Stumax 2

Digital Boogaloo

As much as I love Seattle, I do enjoy being back on the East Coast. I’ll have landed in or passed through some of the greatest cities in the country on this trip – Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, DC – even Mystic, Connecticut!

I’m really settling into the trip now. I feel I’m in my element on a train, a welcome break from the off-balance way I’ve existed for the past few days. Providence is lovely, but the conference folks were definitely from a different world.

The Acela Express trains are not quite up to the standard of their European counterparts – France’s TGV and others – but they are respectably appointed, comfortable, and fairly quiet. Zipping along at speeds of up to 150 mph, the usual clickety-clack of the wheels turns into something resembling the reassuring whirr of a piston engine.

It’s an interesting way to see the world, on board a train. In Europe, I was disappointed in my wish to see the countryside, as the high-speed trains there travel – quite understandably – between view-obscuring berms. There’s some of that to be experienced onboard the Acela, and there are the usual gritty industrial zones and gray, run-down residential areas that coagulate around the rail lines. However, there are also significant stretches of waterside villages with their marinas and harbors and houses for the wealthy. I was even able to glimpse a fog-shrouded Manhattan skyline at twilight, just as the lights of the Chrysler building came on.

Twenty minutes later, the train left Penn Station and emerged from the subterranean rail lines into the tunnel of darkness. Now, with the cabin lights dimmed, the lights tend to be only occasional pinpricks or glowing orange pockets of the odd settlement. At high speeds, the WHUMP of a passing train rattles the windows and cures us of our hiccups.

The one tiresome aspect of the voyage – only partly alleviated by the new iPod – is the cell phone conversations. For my part, I’m terribly embarrassed to have my one-way conversations full-volume even in an empty car, much less with other passengers surrounding me. Heck, I didn’t even want to sit in the Quiet Car -where cell phones and loud conversations are banned – for fear that the light typing I planned to do might disturb someone. But I must have a disease or a syndrome of some kind because others seem perfectly capable of carrying on all sorts of inane gab fests without the slightest hint of regret.

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I worry that these folks aren’t taking advantage of the great benefit that travel offers – perspective. Seeing the world at 100+ mph, at the slightly elevated height of the tracks, is to my mind one of the great opportunities of our modern life. When much of our lives are lived in the canyons of city blocks or the caves of our various dwellings, it’s essential to occasionally see the world differently. Look here and see where our old cars are piled up. Look there and see people in rags sitting on the stoop of their ramshackle cottage, next to the burned out husk of a brick apartment building. Watch a bird hang motionless over the mast of a sailboat. Watch grand cities turn into graffiti-covered suburbs, turn into lush forests, turn into beaches and quaint little downtowns, and back again. Put the phone down. Does your wife really need to know for the third time that you’ll be in at 10:30?