THE COACH — As the train knifes through the night like a silver snake, there are sounds of a struggle, a scream, a shot. Could it be the end of the countess who’s to deliver the microfilm? The famous diamond smuggler, Jan van der Karat, in a million-dollar gem deal gone wrong? Maybe the drug lord, Carlos Carlos, was finally tracked down by his competitors. All right, it’s none of the above. But this is still a train that I’m on as it knifes through night snake-like. Specifically it is Train No. 68 going from Montreal to Manhattan, and I will give you a few tips on how to make the trip fun, interesting and safe – as long as you turn over the microfilm.
Let’s start last spring, when my wife said we should view the autumn leaves turning. Texas has some things turning, mainly the Houston Turning Basin. Don’t you love the smell of napalm in the morning? No, to fully view the maples and oaks and other trees (I speak fluent horticulture) one must go north, way up north. So we began at Montreal, visited a few days, then came to the train station, the Gare Centrale, with tickets in hand. Purchase your tickets ahead of time, $113.90 for two, coach (this train only has coach), and get in a looong line. The train is Amtrak even though we are in Canada. It’s Southwest Airlines on the tundra, and there is no reserved seating, so arrive early. Amtrak really ought to get its act together on its departure program and avoid all this standing around.
To view the leaves, I was told to sit on the left side of the car. Apparently even among forests there is the wrong side of the tracks. We sit in the only seats left — the right side. Promptly at 9:30 a.m. the locomotive begins pulling out of the station. I reach to fasten my seatbelt only to remember there isn’t one nor, while still in the terminal, did some over-zealous TSA agent give me a body search. I offered to disrobe and be searched, but she refused. Looking out the window, I remember that trains always go through the ugliest parts of towns, so I get a good view of warehouses, undersides of freeways, junk yards and dumps. Then the scenery turns better, with farms and country roads and small villages. Soon we are rumbling through a tunnel of timber, really pretty.
After a few hours we grind to a stop, and the doorway is filled with this monstrous black-clad, burr-cut Christmas tree sporting a gun, handcuffs, black pockets with bulges, bloused black trousers stuck into shiny black paratrooper boots, a walking armory. Welcome to the United States! It is a though the Statue of Liberty is holding an Uzi aloft. Give me your photo ID, your hidden weapons, your huddled masses yearning to sneak in undetected. He has the letters CBP stitched on the back of his uniform, which stands for Cautious Big Person or maybe Catcher of Bad People. I figure he moonlights as a Brinks armored car.
After ordering us to keep our seats, he slowly moves from passenger to passenger, checking the forms we had filled out earlier, asking questions: “Where are you going?” “New York City.” “Why were you in Montreal?” “Trying to drink Canada dry.” “Is that a joke?” “No, sir. Please don’t beat me.” Should I tell him about the countess with the microfilm? I fully expect him to hiss, “Your papers are not een audur.” Actually, he is quite nice, in an intimidating sort of way. Two Chinese students fail to have the correct papers and are sent to the dining car to be thoroughly integrated and probably water-boarded. It takes an hour to determine who looks Arabic. Couldn’t the CBP (Chasing Bewildered Passengers) troopers board the train some miles back and go through their inquiries while we move along? This is many Canadians’ introduction to their southern not-so-neighborly neighbors.
Now comes a most important point: bring your food and liquor (they serve beer). The trip lasts 11 hours, and the “dining car” is a counter with one overworked waiter/cashier. He serves perhaps the worst hotdogs I have ever eaten. Pre-packaged pizza, hamburgers, all in and out of two microwave ovens and absolutely awful. Those of you who used to take trains remember the dining car as a happy place with tables and chairs, white table clothes and napkins, china, silverware and a kindly waiter who took your drink order and then brought out whatever delight you ordered. I blame Obama and the press.
We make a few stops at small stations – at one, six Amish farmers are gathered to visit, but ignore newfangled gadgets like railroads. Actually, few people get on or off, then on through the leaves. An announcement comes over the address system saying that in Car 12 or whatever a tour guide will tell us what we’re seeing. I attend and find about a dozen passengers listening to a volunteer from the National Park Service who tells us the Revolutionary War battles fought around here, the Green Mountain Boys, and Benedict Arnold’s escape on a British warship called, ironically, the Vulture.
Night falls, and the train glides along the Hudson, the moon reflecting on the water. We stop at Albany, where some get out for a smoke break, only yuppies. Schenectady (a rustbelt town absolutely), and we hear that mournful train whistle. We’ve all heard that beautiful sound a lot, but when it’s your train, well, that’s special. We arrive in NYC at 8:30 p.m., right on time. No waiting an hour for our bags to come down the carousel. Trains beat planes every time if you’re not going too far, and bring your own dinner. Just watch out for the countess with the microfilm being chased through the night like a silver snake by men in black.
Ashby is railroaded at email@example.com