As I rode Amtrak’s Regional from Washington to New York one cold February afternoon, I was reminded that for me one of the delights of train travel is getting the lay of the land. Gazing out the window, I had just noted how one semi-rural settlement lay on the flood plain, and I wondered how far it was to Chesapeake Bay or perhaps the Susquehanna River. Soon we passed a new development, and then we were in farm country again. Even when the route passes through the grimy, collapsing remains of America’s abandoned industrial might, train travel gives the traveler at least a fleeting feel for the landscape: the old towns and the new subdivisions, skylines and coastlines, farms and forests, rivers and bays.
Perhaps the most scenic stretch along the northeast coast is the segment of the line from New Haven to Mystic on the Connecticut shore. Tidal marshes, which sometimes stretch as far as the eye can see, alternate with beaches along Long Island Sound and once quintessentially New England towns with now vacillating identities, alternately decaying industrial towns and affluent second-home communities. Names like Groton, New London, Saybrook, Old Saybrook and Mystic conjure up images of early English settlers, but they also carry more recent associations with movies like “Mystic Pizza” and with film stars like Katharine Hepburn, who kept a home in Old Saybrook. For me, like some early 19th-century traveler, the platform announcements naming the stops still work on my imagination like an enchanting spell of storied places.
I love to trace the meanderings of the creeks that flow through the marshes to the sea and to learn what water birds inhabit them—mostly ducks and egrets, with an occasional cormorant or swan and a rare osprey high in a platform nest provided by the local Audubon Society. Seaward a wide inlet will occasionally offer a distant glimpse of the hills on Long Island’s north shore. When I look upstream, I am surprised by vistas that lead to distant hills, only to have the vision bisected by a power plant stack.
The marshes and inlets along Long Island Sound are picturesque in every season, but they are at their best at the height of the fall, when the fiery sumac on the fringe of the wetlands and the golden maples along the surrounding hilltops contrast with the pale beige stalks of spent cattails at the water’s side. In winter, the expanse of the ice, and its duration, indicate just how cold the season has been; and in spring the green of the marsh grass is as bright as any gaudy nature has to show.
Train travel allows one to get the lay of the land, though I must confess to having a natural high once or twice from behind a steering wheel. One evening I began driving back to D.C. through the Shenandoah Valley following a retreat at Shrine Mount, a retreat center run by the Episcopal Church. The skies had just cleared following a hurricane. It was early fall, but after the abundant rain the pastures were as green as if it had been spring. As the sun set behind the mountains, the air turned reddish gold. By some atmospheric alchemy, everything in sight shone gilt. The light lingered, inviting the traveler to be swept up in its soft, warm embrace. Though I have seen many wonders in nature, that drive came the closest to a mystical rapture as anything I can imagine.
Walking provides an even more intimate sense of the land than train or automobile travel does. One of the reasons I love to walk, especially in familiar landscapes, is that each time I sally forth I see something new. If I were in a car, the whole scene would just whiz by in a blur. Walking I can mark the march of the seasons and the phases of a plant’s growth: “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear,” as Mark describes it. I sometimes wish I had the legs of a John Muir (1838-1914), who is said to have trekked 40 miles a day across the High Sierra above Yosemite, or John Bartram (1699-1777), “the father of American botany,” who catalogued the flora and fauna of the American colonies from the Canadian border south to Florida.
Walking makes a locale one’s own. Like Adam in the garden, I take a primitive pleasure in being able to name everything in sight. For in walking one not only takes possession of the world around us but lets the land shape who we are. I grew up in a neighborhood with hills on three sides. My imagination was formed by those hills, just as surely as those who spent years on the plains or by the sea have been informed by their environments. Getting the lay of the land wherever you are makes you feel at home even in a distant place.