Trailing Off

chasing shadows along an old Wisconsin railway

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

They say the crews of men who built the railroad tracks running through Northwestern Wisconsin would dance. As the legend goes, their hand tools were manufactured down in Chicago by the Gandy Tool Company, and these guys would use some kind of song or a call to synchronize their drudgery. So the tools and the fancy footwork earned them the nickname “Gandy Dancers.”

This is why, over one hundred years later, the hiking and biking trail running right by my parent’s house in Burnett County is called the Gandy Dancer State Trail.

They ripped up the tracks in the 1980s, covered the naked pathway in a yellowish crushed stone, and by 1990 they’d held a naming contest for the new recreation trail. They settled on a moniker paying tribute to the men who pulled the pry bars and shoved the shovels.

When I was a kid, I thought it was a dumb name for a trail. But back then, I thought a lot of things were dumb.

The Gandy Dancers weren’t localized to Wisconsin. The name applied to laborers across the United States who not only laid the tracks, but also maintained them, realigning rails after the hulking locomotives – by weight and vibration – had shifted them just far enough to cause catastrophe. The crews were often populated by recent immigrants and ethnic minorities who vied for steady work despite poor wages and working conditions and hard physical labor. Many toiled under the false promise of long-term employment and were left homeless when the job was done.

I imagine this name was chosen for the trail – which stretches for 98 miles from St. Croix Falls to Superior – as a way to honor the people who worked an awful job. But I doubt most people really understand what a Gandy Dancer did all day. I know I didn’t until a few weeks ago.

What if “Gandy Dancer” is some kind of ancient phrase, murmured by the native nations, picked up by French voyageurs, bastardized, and passed down over the years? And what if it originally described some kind of dark forest creature, something that’s lived here far longer than any poor railroad worker?

But what if the story about the tools and the chanting laborers wasn’t the whole truth? What if a Gandy Dancer was something else all together? Something a bit more peculiar.

What if “Gandy Dancer” is some kind of ancient phrase, murmured by the native nations, picked up by French voyageurs, bastardized, and passed down over the years? And what if it originally described some kind of dark forest creature, something that’s lived here far longer than any poor railroad worker?

Maybe this creature used a bizarre waltz-like gait as it stalked the forest.

And what if they’re still out there? Still watching. Silently waiting. And what if the Gandy Dancers don’t take well to people? Maybe sometimes we come too close, romp too far into their quiet woods. What happens then?

I just made all that up, or course, but there’s definitely some dispute over from where the name evolved, and no one’s really sure if there ever was a Gandy Tool Company in Chicago. So why not dream a little?

I had dreams of strange adventure running through my head back when I invited my two closest friends up to my parent’s cabin for the weekend. The Gandy Dancer trail was fairly new, and I had the idea to walk it from Danbury to Webster just see what happened along the way.

It was my last summer before high school, and maybe I had a feeling that things were about the change. I was yearning for some Goonies-esque shenanigans, some Stand By Me style exploits. I wanted a little independence. I wanted to feel danger and overcome it.

Unfortunately, danger is in short supply between Danbury and Webster, Wisconsin. My dad dropped us off early in the morning with our backpacks and “supplies.” I can’t remember everything we brought, but I know we packed a lunch. I wanted to carry my pellet gun just in case, but my dad wouldn’t let me.

The old railroad corridor was long and pretty much straight. We were walking on a pale yellow line shooting off to the horizon, thick forest running along either side.

I had imagined an all-day journey complete with detours into the deep, dark forest, perhaps chasing a mysterious figure, perhaps finding a hidden treasure. But the most exciting thing we saw was some grey-haired lady out for her morning walk.

Also, there’s only seven miles of trail between Danbury and Webster. We were done by 10am.

But that’s OK. I was outside with my two best friends, ambling down a pathway forged one hundred years ago by tired men who never had time for goofy daydreams and leisurely hikes. It’s a lucky picture to have stuck in your head.

I don’t take that memory – or that old railroad trail – for granted.