Wintertime traveling in Waldo County is purposeful. You have to shovel your vehicle out, and make sure its path to the roadway is passable, and make sure the roadway itself is passable, and that things won't become impassable on your way home. You have to really want to go where you're going, and chances are, when you go, you will have called the immediate neighbors to see whether there's anything you can pick up for them. One odd thing about winter travel in Maine is that distance matters much less than accessibility. It might just take five minutes to drive there, unless there is ice or mud or trees in the roadway, in which case it could take hours. All motorists are advised to keep an extra blanket in the car, along with the sand, tire chains and flares.
Travel in New York City, though, is a matter of extreme relativity. In rush-hour crosstown traffic, it could take you two hours to travel a quarter-mile. Or, you could hop on the subway and travel for miles, way across Brooklyn, in fifteen minutes (or not, depending on the time of day and state of transit service). Frequently, fleet-footed Manhattan pedestrians outrace the plodding city buses. In NYC sheer distance makes no difference at all -- but it is advisable to leave plenty of extra time for the unforeseen.
In between the two -- to get from one to the other -- one crosses the unearthly realm of The Interstate Highway System, where the distance/time ratio tends to be quite linear. On the Interstate (unlike Waldo County, or New York), we can travel at a very predictable average speed with very little delay. When asked, "How far is it up to where you are?" I tend to say, "Oh, about nine hours." (Astronomers also do this; the light-year and the freeway-hour are accepted units of distance.)
The spirit of rugged, can-do Yankee individualism is thought to be embodied in our car culture, in the way we can slam into our chrome steed and roar off across the continent, on our own terms, any time we please. The automobile is seen as an extension of the personality; cars are marketed that way and they provide their drivers with just that sense of freedom and power, as Bruce Springsteen sang in "Thunder Road"
Very stirring -- but in my experience, Interstate Highway travel is actually a far cry from that place of freedom and abandon. To be an Interstate traveler you must relinquish control over a great deal of your itinerary. You cannot choose where to get on and off the road; to exit the highway you must present the proper ticket and pay the proper toll. You cannot choose what to have for lunch, or where to eat it; unless you don't mind a long delay, you must eat at the same wretched, overpriced grease franchise as everyone else. You cannot travel too fast, or too slow; you'll be ticketed in either case. Nor can you take a nap, or read a book -- you must keep your eyes on the road. Even your passenger must stay focused, to make sure that you remain awake. You are hurtling down the highway, very close to many other machines, all of them piloted by individuals of undetermined judgement or, indeed, sobriety. I can scarcely imagine a more constraining experience. Short of outright imprisonment there is probably no more complete way of giving up your personal liberty than to undertake a long Interstate Highway voyage.
The alternative -- rail travel -- is pathetically unprofitable in the United States (the only money-making route in Amtrak's entire continent-spanning schedule is the one from Washington, DC to New York). But, it is generally considered to be rather socialistic. All the passengers travel together in cars with equal accommodations. They sit next to people they did not choose to sit next to. The train departs at a centrally-planned time, and deviation from its route is impossible. We detrain, not at our individual destination but with the rest of the Masses at a centrally-located train station.
Nevertheless, on a train one can catch up on one's reading, play a game of cards or enjoy a cocktail. One can stroll from car to car, checking out the view (or not), engaging fellow passengers in conversation (or not). One can tap away at the laptop, or catch a nap. Compared to freeway travel, rail travel is relaxing, refreshing and (dare I say?) liberating.
A lot has been written about the politics of how and why the automobile was collectively chosen over the railroad as our national conveyance. And what with the amazing marketing power of the auto industry, and military might of the oil industry, it is easy to understand why consumers choose to buy so many cars; given our current state of infrastructure, the car is the most consistently effective way to get from place to place. But what I don't understand is why people actually believe that the automobile is a vehicle of liberation. What is this crazy little thing called individualism?
A friend of mine, a Georgist economist, makes it a hobby to consider heretical questions like this, and he theorizes that a busy piece of Interstate Highway -- like, say, the New Jersey Turnpike, or the Santa Monica Freeway -- could be replaced with a rail system designed to carry the same volume of passenger traffic, and the rail passengers could ride for free, and yet there would be a net savings to the whole economy.
Ah, but we would never build such a thing until we gave up the romance of the automobile, that grand feeling of autonomous speed and solitude... But really, you know, we've already given that up. You certainly won't find them on the Interstate.
And the railroads have a romance of their own, that made quite an impression on us not so very long ago, and still can be felt -- as in Steve Goodman's song "City of New Orleans"
Up here in Maine, the nearest place to buy milk and bread is seven miles away, and the automobile is just about a necessity for survival. Amtrak, alas, only goes as far north as Boston. Still, there exist miles and miles of old, unmaintained, but still viable railroads. Some have been refurbished and outfitted with nostalgia trains, with old-time decor and crews that hearken to a simpler and more community-minded day -- but more are simply sitting. Perhaps they're waiting, for our mad, impatient, adolescent society to notice the value of a whole bunch of people -- who are all going the same way, after all -- traveling together.
Lindy Davies, March 8, 1998
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