Saturday, April 22, 2006

First connection: Schenectady, NY

There's something pleasing about the name Schenectady. This is a town that was meant to be where people change trains. It just sounds right. I have a "Schenection" to make.

The Adirondack arrives nearly seventy minutes late. However, I have plenty of time until the westbound Lake Shore Limited stops here just after 19.15hr. We have had a beautiful run down the western shore of Lake Champlain: once it has crossed into New York state, the Adirondack is without a doubt one of the most beautiful railway lines I've ridden on. The track climbs up out of Plattsburgh, and before you realise it you are riding high above the lake, twisting and turning through blasted rock cuttings in the side of the hill.

Below me us to the right, the water of Lake Champlain was stretching out in a overlaying mist of blues and greens. At the rocky shore below us, it was nearly clear over the rocks. I spent much of the time in the cafe car, enjoying the wider view afforded by not having such big seats, and chatted from time to time with other passengers... the English-Chinese student returning going to Poughkeepsie before heading on to family in Connecticut; the friendly French Quebecois who talked about how much he missed the long discontinued night service between Montreal and New York ('The Montrealer' or 'Le Montrealais').

I hopped off the platform at Schenectady with the increasingly style and deftness of someone who is working out how to travel with two rough equally weighted bags. Good thing I did't bring the laptop, I reckon I would have been off balance.

Schenectady is a tidy little town, and a good example of the peaceful middle America I'm happy to experience for a few hours between trains. The station is small, with the tracks up on a raised embankment through the town centre, and with a small one-box station below. After leaving my bags safe in the station with the friendly attendant (definitely a good mood day for Amtrak staff) I head out to stretch my legs on a short tour of the town. Schenectady's biggest feature is that it's the home of General Electric, and also of Thomas Edison. Although as my USA By Rail handbook explains, that's not how he started life:

Edison's first job was selling sweets to railroad passengers, monez from which he spent on chemistry sets and building a telegraph system out of scarp metal.

Just behind the station you'll find the Edison Exploratorium (I think that means museum) but's only available to visit by appointment, according to a sign in the window. I walk for an hour or two, buy some stamps from a stubborn vending machine that doesn't like my dollar bills, and then look for a place to sit down for a while. While exploring the smaller tree lined streets on the other side of the station, I find a small saloon called Slick's Bar and Restaurant. It's more bar and restaurant, though Slick seems to be doing good business with his sandwiches. I'm assuming it was Slick that I saw, because his hair was indeed particularly slick.

I drank a bottle of Samuel Adams, and watched the CBS Evening News that was on a television screen behind the bar. Tonight's top stories: the average price of gasoline across the States is now $2.86 a gallon (a bargain in the UK); the prices of building materials such as copper and plastic has increased dramatically in the last few months (apparently because of China's economic boom... all I can say is that you should go into any Wal-Mart and you'll see straightaway why there's a boom in China); and also... an exclusive helmet mounted camera view of an Iraqi soldier's duty in Iraq. I kid you not. English readers may remember a BBC news programme called 'The Day Today'. I think I have found it's American twin...

I finish my beer, thank the friendly Mr. Slick, and return through the evening sunshine to the station. The town must have a Wal-Mart or two: the selection of shops on main street is telling, and despite a clean and very attractively finished streetscape of plant pots, benchs and trees, the town is too quiet for a Saturday night.

I collect my bags from behind the counter, and climb the steps to the platform. Up here, free from shade and with just a cool breeze, it's the perfect end to a stroll o a warm spring day. I dip in and out of the copy of 'USA Today' I got from a vending machine, reading with particular amusement the coverage of HRH Elizabeth's 80th birthday. I shan't pollute this blog with my opinion on the matter (ie monarchist / anti-monarchist... if you know me you'll probably know) but I suspect Charles has a long wait ahead of him.

At just after 19.30, the rumble of a train, and the sound of a horn gets my attention. Arriving from New York City is train 49, 'the Lake Shore Limited'. It roars in, pulling a baggage car, a crew dormitory, two sleeper cars, a restaurant, a cafe and lounge car, four coaches and (apparently) a privately chartered car at the back.

I await the doors to open with much anticipation.


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