Friday, August 12, 2011

The Empire State Express

Train in mountainsThe Empire State Express

One of the best things about living in Brooklyn this year has been getting to our home in the Adirondack Mountains each weekend.  And the easiest way to get there is to take the Empire State Express train from Penn Station in mid-town Manhattan to Utica.  The 4.5 hour trip is comfortable and allows me to sit back, read, sleep and do some work.  But the best parts are the scenery and the people I meet that make this old-fashioned mode of travel so great.

First off – this beats just about every other travel option.  Compared to the airlines there are none of those long security lines, less than enthusiastic gate agents, downright apathetic flight attendants or clear blue skies out the window.  The station agents and conductors really believe that they’re part of a grand tradition and are thrilled to have people join them for a journey – they know that what you’re seeing out the windows has been seen by countless millions for more than 150 years.  History means something to them and the travelers who are mostly train buffs.  And compared to driving: well, forgetaboutit.

Second – you just never know who’s going to sit down next to you.  Most of the time every seat (there are only two across, so no middle seat) is filled, and unlike on an airplane, everyone is cool with that.  On a recent trip a young woman from Shanghai (as in China) asked politely if she could sit next to me (the politeness was so refreshing).  She came to America four days before as part of a Fulbright exchange program – she and 45 others will be teaching Mandarin to Americans for the next year.  She’d just finished a 4-day orientation in New York City, complete with a full day of sightseeing.  Not only was her English impeccable (she’d been studying/learning it since she was six and had majored in it in college), but her thrill at being here was infectious.  The wide open spaces, cleanliness of cities and air, freedom to talk about anything with anyone, availability of the internet (mail, Google search, Facebook and Twitter), and the chance to experience what we take for granted were some of the things she’d dreamed of for years.  She was on her way to Columbus, Ohio to teach at a college there – and I want to tell you those students are in for a treat.  The four hours we spent talking about just about everything re-inspired me to the wonders of our great country.  When’s the last time you got inspired on an airplane?

And lastly, there are the things you see outside the windows.  This train follows the Hudson River all the way to Albany, then turns west and follows the Mohawk River all the way to Buffalo.  This is the route that was developed shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War by far-sighted settlers who understood that the future of their new country was dependent in large part on establishing a route that connected the coastal states with the vast interior of America.  Over this water route was an easier way to transport goods from Europe and the coastal states to the settlers who pushed west and then back (as the food and trade goods were shipped to and through the growing port in New York City’s harbor).  The Hudson River is big – the tides flow all the way to Albany – so you can see ocean liners and barges plying those waters from the windows of the train.  You can also see the places where George Washington and his army fought the battles and other places that are so much a part of our history:  West Point, Hyde Park (Franklin Roosevelt’s home), and the amazing bridges that connect both sides of this amazing waterway.  And then from Albany the train travels west along the Mohawk – as in Drums Along the Mohawk, The Last of the Mohicans, the Iroquois Nation, the Erie Canal (with its amazing serried of locks), Fort Stanwix; again, through and past so much of our country’s early history.  Did you know the Industrial Revolution began in Bridgeport, Connecticut and followed the waterways and waterpower of these rivers?  I love this route because I’m from around here, but my new found Chinese friend was just as wide-eyed as I was the first time I traveled this route and learned about this history – Google the Erie Canal and learn more about how America began its journey from sea to shining sea.

I’m no historian, but the history buff in all of us can be inspired by a trip like this.  And to chat with someone from around the world (literally) about the things we saw and had generally experienced in our lives was not something that happens every day.  On that return trip there was a young teenager taking the train for the first time, a group of tourists from France, a Bosnian family that had recently emigrated and relocated to Utica, and other regular travelers who take advantage of this easy conveyance through New York State – all of them having fun and watching the wonders of the world go by.  The French group had a dozen travel and history books and chattered endlessly about what they were seeing - when’s the last time you looked at the things and places around you with a fresh set of eyes and expressed wonder and appreciation for them?  Most of us take most of what’s around for granted and so we probably miss some of the importance and beauty of them.  Given the ease with which we can look stuff up on the Internet, there’s no reason not to study up on the things that are around which are too familiar to be fully appreciated, again.  Take time today to close your eyes and then re-open them with a new perspective – the people, places, things and ideas around you may hold more than you thought.  The world around us is a big and wondrous place – all we have to do is look at it anew.

My message this week is about pride and how we feel about ourselves and the world around us:

Arte Nathan“The infinitely little have a pride infinitely great.” –Voltaire

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade.

Everything is important…to someone; so what’s important to you?  Things you own, things you do, things and people you love, places you visit, books and knowledge you grow by, foods that taste great and nurture you, friends and family and pets that love you unconditionally – all of these (and so many others) can and often do fill your heart with pride.  And you don’t have to be a big shot, or in a needy situation, or in control, to be able to understand the value of these or their importance to you and others, or to feel a sense of ownership and pride for them.  Because it doesn’t matter how big or small they each might be – it’s what they mean to you that make them so important.  And whether they’re tangible or intangible, they are the things that help make you what you are.  Take time today to better understand the things that can and should fill you with pride – and let them make you a better person.  Because no matter how little you are, or they are, you can have pride that is infinitely great.

Stay well!


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