The freeing feelings of nature’s isolation

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“In the heat of the day down in Mobile, Alabama, working on the railroad with the steel driving hammer. Gotta make some money to buy some brand-new shoes, tryin’ to find somebody to take away these blues,” — Chuck Berry

There’s something in the air on this warm bright day that stirs a swirling feeling inside of me. It might be the same sensation the birds are feeling, joyful with the additional daylight in the skies as we careen toward springtime.

But then again, it seems to have more to do with a yearning to move, to go somewhere, to shake off the dust and roll. An urge to throw my heavy jacket on the hook and grab something loose, something freeing that won’t constrain.

Carl Perkins said, “I’m traveling light because I might be going far, taking nothing but the clothes on my back and my big red guitar.”

Something to do with looking, something about searching. Restless.

I think it’s the smell of the wind itself that triggers the feeling — it’s still cool and cold, but so sweet. The sun is making things melt, run, drip and slide.

The feeling may be an intrinsic instinct that tells me the Wintermaker is retreating and it’s time to pack up and move toward the fishing rivers, the berry brambles and the lush green hunting haunts of the sunny season.

It seems like there’s always been a drive within me for searching, ever since I can remember anything. I think it’s one of those things ingrained deeply in human nature.

It may be one of those primal things that nature draws us to — the opportunity to search, discover and understand.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons being alone in nature feels so freeing.

But it’s not really being alone, far from it. Animals and plants are there searching too. That’s another reason I think it’s a true, blood-borne ambition that can be solidly relied upon, in sync with the universe – no matter where you go.

It’s what I think of as a natural state, a naked existence, without any technology, parlor tricks, smoke, mirrors, advertising or other contrivances necessary.

Come as you are, stay for as long as you like.

You are free to search, free to be.

Maybe that’s why life itself is often compared to things in nature which themselves are moving or seemingly, searching, rambling, wandering – going from here to there.

Back in the 60s, Bob Seger said, “Life is like a big river, sinkin’ or swim depends on you. You can take or you can be a giver. If you got love, you’re gonna get through.”

In the same “Big River” song he says, “Take the advice of a loser who’s been livin’ too long alone. Follow your heart, follow your rainbow, and one day you’ll find you are not alone.”

That’s beautiful.

This past week my brother sent me a painting he said was meant to depict life as a passenger train, with the rider never knowing who is going to get on or get off along the journey, which prompts me to suggest that I’d like to know who’s driving the train.

Another type of life comparison moving, searching, going from here to there.

Back in the 60s, Bob Dylan said, “I’ve just been to the baggage car, where the engineer’s been tossed. I stamped out forty compasses, sure don’t know what they cost.”

I remember having this swirling feeling at this time of year even as a very young kid, back in those halcyon days when small boys were born civil engineers, constructing roads, bridges and dams.

From sand boxes to the ice and snow dams we’d build along the street curbs to hold back the rushing snowmelt, we were always driven to build, to create, to gain, to strive to do more – constantly, every day.

Get me out in the dirt or the snow with a shovel, a spoon or a garden spade and I’d be out there until dark. I think we really did think it was possible to dig to China, or at least to some dinosaur bones.

Perhaps this is the part of my construction where my fascination with trains resides – more moving, more searching. Restless.

This reminds me that one big important thing missing these days for me is the stories in songs that ring as clear and true as a mission bell. Nothing profound, just simple everyday life honored for what it was.

Chuck Berry was a master at constructing these types of songs. One of the best examples is “Let it Rock,” which amazingly only made it to the 64 on the record chart here but, three years later, flew up to No. 6 in England.

The protagonist in the song is a steel-driving railroad worker in Alabama whose playing dice in a teepee on the tracks with some coworkers when the boss warns them that “we’ve got an off-schedule train coming two miles about.”

“Everybody’s scrambling, running around, picking up their money, tearing the teepee down. Foreman wants to panic, ’bout to go insane, trying to get the workers out of the way of the train.

“Engineer blows the whistle loud and long, can’t stop the train, gotta let it roll on.”

These types of songs I’ve always loved, with their rhythms built to emulate the sounds of smoking locomotives rolling over the steel rails, moving.

Coupled with my own boyhood up-close experiences seeing, hearing and loving trains, crawling around boxcars and climbing on trestles and creosote-soaked railroad bridges makes just standing on a rail or walking the cross ties today an alive, uplifting experience.

Meanwhile, the snow still stands very deep here, even if its cold heart is melting. A towering gray rock face covered in ice is crying winter’s tears.

Deep breaths are incredible on days like this.

I feel the sunshine soaking into my dry, cold bones, bringing me energy.

A few days ago, I saw the ripples of a river’s flow punched up through the ice as I stopped on a bridge to see what there was to see. There’s a whole world of life in the river beneath the silence of the ice.

Where will my restlessness and the searching take me, and just when will the conductor ask to see my ticket? I think all the answers are somewhere in the wind and the swirling feeling it sets coursing through me on days like today.

That sweet air, into my body, into my soul.

“Can’t stop the train, gotta let it roll on.”

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.