(james benedict brown) on the road

From somewhere to somewhere, via nowhere

Posted in Uncategorized by James Benedict Brown on 27 March, 2006

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“SOUTHBOUND… SOUTHBOUND…” The grey-haired conductor heaves his voice across the platform, just in case the six passengers joining train 68 might have mistaken this train for the only other passenger service to pass through Plattsburgh, New York today; the northbound 71 back to Montréal, which will arrive in a few hours time. I watch as the little yellow steps are taken away from the edge of the track, and the train manager calls “Train 68: Highball” through his radio. At the other end of the five carraige train, a rumbling whine picks up, and the shabby but still sleek silver train disappears around a corner and out of view. A handful of college students disperse, returning to warmer student accomodation after saying farewell to weekending friends from New York City.

I climb up a grassy embankment and find myself on an empty street, residential on one side and with a view across the railway track to the Plattsburgh Water Pollution Control Plant on the other. Not owning a car, and prefering more esoteric days out from Montréal, I’ve found myself here, in upstate New York, on a day trip to the USA. For a British kid who grew up in awe of the idea of trans-Atlantic flights to New York and Florida, I can still get a kick out of the proximity of the USA to my new home in Montréal. In search of middle America, I’ve come here.

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Small town America defines the USA, and the USA defines small town America. There are clean, broad, well maintained streets. There’s a recently closed movie theatre with the old projector leaning against the wall in the darkened and partly demolished foyer. There are few pedestrians on a Sunday stroll. Yellow traffic signals hang over intersections. Useful street signs advise you to ‘Yield to the Blind’ and photocopied placards in shop windows encourage denizens to ‘Stop Hate’. All British people have some sort of love affair with the USA, even if they resent the very idea of itself that this nation currently projects. My love affair is declared and fulfilled here, on quiet Sunday afternoons in the places trans-Atlantic tourists have no reason to visit.

I find a crowded looking second hand bookstore that could distract me for hours. I desperately try to find one paperback so that I can get out without spending too much time. A old copy of Lewis Mumford’s ‘Sticks and Stones – a history of American Architecture and Culture’ grabs my eye, and I buy it with the other essential souvenirs of esoteric day-trip: the ugliest postcard I can find (the University of Plattsburgh’s concrete campus) and a copy of yesterday’s local paper, the ‘Press-Republican’. To complete the picture, the weekly edition of the ‘Prairie Home Companion’ is on the radio.

A cluster of early twentieth century walk-up buildings channel the wind in between the streets, very rarely whipping up any litter (because there is none). The two large churches in the town centre are empty after their morning services, and the doors are firmly closed. Few shops and restaurants are open. The one diner that looked set to satisfy my desire for some good old mom-and-pop cuisine (probably with free refills of weak black coffee) looked promising, but it closes at lunchtime on Sundays.

The schedule of Amtrak’s Adirondack service (daily between Montréal and New York, one way fares to New York US$60 adult, US$51 student; Montréal to Plattsburgh US$16 and US$13.60) gives Montréal based visitors to Plattsburgh two hours and fifteen minutes between trains; with a bit less on Sundays. However, forced to run on privately owned tracks that give priority to freight trains, Amtrak are not renowned for their time-keeping. Don’t be surprised if you turn up at an Amtrak station for a scheduled departure and find it empty. Regular passengers know to call a 1-800 number and speak with Julie, Amtrak’s automated agent, to get accurate train running information before even showing up. I find a payphone without difficulty, but Julie does seem to have problems with my accent…

“And you want to know the train status for which station?”
“Plattsburgh, New York”
“I think you said Fort Edward, New York. Is that correct?”

Despite some personal misgivings, I’m drawn to the only remaining option for lunch: Geoffrey’s British Pub on the corner of Broad and Peru Streets. A clear six out of ten is awarded for effort, but such mis-interpreted items on the menu as ‘Toad-in-a-hole’ (‘a type of British sausage roll made with filo pastry’) only emphasise the sense of removal.

“So, can I get you something to eat?”
“Yes, I’ll have the Ploughman’s Lunch, please…”
“Pardon me?”
“The Ploughman’s Lunch.”
“I’m really sorry, what did you say?”

We huddle over the menu, and I find the item.

“OHHHH…. the PloughMAN’s Lunch. And would you like something to drink?”
“A pint of Old Speckled Hen, please.”
“Pardon me?”
“That one there…”

I don’t rush back to the station. Sure enough the station attendant has a laminated sign in the window of the waiting room advising that the train is expected sometime after 3.00pm (thirty minutes late). After another verbal contretemps with Julie, I eventually extract the information that the train should pull in at 3.07pm.

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With a few minutes to spare, I walk down to the docks, and meander through a yard of yachts and small boats that are wintering out of the icy water on their trailers. The sky is grey, and Lake Champlain is greyer, but in the distance across the water the mountains of Vermont seem to bring shades of blue to this monochrome scene. I turn on my heels, and walk back through the crisp air, gulls cawing above my head, to sit outside the station and wait for my train. For such an unreliable service, Julie’s prediction was frighteningly accurate. I climbed up into the warm carraige, found a vast squishy coach class seat, and watched the landscape of upstate New York slip by, becoming Québec at some indiscernable point between the USA and Canadian customs points. As we waited for everyone to be checked, the sun came out.

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  1. TourPro said, on 27 March, 2006 at 20:36

    Nice write up about our fair city. At first I thought it was just a random train ride story. But as I dig further I realize I am just scratching the surface. You are a train fiend.

    They are trying to revive an old historic line down here in the Adirondacks. State monies involved and everyone is fighting over what to do.

    Cheers!


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