I just got back from a weeklong vacation in New York. The vacation represented a lot of firsts for me. On the first of May, for example, I had my first bucket of steamers. They were incredibly fresh, covered in sand, and tasted nothing like bratwurst.
Earlier in the week, I had my first oxygen facial. As I discovered, this was a lot like a regular facial. Except that at the end, the aesthetician pulled out a small tool that looked like a dental spit sucker, and blew air at my face. It tickled. Then she charged me an extra 80 bucks.
I also went to the New York City Ballet on the first day of their new season. The program was a modern and playful celebration of American composers. The final number was set to Stars and Stripes, and the backdrop was a floor-to-ceiling lights display of the U.S. flag. And despite the fact that not a single person in that ballet company appeared to have put on any unwanted weight this winter, it was a very American program.
This vacation represented some other firsts for me, too. It was the first time since becoming a parent eight years ago that I went away by myself for longer than a few days. It was also the first time that my husband – with help from my mom -- took care of the kids by himself for longer than a few days. Given that nobody was lost, institutionalized, or expelled from elementary school, I’d say it went pretty well. But I’m looking forward to hearing more about it more over the next few days, weeks, and possibly even years.
One thing I did not do for the first time – because I did it for the second time – was take the train back and forth to New York.
You may be tempted to feel sorry for me because I am phobic about flying, but you shouldn’t bother. Because I already feel sorry for myself. Also, I’ve already written about this topic publicly, and I don’t want to hog more than my fair share of global pity.
It’s true that my dislike of flying has prevented me from taking some vacations. And from enjoying others to the fullest extent. I do fly a few times a year, which means I fly roughly as often as a privileged house pet. Also, my aviation therapy has definitely helped. Inspired by that experience, in fact, I’ve decided to make a number of other lifestyle changes. From now on, I’ll be using cellphones instead of Morse code, toilets instead of communal outhouses, and cars instead of velocipedes.
At least I didn’t drag my husband with me this time. Having to cut your precious vacation time short because you are crazy is hard. But having to cut your vacation short because someone else is crazy– whether that someone else is your wife, your husband’s law firm, the drunken Italian guy driving your cruise ship, or the parents who brought their kid to Disneyland with the flu -- is much harder.
And really, the train isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. I mean, it’s far worse than some people think. And probably a tiny bit better than most people think. But it isn’t shockingly sucky. It’s sucky in exactly the ways that you’d think. It leaves late without explanation. It stops constantly without announcement. And it changes engines in Albany for more minutes than you can believe and then – when it finally starts moving again – it moves backwards. Those tracks are for cargo, train passengers. Not for people who hate to fly.
In short, it’s a mixed bag. A mixed bag of nuts that gets you to your destination six to ten times slower than an airplane, and also costs more money.
Now that I’ve ridden the train a few times, though, I feel competent to share some observations. And since you probably don’t know that many people who still ride 19th century forms of transportation, you may want to pay attention. For those of you who are a little train-curious, here are my top three insights into the world of long distance trains.
Or as I like to call them: the “airplanes of yesterday.”
1. Train Travel Is Ideal for 5 Kinds of People. And 6, If You Count The Amish.
As you might expect, there aren’t many business travelers on long distance trains. You may think that is the only difference between train and air travel. But in fact, there are only five kinds of people – other than the Amish, who totally represent on the rails -- for whom the train is an ideal mode of transportation. The most ideal passengers fit into more than one of my categories.
First, there are Train Buffs. These folks are train enthusiasts who –– rather than excusing or justifying their choice to ride the train across country, as some of us do -- affirmatively celebrate it. To a train buff, the train is “more civilized” than air travel. It’s also more relaxing, more scenic, and more comfortable. It’s their favorite way to travel, they say, because “ it’s more about the journey.”
The train buffs have a point. Especially if “civilized” really means “slow.” And “it’s all about the journey” really means “this train will take forever.” There’s nothing wrong with embracing a slower pace of life. I grow my own tomatoes, despite having noticed that they’re also available at the grocery store. And I’m not saying that train buffs should eat Lunchables, or learn how to heli-ski, or spend 1,500 dollars on a pair of Google glasses. But I do think their enthusiasm for train travel may rest on a unique and possibly outdated interpretation of the meaning of civilization.
I heard a story on the first leg of my “journey,” in which a pair of regular train riders actually missed their own daughter’s wedding. That is because they took a train to the wedding, and it got delayed for almost half a day. I don’t know why. The person who reported this story to me – who was also a train buff -- observed that they “probably should have taken an earlier train.” Yes, probably, I thought. Or alternatively, not taken a train. Unless the train was actually more important than their daughter.
Second, there are Ailing People. The people in this group basically ride the train because they’re not as healthy as they’d like. Some are a little sick in the head and choose to take a train to New York instead of flying. But I gathered from my conversations in the dining car – which is seated communally, unless you can figure out how to game the system and sit alone – that train riders have a vast array of physical illnesses. Like arthritis. And varicose veins. And a pathological aversion to wheat flour.
Personally, I can’t explain the observably strong link between food allergies and train travel. Maybe it’s correlative, rather than causative. Maybe allergies are easier to manage when you’re moving backwards. Or maybe gastrointestinal ailments are just a natural topic of conversation when you’re sitting with a total stranger at the breakfast table, and the waiter offers you toast. I don’t know. But believe this. If you give someone with lactose intolerance the chance to talk about it on a train, he or she will take advantage of it. Because on a train, there is always a captive audience.
Third, there are Old People. Old People haven’t completely taken over the rails yet, but I’m pretty sure they’re working on it. And this makes sense. Because in fact -- and don’t tell this to the train buffs -- old age is the only time in adulthood when life actually is about the journey. Metaphorically speaking, older people don’t really want to reach their final destination. And in a practical sense, they don’t have to. Because they no longer have young children to return home to, or day jobs. Most of them are retired. If they reach their final stopping point on Tuesday -- or in March of the following year – it doesn’t make much of a difference.
To some extent, the advanced age of the train riding community also helps to explain the preponderance of train buffs and ailing people. But some of the people I’d include in the category Old aren’t really that old. They simply share characteristics of an older person’s lifestyle. On the way out, for example, when I could no longer dodge the dining car, I met a man from Oakland. After riding all the way to New York from California, he was going to take the Queen Mary to Europe. I asked him what he did for a living; the length of his journey made me mildly curious. Currently, he said, “I’m living off the stock market.”
Fourth, there are Foreign People. This category is nearly as self-evident as the Amish. Training is just what Foreign People do. As I discovered this past week in New York, other things that Foreign People do include walking around the Modern Art Museum so fast they step on you, and then sitting leisurely in outdoor cafes for hours, doing nothing but smoking and drinking. Typical foreign travelers on the train include middle-aged Bangladeshi men and older English ladies. But sometimes there are also young European women, whom you can identify as foreign travelers because instead of wearing sweatshirts, they walk around the train in booty shorts.
The final category of ideal train passenger is Children. In my humble opinion, children should be a larger group of train riders. Because children -- much like old people – don’t live on a schedule. At least not one of their own making. And children like riding in things that shake and rattle and crawl through the countryside at an inexplicably slow pace. I’ve never interviewed an Amish child, but I’d be willing to bet that they are pretty damn excited to ride around in a horse and buggy.
Also, unlike business travelers, children like to be trapped in small spaces for long periods of time. That is particularly true if they have their parents’ undivided attention. Sure, they have movies and music players and video games, just like on an airplane. But after they’ve used all of their electronic devices on a train, you’re still only halfway there. And then, after they’ve pushed the folding sink up and down forty times, jumped around on the bunk beds, and pulled out the folding tray with the painted checkerboard until it breaks, you actually have to play games with them. If the train is delayed, they don’t even care. They don’t know what day it is, anyway.
2. Trains Are a Great Way to See America. At Least the America That Lives Along the Train Tracks.
Train buffs are right about one thing: Train travel does allow you see America in a way that airplanes don’t. Seeing, of course, is the operative word. Because while America is going by outside the picture window, you are trapped inside the train with your children, the retired community, and a lot of people who can’t eat Gorp.
The best part about seeing America is that for the price of your train ticket, you not only get a few slow-paced meals and unlimited amounts of coffee, but you also get an informative pamphlet about the America you're seeing out your window. You leave Chicago, for example, “where the word ‘skyscraper’ originated in 1885,” and roll across the Indiana state line to Hammond-Whiting, where “notable natives include the original ‘Doublemint Twins’ of the famous chewing gum advertisements.” Past Gary, Indiana, you reach a town, which – in 1896 and 1897 – launched the age of flight with manned glider excursions. You might find this ironic. You then learn that Elkhart, Indiana is the “mobile home capital” of America, that “Etch A Sketch” comes from Bryan, Ohio, and that during daylight hours in Toledo, you can see “some of the world’s largest grain elevators.”
Rochester -- for reasons that are not apparent from where you are trapped inside the train -- is ranked one of America’s top cities for quality of life. Syracuse has more snowfall than “any other large U.S. city.” And unlike “most of the nation,” Albany’s “last call for alcohol” doesn’t take place until 4 o’clock in the morning. And what’s more, you get all of this living history before you even reach Poughkeepsie (home to the Smith Brother’s famous cough drops until 1972) and Beacon (the “hat making capital” of the United States).
Alongside these landmarks of our nation’s proud history, of course, you also see beautiful farmland, picturesque waterways, and possibly some wildlife. On the way out, for example, I saw a turkey standing on a high tree branch. Prior to this train trip, I had not realized that turkeys perched in trees. On the way back, I saw Lake Erie. At first, I thought it was Lake Michigan and I actually felt bad.
At the same time, a lot of what you see from a train is not very picturesque. A lot of what you see from the train is not picturesque for the very reason that you can see it from the train.
Here is a list of some of the other things I saw: 18-wheelers driving on the highway that was parallel to the train tracks. Rusty train bridges. Stacks of tree trunks chopped out of the countryside. Mounds of old tires piled up next to dilapidated sheds. Burnt out shells of old VW buses. Controlled fires. Old industrial era storefronts that may or may not be abandoned, sporting signs for local events like PIG ROAST and KABUL NIGHT and AMERICAN LEGION CABIN FEVER PARTY. Lots and lots of telephone wires and poles, some of which have fallen down. Discarded plastic bags. Discarded plastic chairs. Discarded shredded tarps. Broken buckets. Scrap metal. Mobile homes. More than a few people who looked like they might just have emerged from an Albany bar. And garbage in the backyards of the people who live in the dilapidated houses along the railroad tracks.
It was America all right. Or at least, one part of America. The other part of America is the one that exists when you soar above the clouds, and watch an in-flight movie. In that America, the only mobile homes you will see are the heated doghouses in the in-flight magazines, that cost more than an oxygen facial.
3. Air Travel Is An Unpleasant But Necessary Hassle.
One thing train buffs like to say in the dining car is that over the years, they’ve gotten “fed up with air travel.” By which they mean, it’s unpleasant getting herded around like cattle. It’s also a hassle dealing with security. They’re sick of the airlines losing their checked luggage. And they don't like having to wait in the airport during weather delays.
Never mind the fact that trains are – in fact -- the standard mode of transportation for actual cattle. But I’m still not sure the “air travel sucks” argument makes sense.
The day I left on the train, some air travelers across America were experiencing furlough delays because of the sequestration. I felt a little Shadenfreude about this. But as a friend of mine observed, those airplanes mostly weren’t delayed for 18 hours. They were delayed for more like 4 hours. And even if the travelers then missed a connection which required them to sit at another airport for 4 hours, those passengers still arrived in New York roughly 8 hours before we did.
There are airplane horror stories, which can’t be denied. Several people I know got delayed by severe weather over spring break, and got to their fancy vacation destinations two days late. My family once got stuck on a tarmac for several hours. When the plane finally returned to the terminal, the crew told everyone they could get off and buy lunch while they waited for permission to leave. But then the plane suddenly got cleared for takeoff, and it took off. With someone’s sleeping infant. I could only hope that a flight attendant took care of that baby until it was reunited with its parents in Pittsburgh. But I guess we’ll never know.
And there are other problems with air travel. According to news reports, air traffic controllers in America still use an antiquated system that is one standard deviation away from Morse code. There’s no money in our Grecian budget to pay for updates. The best thing that can be said about La Guardia airport – which was our New York airport of choice, because we lived on the north end of Manhattan – is that it is slightly more modern looking than the prison on Rikers Island.
Still, unless you’re retired, or living off the stock market, or lactose intolerant, it’s probably worth the hassle to fly. For one thing, that’s the only way to get to Cabo or the Caribbean for spring break. Even I know that it’s unreasonable to take a 3-day train trip to California for a 10-day vacation, and I’m an Ailing Person.
In their zeal to trash talk air transportation, I also think that train buffs play down the number of hassles they encounter in train travel. It’s true that there are no security lines. You can keep your luggage with you at all times. In that luggage – if you don’t encounter a police dog at the train station in New York -- you can carry as many juice boxes, handguns, machetes, and kilos of cocaine that you want, and no one will be the wiser. I snuck into the Amtrak first class waiting area without a ticket because I didn’t want to wait in line. No one called the dogs.
If you spend extra money to travel on a sleeper car – which you probably will, unless you’re a German girl in bootie shorts – you can charge all of your devices in your private roomette. You don’t have to wait for the flight attendants to roll over your toe with a cart to get coffee. And you don’t have to wait to get up for the bathroom until the violent turbulence has ended, and the captain has turned off the seat belt sign. In fact, there is no seat belt sign. Because the train is on a track, and therefore not subject to sudden changes in air density. In double fact, you don’t even have to get up for the bathroom at all. Your toilet is right next to your bed. You can just roll yourself over onto it.
Then again, you also have to sleep next to that toilet for 18 hours. Fortunately, they don’t make you eat next to it. But you can if you want. And if the train is delayed by a passing cargo train and a couple of heavy storms, you would be wise to sit on that toilet and snack it up. Because you could be in northern Indiana all day.
Also, airplanes are famously airless environments. Sickness and disease shoot out of those overhead fans like oxygen from a dental instrument. Except that there’s no oxygen. But trains aren’t exactly clean either. I’ve told this story before: I once asked a porter how often the mattresses were cleaned. He looked right at me, clearly considered lying, and then said without apology: “I’m gonna be honest with you. The answer is never.”
As far as I know, the air on a train is much cleaner than the bunk beds. But everything in there must be cross contaminated. Because to change your clothes in your room, you have to put your dirty bags on the bed and your suitcase on the toilet. And since the train conductor makes no announcements – and it takes 15 minutes to change in that tiny room -- you might still be changing your clothes when the train pulls into the station in Albany. That could be really embarrassing. Fortunately, no one will notice. It’s 5 am and they just had last call.
In conclusion, the train took too long. I still had a great week – or almost week - -in New York. And despite the train's general suitability for only five types of people, I still think everyone should try it. Once. Take your children on the train so they can see America from the comfort of a private toilet. Take your parents, as long as you aren’t all due at a wedding. Take a computer and hide in your room working and guzzling coffee, until it’s time to eat lunch with someone who has restless leg syndrome.
Now that you know what to expect, it will probably suck a lot less. And hey – at least it’s not the bus.