What I gave up by going green

My Regional train pulls into the tiny Mystic station.

Yay! The lengthy process of posting all of my photos and video is finally over. I've created a Flickr collection with all of the sets.

As my trip wound down, I started thinking about what I had given up by going green and not using any planes or cars. Planes is easy — I don't feel like I gave up anything by taking the train, unless you count grief and aggravation.

Cars, however, is a bit of a different story. In Boston, I definitely didn't miss out on anything by not having a car. In fact, as is generally the case in big cities, it was more convenient to take the subway and walk to my destinations than having to worry about driving and parking in a strange place. I think you see more by walking, as well.

In my day trips to Salem and Portland, I also don't feel like I gave up much. Taking a cab into and out of town in Portland would have saved me some time, but that's about it. If I were making Portland more than a day trip, though (or wanted to go to the LL Bean outlet), a car would have been helpful. And a drive up to lovely Bar Harbor would have been quite nice — and perhaps allowed me to track down that shack with the mind-blowing lobster rolls. There might be bus or boat transportation options to Bar Harbor, though — I didn't really look into it.

It was probably in Mystic that I gave up the most by not having a car. There's enough to do within walking distance of the train station for a few days, but to spend any more time there — perhaps go to the beach, visit the submarine and other museums, or go to the local wineries — I would have needed a car. Even Abbott's Lobster in the Rough — which I walked to because I really, really wanted to go there — should have been a cab ride or perhaps, if possible, reached by water taxi. There are rental car companies in the Mystic area, including Enterprise, so I'm assuming you can arrange to be picked up at the train station and at least be green about getting to the town.

I do, however, feel like there are some things I gained by doing this all by public transit. There is, of course, that feeling of doing right by the environment. But there's also a sense of accomplishment in figuring out other cities' public transportation systems, even though both Boston's and Portland's were fairly easy. And there's a lack of stress in knowing that someone else is always responsible for getting you to your destination.

I grew up in the Akron area, and in suburban Ohio fashion, thought that if you wanted to get anywhere, the car was it. I never would have thought about traveling for a week and being able to see and do all of the things I did on this trip without using cars or planes.

And indeed, this is the sort of trip you can only make on the busy Northeast rail corridor. So here's hoping we see the national rail network expand quickly — I loved traveling this way.

Thinking about user-generated content

I listen to some travel podcasts, which is how I learned how much Arthur Frommer (the guidebook guru that founded Frommers) hates user-generated content. His point is that unlike we users, guidebook writers are professionals, doing this for a living, and going to a lot more places than we do. So, for example, while we may stay in one or two hotels in a city, they check them all out.

But I think I have to disagree with Mr. Frommer on at least part of his argument. Granted, he's probably right about the hotel thing, but when it comes to restaurants and shops, I think user-generated content is as important, and as good as — if not better than — what you're going to get in a guidebook.

While one guidebook writer can maybe visit a restaurant once or twice, that's no substitute for reading the reviews of perhaps 20 or 30 people who've been there on different nights and ordered different things (and, often, posted pictures). And a wide range of people posting to Yelp can cover far more restaurants than one guidebook writer can, finding new places that the guidebook writer might not get into the book for years.

I like the Frommer's guides — they're easy to use and generally less stuffy than Fodor's. In fact, I started with a Frommer's Boston and a Frommer's New England when I was planning for this trip, and also skimmed a Lonely Planet and Fodor's guide from my local library.

Some of the things I did and really enjoyed were in the guidebooks. But some of my favorite places and most memorable experiences weren't — I found them on user-generated content sites:
  • Scup's in the Harbor — Yelp
  • Galleria Umberto — Yelp
  • Soakology — Tripadvisor
  • J's Oyster — Yelp (although I did see it was in the Lonely Planet guide later, so go Lonely Planet)
My trip to Portland would have been significantly less great without Soakology and J's Oyster. And unlike some of the places you'll find in a guidebook, these places weren't overrun with tourists.

I'm not saying we should throw out guidebooks. But I am saying that there's a lot of value in user-generated content, and you really need both to research a great trip.


Amtrak's Acela vs. Regional

First, pics and video from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are up at Flickr.

And then a question I've been thinking about: now having ridden both the Acela and the Regional, is the Acela worth the extra cost?

That partially depends on how much saving the extra time — an hour and 15 minutes from Washington DC to Boston — is worth to you. But the Acela is worth more than the time you save, I think.

I didn't realize how much smoother it is than the Regional until I actually got on the Regional and felt it rocking and rolling. It seems to get up to higher speeds (the conductor announced we were running at 125 mph at one point on the way to Mystic) and therefore jostle around a lot more between Boston and New York than I've been used to between DC and New York.

On the Acela, you don't really feel the speed. It's quieter than the Regional, with one design flaw exception — the Acela's airline-style overhead luggage bins have actual closing doors with actual closing latches. I'm guessing these are in part to show a classier look than the Regional's open luggage racks, and in part to make sure luggage isn't flying as the train leans into turns. But they're NOISY, with a loud ka-thunk whenever one is closed.

The Acela's business-class (the lowest class offered) seats definitely offered substantially more legroom. But compared to airplane coach seats, the Regional's coach seats are wider and have much more legroom. And the Regional, even at its loudest, is still quieter than an airplane.

And indeed, as I rode home on the Regional yesterday, I was thinking about how it was bouncier and louder than the Acela, and wondering, once you've taken the Acela, how do you go back?

Oh yes, I remembered. The Regional still beats flying, hands down.

The trouble with vacation is it always has to end

Well, I did it. No cars and no planes through an entire trip.

Even up to the end, there was always a chance I would have to cab it. Of the three trains going south from Mystic yesterday, I went for the latest one, the one that left at 7 p.m. and was due to arrive at Union Station at 1:30 a.m.

With Metro's late Friday and Saturday hours, that should have given me plenty of time to get home. But any major issues on Amtrak's or Metro's ends, or both, and I'd be taking a cab back to Silver Spring. And indeed, there was one moment where I thought I might be screwed.

I checked out of my hotel Friday morning and looked outside to see a downpour. My plans had been to go back over to Mystic Seaport for awhile (I bought a membership, which allows unlimited visits and other discounts, so I think it paid for itself), do a little shopping downtown, and then go back to the Captain Daniel Packer Inne.

Plans at least temporarily thwarted, I walked the short distance to Bartleby's Coffee Cafe to wait it out with a cappuccino and a close eye on weather.com. It was a cute little coffee shop, and obviously had a regular clientele. By 12:30 the rain was letting up, so then I headed over to Mystic Seaport. I wanted to grab a light lunch and check out the Seaman's Inne, the Seaport's restaurant.

I ate in the pub, and at the Seaman's Inne it's a nice place for a respite from outside, although not as great a space as the DPI. More importantly, after realizing that I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a serving of non-coleslaw vegetables with any meal, I got a delicious spinach salad, loaded with spiced pecans, cranberries, apples and cheese. Yay, nutrition.

Seaman's Inne.

I wandered the Seaport for awhile, checking out a few things I'd missed, and went for a ride on the historic steamboat SS Sabino. It just goes up and back the Mystic River for half an hour, so it's not an extensive ride, but it is a good way to see things from the water and check out the Sabino's historic steam engine.

It was, unfortunately, overrun with kids — some well-behaved, some out of control. I understand increasingly why my mom is in such demand as a substitute teacher — she would have had the out of control ones in line, I'm sure.

I wandered my way back downtown, checking out shops as I went. In Mystic, there are a lot of eccentricities, nautical items, organic items, jewelry, clothing, and art, with the occasional oddity like an army navy store thrown in.

Then it was fish and chips time. I'm beginning to develop this theory that the closer you are to the water, the better fish and chips taste. At the Captain Daniel Packer Inne, they featured a huge piece of really fresh North Atlantic cod, fried to crispy, flavorful perfection. The fries were good but not great, and many were fish greasy because they'd put the fish on top of them. But I mostly judge fish and chips on the fish, and it was very, very good.

I collected my bag from my hotel, and walked the few blocks back to the train station. I'd noticed when I came in that Mystic's train station was small, but it really sank in as I was waiting there, and, for a time, was the only person there. There's an Amtrak ticket machine in the station, but the station closes at 4 p.m., so Amtrak had mailed me my ticket in advance.

The tiny Mystic train station.

This is the only time I've taken a train where there's no announcment, and no one from Amtrak to direct traffic. Not that there was really traffic to direct — just myself and one other woman who came by later were waiting to take the train. At 7 p.m., an electronic voice announced, "Train approaching, stay behind the yellow line," in a continuous loop. I was already familiar with this, as it had happened three times previously, for two Acelas headed in opposite directions, and a regional train headed to Boston (not all of the regional trains stop in Mystic).

The woman and I gathered up our luggage and headed up the ramp to the train. Far more people got off than on — what looked like a mix of businesspeople coming back from Boston, locals coming back from trips, and vacationers headed in, perhaps for a weekend. One of the Amtrak people on the train helped us up the steps — no high-level platform here — and we were on the train and rolling.

I sat in the quiet car by accident at first, as it was the closest to where we got on. But all I was planning to do was edit photos and listen to my iPod, so I decided to try it out, and really liked it. It was very quiet except for some cell phone and other chatter when people got on in New York. The cafe car is available, too, if you need to make or take a cell phone call.

When I went to the cafe car, I did make a rookie mistake by forgetting to take my little seat ticket with me. This is the one thing Amtrak does not and should explain better — they put it overhead on the luggage rack by your seat and mark it with where you're getting off. And you're supposed to take it with you if you go somewhere like the cafe car as proof that they've already taken your ticket. The conductors also use it as they walk through the train to know who they should inform (or wake up) about upcoming stops.

As we rolled along, there were periodic points where we kept moving, but the overhead lights and outlet power would go off and then back on in the train. I had my laptop plugged in with a surge protector, so it wasn't a big deal, just kind of weird. It even felt a little classic, like we were part of a bygone era, as we rolled in to New York city, slipping dark and quiet through the night with the city lights off in the distance.

And then the train stopped, and the power was out for good. They announced that, as we could see, we didn't have power, but that the engineer thought he knew what the problem was, and it could be fixed in a few minutes. They'd make another announcement if it wasn't a few-minutes-fixable type thing.

Bullshit, I thought. I've flown enough times to know that things that cannot be fixed in a few minutes. We were going to be stranded on those tracks for hours. Or they'd tow us in somehow, as we were blocking the approach to Penn Station, and you probably can't do that for long. We'd have to switch trains, or get a new power car. I would have to take a cab home from Union Station — failure at the very end of my trip.

The lights came back on. They announced things were fixed. We started moving again.

Okay, apparently they really can fix things in a few minutes. The lights didn't turn off for the rest of the ride in to DC.

By about midnight, I was too tired to do anything else on my laptop. I dozed on and off all the way in to DC, got off the train, and headed for the Metro and home.

Today, I'm uploading lots of pictures. Everything from Sunday in Salem and Quincy is up at Flickr now.



So in the two days of Boston-to-Portland-to-Boston-to-Mystic, I didn't manage to post about the one thing I did in Boston Tuesday morning before heading to Portland.

In the course of going to North Station both Sunday and Monday morning, I realized how close it was to Charlestown. Most importantly, it's close to the Charlestown Navy Yard, home of the Constitution. During my tour of the ship this time around, one of the sailors had mentioned that they fire off a gun at 8 a.m. in the morning when they hoist the flag, and again at sunset.

I wasn't about to wake up early just to go over there and see a gun fired off, but since my train to Portland was at 9, heading over to the Navy Yard by boat a bit before 8, and then walking over to North Station from there, would put me there in good time for my train.

Having been just burned by the National Park Service saying the Friendship would depart Salem at 1 p.m., when the ship clearly left much earlier, I was a little leery that I would be going over there for nothing. I needn't have worried. Unlike the Park Service, when the Navy says they're going to fire off a gun at 8 a.m., they fire off a damn gun at 8 a.m.

I watched from the one vantage point I thought I'd be able to see the gun, and it was pretty silent except for some muffled calling out ("Fire in the hole!" I think). And then BOOM! I totally jumped, which is quite visible in the video I shot.

The video does show the brief orange flame, and then the cloud of smoke. No car alarms went off, as apparently they sometimes do. Still, the noise of that one blank gave me a better idea of what it must have been like in battle, with guns going off constantly.

Watching the gun go off was pretty sweet, and getting over there early ensured I was easily on time for my Downeaster train, so everything worked out well.

As for today, I've got a bit more time in Mystic, and then I'll be heading back home to DC. I should have lots of time to edit photos on the train, and hopefully Flickr Uploadr won't be so angry with my home Internet connection as it has been with the connections at my hotels.

Until then, I did finally manage to get my Saturday pics up.


I take the wheel, briefly

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Mystic. I had started to think about it as a possible destination after seeing it in a National Geographic Traveler article on well-preserved historic places. But would there be enough to do for three days and two nights? Would there be great places to eat?

Downtown Mystic.

Yes, and yes. Mystic has turned out to be a lovely little town, not built up at all (I doubt there's a building over four stories), yet filled with lots of shops and restaurants. And Mystic Seaport, my main purpose for coming here, has enough attractions to easily fill a day or more.

The Seaport is particularly impressive. Basically, it has been buying up historic seaport buildings and ships from various locales over the years. The buildings get reassembled within its 19th-century seaport village, while the ships sit on the Mystic River alongside the Seaport, or in a preservation area. The result is one of the best and most extensive historic areas I've ever seen.

While I saw plenty of historic sites in Boston, Salem, and Quincy, they were all anomalies. Even along the Freedom Trail, most of what you see is modern buildings. The historic sites have been preserved, yes, but you have no sense of what it was like to walk along the streets of revolutionary Boston, for example. But in Mystic Seaport, as you walk along the paths lined with a 19th-century bank, grocer, chemist, press, shipsmith, and much more, and then look over to the water, filled with masts of historic vessels, you can really get a sense of what it was like to live during that time.

Part of Mystic Seaport's 19th century village.

Many of the buildings are manned by people who will take the time to give you an extensive explanation of these 19th-century skills. I spent quite awhile in the carver's building, learning about how ship lettering, decorative work, and figureheads were carved — and how, as demand dropped for that art, they transitioned into things like furniture and carousel horses. The shipsmith, meanwhile, explained that since you can't exactly go out and buy the tools required to maintain Mystic Seaport's historic vessels any more, he just makes whatever they need.

The only difficult thing about going through Mystic Seaport has been the kids. It's the end of the school year and therefore school field trip time, and so there are packs of kids running around everywhere. I can see how this would be a great learning experience for kids, so I understand them being here, but if I were planning another visit, I'd be sure to come during the summer, when school is out. Also, I don't know who I write to recommend this, but I'm increasingly convinced that if schools made kids run about 15 minutes of wind sprints prior to any field trip, everyone involved would be much better off.

But anyway. The showpiece of Mystic Seaport is the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaler. As has been the case with so many ships on this trip, the Morgan is currently hauled out for restoration. However, although the ship currently has no masts, it's very interesting to see her hauled out — the ship has a much, much, deeper draft than I ever would have expected if I'd seen her in the water. It makes sense, thinking about it — a whaler out for years at a time collecting whale oil needs a huge hold to put all of that oil in. But it was very unexpected based on other ships I've seen.

The Charles W. Morgan, mid-restoration.

Today, in the afternoon, I took a break from the Seaport-going for a ride on the schooner Argia. I knew I wanted a chance to ride in a ship under sail at some point during this trip, and the Argia, a short walk from my inn, the Whaler's Inn, seemed like the perfect opportunity. And, although there wasn't much breeze in the morning, and there was a threat of rain for the afternoon, the wind picked up and the rain held off, so the ship got to go quite a bit on sail power alone.

There's a peacefulness to a ship under sail that I'd sort of expected — with no motor, the main sounds you hear are the wind in the sails and the water whooshing along the side. I took tons of pictures as we breezed along, until I took one of an island along Long Island Sound, and the following ensued:

Captain: Did you just take a picture of that island?
Me: (Thinking: I've been taking pictures this whole sail. I know the houses on that island look big and very expensive, but is there some sort of law against taking pictures of them? We're in public waters, aren't we?) Uh, yes?
Captain: You're going to have to give me that camera.
Me: Do I have to delete the pictures?
Captain: Just give me the camera. I promise it will be good. And hold this — that's most important. (Points to the wheel.)

I gingerly take one spoke of the wheel, and then the captain walks off with my camera. I grab the whole wheel, and I can feel it humming in my hands.

And that is how I have a picture of myself behind the wheel of an 81-foot schooner.

Me, steering the Argia.

After a great sail on the Argia and last night's lobster roll redemption at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough, it might have been best just to pack it in on the lobster roll and get some fish and chips or something. But I had checked out the Captain Daniel Packer Inne's pub menu, including its hot lobster roll "sautéed with a sweet sherry butter," and that intrigued me. First, HOT lobster roll. Second, butter.

So I headed over there, and I am so glad I did. First, the ambiance is great — it reminds me a little bit of the pub I had brilliant fish and chips in when I was in Portsmouth, UK. Perhaps it's that sense that centuries-ago sea captains dug in to a pie and a pint in the very same place you're sitting. At the DPI, the pub is in what's essentially the basement, with exposed stone walls and low wooden beams overhead. Housed in a building completed in 1756, it's historic without trying too hard. And the fire going in the fireplace felt great after being out in the cold wind on the Argia.

The Captain Daniel Packer Inne's pub.

As for the food, I was feeling maxed out on oysters and clam chowder, so I went for the shrimp, scallop, and roasted vegetable soup, and of course the hot lobster roll. The soup was good, but not too remarkable — pretty much like a minestrone with seafood in it. The hot lobster roll actually had the most plate appeal of any I've had so far, with its herbs and shallots mixed in with the lobster meat.

The lobster roll was probably the second best I've had on this trip (behind Abbott's), mostly on the strength of being hot. Where it fell short, oddly enough, was the bread. The DPI got a little too ambitious, and put it on better, but too chewy, bread. As a result, every bite involved too much effort to cut into the bread. There was buttered lobster flying everywhere — it was not pretty. Which is a shame, because the guts of the roll were quite good. And it still beat cold, hands down.

I think it's definitely time to switch off of lobster rolls now. I don't think anybody in this area is going to beat Abbott's. But I may well be back to the DPI tomorrow before my train to sample their fish and chips — the space is too great to pass up another chance to kick back with a beer and some pub food.

Portland equals happy feet

The old port area — bricks and cobblestones aplenty.

Before I get too ahead of myself, a little about Portland. As I mentioned in my post Tuesday, I didn't have any difficulty getting to the old port area.

Once I got there, I had a few hours to kill before one of the few appointments I've actually made for this trip. I spend my time walking the old port area, taking pictures and shopping. Think water, with the occasional whiff of fish, lots of bricks and cobblestones, and plenty of specialty and souvenir shops.

I've been to Portland before, on a cruise ship stop, and two of the most interesting stores from that time were still around — a specialty kitchen/gourmet foods shop, and one with all kinds of items for dogs. Portland itself, and all of Maine, from what I've seen, is very dog-friendly. It's not unusual to see dogs in shops (even the ones not for dogs), or sitting beside their owners at outdoor cafes. There are also any number of places to buy Maine specialty foods, particularly anything made from blueberries.

My appointment was for Soakology, and this place really made the trip. Soakology has a really lovely tea shop upstairs, with tons of loose leaf teas to choose from. But it's the downstairs that I was interested in when I ran across the place researching my trip. They offer foot soaks, and also a variety of light spa services, but the place is really about the soak.

I'd figured that by the time I got to Portland, my feet would be pretty worn out and in need of a tune-up, and I was decidedly right.

At Soakology, you start your treatment by choosing from a menu of different foot soaks (prices range from $20-$40; I went with the $30 "Piece of Mind," with essential oils and salts. Then you head down to the basement, where an attendant/masseuse seats you in a giant stuffed chair raised off of the ground. She wheels out your warm foot soak in a giant ceramic pot, also raised on a cart, and also gives you a warm neck and shoulders wrap.

And let me tell you, as soon as I stuck my feet down into the pot, the bottom covered with stones that feel lovely under toes and soles, I was feeling super-relaxed. If you're questioning the value proposition of paying $30 to soak your feet, I can only say, don't knock it 'till you've tried it. There must be something to this whole reflexology thing, or, if nothing else, coming at relaxation through your feet.

The Soakology basement setup.

My attendant also brought me down the food and tea menu, and I ended up ordering two adorable cast iron personal pots of tea during my treament — spicy peppermint and ginger. Both were very good and added to the overall experience, with my feet soaking, and soothing music playing down in the quiet, nicely furnished basement space.

By the time I got to the 20 minute head, neck, and shoulders massage I ordered to go with my soak, I was already super-relaxed. After the massage, which the attendant does mid-soak, I was ready to float out of there, and my poor beleagured feet felt the best they ever have (sorry, feet, it's all downhill from there).

This concept is amazing. Every little detail is there — the tea, the soak, the space, the mini-massages. Why is this place only in Portland? Why is there not one everywhere (but mostly, selfishly, in DC)?

After my soak, I walked around a bit more, and then did what everyone does after an amazing spa experience — I went to a dive bar.

Okay, not everyone. Not even me, in most instances, but I wanted some food before I headed back for my train, and per my research, J's Oyster was the place.

J's I found on Yelp, clearly filling a niche as the local seafood joint/bar with better prices and better food than the places all the tourists go. I was a little concerned about going to the place all of the locals went to, as if I'd walk in the door and everyone would turn, and stare, and someone would say, "You're not from around here, are ya?"

Instead, within seconds of walking in, I felt enormously comfortable. The bartender was absolutely kind to me, and it was clear she knew her regulars by name. The more time I spent there, the more I started to think that at J's, you're either a regular, a savvy tourist, or a potential regular.

J's Oyster's wonderfully divey atmosphere.

As for the food, I had half a dozen oysters and a lobster roll. The oysters were smaller than Union Oyster House, and therefore less intimidating, but also less fresh — shucked at some point during the day (I hope), and deposited on a bed of ice in the midst of the bar area. They were a little drier, too, but I do have to give J's credit for a delicious sauce, which was possibly better than Union Oyster House's.

The lobster roll — sigh — was cold. Good, fresh, but cold. By this point I was starting to believe that I had, in fact, eaten the best lobster roll in New England while in Bar Harbor, and nothing was even going to approach it. Turns out Abbott's Lobster in the Rough here in Connecticut proved me wrong.

After J's, I stopped at Gilbert's Chowder House to sample some clam chowder. It was really, really, good, with a sweet hint to it.

My trip to Portland was one day where I didn't really "do" anything. No visits to historic sites, no museums, just shopping, foot soak, and eating. That's not to say that there isn't anything to do in Portland, just that I'd already been on a tour during the cruise ship stop and seen quite a bit. If I were taking the Downeaster in for the first time, there would certainly have been time to walk over and see the lush Victoria Mansion.


An open letter to Abbott's Lobster in the Rough

Dear Abbott's Lobster in the Rough,

I thank you heartily for restoring my faith in the lobster roll, by doing what seems so simple but has not been grasped by your good restaurant brethren in Boston and Portland — putting fresh, hot lobster on a buttery bun.

I thank you also for the delicious local Whale Rock oysters, briny and tasting of the sea — also vying for the best I've had on this trip, against two places with "oyster" in their names. Your brothy clam chowder, alas, was not the best I've had, but it was still tasty.

I thank you for your casual atmosphere, right by the water. And for allowing patrons to bring their own adult beverages, as the pint of Bass I purchased at the package store up the street paired so nicely with the location and all the aforementioned deliciousness.

But I regret to tell you that while I had the best meal of my trip so far at your establishment, I will not be back, at least on this trip. This has nothing to do with your restaurant, except its location. I walked and walked and walked and walked and walked to get there, and yes, this is mostly my fault for this stubborn green adherence to no cars on this trip.

Still. Couldn't you open an outpost? Say somewhere less than three miles away from downtown?



The Downeaster

I'm back from Portland, Maine, but way too tired to attempt to write a post about everything I did.

Briefly, the Downeaster was pretty much what I expected: standard Amtrak stock, although with some different twists like Shipyard beer and Legal Seafoods clam chowder in the snack car. It made stops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, and the scenery along the way was a mix of small New England towns, forests, and tidal areas.

We were about 20 minutes late getting into Portland, which seemed to be mostly due to having to stand by while commuter trains went past in the other direction. But there was a bus into downtown (Portland city bus #5) pulling up just as I left the station, so the timing was actually good for me. Added bonus — the bus ride is free if you show your Downeaster ticket stub.

Since getting into downtown and the old port area was likely going to be the portion of the trip most likely to go wrong, it was good for things to line up nicely. Getting back, I had to wait awhile for the bus ($1.25 sans ticket stub), but I still made it back with huge amounts of time to spare for my train, the last train back to Boston for the night.

Tomorrow I start working my way back home with a two-night stop in Mystic, Conn. I'm not 100% sure what the Internet situation will be at the inn I'm staying at, so it may be awhile before my next post.


All I want to do is eat cannoli for breakfast

I set out to do four things today:

1. Drink cappuccino
2. See square-rigged ship under sail
3. Eat oysters
4. Eat tiramisu

Guess which one I did not accomplish.

I wanted to be in Salem before 1 to try to see the Friendship sail, so that left me part of the morning. I decided to head over to the North End in search of good cappuccino and perhaps something along the pastry line. I'd already had a banana and a piece of peanut-butter-covered toast, but I was not about to pass up another opportunity for some form of delicious Italian dessert. Call it, uh, dessert of breakfast!

I got over to the North End early enough that there were still plenty of tables open at Mike's Pastry, so I went for the opportunity, and had a cappuccino (perfectly frothy) and a florentine ricotta cannoli. The ricotta filling was creamy and amazing, and in a shell reminiscent of toffee — sweeter and harder than their standard cream cannoli shells.

While I was at Mike's, I heard a snare drum in the distance. A group of about eight men marched past down Hanover Street in time to the snare drum, of varying ages and degrees of formal dress. I'm assuming they were on their way to a Memorial Day parade of some sort.

I thought about trying to make the 10:15 train to Salem but decided that would be pushing it. So I sat in the memorial/park behind Old North Church and read (1776 — I had to pick at least one book for this trip that was super relevant) for awhile. It was very surreal to be reading that book in that location, running across location after location in the book that I'd just been to.

I took the commuter train to Salem and got there at about noon. I was down by the water by 12:15, but when I turned the final corner to where the Friendship should be docked, or, perhaps, working her way out to the harbor, she was gone. I walked fast down Derby Wharf and there she was, but already fairly far away.

Friendship heads out.

I could see where the ship was headed, so I thought I'd try to walk down and catch up in time to see her set her sails. I walked, and walked, and walked. Once you reach a certain point on Derby Street in Salem, you no longer have any sort of view of the water. There's a giant power plant. Then a sewage plant. There's a lot of prime real estate taken up with crap. Literally.

Finally I reached a road jutting off in the right direction, and found myself entering Winter Island. Winter Island was actually really nice, with a tiny beach and lots of picnic tables and campsites. And I did get to see the ship heading out to sea, but still no sails. I had assumed they used a motor to get out of the harbor, but this left me wondering if they were going to sail at all between Salem and Maine, where the Friendship is supposed to be hauled out.

Anyway, I ended up doing a lot more walking today than I expected, and the guy that led our tour yesterday was super wrong when he said the ship was leaving at 1 p.m. It might have made open ocean by 1 p.m., but it probably left closer to 11 or 11:30. Since the ship wasn't actually ever under sail, and I'd already seen all the sites I wanted to see in Boston, I was much less dissappointed than I might have been.

I came back and had a light dinner at Union Oyster House — half a dozen oysters and clam chowder. Both were delicious. I'm still fairly new to eating oysters and these were larger and a little meatier than I've had, and therefore more intimidating for an oyster newbie. But they were super fresh — shucked in front of me at the bar — and tasty. The ambiance is fun, too, as the restaurant is the oldest in operation in the country.

Me at Union Oyster House.
The bartender/oyster shucker said he takes
a lot of pictures, and volunteered to take mine.

I've already let on that dessert was tiramisu, which I had with a decaf cappuccino, at Caffe Vittoria. Caffe Vittoria, unlike the tight bustle of Mike's Pastry, is a huge place, and it aims to be like a cafe in Italy. The space was really nice, the tiramisu creamy and one of the best I've ever had. The cappuccino was dandied up with a lot of cocoa powder, though — it paired really well with dessert but from a cappuccino purist perspective, Mike's was better.

Speaking of Mike's, I stopped back there one more time for some pizzelles — I figure these baked goodies I can take on the road. And although I probably hadn't thought of them for years, pizzelles are one food I associate strongly with my childhood and my grandmother, Nona.

Hanover Street in the North End.

I came to Boston looking for good seafood, but I think it will be the foods of the North End that I remember most. I've really felt the lack of a Little Italy in DC since I've been there — I tried and failed just to find a place to buy cannoli shells. Granted, if the past few days are any indication, if I did live somewhere near an Italian enclave, I would rapidly gain gargantuan amounts of weight as I sucked down Italian pastries, pasta, and fried goodness — especially if I wasn't walking what I'm estimating as 4-6 miles each day.

So it's some pizzelles for the road to appease the fourth of me that's Italian, because tomorrow I'm headed to Maine on the Downeaster.


In which I travel to Salem but do nothing witch-related

I woke up this morning to an extremely loud thunderclap, and thought, "there's no way I'm going to Gloucester today."

My plan had been to take commuter rail to Salem, then on to Gloucester, and then back to Boston. But my main plan for Gloucester had been to wander around by the waterfront and take lots of pictures, and when the weather forecast confirmed thunderstorms for the afternoon, I decided it would be best to pass on Gloucester and just go to Salem.

I'm glad I did, because as things turned out, I might end up going back to Salem tomorrow. But more on that in a bit.

Taking the commuter rail was even easier than I'd expected. At North Station, the same kiosks that sell T tickets and passes also sell commuter rail tickets. All you have to do is know what zone the city you want to go to is (and if you don't, they've got them listed above the kiosk), and buy round-trip tickets.

I rolled in with perfect timing for the 8:30 train, and so, after leaving my hotel at 8:00, I was in Salem by about 9:00.

My main interest in Salem is as a former maritime power, and I don't have a lot of interest in the witchcraft trials or any hokey touristy witch things. So I stuck to the waterfront, and the National Park Services two tours of Derby House, Narbonne House, Custom House, and the replica East Indiaman (merchant ship) Friendship.

Friendship of Salem.

So it was fortuitious that I: 1. went today and 2. skipped Gloucester. Because today is the last day they were doing tours on the Friendship. Tomorrow she sets sail to be hauled out (pulled out of the water to have her hull checked and given the Coast Guard's stamp of approval). And the guide for the second tour mentioned that they'd be setting sail at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

Watching a square-rigged ship sail out seemed like a pretty awesome thing. But I had been planning on going to see the Adams houses tomorrow, and definitely wanted to get a chance to see them during this trip. I checked the train schedule and decided I could make the 12:38 train back if I pushed it, and try to get in to see the Adams houses today. I ended up running a bit when I saw the headlights of the train approaching, which will no doubt make my calves feel even worse tomorrow, but I made it.

The Adams houses consist of the birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and then the family house at Peace field in Quincy. You can reach the visitor's center by subway train, and, with a stop off at my hotel, I was still able to make it down to Quincy in time for the 2:45 tour. As a side bonus, most of the time I was on the subway, another thunderstorm was raging, but it cleared up mid-tour.

I talked about the Paul Revere House as being an important piece of context on the Freedom Trail. But visiting the historic houses in Salem, and the Adams houses, was a much bigger piece of context.

Non-flash photography was allowed in the Salem houses, so I'll have pictures up of those eventually. There was no photography of any kind allowed in the Adams houses, though. These are some of the details you see:

  • The transition from earthenware and pewter plates to fine china. The china included pieces John had sent back to Abigail from Europe, and also the first presidential china, faded and featuring an eagle design.
  • A similar transition in the kitchens, from hearths, to stoves of different eras (several generations after John and Abigail, including John Quincy, lived there).
  • Abigail's addition on the ground floor, in which she wanted high ceilings — fashionable in Europe. When the builder said it would be too odd to have ceilings of different heights, she had them dig down. As a result, you step down into a parlor with high ceilings.
  • The lush mahogany paneling put in by a previous owner.
  • The writing desk where Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson in later years.
  • One of the early copies of the Declaration of Independence, made by pressing some of the ink off of the original. A plate was produced from the pressing, and these copies, which are actually clearer than the original, were made. The signatures, in particular, were distinctly clearer.
  • A separate library, added much later, filled with John Quincy's books in numerous languages. It included a narrow balcony to reach the higher books, and a somewhat rickety-looking ladder to get up to the balcony. Still, I seriously want a library like that.
I could go on and on. Members of the Adams family (much like John Adams himself) recognized how important the house and the items inside were for posterity. As a result, the Peace field house is filled with artifacts. When one of the people on the tour asked whose glasses were sitting on a desk, the guide replied "John Adams," matter-of-factly, as if of course those would be John Adams' original glasses and not a replica.

Me in front of the old house at Peace field.

I made it back in time to just (barely) beat the dinner rush at Durgin Park in Faneuil Hall Market. I went for the Boston/Durgin Park classics — Yankee pot roast, a side of baked beans, and Indian pudding for dessert. The pot roast was super tender, and the Indian pudding was also really delicious — a custard involving cornmeal and molasses, and topped with ice cream. The serving was gigantic, though, and I barely finished half of it. I am still in a bit of a food coma, but it was worth it.


How many lanterns if by aching calves?

An offering for Samuel Adams

Well, I managed to get through the rest of the Freedom Trail today, although anything involving taking stairs up or down results in excruciating pain in my calves. Thanks, Bunker Hill. Thanks a lot.

For the most part, my pictures will probably be more than enough detail (whenever I finally get them up to Flickr, which could be awhile, because I shot more than 300, and they need serious editing). In the case of two of the best experiences, though, photography wasn't allowed.

The first was the Old South Meeting House. There are some small museum exhibits at the back of the meeting house, which is reminiscent of many other churches of that era with its small pew boxes. It's much larger, though, and the exhibits cover everything from the Boston Tea Party to slavery.

The Paul Revere House is the other. Much of the Freedom Trail up to that point is old churches and graveyards, and indeed there's one more old church and graveyard to follow. Granted, that church — Old North Church — is probably the most famous on the Freedom Trail. But still, the Paul Revere House stands out because it is different. You see a lot of points of historical significiance on the Freedom Trail, and yes, Paul Revere did live in the house. 

Paul Revere house

But the real importance of the house is that it provides you with a historical context missing elsewhere. As I walked through the four open rooms, feeling the broad floorboards creaking under my feet, viewing the tiny children's chairs, metal pots and kettle, and  cavernous brick fireplaces,I got a real sense for how people lived back then. Yes, they met and talked about independence, and yes, they banded together and fought the British, but this is how they lived. I think this one is a can't-miss on the Freedom Trail.

Not far from the Paul Revere House in the North End is Galleria Umberto. I read about this unassuming little place on Yelp and when I realized it was nearby, it seemed like the perfect place to stop for a snack. It really, really, really didn't disappoint. For $5.05, I got a piece of pizza, a panzarotti (fried oblong potato and cheese deliciousness), and a Dixie cup of house wine. All were delicious, and I'm not sure I could feed myself from the grocery store for $5.05.

Galleria Umberto's display of Italian goodness

Less memorable was Yankee Lobster, where I had lobster roll #1 on the trip for dinner. This was another Yelp find, and I think if I had gotten an actual lobster, or I was into cold lobster rolls, I might have had a different reaction. The lobster roll was pretty substantial and unadorned, and not suffering from celery chunks or swimming in mayonnaise. But it was also cold, and that's just not my thing. 

When I think lobster roll, I think back to the ones we had in a little shack in Bar Harbor, Maine. Hot, fresh, and with butter on the side — they were amazing. I'm hoping at least one lobster roll I have on this trip comes close. But it wasn't Yankee Lobster's, which is a shame, because I really hiked to get there (and then, sadly, realized it was closer to a Silver Line stop than I'd thought, and that the Silver Line, a bus line, was less confusing than I thought it would be).

My other touristy highlights of the day were the Old State House — which had the most expensive admission at $7, but also the most extensive museum — and the Boston Public Library. The library is not on the Freedom Trail, but I had enough time left after I completed the trail to make it over there. I'm glad I did. The library's weekend hours for the summer are 9-5, and it's closed on Memorial Day. So the 20 minutes I had to go through it were the only opportunity I would have had.

The Boston Public Library is one of the more ostentatious public buildings I've seen. It reminds me a bit of the British Museum. I think I actually said "wow" when I walked in. So I'm really glad I slipped in to see it.

Boston Public Library


Huzzah! Back in air conditioning!

USS Constitution today, mid-renovation.

USS Constitution in 2007.

Boston must see me coming and go, "turn up the heat!" Today I sweltered my way through a small part of the Freedom Trail — the USS Constitution and museum, and the Bunker Hill Monument.

I kicked off my morning by checking out a Yelp find, Scup's in the Harbor. This tiny little place is actually in the Boston shipyard, and for awhile as I was walking there, I wondered it I would ever find it. The guard at the front asked where I was going, though, and when I told him Scup's, he gave me friendly directions.

Why is Scup's so great? Well, it's tiny (one picnic table and some counter stools inside, a few picnic tables outside), and improbably located. But it's also absurdly cheap and has delicious food. I got a yummy scone, an equally yummy breakfast sandwich, and fresh squeezed lemonade for $7.35.

After Scup's, I took the T one stop to get back to the other side of the water, and then started searching for the Charlestown ferry. It was not the best sign-posted thing I've encountered in Boston. Once I found it and it arrived, though, it was a quick ride over to Charlestown, and the breeze on the water felt good in the hot sun.

When I got to the Constitution, I felt very glad that I'd made the effort to see her two years ago. I knew she was undergoing renovations, but I didn't realize that the tops of her masts and much of her rigging would be gone, or that her deck would be covered. They're replacing the deck, and while it's great to know that the Navy is still actively working to preserve Constitution, it did made the ship look sad and stumpy.

The tour was different, too. Instead of having one seaman take you around the ship, now they have different stations the group moves between, with each seaman describing his or her station. I thought the format was nice, but there wasn't a lot of time built in for taking pictures. There wasn't as much to take pictures of, either — across the ship, things were covered in plastic or caution-taped off.

It was still nice to see the ship, and to take my time through the museum. Seeing the ship mid-restoration gave me a better idea of how the ship was constructed. But I got spoiled seeing the Victory last year — there were no tours on that ship, so I was able to just move at my own pace and leisurely make my way through the decks. I still think it's important that the two ships serve their different roles, though. The Victory is as much a museum as a ship. The Constitution, meanwhile, is an active ship, still capable of sailing. It means you don't get the same amount of freedom to explore, but I wouldn't want to see the Constitution drydocked and turned into a museum.

After taking my time in going through the museum, I followed the Freedom Trail's red sidewalk line to the Bunker Hill Monument. And then did one of the more stupid things I've done lately — climbed to the top. Initially, my reaction was, "no way am I climbing up there." But then I went in the park service building, and looked around, and exited, and there was the entrance to the stairs right there. So I started up.

Let me just say, the view is nice, but probably not worth that much effort. By the time I got back down to the ground, my legs were shaking so badly I wasn't sure they would function to get me back home. 

I believe effort like that should be rewarded, especially on vacation, so I shuffled down the hill to the Warren Tavern for a beer and a burger. I knew it was historic, but the couple next to me at the bar said this was the place where the revolutionaries came to drink and plot. Looking around, I could see it — take away the televisions and other modern elements, and you could see Sam Adams sitting under the low-slung beams, getting people riled up about taxation without representation. He even worked his way into this exchange between me and the bartender.

Bartender: What do you want?
Me: What do you have that's local?
Bartender: Sam Adams.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Either the rest or the beer did my legs good, because I was able to walk back to the Custom House through the North End and do a little shopping on the way. Italian espresso for home, and a mind-blowing cannoli from Mike's Pastry.

Pictures from today are making their way up to Flickr.

The T and other transit

So I'm back from the Freedom Trail, but before I go into that experience, I think I'm overdue for a transportation upddate.

Thus far, I've found the T to be incredibly easy to use, which is remarkable given that apparently it had a massive power outage yesterday. When I rolled into South Station on the Acela, I took the escalator down to the red line, queued up, and bought my pass. Based on my experience with other subways, buying a pass is usually the most difficult thing. But here the menus were extremely clear, and my 7-day pass was $15, which is absurdly cheap.

The system was pretty easy to figure out, although rather than signposting which way is which with the terminal station, the T uses "inbound," and "outbound," so it does take a little more thought to figure out which stairs and escalators to take. Some of the lines branch off in different directions, but the destinations seem pretty clear. 

All in all, I've felt very comfortable riding the T. It's not the cleanest subway system, but it's also the oldest in America, and trains seem to run pretty frequently on most of the lines.

Today, I also got to use my 7-day pass for a ferry ride from downtown to the navy yard at Charleston. Getting out on the water, even just for a little while, was nice, and it got me from point A to point B quite quickly.

Why I'm here for Old Ironsides

Pictures of my Acela trip and Red Sox game are finally up at Flickr.

Today I'm planning to work my way backwards through the freedom trail. 

Why backwards?

Well, I've got a ton of things I want to see while I'm here, but my main prompt for wanting to go to Boston was the USS Constitution.

I had a chance to see the Constitution only briefly during a family cruise stop a few years ago. We had eight hours, total, in Boston, and spent the morning on a tour. Still, in my remaining time, I hiked over in the rare 100 degree heat, quickly toured the ship and museum, and walked back to catch the shuttle back to the cruise ship. It wasn't the leisurely visit I would have liked, but I wasn't sure when I would have another chance to see the ship.

When the chance came up to be totally self-indulgent about my travel plans, I knew I wanted a second chance to see the Constitution at my own pace.

I suppose at this point I'm due for an explanation. If you've heard of the USS Constitution, or know her as "Old Ironsides," fighter of the Barbary pirates, star of the War of 1812, and the oldest commissioned floating naval ship in the world, you might wonder how a borderline Gen X/Gen Y woman came to be so interested in a square-rigged sailing frigate.

A valid curiosity. To be honest, I'm not even so sure myself how the fascination came about. I do know that I watched "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and was fascinated by this whole other wooden world, enough that I looked into it a little more, and found out that Patrick O'Brian had written 20 1/2 books about the characters in the movie.

Well, I'm someone who believes the movie is never better than the book, and I was intrigued by something that had achieved the level of acclaim O'Brian's books have, and yet flown under my literary radar. So I bought a used copy of the first book, and read it, and liked it enough to get a used copy of the second. And then the third. And somewhere around there I was hooked.

O'Brian does a lot of things well. His pacing is superb, and his description of another world, that of a British Royal Navy warship during the Napoleonic Wars, is flawless, if sometimes difficult for a landlubber to understand. But his truest, deepest strengths — those that kept me coming back, book after book — are his ability to maintain plots over the course of several books, and the unparalleled ability to develop his characters and stay true to them over the course of a very long series. I whipped through all 20 1/2 books, but I began to want more — I began to be very interested in the alien world O'Brian had introduced me to.

To read about the stooped ceilings, the rows of great guns, and the mass of rigging of a sailing warship is one thing. To walk the wooden decks, climb down the narrow stairs, and stoop yourself is quite another.

And this is why I was willing to to hike my sweaty self over to the Constitution during my brief stop in Boston. And why, less than a year later, I took a train trip from London to Portsmouth to see the HMS Victory, the oldest commissioned naval ship in the world (unlike the Constitution, the Victory is permanently dry-docked).

Over the course of this trip, I'm hoping to see multiple sailing ships, and visit sites that show our country's maritime past and present. That might seem to give this trip two very different themes, but actually, I can't think of any greener transport than ships that crisscrossed the world with nothing but wind and manpower.


Visiting a classic

Okay, that title will probably fit a lot of the things I do on this trip. But in this case, the classic is Fenway Park.

I knew I wanted to see it, and a ticket to an actual game didn't cost much more than a tour. Watching an actual game seemed like a much better way to experience the historic park, even though as an Indians fan I should technically not root for the Red Sox, so I got a ticket for tonight's game.

I went to a game at Wrigley Field a few years back, and that ballpark definitely looked like it was built in 1912 — dusty, cobwebby, and with netting covering critical bits of concrete to make sure no chunks fell on the fans. I'm not sure what the state of the park is today. Certainly the field is beautiful, and it was an enjoyable experience (it would have been even more enjoyable if we hadn't scalped tickets for an obscene amount of money).

Fenway Park doesn't look like it's been around since 1912 — it looks like you've been transported back to 1912. Everything is clean and freshly painted, but looks like it's from a bygone era. The exception to the freshly painted rule was the seats in the section I sat in, but since those looked like they were original seats, they get a pass.

I left early, with the Sox in a comfortable lead. I would have stayed for the whole game, but this one went super long, even for the American League, and the sense I got from Boston's transit system thus far was that getting home was going to be a debacle if I waited to do it with the masses. But still, even though I had an exceedingly obstructed view (I struggled just to see the hitters), it was an enjoyable experience.

Flickr Uploadr is not happy with the slow hotel connection, so hopefully pics tomorrow morning.

Downtown DC to downtown Boston — that was easy

Taken in Connecticut, from the Acela.

Well, I'm in Boston, and the first thing I have to say is — it's a huge shame that the Acela only runs between Washington DC and Boston, because it's the best way to travel on this continent.

The seats might not be much wider than standard coach seats on other Amtrak trains, but there's a gargantuan amount of leg room. Even with my laptop backpack on the floor I had plenty of room for my feet.

The trains are remarkably quiet given the high speed. You do get a little squeaking, but most of the noise comes from other passengers. If I had it to do over again, I might opt for the quiet car. I might be biased, though, since a bit after New York a guy plopped down in the seat next to me and proceeded to have a lengthy conversation on his cell phone about real estate.

The thing that's most noticable is how buttery smooth the ride is most of the time. But the real "whoa" moment for me came when the train started taking turns hard enough that it was noticably banking into them. It's a very odd sensation at first, but after awhile I stopped noticing it.

The ride was so nice that, although I know we were going really fast much of the time, it was difficult to feel the speed. Looking out the window, though, provided a blurred confirmation that we were really hauling it.

The boarding process was easy, as usual. People behind me remarked on how much easier it was than getting on a plane. And I was able easily able to get what I wanted — a window seat on the right side of the train so I could see the ocean once we got into Connecticut. 

The scenery started with dense forests and backyards of little towns, gutted factories and row houses punctuated with graffiti. But as we headed into Connecticut, it gave way to tall church spires and houses ringing the water, sparkling in the sunlight. Rhode Island and Massachusetts were a mixture of everything.

We only saw billboards where the tracks paralleled the highway, and the Acela raced along, easily outpacing the cars.

I'll post pictures to Flickr later. Right now I've got a Red Sox game to get to.


My father's magic carpet made of steel

Maybe this train thing is genetic.

Anyone who's been around my dad when a train goes by knows he gets this slightly gleeful expression on his face.

"I love trains," he usually says.

I didn't pay much attention to trains for the first quarter century of my life. I had a positive association with them only as something my dad really liked, but that was about it.

But then I moved to the DC area. I started taking the train, and I was amazed at how simple it was. Show up a half hour before your departure time, snag your ticket and maybe a to-go meal or snack, get on the train. No shuttle from distant parking, no security line, no shoes off and laptops out, no anarchic rush to board and find enough space for your carry-on. And, especially, no stupid little quart bag.

I'll admit I could still care less about freight trains, save the part they play in keeping semis off the interstates. But passenger rail is something I rapidly came to love, even though it currently falls well short of its potential here in the United States.

Let's face it — not a lot about Amtrak hearkens back to the golden age of train travel, when men and women dressed to the nines sat down to gourmet meals in the dining car, and GIs with their gear bags waved goodbye to sweethearts and families on small-town platforms, headed for the great wars of the last century. 

Most Amtrak trains today are tiny silver tubes that fall significantly short on character. When Barack Obama rolled in to Washington for inauguration in a vintage 1930s train car attached to standard Amtrak stock, it looked downright comical, as if both came from entirely different universes but had somehow come to be hitched together through some train yard time travel mishap.

What Amtrak trains are, though, is comfortable on the inside, and generally cleaner and better-maintained than planes. Seats are as large as business or even first class seats on your average airplane, and there's legroom galore. No seat belt to keep buckled, and you really are free to move around whenever you want. There's no high-altitude pressurized cabin, and no recirculated, germ-filled air. And while there's noise, it's the more pleasant clack of the tracks and brief sounding of the horn, not the loud drone of an airplane. I'm not packing my noise-cancelling earphones. 

Until extremely high speed trains, like those in France and Japan, are embraced here, flying is still going to be the means of choice for a cross-country haul. Few of us have the time to take several days to cross the country, even if we have the chance to see some truly spectacular scenery along the way.

But for short to mid-range trips, I think more and more of us are going to choose comfort and convenience over saving a few hours. Many can't, though, until Amtrak adds more service, and high speed rail lines in uncovered areas become a reality.

I lived in Cincinnati a few years ago. You can get to Chicago from Cincinnati by train, in 10 1/2 hours going out, and 8 1/2 hours coming back. The trouble is, you'll have to leave Cincinnati at 1:10 a.m., and get back at 3:17 a.m. But if you could take a train at a convenient time between those two cities, wouldn't it beat flying into busy O'Hare, or driving into Chicago's mess of traffic? And what if that route was high-speed rail, and got you there in less time than it would take to drive?

There's a real chicken or the egg problem with train travel in the United States. People won't ride trains until they are more convenient, and Amtrak can't provide more convenient routes and times (even at standard speeds) until more people ride the existing trains.

It's why I took the Carolinian down from Washington to Charlotte for my sister's wedding last year. It was cheaper than flying, and maybe a bit more expensive than driving, back at the height of $4 a gallon gas (my car gets great highway MPG). It was also the longest of my travel options, at 8-9 hours in the train. But it was also the most hassle-free. And as I read, dozed, worked on my plugged-in laptop, and just enjoyed the view out the window all the way to Charlotte, I knew I'd made the right choice. I wasn't alone, either. The train was full going down and coming back, my own personal experience of Amtrak's record year for ridership in 2008.

That, and the significant support of President Obama and "Amtrak Joe" Biden for train travel, gives me hope that rail service in this country will get the funding and support it needs to improve and expand. Recent money allocated for high-speed rail is a huge step in the right direction.

I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't fascinated by bygone means of travel. But in the case of train travel, it's pretty obvious that the past is also going to be the future. The question is how quickly we embrace it.

Right now, though, I'm mostly focused on the near future, and the fact that tomorrow I'll get to go the fastest I ever have on land — up to 150 mph. I am so ready for this trip to actually begin.


A ticket for a fast train

So Channel Six will turn travel blog for awhile, because in two days, I'll be setting out to really test my green mettle, on a trip with two simple rules — no planes, and no cars.

You would think this doesn't leave a lot of transportation options, but really, it does. They are, in order of preference:

1. Sail-powered ships
2. Trains
3. Non-sail-powered ships
4. Subways
5. Buses

If all goes well, I'll probably use all of these options at some point during my trip. Failure equals calling a cab.

This didn't start out as a green trip. It started out as a simple trip to Boston. Various circumstances (mostly, the economy) left me without a trip planned with friends this year, and I'm one of those people who goes a little batty if I go too long without traveling.

I checked flights to Boston, and the prices were good. But the more I plugged info into Farecast, the more I began to realize I didn't want to fly. I didn't want to go through the hassle, and I didn't want to be a part of all that jet fuel burned, all that carbon spewed into the atmosphere. 

Maybe I could cut my flying time in half by flying in and taking the train back, I thought. I checked the times for Amtrak's regional train back — about 8 hours, but maybe a good way to wind down on the ride home. Then I noticed that the regional stops in Mystic, Conn., another place I'd been interested in visiting. A night or two in Mystic would break up the train ride nicely.

Then I decided to drop the flight to Boston, too. Looking strictly at the in-transit numbers — 6 hours and 45 minutes for Amtrak's fastest train, the Acela, to get to Boston versus an hour and a half direct flight — the train wouldn't seem to compete. But any one-way flight would involve either: a more expensive flight out of Metro-accessible Reagan National; Metro and then a bus to Dulles; or Metro and then a train to BWI. When I started to consider the 2 hours early I like to arrive for a flight, versus the half hour I'm comfortable with arriving before a train, well, the train suddenly started looking a whole lot more competitive.

And then there's Union Station. The mall-ified-but-still grand Beaux Arts masterpiece is one of my favorite places in Washington. It easily bests Dulles' dated concrete swoosh, or BWI's extreme blandness. Somehow, it felt like I would be cheating on Union Station if I departed for my trip anywhere else.

The Acela's business-class seats are a little out of my usual price range, but I decided I would splurge and take the high-speed train up, to save some time and see what it was like. Then Amtrak offered a fare sale on the Acela, and that sealed my plans.

I'm a big fan of public transit, and after I decided to take the train, it didn't take long for the rules to develop. Or for me to add another city and state to my itinerary — a day trip to Portland, Maine.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the future of travel — about what happens when we run out of oil. I'd like to think that you could still make this trip in that era. So this isn't one of those multi-day sleeper car rail trips where the journey really is the trip. This is just a trip where rail is a more relaxed, greener means of getting from point A to point B, one that's likely to still exist in 50 years.

Now let's see if I can stick to the rules.