On the train home

It’s not quite 8 A.M. on a Saturday and I’m on a train headed north along the Hudson River. I’m on the wrong side of the train for the best view, but I can look out the window between the spaciously-set seats.

The trees have just barely begun to turn; scattered among the green are tiny shocks of red or dusty yellow. But mostly the leaves are green, enough that if I weren’t looking for fall foliage I might not notice the hints of color. They’re most noticeable where the sunlight hits. The sky is turning bright blue behind white cotton wisps of clouds in the east, but in the west over the river it’s a muted blue against gray clouds that stretch along the horizon.

It’s a long train ride home to visit my family in Western New York, but a beautiful one. I usually fall asleep as we pass through the Catskills but today I’m determined to stay awake. I hope as we progress west that I’ll get to watch the leaves change, and that when I arrive home it will be fall, which it isn’t quite yet in NYC this weekend. Sometimes in the morning or late evening the air smells, just a little bit, like the crispness of Halloween from my childhood, when we’d wear layers under and over our costumes because sometimes it was cold enough for snow. But mostly even on cool nights the air still smells like late summer, or trash, or nothing at all.

I like traveling by train better than any other form of travel. Cars and buses give me motion sickness most of the time, so I spend those trips sleeping. Planes are fine, once I’m on them, but getting to and from the airports in NYC is painful. On the train, I can read, write, or just look out the window, and get up whenever I want. Sometimes I even get a seat to myself. Train stations are easy to get to and navigate. Amtrak tickets are fully refundable if you have to cancel at the last minute, and pretty cheap if you buy in advance. The ride is long, but I tell myself to consider it part of the vacation, the time I have to myself to relax, and it’s usually lovely.

We’re pulling into Croton-Harmon station and my eyelids are drooping (a 5 A.M. alarm will do that) but for a moment there was water on both sides of the train. Half an hour in there’s a little more yellow and orange along the river, and the western sky is brighter blue. There’s a pond-like body of water alongside the tracks—or does it become a marsh when it’s full of cattail reeds? I can’t remember when I last picked a cattail, and these don’t have the heavy brown heads so maybe they’re something else entirely.

The sun is now high enough (and out from behind clouds) to get in my eyes as I look out the window. It lights the river and the hills, and the houses overlooking the river seem like toys from here. One is big, red and boxy with white trim and a white porch. We pass through a town and the river disappears for a few moments behind a high sheet of rock. When it emerges again there’s a pond again beside me, open and shimmering in the sunlight that floods the train.

We pass a subdivision, all the houses a uniform beige in the sunlight as we chug by, and while I think it’d be lovely to live out here, I don’t think I could do it like that, even if it meant being less isolated. It’d feel like cheating, to live near the river and not in one of the houses perched on a hill, looking like a good push could tip it off into the water.

We’re meant to get to Albany-Rensselear station soon, where the train usually sits for twenty minutes. They say you can get off for a break then, but in the seven years I’ve ridden on this route I think I’ve gotten out once. The idea of being left behind while my stuff goes on without me isn’t appealing, somehow.

Before Albany the ride gets shaky, making walking to the bathroom more difficult and rattling the tray tables. It’s unusual, but I also don’t usually end up on this kind of train, with its extra leg room, foot rests, and oversized tray tables. I think it’s because this train goes all the way to Toronto, whereas the one I usually take stops at Niagara Falls.

On my trip to the bathroom I notice a guy in the row behind mine who looks like someone I met a few times in college. During the longer-than-usual stop in Albany I catch his attention, confirm that it’s him, and say hello. We’re from the same city, something I remember discussing once in college. The world is pretty small. Oddly I’ve yet to run into someone from high school on the train, though I think there aren’t that many of us in the city.

When the train turns west I stop paying such close attention to the scenery and alternate between chatting with my college acquaintance and chatting with my seatmate. I’ve always been good at making friends on trains and talking does make the time pass more quickly.

When we get to the last hour of the ride, I turn back to writing. The trees are more colorful here, but they’re not bright yet, just golden greens. Maybe Thanksgiving will be a better time for leaves, if we don’t have too many storms, but they may all drop by then.

I started rereading one of my favorite books this week—Tam Lin by Pamela Dean—and today I realized that subconsciously I was probably drawn to how much fall and Halloween play a part in the novel. It starts in September and covers three years, ending with a climax on Halloween, and the first fall lasts over 200 pages out of a total of about 450. I’m traveling upstate to experience fall as it should be experienced, with apple picking and cider and pumpkins, so it’s no wonder I felt like reading a book set so firmly in the season.

It’s afternoon now, and I’m almost home. But with a little ways to go, it’s time to read more, and to look out the window at a New York that’s not NYC.

6 Comments

  1. I love that stretch of rail! I've taken it so many times I've learned which side I prefer to sit on (the south side) and like you, I've made friends with seatmates, met old friends by surprise, and overheard many an interesting conversation.

    And I know what you mean about preferring trains over other forms of transit. Airplanes always feel a little bit like cheating, sort of like sending emails over long distances. You get there so fast that it seems disrespectful to the space you've covered. Traveling by train, or sending paper letters enhabit that distance, and don't leave you feeling like you've misplaced hours the way you do flying over the Atlantic.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I've been thinking about it for a while now, what it would be like if this country had put money into high-speed railways instead of into interstates. It took me two years but I finally decided to take the train home to Pittsburgh, and I've done it a few times now, and it's so effortless. It's longer than a bus ride or a flight, but more comfortable and much more beautiful. I find myself staring out the window more than I would on a bus, and even though it's the exact same route that I take, the same time, the same stations and towns, it still keeps my attention. I think we're lucky in this area to be able to use the train like we do, to have that option when much of the country doesn't.

    I love the image of it turning to fall by the time you get from NYC to home. This really is my favorite time of year for looking at the trees. And when there's that crisp blue sky, everything stands out, sharply, almost as though it's more real than when the sky is any other color.

  3. Hi Clara! I posted this last week but not as a reply, so you probably didn't see it. So lovely to get your comment (and I'm going to catch up on your blog now because it sounds like you've been having great adventures!). I love what you said about not misplacing hours while traveling–it's so true! And weirdly (it sounds contradictory but it's not) I also feel like time is a little bit suspended on trains. I was thinking about that on the ride back and remembering the bit in the last The Dark is Rising book when they're on the time train and people come in and out of the car from all periods of history. My ride wasn't quite that exciting, sadly!

    So nice to hear from you! Let me know if you're going to be in town at the holidays, I'd love to get coffee and catch up!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Sarah! I'm always happy to find out other people love trains (and fall!) as much as I do. :)

  5. I just saw this reply now! I'm sadly not going to be home for the holidays (plane tickets are just too much) but I'd love to catch up in person some time. Sorry it didn't happen last year when I was living in NJ! But for now? It's a pleasure reading your blog. :)

  6. Definitely let me know whenever you're in NYC or at home next! And I'm glad you're enjoying the blog—I'm enjoying yours too! :)

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