Skirting the shoreline along the bay area of California are gleaming train tracks that carry passengers and freight. Amtrak's California Zephyr runs daily, and the Capitol Corridor has multiple trains sailing along the tracks each day. Union Pacific's rails carry goods and products (and probably materials that are also toxic). You can hear the train whistles blowing (two longs, one short, one long) at crossings in the distance throughout the day and night.
I recently hiked several miles along a well-worn but rough path on the shore-side of these tracks. The views were beautiful in the afternoon sun; gleaming water, a cargo ship with tugboats, a couple of billowing sailboats. Hawks circled and glided on the rising pockets of hot air over my head. A lone fisherman on a pier waited patiently for a tug on the line he extended into the lapping water.
But there are fragments of human activity on those long, desolate scraps of land. Like all the other similar places in the bay area, there are homeless encampments.
Marked by the star spangled banner that represents opportunity, it signals to others that this is camp. Home. Land of the free. Home of the brave. A sign of home that is quietly ironic.
There is also the ironic importance of some deaths, and insignificance of other deaths. The known and unknown, the value of a story to the media.
This is 14-year-old Jenna Betti, who died on the train tracks in Martinez in 2014. Significant media coverage followed her death, and a huge outpouring of love and commemoration. (Read an article about her and her death here: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Girl-14-struck-and-killed-by-train-in-Martinez-5283108.php ). It was a terrible tragedy, a heart-breaking loss.
But what about the nameless lives?
The woman who was killed by a train on Thanksgiving afternoon of 2015 in Richmond, California?
The man killed by an Amtrak train in Pinole in May? The man in San Leandro who died the same week after being struck by an Amtrak train? Or the woman who died in Oakley? All are little towns and hamlets along the train routes. And when a train is traveling at 70-80 miles per hour, a pedestrian is no match.
Shortly after passing a couple of people walking the same route, a whiskered older man and a younger woman, there was this. I stood before it for a long time.
This beautiful memento mori, this tribute and testimony, so lovingly crafted. The drape of pearls told me, a woman; a rusty spike held down a piece of paper - if there was writing on the paper, it long ago faded away. Flowers, now dried, were thoughtfully tucked into the weavings of glittering beads. A beautiful arrangement of rock and leaves served as headstone-marker just behind the cross. The branches forming the cross were shining, wrapped carefully in silver foil.
I was so deeply moved. Who is this? What happened here? Never anticipating a found story on the trail, I shared the photos on Facebook, and I learned.
It was for a homeless woman, struck by a train about a month ago. I can't find - and I searched for more than an hour - a name, an obituary, a story in print. A lovely woman in the community knew: the woman who died had been a member of her family in the past. She plans to visit, to pay respects and give tribute at the humble, magnificent, loving shrine. Another woman said she helped with the 911 calls after it happened - and was haunted so by the event that she had not once spoken of it until she responded to my post a month later.
The energy here was powerful. It's lingered with me, and a few others. This woman's death is no less tragic than that of Jenna Betti, though it held far less importance in the media. And I think of it as more tragic, because her life was clearly far more difficult and challenging.
Each one of us is significant and important, starting out as fresh, new, tiny beings. We don't have a choice in the things that shape our lives as children. We don't always have the opportunities that allow us to make choices and decisions freely. Each of us does the best we can, I think, and some of us simply can't overcome the hardships of our lives.
But all of these folks, the nameless ones who were struck and killed by trains running along tracks on the fringes of society, were important. They were all important.
And so this is my tribute to the homeless woman who was killed a month ago. A woman who was so loved, who is commemorated so beautifully. A fellow human being who was important in this world.
I wish her peace. May her spirit dance among the stars.