trains in Folkston every year, I also noticed a large number of watchers who didn’t really congregate or take part in the official events of the festival. They had pulled their cars up to the tracks, sat on a lawn chairs, and watched trains go by all day. They didn’t talk to others; they didn’t join the evening cook-out. You might say they are soloists. I suppose it’s like fishing. You can go out with friends, or go by yourself. But whatever way you choose, it’s pretty hard to lie about the size of a train.