CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Connie Burchett is in an unfamiliar place, her first instinct is to find railroad tracks. Then she follows them.
"If I do that, I know I'll find camp," she said.
The Norfolk Southern Railway operates 36,302 miles of railroad tracks. Every day, those tracks bear trains carrying coal and industrial supplies across the Eastern United States. They're heavy, and the wear on the railroad tracks is tremendous.
So the trains are followed by groups of railroad workers — they call themselves "gangs" — who work on the railroad, repairing and replacing parts as they wear out. They travel with a caravan of people, vehicles and mobile homes that sit atop the train tracks.
Burchett, 53, is a part of one of those caravans. She's been a cook for railroad gangs for 14 years.
She, along with the Norfolk Southern gang she's working with now, have been moored in Charleston for the last six weeks and expect to be here another month. The men in the gang are working to replace worn railroad ties on the tracks in and around Charleston. Burchett is feeding those 45 men "three square meals a day."
"These boys are plain old meat-and-potato boys," she said. "They're just like my brothers, and I like to cook for them."
It's not seasonal work — they're employed year round — but they travel constantly. They work through cycles that depend on the lifespan of the parts they're replacing and the tonnage of the weight they bear, but there's always work to be done.
When they're close enough to home, most of the workers drive there on the weekends. But that's not always possible, and the long drive cuts into the time they can spend with their families. Burchett spends far more time cooking in the gang's kitchen camper on the railroad than she does in her kitchen back home, with her two daughters and four grandchildren.
"If you don't want to miss anything at home, you better not get a job out here," Burchett said.
Still, many of the crew members have worked in the gang for years, alternating weeks of manual labor in far-off places with weekends at home with family.