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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Train Travel*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat August 9, 2009
as "A Journey of the Soul"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

I was sitting at my desk, contemplating an upcoming business trip to New York City. I was researching flight schedules out of Pittsburgh, adding up the hours I would need to allow, taking into account the drive over, security, and all the folderol I’d have to endure once I got there. My best guess was that this 90-minute flight would take about 8 hours to complete. Yes, I could have flown out of Johnstown to DC, but for two reasons. First off, the seats on those planes are decidedly tiny, whilst I am decidedly not. Plus, I’ve about had my fill of the roller-coaster ride I always seem to get on those flights over the mountains.

As I continued to ponder, my eyes went to the windows where outside, Johnstown lay basking under the bright sunshine of an all-too-rare perfect summer day. My gaze wandered across the rooftops, eventually resting on the train station. It took my brain a moment to make the connection, spawning a novel idea. Why not take the train? Upon researching, I discoverer that the train took about the same time as the convoluted process of flying. And cheaper, after looking at gas and tolls to and from Pittsburgh, a rental car, and parking in Manhattan (up to $50 per day at most hotels). I could catch the train one block from the office, and ride all the way into Penn Station, right near where I needed to be for my meetings. My bosses bought the idea, an easy sell since they tend to err on the side of the parsimonious.

On the appointed day, my wife dropped me off in front of the station, our goodbyes tinged with the sadness of two people grown used to having each other around. We've gone through this several hundred times, and no matter whether I am gone for 6 days or 6 months, those final moments weigh heavily upon us both.

I entered the station and walked straight to the platform. No metal detectors, no luggage search, I didn’t even have to remove my shoes. The train arrived almost exactly on time and upon boarding, I found myself in a surprisingly well-appointed cabin differing only from an airplane in one special way. Windows. Big, wide windows. I hoisted my bag up into the spacious overhead and sat down, discovering to my delight that the seat was wide and very comfortable. I’ve only flown first class once, after catching a gate agent in a weak moment, but this compared very favorably. Glancing down, I saw by my knee two electrical outlets. Gleefully, I plugged in my cell phone and iPod and set them to charging.

I had scads of legroom, and even when the lady in front reclined her seat (which went back quite a ways) I didn’t feel like she was laying her head in my lap, as is the sensation on an airplane. Within moments, the train was rolling. No waiting for permission to taxi, no long line on the runway, just board ‘n’ go. I saw that there wouldn’t be a movie on this trip, but I quickly discovered why. The “movie” was happening outside my window.

You can’t tell the history of trains without also telling the history of small-town America. The landscape of this country is liberally dotted with communities for whom the railroad was their reason for being. We can, and often do, drive through them without a second glance. But somehow, seeing them from the train tracks, they seemed different, as though perspective had gifted a measure of historic understanding.

Highways circle cities; airports, with some exceptions reside on the edges. A train, on the other hand, travels right through the community's heart. You see ballfields and back yards; glimpses of people’s lives flash by like frames in a movie. Two moms sit in lawn chairs, talking while their kids splash in a bright blue wading pool. An elderly woman works slowly, patiently in her garden. A young man wheels his motorcycle out of the garage, ready for an adventure of his own. And meandering down a street in a small town, two boys astride their bicycles do what young boys do best on a summer day: absolutely nothing. Sometimes, a child will turn and wave joyfully at the great silver visitor. Automatically, you return the gesture and for a brief moment, you are drawn into their world, and they into yours.

Rich people, of course never live near the tracks. Their homes, large and ostentatious yet somehow utterly devoid of character or personality lie well removed. The homes you do see have stood their ground for many years, their exteriors, like so many of us, showing the ravages of time. And yet they exude a certain character and wisdom. You sense that if their walls could talk, they would tell powerful stories, raw tales of adversity met by people of valiant courage, abject surrender, and even tragic loss, all writ large on the well-worn parchment of the human experience

Also along the tracks are the signs of a teeming economy long since departed. Warehouses and old factories line the tracks, their red brick exteriors shrouded by a patina of dust, dirt, and soot. The windows, long devoid of glass, allow brief glimpses of their tired interiors. And yet, for a century or longer, they’ve remained upright, stubbornly and patiently waiting for someone of vision to restore, revive, and resurrect them to a new life, their walls once again echoing the vibrant din of human activity.

Or perhaps awaiting only the merciful euthanasia of the wrecking ball.

Between the towns, the countryside rolls by. Liberated from the distractions of driving, navigating, and monitoring traffic, I was freed to gaze out the broad windows. I saw dense forests, dark and mysterious; green meadows speckled by brightly-colored wildflowers; fields full of healthy crops arrayed in their perfect geometry. Herds of cattle, horses, and the occasional deer dot the landscape as the graceful clouds serenely float above. There is a peaceful, languid feel upon the land and as I watched, I felt the serenity enter my soul. Here, isolated from the frenetic stress of everyday life, I found myself surprisingly, delightfully at peace.

Almost without exception, America’s great cities were born along a waterfront, or a rail line, or both. As the train approached Philadelphia and New York, I could see that the center of business had moved away from the rails, lured by the concrete ribbons of freeways. What remained was the crumbling detritus of the past. Bridges, splotchy with rust and corrosion spanned yards containing moldering piles of scrap metal, weeds, and unidentifiable chunks of broken and misshapen concrete. Scattered here and there, you even see the carcasses of old railcars and locomotives, all which have become an urban canvas for opportunistic taggers. And in the distance, rising like the mythical Oz, gleaming towers of glass and steel stand aloof, seemingly dismissive of the rich history that lies at their feet.

Every journey, whether arduous or enjoyable, eventually ends. Whether you step off into the riotous chaos of Penn Station in New York City, or the quiet platform in Johnstown, you arrive rested and relaxed.

Train travel may not be for everyone. There are those who simply can’t function without stress, anxiety, and a full-throttle pace of life. For such, “serene” is simply a synonym for “boring.”

But for the rest of us, a journey of the soul awaits along the byways of the American rail, a journey especially meaningful for those who sometimes lie awake on a summer’s night, hear the distant call of the great rail-bound voyager...

...and smile.
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