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Diary of a ride on the rails

October 23, 2012
By RANDY LEWIS , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

It's 8 a.m. As I sit quietly in a train in Penn Station, in midtown Manhattan, my fellow travelers begin to pull their suitcases and bags through the train, looking for their seats. Train 69, Amtrak's Adirondack, is beginning to fill with travelers heading north. I hear many languages being spoken, and there are a number of parents managing their children as they walk down the train's center aisle. Every age group is represented on this morning's train. I've seen several senior citizens and even more college-age kids. I can see many folks my own age, as well.

I hear, "Dadada " from a small child three rows ahead of me. I can also hear some louder-than-normal music from a teenager's headphones about four rows back. One by one the seats fill, and I watch people settle in with their cups of coffee, laptops, pillows, smart phones and Kindles, making a little home-away-from-home right here in their comfortable train seats.


Article Photos

Train 69, the Adirondack, traveling over the Hudson River at Albany at 11 a.m.
(Photo β€” Randy Lewis)

Taking off: 8:15 a.m.

Quietly, almost imperceptively, the train begins to roll out of the station. It is now 8:15 a.m. I have my book of Sudoku puzzles, my writing "stuff," a tuna sandwich I bought in the station before I boarded the train, and my new cloth carry-all I bought at the 6th Avenue street fair yesterday. As the train picks up a little speed, we head north, mostly under the West Side Highway. Sometimes we are out in the light, between streets on the Upper West Side. Mostly we are underground, like in a subway. Patches of light that pour down to the tunnel darkness are spots for local graffiti artists who have decorated the otherwise dark walls with colorful artwork, bright splashes in the valuable sunlight.

We emerge into daylight a little south of the George Washington Bridge. Northern Manhattan is on my right, and the Hudson River and New Jersey on my left. Most all of the trees are still green. The morning sun sparkles on the windows of the high rises on the New Jersey side of the river. The spires of the George Washington Bridge rise majestically into the sky as we pass beneath. The train whistle sounds.

The northernmost piece of Manhattan Island comes into view. Inwood and High Bridge are on the right, and the moving waters of the Harlem River churn dramatically under the bridges. Then comes the Bronx. As we continue north, I now immediately see the beginning of autumn. Hardwoods on the New Jersey side are beginning to turn orange and gold. I'm heading home.


Palisades: 9 a.m.

About 45 minutes after leaving Penn Station, I am gazing out at the Hudson (or New Jersey) Palisades. The sharply rising cliffs on the west side of the Hudson River are massive geological gifts to the eye. They rise straight up from the river's edge, upward of four or five hundred feet. The majesty of these cliffs holds my attention for miles of riding, rocks jutting straight upward, and patches of gorgeous fall colors everywhere the trees could stand, with the mighty Hudson flowing to the sea right underneath its gaze.

As we continue northward, Catskill mountains appear, rounded and tree-covered. Autumn is taking a stand down here in the southern counties of New York state. What a glorious chance to see all that gaiety and joy all over again! A trip through physical space is also a trip back in time for this northern Adirondack resident.


Wildlife: 9:15 a.m.

After an hour we are in the heart of the Hudson Valley. Shades are at peak with orange and gold and copper the predominant colors out the train windows. Amazing birdlife can be seen as well. A flock of Canada geese takes off from the river's surface, at least 40 birds taking their vee-formation to heart, right next to the Amtrak windows. A few minutes later, a huge bald eagle flies alongside the train window, heading southward, almost within touching distance. The city is far behind us. Small Hudson River villages are scattered among the gentle golden rolling hills. It is a quiet October morning, and the train whistle blows as we make our way home.


Catskills: 9:50 a.m.

It's now 9:50 a.m. A tugboat chugs along behind a very long barge. Taller Catskill mountains rise up to the west as we continue. Their mounds are massive, with swaths of red and orange blazes covering them all. Above them, white puffy clouds assemble. As I look further north, I see more clouds, and I wonder if I'll see rain before I pull into my own driveway, a couple hundred miles away from the blue-skied city. Right now the sun shines, and I am soothed by the clickety clack of the train wheels moving over the route home.

On a log in the river a pair of cormorants stands, wings outstretched, drying in the morning sun. Duck blinds have been built a few hundred feet into the water. Fishermen stand on the shore. Sailboats float by.


Albany: 10:30 a.m.

Inside, a child begins to fuss and cry. Two hours and 15 minutes afterleaving Penn Station, we pull into the Albany-Rensselaer train station. The capital city's landmark skyscrapers are on the west side of the Hudson. Soon I will be, too.

After a half hour wait, we pull out of the station and say goodbye to the Hudson as we ride high above it on a rail bridge, heading to Schenectady. The clouds are big and puffy and now cover the blue sky. As we pick up speed, I feel as though I were on a horse suddenly released from confinement. Fast and sure, we chug ahead. The train stirs up fallen leaves which race by the window as we move on. The train whistle blows again and again.


Saratoga: 11:54 a.m.

We cross the Mohawk River, and when the train pulls into the Saratoga train station before noon, I am released into a world much more familiar to me. Leaves are mostly golden, or fallen. And the sight of my own mountains waiting for me is a true welcome home. Amtrak provides me with this wonderful journey several times a year, and I never fail to appreciate the geography of New York state when I'm on the rails. But I always appreciate coming back to the place where my heart resides, deep in the mountains we call Adirondack, deep in the forests of my home.


Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.



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