Friday, March 20, 2009

Take This, Rick Steves: Travel Blog Report: This Wheel's on Fire: From D.C. to Newark in Three Beautiful, Appalling Hours

So, last time around I promised exciting tales of foreign lands ... which I can't exactly deliver. But while I was gone from here I did spend a week in two damned strange places -- three and a half days each in Washington, D.C. and Jersey City, New Jersey.

Strange places, yes. Yet familiar, since I've made about half a dozen business trips to D.C. in the last decade, and I've visited J.C. what? a dozen or so times? in the same time span. Close to that number, anyway.

This was the first time I linked the two, though -- which was hella convenient and not at all expensive, thanks to the subsidized folks over by Amtrak, the passenger train people.

If Amtrak is short on money -- and of course it is -- I have a suggestion. Sponsor a reality TV show called "America's Most Fucking Squalid Views." All they'd have to do is stick a goddamn video camera in the window on the Amtrak route from Washington, D.C. to Newark, New Jersey. And let the shit tell the story.

Like some kind of twisted anti-Arlo Guthrie tour-de-feces, the Amtrak "Regional" leaves the truly pretty Union Station in D.C. (I'm not kidding -- it's a dazzling, cavernous, dramatic building) and winds northward through a litany of fucked-up eastern seaboard towns -- Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton. The train heads all the way up to Boston, but my destination was Newark's downtown Penn Station, exactly three hours from Washington.

"All aboard!" Everyone queues up ... sort of ... if a queue can be semicircular in shape. This is travel in some kind of hybrid casual-yet-efficient mode. They glance at your I.D., but there are no metal detectors. No TSA to be seen at all. And -- by Benito's ghost -- the damn train left on time.

About five minutes outside Our Nation's Crapital, the first thing that struck me was how quickly the landscape hicked the hell up. One second it was tagged bridges and brick walls. The next second ... it was like the outskirts of Peoria, or some hamlet named after a "Crik" in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania. Rotting shacks and rusted pick-em-up trucks ... and lots of trees and empty spaces between what passed for dwellings.

I recall it staying pretty 'billy-pastoral until Baltimore ... happened. Oh man. I don't have the powers of hyperbole to capture it. Just take the trip. It won't cost you much. Totally worth the price of admission, provided you get to watch it from the relative comfort and safety of an Amtrak train.

Baltimore is the place where, apparently, every dilapidated, burnt out, busted, rat infested row house came to die. And before dying, to reproduce like Irish rabbits and cluster together alongside the railroad tracks, perhaps on the off chance that the train might derail and take them out of their misery.

After Baltimore, it's all gravy, really ... gravy studded with cigarette butts and used condoms and slicked with the grease of a million corpses' unwashed pubic deltas ... but there's about two and a half hours to go, and there's much more shittiness to come.

Actually, from Baltimore all the way to Newark, with a few rural interruptions and river bridges, it's pretty much more of the same. Graffiti tags, sickly Suessian row houses, and empty factory buildings. Broken glass, broken bricks. Decay.

Yeah, I know -- pretty things don't get built next to the train tracks. Not in recent history, anyway. I've traveled by train enough to know that that's the score. And I imagine that most railway journeys give you a good look at the seedy side of things. This particular route, I have to believe, offers one of the more densely concentrated visual obituaries for Modern Industrialism available.

For that reason, I recommend it. Not to mention that it's a pretty cheap, easy, and fairly quick way to hoist your carcass from D.C. to the NYC area, if you're so inclined. And apparently a fair number of people are, because the goddamn train was packed.

Sorry, but I don't have a solid finish to this one. So I'll embed up a vid ... which, even though it's not really thematically related very much, it's my goddamn blog.




1 comment:

ryan said...

I like the idea of a reality TV show called "America's Most Fucking Squalid Views." I've made the D.C.-to-Newark trip via Amtrak. Hell, I lived for 4 years in the spot "five minutes outside Our Nation's Crapital" (this would be Hyattsville/Riverdale, MD) where the landscape hicks the hell up. Of course it's always more like that by the tracks -- that's why the tracks are there in the first place, and then once the tracks are there, no one who can afford not to moves within earshot of the trains.

But you're right about the particular concentration of an America abandoned that should have been a big clue to anyone watching that the boom of the last decade was built on a soap-thin bubble that was already popped five minutes from anywhere.