A slow trip back in time

The eighth-grade class and I had been on the Amtrak Downeaster for more than an hour before the obligatory question was asked by a certain wag: "Are we, like, there yet?"


We were in Dover, N.H. "There" was Boston. It feels like a long way from Maine to Boston, and we actually sought to make it a little longer by approaching our destination by rail on this annual class trip.

Sometimes, it's good to go the slow way. It's a test of one's attention span and powers of observation.

I appreciate trains. In fact, it's too bad you can't take a train all the way from Bangor, Maine, to Boston anymore. So we had to begin the railroad portion of our trip at the present northern terminus of passenger service: Portland.

Whereas steam trains once seemed fast, nowadays, diesel trains feel sluggish. But when you travel by train, you may see a few 19th-century vistas go by the window, and that was part of the point.

We'd all ridden down the Maine Turnpike to Boston by car many times, but the railroad thoroughfare makes you think of a different era of transportation, goods, services, and community, and of observing the landscape of the past.

We arrived, town by town, via the back door – via a right of way that has probably changed little since it was established. We clicketyclacked through town squares and depots new and old. Sometimes they were replica stations complete with old- fashioned railway clocks.

In some ways, it was a kind of "core sampling" of history – of human settlement of the Eastern corridor, the growth of suburbs, the decline of some New England industries and the ascendancy of others, as well as the decay and rebuilding of urban centers.

Here were old iron bridges in Dover;abandoned mills in Saco, Maine; beautiful farms (dairy and Christmas tree) with exurbs pressing their boundaries; and the constant fluctuation between cleared land and young forests. We passed clam flats, where clam diggers were hard at work, and salt marshes close to new condominiums south of Portland.

In some communities we rolled through, the tracks clearly used to be outside of town. Now they bisect neighborhoods. Sometimes we passed steeples at the "front door" of towns (we could see Sunday services just letting out at St. Mary's in Dover) and smokestacks at the back door.

Finally, we reached the thicket of rail yards, suburban backyards, and triple-decker apartment buildings on the final slow creep to Boston's North Station. Then we were there.

The railroads brought standardization of time in the US. To my eighth-graders, the train ride brought leisure and a certain suspension of time: We couldn't go any faster or stop any less frequently than the Downeaster's timetable.

Other aspects of the trip had a similar slowing effect. A museum, for instance, gives you pause. Unlike, say, the Discovery Channel, the displays at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston don't change every few seconds. One becomes reacquainted with the long view, really seeing things because they don't flicker on and off at a predetermined interval.

Whether it was the Egyptian statuary or the Fillmore concert posters from the "Summer of Love," the exhibits spoke to us of our attention span and of ourselves as watchers.

The exhibits spoke, too, of pastoral roots and haphazard development versus industrial roots and engineered development. For example, Boston, whose streets were supposedly laid out along old cow paths, as opposed to modern urban planning and the logical grid of Chicago.

The juxtaposition is glaring when such a city collides with modern population growth and the need for transportation and sanitation, and must scramble to align its infrastructure with the future.

Are we there yet? As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, "There's no there there." But we saw plenty of "there" – or at least there was plenty to see, if you knew what to look for.

Next year, perhaps we'll take a different old-time route. In the age of sail, the Downeaster was the name of a kind of freight ship, and it left our bay and approached Boston by sea, carrying bricks, lumber, ice, and fish.

The sea: Now that's an old thoroughfare. I'm, like, totally there.

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