Feeding A Yen: Train Travels from New York to Washington
An essay by Mark Pfeifer

(Parents, if you go to New York this summer, you may consider visiting Washington DC via train as well. Here’s why. –Editors)

There are many reasons to take the train to Washington DC from New York. First, there’s the time and money you save on taxi fare. Next, you get to avoid the long lines necessary for airport security, along with the opportunity to do a strip tease in front of your fellow travelers.  Pre-empting the airline runway delays due to “unforeseen” problems is also a pretty nice feature. 

Again, why the train? I do it for the hot dogs.  A nice, plump all-beef Hebrew National Frank on a Pioneer Roll, smothered in hot mustard and cheese - preferably two.  Chips and coke are optional.  I don’t remember how I got attached to eating Amtrak hot dogs during my trips to Washington, but somehow it seemed appropriate, a culinary echo of the adage about not wanting to know how sausages and laws are made. 

Having gone so long without, I jumped at the chance to go to D.C. to see the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms at the invitation of my friend Amy.  The timing of the peak of the brief blossoming season worked out such that it coincided with my trip in the first weekend of April. And, by the way, a one-way ticket to DC on business class costs $135 and takes about 2 hours and 50 minutes to get there. 

Since a full three-day weekend passes for a vacation in my world these days, I decided to use this opportunity to brush up on my travel writing, a habit that has been sitting in the trunk for quite some time, along with novel, short story, periodical and poetry writing.  All the time many of the people on my e-mail list have been seeing and sailing the world, passing back adventures generously to me.  I hope in some small way to repay them for those precious snapshots, large and small, from the field.  You others I just want to annoy with my long windedness.

TIME TO DECOMPRESS

Now hot dogs aside, let’s face it- a train ride from New York to Washington isn’t exactly North by Northwest.  However, it is a safe way for me to dip my toe in the waters outside of the city slowly, taking mass transit from one large burg to a slightly more digestible one, though Washington being the murder capital of the country hardly qualifies it as more civilized than the new, Disney-fied Times Square.  But if you plan to go from New York to the suburbs, I find that gradual decompression of a sort is invaluable.

Trains can be lots of fun if you’re not in a hurry.  My trips across the Southwest US to L.A. and back across the Sierra Nevada and Rockies to Denver had the qualities of adventure, beauty and tranquility. As for the trek between New York and Washington, the sights along the eastern seaboard tracks have not improved with time.  Lots of aged red brick warehouses and factories, as well as new glass towers or apartment buildings.  Piles of detritus scattered alongside the tracks as you approach the stations at Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore: empty green bottles, used tires, rusted rails, and garbage by the mile.  A few spans of open water and trees, but not enough.  But then again, who is a New Yorker to criticize?

I was ok with the train ride, packed as it was.  Taking the Metro from Union Station was also no problem; that’s my territory, and for my money the D.C. system is nicer, cleaner and more efficient than NY. 

My friend Rory says that’s because they arrested a young girl a couple years ago for littering, and that’s fine with me.  Odd for a city with a mayor on crack, but fine.  My disorientation didn’t start until I came up out of the Metro station in West Falls Church to wait for Amy to pick me up.  Standing in the pickup zone of a suburban parking lot, the first thing that strikes one, other than fresh air, is the nearly complete absence of the color black, particularly if you are the only one wearing it. 

And another surprise: there are still plenty of mini-vans in use.  I thought the ubiquitous grey SUV had replaced them all long ago, but they are still out there in force in northern Virginia, many being driven by people who have no business being behind the wheel of a car talking on the phone.  Besides the mini-vans, I can report that the rumors are true – there is too much traffic on the roads around Washington.  Alas, the train has to end somewhere.

WELCOME TO WASHINGTON

Amy also introduced me to an intriguing new real estate term – the McMansion.  For those who have never seen one, picture the house on the Dynasty TV show packed into the lot you grew up in.  Now picture one big house across from the other like some kind of Levittown on steroids.  I’m not sure who lives in these places, but we guessed what they cost, and after all this talk of lobbyists and big-spending politicians at the pig trough, I’m suspicious about my tax dollars being put to good use.

Well Amy and Chris don’t live in a McMansion, but they have a very nice place with plenty of rooms and a basement that qualifies as a small movie theater where I come from, big screen and all.  They also have something else I tend to shy away from in the city – dogs.  Unfortunately for my allergies, there were actually four exceptionally friendly dogs there for the first night, only two of them residents.  Because most of my own urban encounters involve stepping over dogshit and around those stupid extendable leashes, my normal canine relations are chilly at best. 

Curmudgeons by nature are not comfortable with dogs climbing into their lap, an aversion honed by years spent living alone.  I will say that it was interesting for a non-dog owner to see such obsessive behavior in animals: Sammy the Dalmatian with food and Oscar the…whatever with toys.  I’ve never seen a small dog jump repeatedly three quarters of the way up the side of a refrigerator to get a toy, but I can appreciate a spirit of commitment.

Another thing about being outside New York that requires adjustment: the deafening quiet.   I suppose for those of you who go on vacation regularly or live outside the city this is no real shock, but for me it takes some getting used to.  I constantly have problems trying to sleep at the beach in the summer.  You laugh, but there is a very telling scene in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil when John Cusack, as the New York writer doing a story in Savannah, puts on a tape recording of New York traffic so he can get to sleep.

CHERRY BLOSSOMS in DC 

Quiet is certainly in short supply during the cherry blossom season in Washington.  For those of you who have heard about it but never been, I highly recommend going…during the week.  I’m used to city crowds, but the mass of tourists that descend on the small area where the trees are concentrated on weekends is thick enough to clog a subway station with strollers – in this case the Smithsonian stop.  We made our way through the crowds, past the Washington Monument and snarled traffic over to the park area near the Mall along the Tidal Basin through a veritable United Nations of tourists. 

The whole cherry blossom tradition having originated in Japan, the Japanese tourists were the most prominent, but there were plenty of bright and colorful people and outfits from India, Korea, China and everywhere else as well.  The experience was a wonderful antidote to the evening news.  And everyone had a camera. 

Unfortunately they were all trying for the same shot: your loved ones posed along the railing of the Tidal Basin with the Jefferson Memorial across the water in the background, all framed by a forest of flowering cherry trees.  Try walking two feet without getting in someone’s shot.  I’m pretty sure we are on the wall in every home in Japan by now.  The cameras ranged from digital to throwaway yellow Kodak.  My favorite was the massive telephoto lens being used to take a family photo.

But you can’t blame people. They really are nice trees.  According to the National Park Service, there are approximately 3,750 trees packed densely along an area near the Washington Monument, the Mall and the Tidal Basin, and for the few weeks in late March and early April when they bloom, it seems as if the clouds have descended for a brief performance.  The original 1912 gift of 3,020 trees was made up of 12 varieties, of which two – the Yoshino and the Kwanzan - now dominate.  During the peak, which occurred this year on March 30 th , this paints the Mall, parks and streets with a bright swath of spring color, from white to pink to soft grey.  The trees were a gift from Japan, where folks take their cherry blossoming very seriously. 

People wait up all night like rock groupies just to get primo seating arrangements for the peak – and the picnic.  Apparently, in Japan these events take on a special kind of carnival atmosphere, including family and company outings in the park, karaoke singing, and massive drinking, kind of like a Japanese version of St. Patrick’s Day in midtown Manhattan.  These picnics go by the name of hanami , and include copious consumption of sake, beer and other alcohol to, how did they phrase it, ‘accentuate the cherry blossom viewing experience.’

Well, we didn’t have any hanami, the Capitol Police frowning on displays of public drunkenness by anyone not a U.S. Senator, but there was good company and good food, including some almonds and other nuts flavored with cinnamon, rows of tulips in a dazzling range of oranges, yellows, reds, purples and whites, and plenty of blossom viewing. 

The annual 2-week National Cherry Blossom Festival includes a wide range of events celebrating art, music and horticulture.  There are also fireworks and a parade, as well as a black tie gala event where a Cherry Blossom Queen is chose from among the Cherry Blossom Princesses.  For anyone planning a year ahead, and I know this includes nearly everyone but me, I highly recommend a visit to the National Park Service and official National Cherry Blossom Festival web sites well in advance.

As it happens, the peak having passed and a good breeze blowing, the air was filled with snow-like petals peeling off the trees in glorious waves of pink and white.  And when the sun is out, spring has arrived, you’re relaxing on the grass and you’ve just come through a late winter, record setting snowfall, it looks positively brilliant. 

Surrounded by colorful costumes and families having a great time, some of whom clearly traveled a long way to see these trees, I was happy that I had finally escaped from New York to be one of them.  Yes, I was proud to be a tourist.  At least for a day it was nice to walk under the trees, by the water and take pictures, even without the sake.  Actually the no-drinking rule is probably a sound idea given the lack of fences around the Basin.  Though there was something incredibly poignant about looking down over the railing and seeing a Dora the Explorer doll face down in the Tidal Basin, her little back pack bobbing up and down on the water.  I tried not to take the travel metaphor as an omen.

TRIPS TO COME?

I was on another mission this trip.  Not simply to enjoy a hot dog.  Not just to root for George Mason in the NCAA.  Not just to see cherry blossoms floating from the sky.  And not to mingle with tourists – I can get plenty of that in NYC. 

I needed professional help to keep my own travel dreams alive.  Well, more accurately, to turn dreams into reality.  That’s where Amy and Chris came in - as travel planning experts and inspiration.  Anyone who has a map with pins identifying the places they have been either individually or as a couple can only be regarded by mere mortals as professional explorers.  Together we did some serious analysis and brainstorming over huevos rancheros.  It’s been a long time since my first ‘retirement’ from Wall St. in 1994-1995, and as everyone knows my travel adventures have been limited. 
I won’t reveal any of the possible destinations yet, not without tickets in hand.  With any luck, our hard work will pay off this year, and you’ll be more than tired of hearing from me.

****

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

Here are some links for the Cherry Blossom Festival.  Also a link to my favorite little hotel that I stay at whenever I can, near DuPont Circle.

http://www.tabardinn.com/home.htm

Main site:
http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/cms/index.php?id=390

This one is for Visitor Information:
http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/cms/index.php?id=407

National Park Service Info:
http://www.nps.gov/cherry/index.htm

Amtrak train:
www.amtrak.com


This is Mark Pfeifer’s first entry for BAFT. This August, he happened to meet executive editor Kathy Leong on a train heading for Jasper, Alberta, Can.

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