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The slower route

The slower route. Taking it, occasionally, can quicken the tempo in one's life. I remind myself of this when the surface pace of my weeks and months threatens to reach a steady "fifth gear," and I recall an ordinary train trip I took a few years ago between Boston and New York. In this airshuttle, supersonic era, I had never taken it before.

Friday's business appointment in New York was scheduled for 2 o'clock; it was now a lush, warm afternoon on a Boston Thursday -- but foggy, with a forecast of thunderstorms and denser fog for the next day. I didn't want to fly in storms or risk being grounded, so I asked a company travel secretary to cancel my air ticket. I'd take an early train to Manhattan and be on Wall Street in plenty of time.

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It suddenly seemed a doubly attractive idea. I had spent a season or two -- totally, it seemed -- in the pressurized cabins of jetliners, being shuffled up the automated runways disgorging their human cargo, milling through air terminals which all seemed identical, so that I might sit for another day or two in smoky conference rooms, and it had become intolerable. I suddenly wanted to let a few hours of wooded landscape, flow by, and catch a glimpse of the water's edge which I knew the train passed en route.

The travel secretary smiled and handed me the standard shuttle pass. "Take the ticket, just in case," she admonished." "You're going to oversleep [our companywide team had been working 50 to 60-hour weeks on the project, and it was catching up with us], and you'll miss the train. It's practically all junk piles and backyards from here to New York; what will you do for five hours, anyway?"

"Um, read," I answered lamely. "Look over my notes for the meeting. Write letters. Sleep?" Under her common-sense scrutiny, the project seemed ludicrous, a sentimental attempt, perhaps, to conjure up past journeys through the Swiss alps, Italian villages, farmland n Wiltshire or the Loire River valley. I thought of the massive East Coast stretch of suburbia from Boston on south (Bos-Wash, one wag called our future megatropolis). I helped. I took the air ticket.

Friday dawned murky but calm; I was faced with a choice and was still tempted to bolt for the airport. I could take some "personal time," as the company called it, and spend the morning in the Museum of Modern Art or visit my favorite Egyptian cat at the Met. I could shop or meet a friend for lunch or just sit in the park. But I was intrigued by this archaic novelty -- an American train. I packed roughly ten pounds of useful ways to occupy five hours: business notes, magazines, a novel I had to review, a swatch of unanswered correspondence, some stationery, and a smudged envelope with the scribbled lines of a half- emerged poem. I seemed to be preparing for a trip to the Gulag Archipelago.

Once under way, I quickly discovered that it was virtually impossible to write legibly; reading for longer than a few minutes became a strain. Worse, the scenery outside did indeed offer a bleak prospect of innercity blight and industrial waste: and the two small children behind me registered a similar disgruntelment in more voluble terms. I protested by going soundly to sleep.

When I awoke, it was to the level blue- gray stare of an infant seated in his mother's lap; he offered me a crooked grin and a damp, well-gummed cookie. I accepted and schared an apple with the pair. When, after only half an hour of conversation and some rather tasty cookie crumbs, they got up to leave, i felt a gang of regret.

I helped them gather their bags and waved at them from the window while the mother smiled at me and waved the child's tiny hand up and down while he grinned. I felt sent off again on my journey, like a relative.

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The sky brightened toward New York, and the woods glowed with a luminous haze -- a red flush in th tips of branches, a fragiel apple-green shimmer in the earliest whorls of leaves unfolding. Skunk cabbage flourishd in the marshy stretches, and a dark, weathered gem of a late 17th-century saltbox house stood on the edge of a pond, sheltered in a secret stretch of forest. Remembering the highway, a mile back, and seeing the end of the woods flash up to reveal a shopping center and another network of roads. I felt the press of urban development like a physical thrust. I wondered who lived in the ancient, secret house, and how they viewed the tightening network of prefabricated homes and instant shopping malls.

As if to answer thi silent lament, there came the droll comment of a tent, pitched at the edge of another pond on the long sloping lawn behind a standard suburban home. Some interpid young soul was returning to the "wilderness." The shifting images became a rapidly changing palimpsest -- one scene overlaying another: three boys playing ball - one lad, in a burst of childish spirits, heaving it straight up over his head, mitt up, to catch it again. The train whisked me behind some trees before the ball began its descent. (Perhaps it's still up there.) A moment later a massive brick ruin loomed, a burned-out fctory; but flowering vines twined up its walls, thrusting green tendrils between the charred bricks and covering its blank walls with pink and violet petals.

No great landscapes, no momentous insights. But I thought of the Bedouins and the Himalayan Sherpas I'd read about, who regularly test for stretches of time while travel- ing in order to "let their souls catch up." Come to think about it, my Grandmother Clara used to say that. I must have forgotten it, if I'd ever known; but I was remembering. And if mine hadn't quite caught up with itself -- with the underlying wholeness -- after a season of airports and jet lag, it seemed to be at least at a friendly hallooing distance, waving a greeting as I heared a slower journey's end.

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