By Ben Olson
I grew up 10 miles south of Sandpoint, in a log cabin beside Highway 95 near Westmond. To this day, if I hear the faraway hush of cars driving down a highway, it makes me think of home. The summer before middle school started, we moved from this country home to Sandpoint and I officially became a “townie.”
No longer could I hop on my dirtbike and whiz across the highway to hang with friends down Loop Road, or disappear out back to walk between cottonwoods in the magic meadow with a creek running through it. Now there was the City Beach and Third Street Pier, the city parks and baseball fields, each with their own cliques and histories.
One of the biggest changes was getting used to the night sounds. In the country, you’re accustomed to hearing animals, rain, wind and the aforementioned lonesome hush of the highway a half mile away. In the city, there were brakes squealing at the stop sign by our house in south Sandpoint.
There were noises coming from drunks walking off their night’s reverie. There were heavy engines from delivery trucks getting an early start in the morning, the loud 1990s hip-hop coming from the Second Avenue Pizza delivery van and the collective noises of kids bouncing basketballs, conducting water fights and generally doing the dumb things kids do.
There was one sound, however, that instantly captivated me. It came every day, usually at night after the neighbors turned off their porch lights. Gently, from somewhere across town, there was a “duh-duh-duh-duh” sound that was from a train passing over some gap in the tracks, perhaps at the bridge over Sand Creek.
It always reminded me of a drummer rapping at his snare, four quick hits, a rest, then four more until the train passed and the town settled back to its slumber.
This sound has stuck with me over the years, from those awkward pre-teen years, through high school, past my time in college all the way up to today. If you lean out your window at night, you can still hear the sound, that ephemeral “duh-duh-duh-duh” that haunts my dreams.
It wasn’t until just last week when I finally found the precise origins of this nostalgic sound. I always knew it came from the train, but I could never tell precisely what was behind that staccato beat.
My revelation came while watching a video from a YouTuber called Hobo Shoestring, who caused me to sit straight up in my chair as he randomly answered this question that has batted around in the recesses of my brain for more than 30 years. The sound comes from what is known as a diamond railroad crossing.
Shoestring is a bit of a legend in the hobo world. Speaking with a slow, deliberate cadence — sporting a long gray beard and two fingers missing from one hand — Shoestring lives his life as a “professional hobo” and has been hopping trains since 1989 with nothing but his pack, trusty bucket and keen desire to keep this ancient part of U.S. culture alive.
Being somewhat of a hobo myself in my 20s, I found one of Shoestring’s videos a few years ago on YouTube and have been following him ever since. Much to my surprise, a video he posted a few weeks ago carried the title “Sandpoint Idahobo tracks, trains, camps and yards.” In it, Shoestring stood north of town filming as a train moved over the diamond connector, making that familiar “duh-duh-duh-duh” sound as the tires crashed over the tracks. It was as if someone had finally solved a riddle that has plagued me my entire life.
Diamond connectors are rough spots when it comes to maintaining the tracks. This particular one is located where the northbound Union Pacific intersects with the eastbound BNSF, and every time those tons of metal roll overhead at 20 miles per hour, the wheels hit against the perpendicular rails, producing that four-part sound, which are two sets of wheels followed by a gap of the car before the next wheels pass overhead.
An expert on everything involving trains, Shoestring talked about how often train companies have to replace those sections of tracks because of the sheer force at work.
So next time that faint “duh-duh-duh-duh” comes from across town, you can thank Hobo Shoestring for solving the mystery once and for all. I, for one, am grateful his kind are still out there riding the rails.
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