Traveling on the rails helps you see the country a different way

I just read Keith Gorgas’s piece about his experience leading an America By Rail group around New England, from the Aug. 16 Enterprise, and had to share my own family’s experience of a rail journey this past April, going from the Albany Amtrak station all the way to Raleigh, North Carolina.

We had no car, except our own that we left at the Albany Amtrak station for almost two weeks (parking is pretty affordable there), and so we were fully dependent on Amtrak, public transportation and our own legs. It was a fantastic vacation and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to feel proud of America.

We decided that we would stop in each big city along the way for a couple of nights on both the outgoing and the return legs of the journey. When in Raleigh, North Carolina, we would stay with my parents who recently moved there. So, on the way down and back, we stayed in New York City and Washington, D.C. for a total of three or four nights each. The benefit of traveling by train is that you disembark right in the heart of the city. Before the trip, I found hotels within walking distance of subway and metro stations in both cities and found places we wanted to visit, again within walking distance of public transportation. Our kids can now boast that they’ve seen pretty much everything that Manhattan and the larger D.C.-metro area have to offer – and all without a car.

We were at the mercy of Amtrak schedules, stuck behind a slow Tropicana train bringing oranges north from Florida, and jostled on crowded subway trains, but because we didn’t personally have to navigate traffic or feel like we would get rear-ended because we didn’t know where we were going, the trip was so relaxing and the “inconveniences” became adventures.

On the trains, we could read books to the kids, study subway map geography, eat snacks, get up to visit the bathroom, walk around and view the beauty – and the intriguing underbelly – of the Eastern Seaboard in total leisure.

It is fascinating to see America from a train compared to the interstate or an airplane. Traveling by train feels very real because you are there with the landscape as it evolves from city to small town to countryside to military base to historic site to scrap yard to railyard and on and on.

And as a general rule, train passengers across the wide demographic spectrum are happy, polite and relaxed. You not only feel connected to the American landscape, but to its citizens, too, and there’s a feeling of pride and wonder at the vastness and variety of the country that you miss out on when you’re traveling inside the monotonous little world of your own car or a high-stress airplane. I wondered if I would be tired of the train by the end of the trip, but I was sad to pull into the Albany Amtrak station and realize the adventure was over.

The train and subway tickets were very affordable compared with taking our car or going by air, and so we were able to budget visits to museums and zoos, which are very pricey. Hotel rooms were our biggest expense, but we saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars by cooking our own food. My husband’s day pack was filled with rice, dehydrated beans, oats, nuts, dried fruit and a small rice cooker. Each morning and evening in our hotel rooms, we would plug in the rice cooker and make our own breakfast or dinner, which meant that we only had to pay for lunches out on the town. We definitely stimulated the economy with our tourism, but we also did a ton of no-cost sightseeing because we did so much walking and simply experiencing the moment-to-moment atmosphere of the places we were visiting.

Beyond our economic impact, the benefit of our trip on the United States, at-large, is similar to a foreign cultural exchange; the educational impact on us and our kids was priceless, and we have a greater understanding of and respect for the tremendous natural and cultural resources of this country, and we care more deeply about maintaining them. This is not something we have gained from car or airplane trips in prior years.

I am hoping that the reader has been drawing parallels between the economic and cultural benefits of our trip to the potential for train tourism on the Remsen-Lake Placid rail line through our Park, with visitors disembarking right into the heart of our communities. From what we saw all along the Eastern Seaboard, and from what Keith Gorgas writes in his guest commentary, thousands of people are using trains as their preferred method of transportation for tourism, and New York state should tap into that in the Adirondacks.

In the same Enterprise issue in which Mr. Gorgas writes, there is an article about Greece’s failure to have the foresight to maintain their Olympic venues after the 2004 Olympics and what a waste of billions of Euros this was, which seems to be a major reason Greece suffers from extreme debt today. We are in the same position with our rails: they are here now, they have the potential to be a huge resource for visitors and residents, and we are wasting precious time and tax dollars debating whether we should tear them up. We don’t want to be the subject of a future article in the Enterprise talking about how, like Greece, we should have heeded Ben Franklin’s, “A bird in the hand “

In the meantime, while we wrestle with what do with our rails, and while the rest of the U.S. is working toward creating high-speed rail lines and adding more train departure times in cities all over the country, I highly recommend a train vacation such as we experienced. It was like we took a rail trip through Europe, only we didn’t need to have a passport or thousand-dollar airfares to get there, and we came back with tremendous patriotism. Just imagine, though … someday we could just walk to our local stations in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake or Tupper Lake and ride the train to anywhere!

Sunita Halasz lives in Saranac Lake.