My wife Sandi and I have been to New York City several times during the past 10 or 12 years. Each time, except the first and last, we flew out of the Greensboro Airport and into New York’s La Guardia airport. Our first visit to the city was on an overnight bus trip with a student group from Appalachian State, who the day before they left for NYC, told a friend of mine they had several seats on the bus left and that they were open to anyone with the forty dollars the trip cost.
Needless to say, Sandi and I quickly signed up and then scrambled to find a babysitter for however many kids it was that we had at the time.
I am happy to report that we had a great time even though we slept in bunk beds at a dumpy loft that ASU had on the lower west side at that time. I forget the exact date, but do remember that the World Trade Center was still standing and that we took the elevator to the top and sat outside/open air, in a little alcove and viewed the entire Manhattan profile from our lofty perch. It is a scene I vividly remember to this day.
But I digress. With energy prices the way they have been the past several months, as Sandi and I were considering a trip to the city to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary, it became apparent, Travelocity style, that airline tickets were going to cost way too much and that other means of transportation would have to be investigated.
I had overheard someone mention Amtrak over lunch one day and later looked up the cost online from Raleigh to New York as a whim. I was surprised to find that the tickets were about half of what Delta or American airlines wanted and kept my eye on both for a week or two. After I had secured a hotel we could afford to stay at, I then began to actively persue our transportation. When it became apparent that flying would cost way too much, I booked us onto the train and in so doing budgeted an extra couple of days, vacation-wise, that it would take to accommodate the long train ride to NYC.
And in so doing, I much confess that there is a big back-story to this whole adventure.
Many, many years ago, as a youth, I had taken the “Cannonball Express” train one summer from Detroit, Michigan to Terre Haute, Indiana to visit my grandfather who also happened to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad his entire life. Maybe not entire but you know what I mean.
During my visits to my grandfather and mother, I would go to work on the railroad with him. He was sort of a big shot in charge of switches and signals and we often found ourselves in the middle of nowhere following the tracks in order to get to a signal box that needed to be fixed and or checked for functionality. He had a truck that had small railroad wheels that could be dropped down on the tracks enabling it to ride the rails from one crossing to the next. Talk about cool—that was the top of the line for me.
I guess you can begin to get the picture that I had forming in my head as I booked our Amtrak tickets—Sandi and I back on the tracks that I had symbolically traveled as a kid—not the same tracks but the same adventure through the same type of rural America that I had traveled, lo those many years ago. Expressway travel has reduced our sense of place and history and sterilized our lives to the degree we hardly know about the places that originally birthed the American Dream.
So, it was with much anticipation that I approached our trip north. And I will say this up front—I was not disappointed by what I experienced. Our travels took us through the abandoned warehouse wasteland of what was once the pride of a quickly expanding nation. In between lush open spaces and verdant farmland, I was witness to the decay of our industrial complex—large tracts of land consumed by huge gray buildings, broken-windowed and graffitied—left to rot by landlords who had long ago abandoned them.
It is my theory that when we depended on rail transport for our goods, complexes were built close to the tracks and towns developed around this plan. When rail transport began to give way to 18 wheelers, much of that original landscape became the other side of the tracks and the rest is what we have today—large landscapes of rotting track housing and slum cities that can only be viewed from inside the safety of a railroad coach car. My heart broke as I considered life and living inside these almost forgotten zones. Poverty perpetuates poverty and it is hard to rise above when all you see around you is abandonment and dead-end streets.
These are places that most of us will never see.
So, after having been in NYC for four days, and on train ride back I had this thought (and I will end this with this)—what do FDR, Lady Bird Johnson, the World Trade Center and global warming have in common?
It is certainly a long ride that I am on—with all its curves and subtleties. I hope you stay tuned for the next ride.