Friday, August 8, 2014

My Tale from Riding the Rails

I love riding trains! Perhaps it is in my blood, as my grandfather spent his career working for the B&O. Recently, we enjoyed a week-long vacation to visit the final state we needed to complete our list of eastern states. We had never before made it to the extreme northeast corner of our country, but had always had a curiosity about Maine. To make it even more interesting, we decided to utilize Amtrak as part of our journey (and then rent a car).

We first drove to Washington and spent the night with friends, before boarding Amtrak at Union Station. We then spent more than eight hours traveling up the Atlantic seaboard with our eyes gazing out the window as America rolled by. We began in DC, and then had a number of stops, including Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York City, New Haven, New London, and Providence, before ending in Boston.

Pulling out of the rail yard in DC.

Train tracks take you into the heart of big American cities, as well as through rural forests and farmland. Train travel is a great way to see the country! This was not the more sterilized America found along interstate highways—this is the real America that Arlo Guthrie's song "The City of New Orleans" praises. Remembering his song while riding my grandfather’s “magic carpet made of steel” inspired my mind to create a customized version of the chorus:

"Good morning, America, how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your native son.
I'm on the train they call the Amtrak Northeast Regional.
I'll be gone 500 miles til we get to Boston."

Because we stayed relatively near the coast for most of the journey, I got to see lots of activities related to water. After passing the Philadelphia Zoo, we crossed the Schuylkill River, where I had rowed during races in the '70s. To my delight, an eight-man shell was rowing as we crossed the bridge! On the return trip, our stop at New London, Connecticut, gave me a good look at the last authentic wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.

We crossed many bridges, over small creeks, rivers, and wide estuaries. I enjoyed seeing egrets stalk and ospreys fly. I watched stand-up paddleboarders, jet skis, fishing boats, and yachts. I saw fancy marinas with "big buck" boats, as well as the simple view of poor folks sitting at various fishing holes with their fishing poles.

I saw various athletic facilities, ranging from historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia to the Prudential Center—the home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils. The train also went by a beautiful minor league ballpark in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the Bridgeport Bluefish play. Of course, our train made a stop at Penn Station, which is directly underneath the fabulous Madison Square Garden (we did the MSG tour there on one of our previous NYC trips).

On the return trip, I got the idea to use the Google Maps app on my phone to track our progress. Amtrak offers wi-fi and AC outlets, so it was easy to keep track of what city we were in, what sights were coming up, and how far to the next of the seven states we would pass through (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). It was fun to watch the blinking blue dot (representing my location) as it moved along the map where there no roads shown.

We saw a variety of living quarters, from farmhouses, to urban rowhouses, to high-rise condominiums, to historic New England homes built in the 1700s, to modern homes overlooking the coast. Interestingly, there were several old warehouses in various cities that had been converted to apartments. However, there were also some overpasses that appear to provide "housing" for homeless folks.

We also saw lots of spray-paint grafitti. Most of it was a waste of good paint, but I must admit that some of it was creative, and at least most of it was colorful. I have mixed feelings about grafitti. The artist in me can appreciate some of the efforts to create a unique graphic image, but I don't appreciate spreading your ego on someone else's property. Some of these people have real talent—they just need to find a better way to use it.

We got to see the gilded dome of the New Jersey state capitol building in Trenton, as well as the white dome of the Rhode Island state capitol building in Providence. Unfortunately, we also saw lots of urban blight, and many industrial and manufacturing sites that once employed thousands of Americans, but are now idle and decaying. I kept thinking about the powerful song "We Can't Make It Here" by James McMurtry (yes, his dad is the western writer Larry McMurtry). That song was on the “play list” for my American Government and Constitutional Law classes. It's not a happy song, but it evokes the sad truth.

Along the way, we saw lots of the shipping containers that can move on boats, trains, or trucks. The development of standardized shipping containers was the catalyst to the world's interdependent economy, which led to cheap imports and the demise of American industry. Ironically, it was an American trucking company that wanted to avoid driving their trucks in the congested northeast corridor of our country that invented the standardized shipping container concept.

There is a surplus of shipping containers in America, because we import more of them than we export. That has led me to think about shipping containers as a form of housing. We've seen such houses in our Caribbean travels, but on this trip we got to see an innovative container housing complex near Providence. It looked great!

One business that seemed to be doing well was the self-serve warehouses. Many new ones were visible from the train in these old industrial areas. I guess Americans need more space for all the junk that we buy that comes from overseas in those shipping containers. Another "industry" that seemed to be doing well was prisons—many of them can be seen from the train, with their high fences curving inward, and topped with razor wire.

The decline of American industry as seen from the train tracks was a bit depressing, but not a surprise. Half a century ago that same train trip would have been very different, when America was at its peak. It makes me wonder if we will be able to avoid the same decline that has beset every great country in the past. For example, at one time the British Empire had unparalleled reach and power, but after WWII it was never the same. I'm sure the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians didn't realize their empires were declining as it happened, because it is slow and gradual effect. Let's hope that America still has the chance to avoid a fall from grace. I still have hope! [Let me emphasize that this is not a criticism of any particular president or political party, because I’m an independent and I've not been impressed with any of them.]

A view of the Manhattan skyline as we crossed
on a train bridge from Queens into the Bronx.

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