Monday, October 22, 2012

Update 5: Riding the Rails

If you want to travel long distance within the US, you really have four main options: drive a car, fly, take a bus, or take the train.  (There are, of course, other ways, such as taking a ship, biking long stretches, or even walking across the country--which I've heard tales about.)  There are a bunch of airlines if you decide to fly, but if you decide to take the train or bus (which both have a much smaller carbon footprint than flying or driving--alone anyway), there is really only one option each.  If you're traveling by bus, your only real option is Greyhound; it acquired Continental Trailways, its main long-distance rival, in 1987.  If you want to take a train any long distance, you need to take Amtrak.

When the small rail systems began losing passengers and money in the late '60s, the US Congress (prodded by the National Association of Railroad Passengers) began looking into the possibility of a national rail system.  In 1970, they passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to create that system.  As the Amtrak brochure, Amtrak America, 2011-2012, states: "Officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971 as the country's first centrally managed, nationwide rail network."

When I realized how much I'd be traveling this fall, I was debating between taking Greyhound or Amtrak.  Greyhound looked cheaper, but friends pursuaded me to do most of my travel on Amtrak--pointing out (because they knew me) Greyhound's difficult union history as well as it being a private corporation and Amtrak being a publically owned enterprise.  I have and will do some of my travel on Greyhound but I'm doing most of it, including my long trip to California (see my last post on Eco-Oakland, Riveting Richmond, and Groovy SF, for details about what I did when I was out there) on Amtrak.

The trip to California was a long one.  I left South Station in Boston, Friday, September 28th, on a bus that replaced the train west, because they were working on the tracks.  Luckily the bus went directly to Albany, New York, saving lots of time.  Unluckily, that meant being stuck longer in the station in Rensselaer, NY (the train, or in this case bus, doesn't actually go to Albany), which was not near anything.  (From a roadway near the station I could see the capital building in Albany in the distance.)  Eventually the train came for Chicago and by the next morning we pulled into the 'Windy City', where the most exciting thing I did was dash across town so I could see Lake Michigan in the distance for a minute.

At 2pm on Saturday I left Chicago on the California Zephyr.  For the next three days I saw cornfields and mountains (the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada), towering cliffs, looming mesas, and miles and miles of desert.  I saw the Mississippi River as we crossed it and I saw bits of Denver, Reno, and Sacramento (not to mention Grand Junction, Colorado, where the train stopped for forty-five minutes and I got to run around outside for a bit).  At about five-thirty on Monday, October 1st, the train pulled into Emeryville, California, its last stop.

My train ride back last week was equally long--four days--in the other direction.  The biggest differences were that I was longer in Chicago this time around (and got to stand on the shore of Lake Michigan for a while) and when the train reached the 'Albany-Rensselaer' station, it actually split in two, with one half (that I was in) going on to Boston and the other half heading off to NYC.  Pretty clever.

And I'm getting to be a regular on the Northeast Corridor route.  I'll be taking Amtrak down to Charlottesville, VA, in a few weeks to go to Twin Oaks, and later (because I'm also planning to visit a community in Pennsylvania on this trip) taking it back from Harrisburg to Boston (via Philadelphia).

The most important thing I can say about taking the train, or the bus, (other than notice the smaller carbon footprint) is that, unlike flying, you get a real sense of what lies in between your destinations.  I feel like I've experienced how big the US is and a lot of what lies in the 'heartlands', and with every trip to Virginia, I see more and more of the east coast.  Which is why I'm 'riding the rails'.

Quote of the Week: "There was a time when taking a trip in America meant taking the train.  But by the end of the 1960s, the national highway system and a growing aviation industry had changed travel habits.  Private railroads clamored to eliminate their unprofitable passenger operations.  But the government knew that the country needed passenger rail and stepped in to create Amtrak." - Amtrak America

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Update 4: Eco-Oakland, Riveting Richmond, and Groovy SF

I can't believe that I'm out in Oakland, California.  As someone who seldom likes to leave New England, it seems bizarre to me to be traveling the country.  But I have a very dear friend out here who has wanted me to visit for a long time and this seemed like the best opportunity I'd have.  I took the train out here and I will write a post on my train adventures in the near future.

While I've been in Oakland I've visited some of the community groups that my friend has been working with.  One is Phat Beets Produce. They have a garden where they teach young people about growing food and make all of what they're growing available to the neighborhood.  They also run a great little farmer's market, which we visited on last Saturday. Another cool group that he is involved with is the People's Grocery.  They have a garden behind the California Hotel--a place which houses people with disabilities. When we visited the People's Grocery they were hosting an event where they made 'smoothies' with fresh vegetables and fruit and offered them to anyone who came by the busy urban intersection by the Hotel (located in a very low income area).  The MC for the event managed to pursuade on young skeptical kid to try a smoothie--which he then spat out.  Turns out he likes eating nachos.  But the MC stayed with him and got the smoothie makers to create a fresh food drink that he liked.  Maybe this will spark an interest in eating better--or at least create a seed that might flower later.  I was very impressed with the work that both of these groups are doing.

My friend and I also took a bike ride up to the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond, CA.  (Richmond is few towns north of Oakland.)  This is an amazing exhibit about how the needs around World War II led to changes that eventually sparked many social change efforts.  It gave me a view of the situation of women, blacks, and Asian and Latin groups in the 1940s and how the war changed everything.  It was a good reminder that the movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, did not come out of nowhere.  (For more on this time in US history, see my posts on World War Once More, 3/2/09, through Social Movements in the Seventies, 3/30/09.)

Recently we had a great time in San Francisco, which is across the bay from here. We did Sunday morning meditation with the Gay Buddhist Fellowship which had a nice group of mellow men, took in some of the 'Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival' (which featured Patti Smith--who is truly hardly bluegrass and who we didn't see--and Emmy Lou Harris--who is sort of bluegrass and who we caught a little of), and spent a night at the Red Victorian in Haight Ashbury which is not only a bed and breakfast, but also "a living peace museum".  Needless to say, wandering around Haight Ashbury was a trip.  Monday we biked around Golden Gate Park where we saw bison, as well as a whale off in the distance in San Francisco harbor and a blue heron up very close up in the lagoon behind the Tree Fern exhibit (very prehistoric looking) in the Park.

There are some wild and amazing things happening out here in the Bay Area.  But, much as I've enjoyed it, New England is still my home and I'm still hoping to settle down somewhere on the east coast.

Quote of the Day:  "What We Work For, What We Want:
  1. Health Care Without Harm
  2. Strong Economic Opportunities for small, disenfranchised farmers [sic]
  3. Edible Parks, Edible Communities
  4. Neighborhood Based Food Micro-Enterprise
  5. Empowered Youth that Shape their Food System
  6. Resiliant Communities Organized Through Food and Healing" - Phat Beets Produce brochure