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Taking a trip on the Downeaster


A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to visit my daughter and her family in Portland, Maine. I decided to go by train and booked a seat on Amtrak’s “Downeaster,” from Boston to Portland. I love trains, and I’ve talked in the past of how they provide glimpses of the “America’s backyard” we rarely see from other forms of transportation. They give the traveler the sense that he or she is watching an endlessly unspooling diorama.

But today I want to talk about the experience of being on a train, and how that creates a unique social atmosphere. One of the most distinctive qualities of train travel is that, unlike the case with airplanes or automobiles, you can get up at any time, stretch your legs and move around, even change seats if the cars are not crowded, which they’re generally not. This freedom of movement encourages a casually sociable ambience, one which is reflected in the demeanor of the train crew themselves, who usually sit out in the passenger cars. With their blue uniforms, their somewhat dorky caps and loose fitting jackets and pants, they seem like characters from another, less formal age.

Not only their clothes but also their manner is casual, and genuinely friendly. When a rather hefty conductor came through my car asking for tickets, the aisle was blocked by a couple of standing passengers. She nudged them gently and said, “You’ll have to turn sidewise, my dear – I’m BIG!” Can you imagine a flight attendant ever saying that?

The crew’s casual manner and appearance tended to affect the behavior of the passengers as well. There were a few cell phones in use. Most of the passengers, in fact, were engaged in conversation with their seatmates. I was particularly struck by two men in the seat directly behind me. I couldn’t see them, but it was clear they had just met on the train. One of the men had a generic, middle-aged voice, the other was older with a very distinctive New York accent.

I could make out about half of their dialogue, and imagined the rest. It started with casual remarks about sports, but gradually their conversation took a surprisingly personal turn.

“Yes,” the older man said. “They told me all I have to do is stay away from that crowd, go regularly to AA meetings, stay out of trouble, and if I do that I can keep my kids, who I value more than anything in my life.”

At the next stop the other man left the train, but as he got up, he put his hand on the older man’s shoulder and said, in a tone as if they had been close friends for a long time, “Hang in there, buddy,” and then he left.

Later, when I went back to the café car, a young woman I would guess in her early thirties was tending the counter. Since we were the only ones in the car, I took the liberty of asking her how she came to work for Amtrak. Her face brightened.

“Oh,“ she said, “I was in a dead-end job and was looking to do something different before settling down. This – this is always an adventure. You’re always meeting new people and hearing new stories and going to new places.” Then she cocked her head and with a grin said, “Interested?”

I thanked her and said I already had a job, but that if I ever wanted a change, I would certainly keep it in mind.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.