Before the North Country got its first (light) snow and while the trees still had most of their leaves, we took a short train trip to Quebec City.
My wife and I drove from Potsdam, made it through the border and parked at the Cornwall train station in less than an hour. The VIA Rail building’s interior is the sort of tiled, nondescript waiting area you’d expect. But going out the back door and standing by the tracks is like stepping into an iconic past:
The low, brick building. Dull steel rails. Turning to see them run from one horizon to the other. It’s an indelible scene from our cultural history. This is how the backdrop must have looked when millions of 19th- and 20th-Century Americans left rural hometowns for the city, for war or college. But by the time my generation came of age, we were sold on the independence and possibility of cars.
I want my money back.
Standing under the deep eaves of the train station and watching leaves the color of fire shake in a light breeze, I can now see that rails hold the same promise as any highway.
But the train is so much better. I can’t remember the last time I hopped behind the wheel and had a uniformed attendant offer to bring me anything from the snack menu. When you’re driving, no matter how soporific the road you’re on, you can’t just take a nap. And, of course, on the train you can take bathroom breaks that don’t delay anything or anyone.
And it’s much better than flying, too. VIA Rail doesn’t ask you to wait in long lines, then demand that you slip off your shoes, belt and dignity. They don’t irradiate passengers to generate cartoon nudes. Airlines want you at the terminal two hours before take off. We left the house two hours before the train’s departure. And even though we sat in the economy section, we were in the wide, comfy recliners that airlines only offer in first class.
It was relaxing, too, in a way that flying just isn’t anymore.
We rolled past small containment ponds with surfaces reflecting the blue and white fall sky. The motion of the train combined with the wind across endless fields of unharvested corn to make it seem like we were rolling through wide rivers of churning sawdust. White church spires and anodized silos dotted the landscape.
And I got to see it all. I mean really see it. I didn’t have to keep my eyes on the road. I could just look out the window and watch the slow-motion non-drama of a fall day play across the plains of eastern Ontario and western Quebec.
And then I took a nap.
If there’s a better way to travel, I want to know about it.
Next: the trouble with (theoretical) trains