Wayne County Wanderings: The Night Country

It was still snowing pretty hard when I stepped out into the parking lot.

I was the last one to leave the newsroom on this snowy February night and things were eerily quiet as I warmed up the car and scraped off the windshield.

Honesdale seemed deserted as I crossed Church Street and turned left onto Main. The only sign of life I encountered was our intrepid Borough DPW workers battling the storm with their plows.

All the storefronts were dark and the sidewalks empty. Everyone, it seems, had more sense than me.

They were hunkered down watching TV or reading by the fire, while I was still out here buffeted by the winter winds.

No matter. I was finally done for the day and headed home at last.

Man in the Snow

The storm had intensified as I passed Wayne County Ford, making the first turn toward White Mills.

It was here, while fiddling with the wipers and headlights, that my adventure began.

Snow was coming down hard as I straightened the car out, flicked on the high beams … and suddenly, there he was … a skinny old man trudging along the right side of the road.

It took me a moment to process what I was seeing, but in that time I made a connection: It was the same guy I'd seen several times during the past few weeks.

I'm ashamed to admit that I barely noticed him most days while driving to and from work, caught up as we all can be in the petty minutiae of everyday life.

The man could be walking in either direction, but always on the same side of the road. He'd be somewhere between Indian Orchard and White Mills, head bent and hands buried deep in his pockets

Each time I saw him, he was dressed head-to-toe in workingman's blue: Dickies or jeans, boots, a heavy coat, hat and hoodie.

I wondered what his story was, why he was walking alongside a busy road in the wintertime. Inevitably, though, by the time I passed the Golden Arches, my mind was elsewhere. The little man forgotten.

This time, however, I only hesitated for a few seconds before putting on my blinker and easing to the side of the road. No more than 100 or 150 yards separated us as I opened the door and stepped down.

“Need a ride?” I shouted into the teeth of the storm.

To my surprise, he actually heard me. But for some reason, he didn't break stride. In fact, he barely looked up and didn't answer. Instead, he shook his hoodied head and waved a hand dismissively.

It was a strange gesture.

The only way I can describe it is that it seemed sad. It was a gesture that said: “I'm exhausted, but please leave me alone. I'm resigned to my fate.”

I stood there like an idiot for half a minute, squinting into the snow and watching as the little man slogged his way closer. His hands were back in his pockets, his head bent, eyes fixed on the ground right before him.

It was obvious that he didn't want a ride wherever he was going. So, admittedly a little bit disappointed, I clambered back into the car and resumed my journey home.

Eiseley, Again

In the grand scheme of things, this encounter wasn't much of an adventure. It took all of a minute and I never even found out the man's name.

Last night, while trying in vain to fall asleep (my faithful beagle snoring at the foot of bed) the little man in the snow popped back into my head.

It was at this moment that I made another connection.

Many of you know I'm a huge fan of Loren Eiseley, the former hobo turned University of Pennsylvania professor and world-renown archaeologist.

I've mentioned Eiseley in this column before. He's one of my all-time favorite writers, a man who can craft an image that stays with you forever.

Back in 1971, Eiseley published a book entitled “The Night Country.” It's a collection of essays in turn inspiring and unsettling.

One of these essays is called The Chresmologue (a word which means “one who compiles oracles”).

And, it's this particular tale that came surging up from my subconscious while pondering the little old man in the snow.

On the Train

The Chresmologue recounts a train ride Eiseley took back in the 1950s.

It tells the tale of a broken down old man who collapses in the seat across the aisle.

This man appears, at least spiritually, to be on his last legs. He's old, disheveled and hunched. Clad in raggedy clothes and clutching a paper bag, the man immediately begins dozing in his seat.

I'll let Eiseley take over now...

“By degrees the train filled and took its way into the dark. After a time the door opened and the conductor shouldered his way in, demanding tickets.

I had one sleepy eye fastened on the derelict. It is thus one hears from the gods.

"Tickets!" bawled the conductor.

I suppose everyone in the car was watching for the usual thing to occur. What happened was much more terrible.

Slowly the man opened his eyes, a dead man's eyes. Equally slowly, a stick-like arm reached down and fumbled in his pocket, producing a roll of bills.

“Give me...” he said, his voice held the croak of a raven in a churchyard.

“Give me a ticket to wherever it is.”

In a single sentence that man had epitomized modern times and in the same breath pronounced the destination of the modern world. In a single poignant expression this shabby creature on a midnight train had personalized the terror of an open-ended universe.

As I left the train I passed the bearer of the message. He slept on, the small brown sack held tightly in his lap.

Somewhere down the line the scene would be endlessly repeated. Was he waiting for some final conductor to say "this is the place" at a dark station?

Or, had he been traveling for 100 years in these shabby coaches, as a stellar object might similarly wander for ages on the high roads of the night?”

Travelers in Eternity

Loren Eiseley's tales are dark and unexpected.

They entertain us; but they also challenge us … especially when chance encounters (like his on the train or mine in the snowstorm) disturb our ordinary understanding of the universe.

That phrase “Give me a ticket to wherever it is” may be the most heartbreaking line I've ever read. It says so much about a man (and he could really be any of us) who's so battered by life that he's just given up.

He's willing to take the train ride, and pay for it, even though he has no idea of the destination.

Eiseley's story can serve as a wake-up call. And, while I haven't yet reached that point of sad surrender, I can heed the warning.

Hopefully, I'll see that little man in the snow again. Maybe the next time I pull over, he'll climb in and tell me his own tale of The Night Country.

If he does, you can be sure I'll share it with you...