Tag Archives: travel

On Travel By Train

I have taken three long train rides in my life. I define “long” as being “overnight.” The first long train ride was from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. The second was from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The third, many years later, was from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. None of these train rides involved any particularly luxury: no berth in a sleeper car, for instance. I have taken the train many times between Washington, D.C. and New York City. I have also taken the train from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Those were not what I would consider “long” train rides.

Of all of the modes of travel we have at our disposal, I think trains have the potential of being the best. The coach cars that I sat in on the long train rides were more luxurious than First Class on airlines I’ve flown on. The train to Seattle had a dining car which I took advantage of (I was traveling alone) and which was more comfortable and had better service than any flight I have ever taken. This alone makes trains, for me, at least, a more comfortable means of travel than airplanes.

Trains haven’t done too well, but I think it is because everyone is in such a hurry to get where they are going. Trains force you to slow down a bit. They can travel fast, but not as fast as airplanes. They are better for seeing places, whether it is towns, cities, or open country. Airplanes pass miles overhead and the land below is nothing more than an abstraction, often obscured by clouds. Plane rides feel long because there is often no feeling of forward motion. On a train, you can always tell how quickly you are moving just by looking out the window.

Trains would be a good way of getting people to slow the pace of life a bit. What’s the big hurry anyway?

The main problem with trains, it seems to me, is their infrastructure is outdated. If the infrastructure could be improved, if the technology could be upgraded, if the computing power we had could be put to use normalizing scheduled and making train travel more predictable and reliable, I think they’d give the airlines a run for their money. I don’t think the airlines would like this one bit.

I would love to see a network of high-speed trains that crisscross the country. I would much rather hop on a high-speed train to Los Angeles if I had to travel for work. I could work on the train more comfortably than I could on a plane. I could see more of the country along the way. There is something soothing about the rhythmic clack-clack, clack-clack of the train rolling along the track.

Trains also have great names. At least they used to. Airplanes are anonymously bland in comparison. At best, when listening to air traffic control, you get something like “Cactus 519,” Trains have names like the “Afternoon Twin Cities Zephyr”, the “Katy Flyer”, the “Lone Star”, and the “Meteor”. “I’m taking the Meteor to San Francisco,” sounds so much better than, “I’m flying Southwest to the Bay Area.”

The names alone should put the airlines out of business.

The Extremes of My Travels

Reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express has me sitting at my desk at lunch with my Oxford Atlas of the World open so that I can follow along on his travels south. (The book is about the train trip he took from Boston to Patagonia.) Switching between book and maps, I found myself drawn to the maps, noting various features I’d never noted before. It also got me curious. Paul Theroux has traveled all over the world. My travel experience is more limited. By my count, I’ve been in 12 countries (including the U.S.) I wondered what the extremes of my travels were so I decided to lookup the latitudes and longitudes of the further north, east, south, and west places that I’ve been.

Following Paul Theroux through Central America--with my Atlas spread on my desk.
Following Paul Theroux through Central America.
  • Oxford in the U.K. marks the farthest north I have traveled at 51°46N.
  • I thought that Miletus in Turkey would represent the farthest east I have traveled, but it turns out that Rhodes, Greece is further east at 28°10E.
  • Waimea on the island of Kuai’i in Hawai’i represents the farthest west I have traveled at 159°40W.
  • Finally, I thought that Cartegena, Colombia represented the farthest south I’d traveled, but it turns out that Balboa, Panama is further south at 8°57N.

Alas, I have not yet been closer than 8°57′ to the equator, and have not yet ventured south of it.

My east-west range is by far the largest spread, representing about 188° of longitude or a little more than half of the globe. My north-south range is narrower, a range of about 45° of latitude. On a map, the far extremes of my travels look as follows.

A map of the extremes of my travel.
The extremes of my travel.

At some point, when the world returns to normal and travel becomes possible again, it would be nice to see how far I can stretch these boundaries.

Upcoming Travel

I have an email folder called “Upcoming Travel”. It is one of the few email folders I actually have. Most of my messages just go into an archive folder and I rely on searches to find what I am looking for. But the “Upcoming Travel” folder is separate because that’s where travel plans, confirmation messages, reservations go. Once the trips are over, I clear out those message. I accidentally clicked on the folder this morning, and it was empty.

My empty Upcoming Travel folder.

Prior to the pandemic, this folder was rarely empty. We always had some trip planned. Sometimes it was six months away, but the email related to the trip went into the folder until the trip was over. It serves two purposes. First, it is a convenient way of quickly accessing messages related to the trip. Second, it’s a place I’d look occasionally to remind myself of the trips we had coming up. Sometimes it was just a long weekend trip to a place in West Virginia. Other times it contained reservations for our summer jaunt up to Maine. Occasionally there was messages related to a business trip I had to take. And it almost always contained message related to our holiday travel.

Today, it was empty, and it has been empty for some time. There isn’t much travel happening for us during the pandemic. With the rollout of the vaccines, I am hopeful that it won’t be too much longer before I’ll start filing messages in this folder again. It’s nice to be able to flip to it before bed and see that we are heading for a visit with the grandparents in a month, or have hotel reservations somewhere in central Connecticut for a night on our way up to Maine in the summer.

A Weekend Traveling the World

I spent the weekend traveling the world, an event I had been training for my entire life. That training was inspired by–although I didn’t know it at the time–a talk with my mom when I was 5 or 6 years old, about the value of books. “Books can take you anywhere,” I remember her telling me. I seemed always to interpret things she told me literally, so there I was, youngster just beginning to read, and discovering just how book could take me places.

I quickly began to develop my imagination, realizing that this was the boarding pass required to turn pages of words in experiences. I drew a lot, I read more and more, I began to write my own stories. The earliest story I remember writing was for a social studies project in 3rd grade. Around that time I grew interested in airplanes and flying. I had no access to planes, but access to The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual and from that, I learned to draw control panels and would use those drawing to pretend I was flying a plane here and there.

The more I wrote, the more I read, the more my imagination improved. It was a painfully slow process day-to-day, but exercising it as I did, year in and year out, seemed to hone my imagination in to something I had more and more control over. I wrote more stories, I began submitting them, and eventually, even began to sell them. I greatly expanded the focus of my reading–from what was initially mostly science and science fiction to everything and anything that could interest me. I’ve often thought it interesting that, when reading an essay about quantum mechanics, I visualize what is being described as if I could actually see it. When reading about the death of a star by supernova, I am there, hovering at the outskirts of that unfortunate solar system to witness the event.

Stories pull me in, and the world melts away. It is a wonderful talent to have, although it has its darker side. I often envision what-if scenarios, and that same imagination makes them often feel too real for comfort.

We like getting out as family. We like road trips, both long and short, and in years past, our weekends would often be full of exploring nearby places (sometimes to the point where I needed a weekend off, just to relax). We’d drive down to Florida a few times a years, stopping a places along the way. We’d drive up to Maine in the summers doing the same. For a year now, we’ve been mostly stuck at home like everyone else, and then need to get out has been growing, even in me, someone perfectly content to stay in. It is an irony we are all currently experiencing that I am desperate to travel and cannot.

Which is how I came to Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar on Saturday morning. I enjoy travel books, but hadn’t read anything by Theroux and so first thing Saturday, after building a fire in the fireplace, I sat with the book and traveled (mostly by train) from London through the Mid-East, and into India, and then up to Japan, and across the Trans-Siberian Railroad arriving, early Sunday morning, back in London.

This was the event that I had been training for all these years since my mom first put the idea in my head that books could take me anywhere. I back in time and across and across large swaths of the world in little over a day, sitting on my couch, in front of a fire, with temperatures in the teens outside. I didn’t feel like reading. It felt like traveling, it felt like I was there. I could see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. It was wonderful.

I finished The Great Railway Bazarr this morning, and decided I needed more, so now I am making my way Theroux’s 3 collections of essays (starting with the most recent one). The weekend may be coming to an end, but my travels, it seems, are just beginning.

Hotel Alarm Clocks

On the checklist hotel housekeeping uses when servicing a room, one thing seems lacking. It is a small thing, something that would take almost no time (a second or two at the most). But in my experience, it is almost never done:

Check the alarm clock, and if it is on, turn it off.

Usually, I am awake before the alarm goes off, but when we are traveling as a family, Kelly and I are up before the kids to get things ready before the kids wake up. Inevitably, the alarm will go off and wake up the kids while we are getting things ready.

One might argue: if it is so easy to do, why not check it yourself? When traveling alone, I almost always do this. When traveling with the family, we are usually at the end of an 7 or 8 hour drive, during which there is the usual sibling bickering, to say nothing of frayed nerves from traffic, and long hours on the road. Checking the room alarm is the last thing on my mind.

So if there is anyone out there in the hospitality business, a humble suggestion from a fairly frequent traveler: Add checking the room alarm clock to your housekeeping checklist. I think you’ll find that many, many weary travelers will appreciate it.

Our Modern World

I sometimes wonder what the founding mothers and fathers of our country might think of our modern world. It seems that some (Franklin and Jefferson) would revel in it. Others might be skeptical. Consider that a flight from Philadelphia to Boston takes only 90 minutes, a journey that took John Adams the better part of two weeks. Of course, after factoring in the time it takes to find the best fare online, the commute to the airport and the fight for a half-decent parting space, the crowded shuttle ride from the parking lot to the terminal, the lines at the security checkpoint, the delays in boarding because the aisles are blocked by passengers fighting for overhead space, the wait at baggage claim in Boston because you lost the fight, the airline lost your luggage, the Uber to the hotel through the nightmare that is Boston traffic, it probably seems like two weeks. Maybe the founders wouldn’t be that impressed after all.

There are other modern conveniences that I think the founders would appreciate, chief among them, the modern word processor, or for that matter, typewriter. The founders were particularly prolific. John Quincy Adams, for instance, wrote more than 14,000 pages in his diary alone. Fourteen thousand pages. I am drafting this essay longhand, and here toward to the bottom of page one, my hand already feels cramped and ready to give up the ghost. Certainly, a word processor would have been a boon to our prolific forefathers and mothers. If I think about it, I have probably banged out 14,000 pages worth of email messages. On the other hand, 13,000 pages of those messages were probably completely unnecessary, fluff and filling enabled by the technology that kept my hands from getting cramped and tired. So perhaps the founders were better off with pen and ink after all. It forced a concision in thought and expression that can’t readily be equalled by our lazier modern methods.

So cross of travel and computer technology. Modern medicine–that would be the key to impressing our founders. Something as simple as aspirin for a headache, or penicillin for an infection would be seen by those who regularly gathered in places like Philadelphia as a great invention. After all, these are people who had to flee the city in the summers when Yellow Fever reared its head. There was no other way to treat it, no vaccine to prevent it. The city shut down, and those who could afford to do so, fled to the countryside.

That said, I think that if the founders had a look at our modern medicine, they’d sneer and roll their collected (and uncorrected) eyes. “You are no better of than we,” they would say, the scorn dripping from their words. “You mock us for fleeing from Yellow Fever. But we’ve read your recent newspapers, and we’ve watched your so-called news programs. With this latest virus running amuck in your modern world, the best advice your medical science can offer is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face. How’s fleeing the town during an outbreak any worse than this advice? You really haven’t come as far as you think you have.”

Modern world! Phooey!

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.

Planes

Clouds above Los Angeles

There is almost no experience I dread more these days than flying from one city to another. It isn’t out of a fear of flying. It is out of a deep sadness for the loss of what used to be a fun and exciting way to travel. Air travel has found its lowest common denominator and from what I can tell, no one is happy.

I had an unusually busy travel year. I made six work-related trips by plane, five of which took me from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Air travel, these days, is all about attempting to minimize stress and anxieties. How hard will it be to find a parking place? How busy will the airport be? How much time do I need to leave to get into the airport proper? If you think that last is a silly question, talk to people traveling out of LAX, where the line of cars trying to get into the airport resembles the lines of cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour. How long will the lines be at security? Should I cough up the money to check my bags or roll the dice and hope that there will still be overhead space left in the plane by the time I board?

As far as I can tell, the airlines are doing nothing to improve their service or reputations. I can recall a time when even coach seats were relatively comfortable and spacious. I remember traveling on a DC-10 in the late 1980s when there was a lounge up front. Passengers looked as if they were setting about on some great adventure, bright teeth gleaming within smiles wherever you looked. People talked with their seat-mates about where they were going and what they were doing.

The airlines have changed all of this. I rarely see passengers talking with one another. Instead, they isolate themselves within the cocoons of their noise-cancelling headsets. No one ever bothers to look out the windows any more. Indeed, on most of the flights I was on this year, most of the window shades were shut, and the cabin was dim and gloomy, like a medieval prison.

Baggage limits and the cost to check bags breeds a poisonous competition, where passengers angle for the the earliest possible boarding on a plane in order to get prime overhead space. I’ve seen arguments break out over the inability of a passenger to fit their bags into the overhead.

You pay for every extra. And those with more means than others can buy advantages others can’t afford. You can pay to check your bags and avoid the stress of fighting for overhead space. You can pay for more leg room at your seat. You can pay for Internet access to distract you while you fly. You can pay for food and drink if you are hungry. You can even pay to move through the faster “premium” security lines. All this seems to do is annoy those who can’t afford to pay for these additions. It doesn’t seem to make those who do pay any happier, probably because they’ve already handed over a pretty penny for their ticket.

I’ve taken advantages of all of these amenities. As a frequent flier, I’ve upgrade my flights to first class, and I have access to the airline lounge. No one I see when I head to the airport looks happy, no one I see on the plane looks happy. No one in the airline lounge looks happy. Like me, they all look resigned to their fate. They are all anxious to get where they are going. It is all about the destination. We want to forget the journey.

The best parts of flying these days are those rare times when I have a window seat (I prefer an aisle seat ) and can spend time with my window shade up, observing the country as it passes below. This lasts until the flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks if I wouldn’t mind lowering my shade so that the glare won’t disturb the screens of the other passengers. I took the photograph above early in one flight. Those clouds cover the Los Angeles basin, not long after takeoff early in the morning.

The airlines have made flying extremely safe, which is a good thing for which they deserve some credit. They have also turned around their businesses from bankruptcy, or the brink thereof. They have achieved this rather remarkable turnaround by removing all of the glamour and pleasure from the experience.

I miss the way air travel used to be. I can’t stand the way it is today, and for many years now, I only travel by air for work. When we take our vacations, they have been exclusively road-trips, often taking us more than 2,000 miles roundtrip. We drive up to Maine in the summers. We drive down to Florida in the winters. Traveling by car has improved at least as much as traveling by plane has declined. We don’t have to worry about luggage. We have plenty of room in the minivan. We don’t have to pass through airport security or deal with long lines. We have comfortable seats, and these days the car practically drives itself. We can come and go as we please. We see the country up close. If there’s something interesting that catches our eye, we can stop.

It takes more time to travel by car than by plane, but it is immeasurably more pleasant, and less stressful. Sure, at times we hit traffic, but we can usually time our travel to avoid it. And besides, these days, the navigation software in the car knows about traffic and can re-route us around the bad stuff.

Driving also saves us a ton of money. It could cost anywhere between $1,000 – $2,000 to fly five of us from Washington, D.C. to Florida. Driving costs us about $500 in gas and hotels (we usually make one overnight stop each way), and meals. That’s anywhere from 50-75% less than what it costs to fly. But the costs of savings in terms of stress, anxiety, long lines, and canceled flights can’t be measured.

Some thoughts on air travel

I’m back home after a thankfully short trip to L.A. During the course of which, I made a few general observations on air travel which I thought I would share with you now:

  • I still think LAX is one of the worst airports I’ve ever been too. My experience was not particularly good or bad this time around, but every time I enter the airport, I get the deepest desire to leave it rapidly. I hate sitting around there. I hate trying to get into the airport and I hate trying to get out.
  • I’ve ridden the new underground trams at Dulles a few times now and they are quite convenient, but there is just one thing I don’t get: why do they take you way out into the middle of nowhere, so that you have to walk back half a mile to the terminal once you get off the tram? Perhaps it was by design but it seems more like they mis-measured the distance from the main terminal out to the C gates.
  • This merger between United and Continental is a nuisance. Not only do I have to listen to the safety video each time I get on the plane, but I have to also listen to the C.E.O. of United prattle on about how the two airlines have merged to form the best airline in the world. I don’t know about best; biggest, certainly.
  • All of the little fees that the airlines charge now border on comical. It’s just beyond words.
  • I’ve said this before but each time I fly across the country, it seems longer.

I sure hope that commercial space travel is better–kind of like commercial air travel at the dawn of its time, with lounges on board the space craft, with handsome hosts and pretty hostesses greeting you. And with a one-price-fits-all mentality.

In Santa Monica next week

Once a year, in my day job, my team gathers in our Santa Monica, CA office for an annual planning retreat. I look forward to it with mixed emotions. One the one hand, I get to see people I don’t normally see (I’m the only one on my team who works in our Arlington, VA office); and not just coworkers, but old friends and family, too. There are lots of social events and it can be a great deal of fun. On the other hand, I leave Kelly and the Z-man behind for 4 days, and that is always tough.

This year, I head Santa Monica on Monday and return home on Friday, with our planning retreat taking up most of Tuesday and Wednesday. Blogging will continue as normal, as will my Vacation in the Golden Age. And while I’m out there on the West Coast, I’ll submit my second Wayward Time Traveler column. I may even squeeze in some fiction writing.

Thanks to the Internet, I’ve made quite a few writer-friends online that I’ve never met in person. If any of you folks are in or near the Santa Monica area next week, let me know and maybe we can meet up in person.

Up to New Jersey

Around 7 pm, we headed over to Sarah’s.  Originally, we were expecting 5 of us plus Oliver, the dog, to be going up to New Jersey, but Michael’s girlfriend was sick and didn’t end up coming.  So as soon as we got to Sarah’s, we piled into her car and got on the road.

It was a quite drive up.  No traffic and smooth sailing all the way.  We arrived at Sarah’s parent’s house around 11:30 pm.  Both Kelly and I are pretty tired so we’re heading off to bed.  We’ve got a lot planned for tomorrow.

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Protected: It’s official–I’m off to L.A. in March!

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