Getting there is half the battle
Around Long Island, ''railroad'' is a dirty word, not just because it is expensive and so often off schedule, but because the railroad itself is dirty. Any day, anytime, the weather outside the window is grimy - unless you think that grayish-green is the natural color of water, sky, and cornfields. Some, however, find compensation in the tradition of smoked glass - so popular now in office buildings, in the chauffeur-driven limos, and in the plastic sunshades. The windows on the Long Island also give a certain privacy since you can't look in. Of course, you can't look out either.
Then there is the matter of the train whistle - a plaintive sound associated with the building of America, when iron wheels cut dark-brown swaths across the heartland, and night winds carried the muffled notes far into the valleys, long after the train was lost to view. It was an eerie sound, a welcome sound - mixing warning with romantic fantasy. Now that sound is driving strong men crazy: ''If he doesn't stop honking that thing,'' the man across the aisle from me sputtered, talking to the air, ''I'm going to take action.'' And indeed, the haunting notes that once sent shivers of comfort to the lonely on the prairies and caused farm workers to dream of golden cities and townsfolk to conjure up exotica and mystery, were becoming a pain in the ear. At every juncture, moving from Montauk to New York City, the train announced itself with blaring frequency.
In other ways, the ride was just as memorable: cars that clanked along, bare and dingy; families that brought on board the last remains of their refrigerators - pungent smells that made their way over passengers not prepped for midday dining; one ''eccentric'' who kept talking to the air conditioner; and the usual amount of mis- or no information - local stops called out in multiple, and major transfer points ignored. ''You're supposed to know,'' a regular informed me, more in astonishment than disdain.
Having forsaken my car, I was taking my first such extended railroad trip in a decade. Three hours after boarding at Montauk (three hours of being rattled, deafened, hungry, dirty) I disembarked - at the wrong station. Yet I vowed to take the ride again, for all the filth and the discomfort.
Regulars will scoff at my romanticism. To their charge that I find adventure where they find only aggravation, I reply that they are right. I ought to know. My own daily transportation takes place via the New York City subways - the ''urban challenge,'' as the sociologists like to say, and an ''adventure'' only in the wildest sense of the word. But I mean to separate the words ''train'' and ''railroad,'' and to separate the idea of having to go to and from a job, every day, from the idea of traveling (which has to do with occasional trips and journeys). And it is travel by railroad, instead of car or airplane, that I favor.
''You think it's the Orient Express?'' an incredulous friend remarks, as though my fondness for atmospheric mysteries marks me for the far side of reality.
''You have time to waste on traveling?'' The question is significant in the way that it is asked. It is not getting there that interests most, but being there. And we tend to be impatient. Planes in place of railroads. SSTs in place of planes.
But what I discovered on the railroad trip was that I was still ''there,'' as I started, and then, but only imperceptibly, transported to my destination. On a railroad trip, physical distance becomes psychological time - the kind we ought to give more heed to. Despite the window grime, I saw the scenery change. Scrub oak and pines gave way to high-rises, open fields to heat and congestion. But it all happened slowly, gradually, inevitably, easing me into a return. Others, to whom I have spoken since, speak of similar subtle-working transition.
We are borne along on the railroad ride, rocked into an idle cerebration or reverie, lulled by the rhythm of the rails and the constant rate of change of the passing scenery. We look out but do not concentrate. We give ourselves over to random associations evoked by sounds and sights around us. We read, fantasize , unwind. We instinctively wave back at the small hand flapping at us from the platform - ''Ma, I think there's something moving in there'' - and talk to strangers.
We cannot escape our heritage, the force and excitement of railroads past. There have been too many songs, movies, stories, poems, paintings, photographs. The Railroad Myth is powerful. Record stores still sell railroad-sound recordings. And attractive maps of the Long Island Rail Road at the turn of the century are bought by the very people who condemn the line vociferously.
The word ''nostalgia'' may be apposite, for it means yearning for family and friends, a strong desire to return home. Behind the outrage and complaint at how the railroad has degenerated is, I think, a faint recognition of its value as a symbol and a desire to see this most civilized way of traveling restored. In its compartments, moving across the land, we find the landscapes of our mind subtly shifting and, at the end of the journey, no matter what may lie ahead, a feeling of quiescence and a sense of self.