Off Neck / The Schoolyard / Thoreauvian Pursuits

A Slow Trip Back in Time

“I wanted to know where the trains were going.”

—Dennis Hopper to Terry Gross on his Kansas childhood.


The eighth grade class and I had been on the Amtrak Downeaster for over an hour before the obligatory question was asked by a certain wag: “Are we, like, there yet?”


We were in Dover, New Hampshire. “There” was Boston. It feels like a long way to Boston, and we actually sought to make it a little longer by approaching our destination by rail on this annual class trip. Sometimes, it’s good to go the slow way. It’s a test of one’s attention span and powers of observation.

I appreciate trains. In fact, it’s too bad you can’t take a train all the way from Bangor, Maine to Boston anymore. So we had to begin the railroad portion of our trip at the present northern terminus of passenger service: Portland. Whereas “fast” used to be the speed of steam train, nowadays diesel train time feels sluggish. But when you travel by train, you see a few 19th century vistas go by the window, and that was part of the point. We’d all been down the Maine Turnpike to Boston many times, but the railroad thoroughfare makes you think of a different era of transportation, goods, services, and community, and observing the former landscape.

We arrived, town by town, via the backdoor, via a right-of-way that has probably changed little since it was established. We clickety-clacked through town squares and depots new and old, and new-old—replica stations complete with old-fashioned railway clocks.  In some ways, it was a kind of “core sampling” of history, human settlement of this eastern corridor, the growth of suburbs, the decline of New England industries and the ascendancy of others, the decay and rebuilding of urban centers. Our iron horse bore us into the past.

Here were old iron bridges in Dover, abandoned mills in Saco, beautiful farms (dairy and Christmas tree) with exurbs pressing their boundaries, and constant fluctuation between cleared land and young forests. We passed clam flats with clam diggers hard at work; salt marshes hard by new condominiums south of Portland. Clearly in some communities we rolled through, the tracks used to be outside of town. Now they bisect neighborhoods. We passed steeples at the front door of towns (we could see Sunday services just letting out at St. Mary’s in Dover, New Hampshire) and smokestacks at the backdoor; town parks and salvage yards. And then, finally, the thicket of rail yards, suburban backyards, and triple-decker apartment houses on the final slow creep to Boston’s North Station. Now we were there.

The railroads brought standardization of time in the U.S. To my eighth graders, the train ride brought leisure and a certain suspension of time. We couldn’t go any faster, or stop any less frequently, than the Downeaster’s timetable. Other aspects of the trip had a similar slowing effect. A museum, for instance, gives you pause. Unlike, say, the Discovery Channel, the displays at the Museum of Fine Arts don’t change every few seconds. One becomes reacquainted with a long view, really seeing things because they don’t flicker on and off at a predetermined interval. Whether it was the Egyptian statuary or the Fillmore concert posters from the “Summer of Love,” the exhibits spoke to us of our attention span, and ourselves as watchers.

It’s true too of a city like Boston, the “city on a hill” laid out on old cow paths as opposed to modern urban planning and the logical grid of an industrial age city such as Chicago—“player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” The juxtaposition is glaring when such a city collides with a modern population’s growth and need for transportation and sanitation, scrambling to align its infrastructure with the future—the big dig, for example. We were guests on its front doorstep.

Are we there yet? As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There’s no there there.” But we saw plenty of “there”—or at least there was plenty to see, if you knew what to look for. Next year, perhaps we’ll take a different old time route. In the age of sail, the Downeaster was the name of a kind of freight ship, and it left our bay and approached Boston by sea carrying bricks, lumber, ice, and fish.  The sea: now that’s an old thoroughfare. I’m, like, totally there.

First published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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