I’m on a 9-hour-plus train ride, from New York City to Pittsburgh. In an age of air travel, some might think me insane. But I had myriad reasons for choosing the train. I didn’t want to pay the increasingly exorbitant prices for airfare. I didn’t want to have to search out a quart-size zip-lock bag to store my clear, 3 oz. bottles of conditioner and tiny tubes of toothpaste. Or smash everything I needed into a suitcase that would have fit in the overhead compartment, had there actually been any space in the overhead compartment. Or pay to check said bag.
I didn’t want to stand an anxiety-ridden hour in a security line, then frantically pull off my shoes, drag out my laptop, take off my sweater, and maneuver everything into plastic bins, through the conveyer belt and back onto my person, all the while bumping up against everyone else doing the same thing. I didn’t want to have my body scanned. I didn’t want to be squeezed into a space too small for the average human (hell, for the average dog) with knees pressed against the seat in front of me. I didn’t want to try reaching my things “stowed” (ok, spilling out every which way from) under the seat in front of me, only to knock into the tray on which sat my tepid coffee and 3.5 ounces of blue potato chips.
The price of the train (with AAA discount) adds up to just about the cost of gas if I’d driven, and nearly a quarter of the cost of available flights. And it has occurred to me that although the flight, itself, would have been short, the 9-plus hours on the train were only about twice the time it would have taken me to get to and from airports and through those security lines.
I’m on this particular trip for a particularly modern reason. I’m going to see my parents. My parents have reached that stage of life now called the “old old.” My father will be 95 by the end of the summer. My mother will be 89 next week. My father has stayed overnight in a hospital only once in his life and is on no medication stronger than the occasional Tylenol. My mother has so far survived a major heart attack, a stroke, a near-fatal car accident probably caused by a then-unrecognized seizure disorder, numerous falls and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. But both of them are now in the same place, practically speaking: living alone together in an apartment building in the neighborhood I grew up in. Living independently, but facing increasing difficulty getting around and slowly crossing the threshold into the world of the homebound.
And so, since my parents can no longer make the trip to visit me in New York, I take the trip to visit them. Sometimes with the husband and kids, sometimes, as is the case now, on my own. I could have driven. I love to drive, and although it is a long way—more than six hours, not counting stops—I’ve done it before. But I couldn’t see missing two days of work on the road. The train, I thought, would be perfect. I could plug in my computer, tune into the advertised wi-fi, and get my work done as the farms, forests and mountains of Pennsylvania rolled by.
Well, not surprisingly, the mobility of work is not precisely as seamless as advertised. The wi-fi is only in the café car, and the café car is cold enough to make refrigeration unnecessary. There are moments of blissful silence and others of long, loud conversation–between passengers and passengers and between passengers and phones. But worst of all, the computer bounces about so wildly that I find myself sending it mysterious messages even I don’t understand—the type gets big and small, the cursor disappears for long moments at a time, I move to delete a word and found I’ve deleted two pages.
On the other hand, we coast past lakes and rivers with rocks just catching the water in an egg-white froth. We tear through jungly woods. We pass farmers on tractors. We stop; a family of Mennonites boards. I hear the romantic howl of a train whistle—and realize it’s coming from us. Sometime soon, I know, we’ll hit the cinematic drama of Horseshoe Curve, where the track edging a mountainside doubles back again, so that—if the train is long enough—one can look across a gully and see its other half, speeding ahead or catching up behind.
There’s a wonderful, childlike adventure about being on a train—a real train like this. Not a subway, not commuter rail. A ride with romance and mystery and beauty, even if I do ride it with my smart phone at my side and my computer on my lap. And so as I head home to my frail parents, for a short time I forget their age and their ailments and the omnipresent threat of mortality, and find myself back in my own childhood skin, hurtling toward my parents as they once were.
I’ve chosen to take the train for reasons of comfort and work-life balance. But the train takes me, instead. It gives me a different kind of journey: into another time, into my own past. Into the arms of a family that exists only sometimes, only at moments like these.