29 September, 2005

Early morning found us passing through Buffalo which seems to have developed a Soviet look to it.

Midday found us in Syracuse.

Just enough time to stand outside and get some air or ingest some smoke, depending on your preference.

We caught a glimpse of that other group of land-based travelers: the bus riders.

The train from Chicago to New York isn't a doubledecker which means more room and less swaying.

Albany was where some people switched to the Boston train which had been nice enough to wait for us for over an hour.

Apparently the track gets pretty rough heading up to Boston.

That, believe it or not, is a toilet sitting right next to the bed/chair in the sleeping cubicle. The black button on the left is the flush button.

The top bunk can be pulled down to decrease the huge amount of space between it and the floor. As you can see from the narrow space on the right between the top bunk and the wall, there isn't a whole lot of floor to fall upon in the first place.

A welcome sight: the George Washington Bridge.

We passed the Henry Hudson Parkway as we drew closer to Penn Station. We were practically up to the spot where the Queen Mary 2 had left back in July.

And now we were actually in Manhattan, going down a track to Penn Station I had never been on before. Home Sweet Home.

29 September, 2005

Day 76. And so we arrive at the end point of this journey as my train bears down on New York City where I began it all back on the 17th of July. I can verify that the world is indeed round and that if you keep going in a particular direction you will wind up back where you started. It's good to have that confirmed.

I can also verify that the world is one hell of an interesting place to explore. There's so much space, so much diversity, and a preponderance of friendly people to help you feel comfortable. That has been the case for me since Day One.

I started today really early in the morning since I couldn't sleep any longer. I had gone to sleep pretty early last night and I got maybe six hours total. I couldn't keep it going any longer because of the fear of falling off the bunk bed which seemed quite possible with the violent rocking. And my back was also killing me from being forced to lie in unnatural positions. I didn't mind getting up before light though. I knew I would be seeing home today and that made any pain or inconvenience well worth it.

I think this train is better than the one I was on previously. For one thing it's not a doubledecker. That right away means there's a little more room. It also means the bunk bed is higher up. My cubicle has a higher ceiling as well as a toilet. Not sure how I feel about the latter since it's right smack next to the lower bed and if/when you do use it you're pressed up against the hallway window with a curtain that doesn't do a great job covering the whole thing. It's funny how every Amtrak experience I have just seems to get a little weirder.

I'm back in my time zone according to my phones. That alone is a good feeling. At breakfast I discovered that we had just passed Buffalo. Not exactly the most direct route to New York from Chicago but I guess it's not supposed to be about the time. Still, considering I can drive between Chicago and New York in 12 hours and this is taking 18 at fairly high speeds, you have to wonder. Why is it always done in the least efficient way? What could a bullet train between the two cities accomplish? I guess I can always dream.

I think I had some of my best conversations with fellow passengers today. I talked some more with the retired New York cop who it turns out was heading out to a town on Long Island right in my neck of the woods. How strange was that? There was a guy heading to Nova Scotia with his wife and I had a nice chat about the Acadian section and what a great city Halifax was and why Cape Breton shouldn't be missed. There was a woman from Wisconsin who had just hopped on the train by herself on a whim to check out the turning leaves in New England. Nobody else in her family could go so she just did it herself. How awesome is that? She was considering heading back though since our train was late and she was in danger of missing her connection in Albany. I called Amtrak from my cell phone and made sure there was a train she could catch. I hate to see dreams dashed. And once we got to Albany we were all able to stretch our legs a bit while the train changed engines. I talked to the guy I had met last night with the 2600 shirt. Today he was wearing a Jack-FM shirt. That's the latest radio craze which basically involves a much bigger library of music and somewhat personalized automated personalities. After talking to him for a little while, I realized that this was the guy who had invented the entire idea! So I wound up having a lengthy conversation all about radio that lasted practically the entire trip back to New York.

All things considered, I have to give Amtrak a lot of credit just for being there. The people who work on their trains are very committed and a pleasure to be around. They genuinely seem to care about what they do and they do as good a job as they can with what they have. You can sense the frustration though concerning the hurdles that they have to jump just in order to do their jobs. Now there's a rumor that government cuts will force the hot meal service to be eliminated. It's just so distressing to see something so good picked apart until it becomes less and less appealing. Train travel is probably the most interesting means of getting from place to place in this country. The people you meet, the sights you see, the overall relaxation you gain from the non-frenzied travel are all elements you just won't find in a plane or a car. And if I can say that after experiencing the poorly maintained tracks and badly designed sleeper cars, train travel must be a really worthwhile experience. Just imagine what a great experience it would be if the system were taken care of like it is in every other civilized nation. My injuries will heal and I'll eventually catch up on my sleep. But losing any more of our passenger rail service would hurt so much more. Not only must it not be crippled any further but it needs to be built up and expanded. The government already pumps billions into the airline industry and keeps gas prices artificially low. Why not make trains strong again? They give back so much and they always get you there in the end. And anyone who still doubts this need only look at their effectiveness and success in Europe and Asia.

So what have I learned in the past 76 days? Way too much to sum up in only a few paragraphs. So I'll just try and touch upon a few of the things that hit me at the moment. I expect I'll be reminded of quite a few others at unpredictable times in the years ahead.

When you tell people you've gone around the world without flying, the reaction is almost always some expression of being impressed. And it certainly is an impressive thing to do, even if everybody were doing it which, sadly, they aren't. But all I've done is walk down one narrow path, seeing the things that stood out to me, no doubt missing a great deal more. I could just as easily have picked a different path and still gone around the world while seeing entirely different sights. Or I could have just done completely different things in the exact same places and come away with a totally different experience. My point is it's not so much the going around the world thing but more just throwing yourself out there for a period of time and simply living among strangers and opening yourself up to new and different experiences. You can do most of that without even leaving your home town. Traveling merely makes it more of a necessity to talk to different people, eat different food, see things in a different way. But that ability is always there for the taking. And I think that's something I'm as guilty as anyone else of forgetting.

I don't as a rule start conversations with strangers. Nor do I go to places like restaurants and movies by myself. I tend to view people with suspicion until I really get to know them. And I almost always go for the path of least resistance in getting a task accomplished even though it may mean not learning something new. Slowly, each of these flaws has ebbed a bit since July. My view of people is a whole lot more optimistic and I don't feel nearly as self conscious as I usually do. When you're traveling, everyone is somewhat vulnerable and strange looking to those who don't know them. So there really isn't a reason to think that you're the one everyone's pointing and staring at.

I've gone through this metamorphosis many times before, almost always after having gone somewhere different and spent a good deal of time with new people. But I always slowly revert back over weeks and months. I want to fight it this time and try and hold onto as much as I can from the experiences I've had. Those common themes of curiosity, friendliness, and helping out those who need it - *that's* reality, not the insular world I keep finding myself pulled into. But the day to day struggles and the mundane routines that latch onto us make it next to impossible to keep this idealism paramount in our minds. And the fact that others won't identify with what I've been through certainly won't help. Inside of a week, I expect I'll be much closer to their perspective than they will be to my present one.

But it hasn't happened yet so I intend to relish the high that I'm still feeling from the past two and a half months. A good part of it is a simple sense of relief. Whenever you go into a new situation or a new place, you never really know what to expect. I remember how I felt the first time I went to Europe back in 1989. I was scared shitless until I realized that I could communicate and that people were still people over there. Life is a series of that same realization on an increasingly grand scale. Hopefully once you've realized it enough times you'll experience some form of enlightenment that will carry you through to the next stage. But whether or not that ever happens, you won't have a chance if you don't try.

I wound up spending a whole lot less money than I thought I would. Even in the expensive countries like England and Japan, it wasn't hard to live cheaply with a little ingenuity. The same can be said of the transportation itself. You can always find cheap ways to get from one place to another if you're persistent and imaginative. And there's no reason at all to not travel lightly which only adds to your flexibility. In my case, I had a bunch of constraints that literally weighed me down. Having to carry camera equipment, a computer, microphones, and satellite equipment turned one bag into three. But even with the extra weight, I was still able to do everything I wanted to do. Sticking to my rule of not taking a plane was also a constraint but as it was the heart of the trip in the first place I certainly don't regret it for an instant. But it did add somewhat to the expense which is something you certainly don't have to do if you simply want to visit some of these places.

I'm glad I got to experience the Queen Mary 2 as it's the kind of world I almost never get to see. And between the opulence of a cruise ship and the down to earth living of a Mongolian ger, I never felt out of place or unwelcome. People as a rule want to share their lives and their stories with others. Circumstances make us different in one way or another. And way too often we judge the people before we ever get a chance to communicate. I've said that before but I think now I realize that it doesn't just apply to those "other" people who are ignorant and close-minded. It's all of us. Whether the categorization is white, black, rich, poor, cop, activist, we too often reach the conclusion before we ever hear the beginning. That's the first mistake and it leads to all of the others.

So if you really want to experience the feelings you get when you travel to strange and distant places and you don't have the ability at the moment to actually go anywhere, all you have to do is just open yourself up some more. That means listening to what others have to say even if you think you don't agree, sharing what you have even if you don't know the person you're sharing with, accepting people for who they are even if they're not the kind of people you would normally spend time with. It's like music, as so much in this world is. If you just listen to one type, you're not going to have much of a frame of reference and you certainly won't know much outside of a very limited scope. Open yourself up to other sources and not only does your knowledge base and appreciation widen dramatically but you will come into contact with an exponentially wider group of people.

I think we need to take a good look at ourselves and see exactly how limited we've made our lives. How many places will you not go? How many types of people will you not spend any time with? How many kinds of food will you not eat? How many things will you not do? We all develop our tastes and our preferences. But if we only live by those and are never willing to experiment, try something different, or even violate our own value set now and then, where is the potential to grow and to change? Or even to reinforce our existing beliefs?

We're not here to just do the same thing day after day. We're here to try a whole lot of different things and learn a little more every time we do. That's what you get from traveling and exploration if you do it the right way. And that's what you can also get just from living if you open yourself up to it.

I want to thank everyone who's written with words of encouragement or suggestions on things to try or do while I was on this voyage. I'm so very glad I wrote all of this down while it was going on. Sure, it took time and I probably could have done a lot more fun stuff if I didn't have to write every night. But I would have lost so many little memories that only stay fresh for a short period of time, especially when there are so many new ones pouring in constantly. You really need to build a degree of discipline if you want to pull something like this off and maintaining this journal has certainly helped me to do that. I hope that through these words as well as through the images and the radio shows, you all were able to experience some of the excitement of the world. Thanks for listening.


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