The Amtrak train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia always took more than seven hours each way, which is about half again as long as it took to drive. But I didn’t own a car when I lived in Pittsburgh, so if I wanted to see my family it was either take the train or walk.
I liked the train, though. It was generally peaceful. You could get up and walk around whenever you wanted. There was a dining car that sold little bottles of wine – I learned fairly early on not to buy the meals, which weren’t bad but weren’t worth the price either, so I’d pack some nice crackers and a wedge of good cheese, buy some wine, and make a meal of it.
Plus, you met interesting people on the train.
I remember spending some time chatting with a woman from Norway who was just appalled at the lack of any real social safety net in the US by Scandinavian standards. While I tended to agree with her, it was fun to become someone else for a while and try to defend the American system as being the right way to go. It’s interesting to see things from the other side. You might learn something that way.
My favorite seatmate was a guy from the East Coast somewhere – he got on a stop after me and was continuing on long after I left. We were both headed home for Thanksgiving, and we had a great time comparing stories. Somewhere around Harrisburg the conversation ebbed, and he closed his eyes to get some rest.
This left me to look out the window.
You do that on trains. The rails go thrumming by underneath and you stare out at the passing landscape in a sort of hypnotized trance. There’s a lot to see.
You go through some gorgeous country on that route – the mountains through central Pennsylvania are lush and wooded, and the train goes around “the World-Famous Horseshoe Curve!” at one point. I had never heard of “the World-Famous Horseshoe Curve!” before I started taking that train, but I got to know it well over the years I lived in Pittsburgh. If it wasn’t quite as famous as the conductors wanted it to be, it should have been. It takes you through nearly three-quarters of a circle as you go around the valley from one mountain ridge to another slightly lower down, and it really is an amazing piece of engineering.
You pass by a lot of rural areas, straggly settlements of a few houses here and there and single-lane roads that come right up to the tracks. Sometimes they cross over. Sometimes they turn and follow the tracks for a while. There were always street signs at those turns – signs marking intersections that weren’t intersections, not really, just bends in the road that had caught some surveyor’s eye.
You also pass through cities. Trains never go through the expensive parts of town, pretty much by definition. They’re loud, they interfere with other traffic, and most of their business is freight anyway. Wherever the trains go is down market just because the trains go there. They go through the warehouse districts, the industrial areas, the poorer neighborhoods where shrieking rails are just one and not the most worrying of your problems. You see a lot from the train.
As we moved on from Harrisburg to Philadelphia we passed through a small city, this one in Amish country. There are a lot of Amish and Mennonites in eastern Pennsylvania, and you can see them in their horse-and-buggies and their distinctive outfits, cruising along in a 17th-century time warp. Hey – it works for them.
We were in a warehouse district, rumbling along in that slow, deliberate way that trains have in cities, when I woke my companion.
“You have to see this.”
We were on one side of a long row of warehouses running parallel to the tracks. Between us and the buildings there were long, empty parking lots, smooth and clear and hidden entirely from the road on the other side of the warehouses. And on one of those lots was a large Mennonite man.
He had the typical look one associates with that sect from looking at the pictures in the news – a big man, burly and barrel-chested, the sort of man you would see in a blacksmith shop without thinking twice about it. Long beard, no moustache. Straw hat. Yellow flannel shirt. Black pants held up by suspenders.
And a pair of day-glo rollerblades on his feet.
He was pacing the train, almost keeping up with us in fact, though I don’t think he really cared. He was simply enjoying himself, doing something that gave him pleasure and harmed no one. His beard bobbed in the wind. I have no idea how he kept his hat on.
We watched him for a while, as the train slowly outran him, and then he reached the end of his parking lot, turned around, and started racing back the other way. My guess is that he spent a lot of that afternoon doing just that, back and forth, enjoying the air and the exercise.
It’s little things like that, small, almost inconsequential things, that make life interesting, that make life fun, that make life worthwhile. It’s the ability to enjoy those little things, without fear, without worry, that is unspeakably precious and often so rare in this world.
Hold onto those moments, and be glad in them.