I’d never really understood why, when my friend Jill would come from Ticonderoga, New York to visit me in the city, she would spend the money on a train ticket instead of driving. The train isn’t cheap – sometimes more than a plane. But now that my car has been neglected to the point that the insides smell of gasoline and the suspension system protests loudly when I hit a bump, much less a pothole, I decided to treat myself to a leave-the-driving-to-us situation. And what a right decision!
First of all, even though I’ve become a New York City Public Library devotee instead of a Strand or Barnes and Noble patron since my small apartment discourages accumulating possessions, even books, even for an English professor, with the prospect of a train ride I bought two books for the trip – American Pastoral and The Suburbanization of New York. How often am I given the gift of 11 hours with nothing more pressing to do than read?
The Amtrak seats are commodious, not like a plane. My knees can’t reach the seatback in front of me. The seats are wide and deep enough that I’m able, when the train isn’t crowded, to lie comfortably. I slept hard for two hours, having vivid, sexy dreams.
Food. Yes, I packed my lunch, but I’m 60. And a woman. I even got down from the back of a top shelf a thermos I hadn’t used more than three or four times and that over a year ago and sipped hot tea as the snowy landscape whisked by. But it was when the young man across the aisle from me rattled a plastic bag getting out a sandwich – two thick slabs of bread with dark green lettuce and whatever else in between – that I realized, Hey, this is really different from an airplane. On a plane almost no one thinks to bring a healthy lunch from home, not even me. Something about that old-fashioned, country practice just doesn’t fit with the modernity of air travel.
Oh, and just the overall experience. I’m entirely responsibility-free – well, once I got myself to Penn Station on time. The conductor will see that I don’t miss Port Henry. I’m part of a larger enterprise, on its way to Montreal. I have my little cocoon of neighbors: the sandwich guy across the aisle and I smile at one another as we each put our feet back up on the seat next to us, the couple who’d gotten on at Albany now at Schenectady having been able to move to a seat together. And there’s the hypnotic flow of the landscape in all its infinite variety.
Yes, there’re certainly benefits to car and plane. But this lovely experience on the train makes me ponder once again the cost to quality of life exacted by our 20th-century additions to mass transportation.
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