Wineka column Riding the magic carpets made of steel from Connecticut to North Carolina
Riding an Amtrak train last Monday from Hartford, Conn., to Salisbury, N.C., I couldn’t help but hear strains of the old rail song “The City of New Orleans.”
Arlo Guthrie sang the version I’m thinking of, which includes phrases that stick in your head such as “all along the southbound odyssey” and how the “sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.”
It’s easy to become poetic, even sentimental, about riding a train because railroading has been part of American history for so long.
As a train glides through the countryside, there’s something soothing about being nudged back and forth in your seat by the movement.
The song described it as “rockin’ to the gentle beat and the rhythm of the rails.” It really does feel as though you’re riding a magic carpet.
I’ve always thought trains were a bit overrated in terms of scenery and what you can see from a window seat. I know that’s close to heresy for train buffs ó I’ve seen the Amtrak calendars and the spectacular photographs in train magazines.
But a typical train trip along the Eastern Seaboard also reveals its share of what you expect to see next to most tracks.
The backs of windowless warehouses. Rundown homes. Rooftops. Backyards. Junked cars. Graffiti. Kudzu. Freeways. Cemeteries. Loading docks. Parking lots. Spindly trees. Ball fields.
I’m not complaining. I prefer the landscape to what you see from an ascending or descending airplane, and my own rail trip offered several great scenes.
I especially liked my view west from Long Island Sound toward New York City. The thousands of buildings looked like a mouthful of uneven teeth against the skyline.
Out of nowhere, the train also crossed several major bodies of water. I could only guess what they were based on the train’s progress, but I’m sure I crossed the Delaware and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
A train has electrical outlets at every seat, handy for personal computers or portable DVD players. A long train ride also is a good time to read and get caught up on work.
Train seats offer a lot of room, much more than an airplane coach seat or a bus. I compared my seat and spacious legroom on the Crescent, which goes from Washington to New Orleans every night, to having a first-class seat on an airliner.
About 11 Monday night, I walked to the lounge car and had a hot dog and Diet Pepsi. I think I paid about $7.
The train conductors along the way were helpful ó not so bothersome. On planes, I feel like I have to know where the flight attendants are at all times and how long it will be until my next free beverage and bag of pretzels.
On a train, you don’t even fuss with seat belts.
Most of the trains I was on Monday were filled, owing to high gas prices, no doubt.
My one-way trip from Hartford to Salisbury cost $160. Driving straight through would have taken about 12 hours and at least $130 in gas. My rail journey was supposed to take 14 hours, but I had a two-hour delay at Washington’s Union Station and didn’t arrive home in Salisbury until 3 a.m. Tuesday.
Waiting in Charlottesville, Va., I thought of another line in the song.
“Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning.”