After my last post on traveling, I got to thinking about various forms of travel. There’s really no easy answer to the question, “What is my favorite form of transportation?” Each one has much to recommend itself.
I think my all around favorite form of travel is on my own two feet. I love the nearness of nature when I’m walking about with birdsong in my ears, and the crunch of dirt beneath my feet. The sky’s magnificent sunset settles on your shoulders when you’re walking, fog makes for an impromptu moisturizing facial as you stride along, and your heart and lungs settle into a rhythmic beat that’s at once calming and energizing.
But what of going greater distances in less time? Is a car your best bet, a bus perhaps, filled with its wonderful motley crew of humanity, a train maybe, or a jet plane for covering the greatest distances in the least possible time? Which is best, I wonder. Which do you prefer?
After reflection, I have to say for me it is train travel, hands down. There is nothing like boarding a train and surrendering to the rhythmic clickety clack of iron wheels churning out the miles on lengths of perfectly spaced, symmetrical track.
My favorite trains are European ones. I love the cozy compartments where one sits facing fellow travelers, permitting discreet observations of one’s traveling companions. Closer to home, however, I have to say the good old ‘Paoli local’ is a childhood sweetheart to whom my heart still holds true.
The Paoli local is a creature of the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA rail system. I’m not sure anyone even uses the term ‘Paoli local’ anymore. Nowadays it is called the R5, a truly sanitized and unglamorous term if ever there were one. The route used to extend from Center City Philadelphia to Paoli (and later Malvern), the western-most terminus of the fabled and moneyed Main Line. Nowadays, it extends beyond the Main Line as construction crawl and suburban spread has morphed westward to towns like Exton, Downingtown, and Thorndale.
These later stops used to be country outposts, unencumbered with train stations, and harboring few signs of habitation other than large farms. Exton, for instance, was a place simply to stop for ice cream at the old Guernsey Cow. One motored through by car, on business route 30, passing the white stucco buildings of the Church Farm School where fatherless boys boarded and learned to farm. It was a town to travel through, before the 30 Bypass and 202 South sliced south and west and laid the groundwork for new developments, shopping malls, schools, and houses of worship that crowd out the old corn fields and stands of sycamores now.
Beginning at age 7 or 8, I was deposited by our mother, with the rest of her passel of uniformed kids, at the Wayne train station where we would board the Paoli local inbound, heading for the stops along the way that would disgorge us near our schools.
Serious business men (in those days it was only business men) sat in their spit and polished shoes and sensible overcoats, engrossed in The Wall Street Journal or The Philadelphia Inquirer. Conversation was held to a minimum. The dominant sound was the singsong strain of the wheels going clickety clack while the cars rocked gently back and forth, swaying languorously across the tracks below.
We knew the conductors on sight. We didn’t know their names, but we knew their distinctive ticket punches. Each punch was as unique as a fingerprint. Every conductor (and in those days it was only male conductors) had his own ticket punch, and each punch left a tiny cut out on your ticket of a distinctive size and shape, personal to that particular conductor. We knew that ticket punch as well as we knew the hair color and build of the conductor to whom it belonged. Tiny colored chads littered the floors of the trains like small bits of confetti, and the distinctive chads marked the locale of that particular conductor’s hole punching territory.
We shared a bond with the conductors, knowing them well as they worked the trains we took to and from school. It was an interesting relationship. The conductors neither considered themselves nor acted as babysitters to their young charges. Oh, they might grab you by the scruff of the neck if you were about to leave behind a lunch box or a scarf for sure. But that was done dismissively, as if you had violated (as indeed you had) the basic premise of train travel — taking responsibility for your own surroundings and belongings, including that valuable weekly or monthly ticket that would get you to school the next day and the day after that.
The conductors affected a firm, slightly distant manner although a few favorites were more friendly. They had a job to do — collecting and punching tickets, and they did not fancy themselves hall monitors of the various uniformed masses that squirmed in and out of the banquette seats, shoving over-packed book bags underneath the Naugahyde seats. (Backpacks had not yet been popularized, and we used canvas book bags with heavily reinforced handles that yielded not a centimeter under the welterweight of notebooks, textbooks, pens, pencils, protractors, and slide rules that jammed the book bags to near bursting.)
Come summer, we bid goodbye to the avuncular ones, steady in the knowledge that they would greet us on the platforms as we boarded when September rolled around again. We said a more measured, formal farewell to the other conductors who might be a tad less friendly but were nevertheless co-inhabitants of our traveling, train universe.
Our early years as travelers on the Paoli local prepped us artfully for later years of more adventuresome travel. We learned, for instance, that conductors were trustworthy fonts of information about connecting trains, express trains, and how long until the next train would come along if you missed your stop and had to go back a station or two.
We likewise learned that no matter how similar their duties appeared from man to man, each conductor was an individual as distinct as his hallmarked ticket punch. And each unique ticket punch belonged to a distinctive, deep voice that declared, “Express to Center City; next stop 30th Street!” or “Watch your step! Watch your step!”
Whether due to the unique ticket punch, a booming baritone, or the no-nonsense approach to train travel, the conductors ensured that our slice of youthful train travel was safe and routine. Yet it held the whisper of adventure, a soupçon of the delectably ‘inconnu.” It was, after all, the essence of train travel writ small — with the promise of delightful discoveries yet to come.
So it was on the modest Paoli local that my love of train travel was born. There too the seed of wanderlust — that hunger for travel — was sown. It was a seed that would germinate into a lifelong love of travel, whether on foot, by bus or plane, or via the soothing lullaby of train travel’s clickety-clack and the swaying cradle of train cars eating up the miles beneath the rails.