The school bus – my earliest experiences with public transportation and often the only one in many New Hampshire towns, like many towns around the country. The big yellow birds swooped in early mornings in all weather, plucked me up, and dropped me off at school. In the afternoon, all the other buses and cool older kids with cars were already gone when my bus showed up. It took more than thirty minutes to get the two miles from school to home because of the bus route’s loops.
As soon as kids in town were old enough to get cars and get off of the yellow buses with their noisy elementary school kids, their cold green seats, and their long rides, most kids did. Cars were what adults have. Buses were for kids.
Three of my friends and I planned a trip to Washington, DC to look at colleges. We would stay with Erich’s older sister, and we got out of classes for a few days. Our parents, who didn’t want to drive us to Logan Airport in Boston, suggested Amtrak.
In the 80s, each time we went to town, my family bumped over a train track that was old and lacking signage. Most lines were torn up and crossings were paved over. Visiting family in Vermont, we crossed other old train lines. I never saw a train. I figured they were all old relics. I wasn’t aware that trains still ran in the 1990s.
One early, early morning the four of us with our bags were dropped off next to the train tracks near the NH/VT border. There was no station; it was a flag stop and we were the only four people waiting there in the early morning dark with our tickets. When the train came into view, it slowed down, and a conductor waved us aboard for the 8-hour ride to DC. We slept or did homework most of the way. It was surprisingly simple.
Japan Railway – My love affair with train travel blossomed when I spent a year in Japan teaching English. It was mind-boggling how many trains there were just for the city. You could set your watch by them: if they were late, you picked up a pass on exiting to hand in to your boss. Otherwise – no excuses.
They weren’t always cheap, but they spiderwebbed the country making everything accessible. I think I visited every stop on the Yamanote subway line that encircled the city like a hug.
I could visit my friend Ayako by train. We went to Kyoto for a weekend by shinkansen or bullet train. I could meet all my friends by train. When I went to work, I had a choice of train or subway line. It was astounding.
Unfaithful – My year of train travel gave me time to question cars. There were plenty of them around Tokyo, but none of the foreigners like me had one, and it was okay. Taxes, parking, gas all cost more than we could imagine. And why bother? Trains meant time to socialize, read, or people watch. And above-ground trains gave time to watch the landscape. Why didn’t the US have trains like this? Where could you even find subways and trains? Fellow English teachers from the UK talked about trains being normal for them, though everyone agreed that Japan was the most amazing. But what about the US? What happened?
I still missed my car. I missed driving. I just didn’t miss it all as much as I thought I would.
Returning to the States, I still dreamed of trains. I wondered what it would be like to walk a short distance from my home to jump on a train. I learned about the Rails to Trails movement and all the old abandon lines that crossed NH. So many just left to nature. What happened to the trains that used to use them?
Driving around again, I realized I’d been unfaithful to my car. The damage was done, and we would never be able to return to where we’d once been.