Tom Kerr writing on self-reliance

I don’t know if you’ve ever built railroads by hand with tools like picks and sledgehammers but if you have, we need to swap stories.

American railroads stopped doing things that way decades ago, but I know that history well. As a young man I worked on one of the last “road crews” in the nation, and was proud to be nicknamed a “gandy dancer.”

Some say the term derives from the way we would pair-up and waddle together like geese (or ganders) whilst carrying a nine-foot length of railroad iron, which weighs about 90 pounds per linear foot.

But I come down on the side of folks who trace it to the Gandy Tool Company of Chicago, which made railroad tools like tamping bars, picks, and hammers in the early years of the 20th century.

I’m a little biased, perhaps, since I worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad – a.k.a. “The Milwaukee Road” – and my tools were forged in The City of Broad Shoulders. I can’t recall if they were made by Gandy or not…but I do remember that each was stamped with a date of manufacture. My hammer was made in the 1920s, and I sure wish that hammer could’ve talked because it would’ve been a mighty interesting storyteller.

I lived in a tiny, cold-water shack right next to the tracks, and commuted to work on one of those little yellow contraptions that scoots along the tracks like a golf cart. That was the hardest work I’ve ever done. But it was really satisfying and exciting…and the commute was awesome. The view was stunning, the air was crisp, and there was never any traffic.

Then, approaching middle age, I woke up in a corporate sales career and realized that somewhere along the line I got way off track. I had a closet full of suits and neckties but didn’t own a single pair of work gloves…and never made anything, other than a sandwich, with my own hands anymore.

Due to chronic stress, too much debt, and dissatisfaction with my job, my life came off the rails. So I started tuning in and listening again to my heart until it guided me back to a truer sense of purpose.

A year later I had sold all the clutter holding me down…including the houses with the mortgages and a whole lot of suits and ties. Debt-free, with cash in my pocket, I could live wherever I wanted. I chose a mountain home on a pristine river with a breathtaking view and clean, crisp air. I ate from my garden, was my own boss working as a freelancer, and life was once again a fulfilling and healthy adventure.

I’ve lived that way – partially off-the-grid – for about 20 years. Now my mountain home overlooks a different river…and on the opposite riverbank is a railroad track. Once or twice a year, when the repair crew comes around, I sit on my porch and watch some kind of modern diesel-powered machine – the one that took my old job – tamp new railroad ties into place.

I could probably see the action unfold better from on top of my tin roof, where I spent a recent afternoon…grinning from ear to ear with a soot-smudged face. My friends are teasing me about climbing up there, last month, to clean out my chimney with a long brush. They think I did it to facilitate the arrival of Santa Claus…rather than improving fireplace safety and performance as I save on energy costs by heating with wood.

I could have hired a professional, but decided that instead of paying someone else to clean my chimney I’d try my own hand at it. Next thing you know I was standing on the roof with dry cinders in my hair, smiling like a kid on Christmas morning. My newfound skill was so much fun I went and cleaned out my neighbor’s chimney, too, for free, which made her day.

Actually it’s not one long brush. You buy several lengths of black fiberglass tubing and they screw together like a fishing rod until you have enough to reach from the spark arrester (the cap on the top of the chimney that catches hot bits of ember should they attempt to escape to the roof) down into the firebox.

The brush is shaped like the ones you use to clean a bathroom sink drain or maybe the pipe leading from the clothes drier lint trap…except its as wide as a woodstove pipe and stiff, like a charcoal grill brush. You push it down the smokestack and then you move it up and down as if you’re churning butter…until all that dangerous gunk falls off the chimney walls into the fireplace down below. Then you can shovel it out and dispose of it and your fires will be more efficient…which saves you even more money.

Oh, I should have warned you…first you need to block the fireplace opening with a piece of thick plastic or plywood. Otherwise you’ll have to add to your résumé that you aren’t just a chimney sweep but also have experience cleaning soot out of living room furniture and rugs.

You’ll be amazed how much fun you can have if you let curiosity – and the penchant for adventure you had as a youngster – be your guide.

P.S. Discover how you can enjoy a more laidback, authentic, independent way of life in Truth & Plenty. Sign up below to have it delivered – free of charge – to your email inbox.

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