Rediscovering the Pleasures (Really!) of an 11-Hour Train Ride
On an Amtrak from New York to Montreal, Gary Shteyngart relives a trip from his past, reliving the forgotten enjoyments of an 11-hour journey on the rails, Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich and all.
When I turned 30, I decided to celebrate in the craziest way possible. I packed 11 of my best friends on an Amtrak train from New York to Montreal. We decided to do it up in style. Having just published my first novel and excited to finally have a positive checking balance at Chase, I forked over several hundred-dollar bills for a pound of beluga caviar from a semi-trustworthy shop in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Russ & Daughters it was not, but the taste was salty and grainy enough, and the grayish sheen of the caviar seemed to lie somewhere within the beluga range. To this we added toast points, some great charcuterie, and what probably amounted to two jeroboams of champagne.
My birthday falls around America’s birthday, in early July, and I always associate each additional year of my life with the season’s first burst of scorching heat. On that trip I remember the Canadian border guards jumping off the train after a two-hour inspection (this was 10 months after the attacks of 9/11) and throwing off their shirts, their white torsos glistening in the sun. I remember the trees rushing past as we seemingly levitated over the waters of Lake Champlain. I remember the arrival in Montreal, the momentary shock of a perfectly North American skyscraper city, but with a majority of inhabitants who happen to speak French. And afterward, I remember the rush to one of my favorite restaurants in the world, L’Express, for a late birthday dinner of bone marrow topped with tiny cabbage petals. The journey was long, and, yes, we were young and not exactly accustomed to first-class travel, but somehow I had spent 11 waking (albeit champagne-soaked) hours on our nation’s rails, and I loved it.
Twelve years later, I told my Canadian publicist that I would like to take Amtrak for a reading in Montreal instead of the usual 90- minute plane ride. “Just confirming that this is what you REALLY want,” she wrote back, “11 hours, no business class, no checked luggage.”
“Yup, that’s the stuff,” I wrote back.
On a sunny November morning, I took my suitcase down deep into the bowels of New York’s most tragic bit of infrastructure: Pennsylvania Station. At Track 5, we were separated into two lines, one for passengers disembarking in upstate New York, the other for those headed to Canada. The Canada line was mostly composed of immigrants, with plenty of head scarves and salwar kameezes, as well as luggage large enough to shelter their owners. Everyone loaded up on Dunkin’ Donuts, but I thought—No! I want the entire Amtrak experience. This time, I will eat in the café car.
The 8:15 “Adirondack” to Montreal pulled out only two minutes behind schedule. Like most train cars in the United States, this was a stainless-steel Amfleet car, built during the 1970s or early 1980s. It’s neither a classic regional train chugging along the Liguria coastline nor a futuristic Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway train. It’s a distinctly American phenomenon, slightly utopian and largely outmoded. I have a strange love for Amfleet trains, the kind of love some East Germans may feel for their concrete Plattenbau apartment buildings or their two-cylinder Trabants.
In the café car, I ate a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich and guzzled Amtrak coffee. But what I was really devouring was the view of the Palisades, the cliffs across the Hudson running from Jersey City to Nyack, their bases studded with trees bearing the last of autumn’s leaves. Amtrak’s Wi-Fi service was spotty enough that during this trip I would finally finish Thomas Picketty’s 685-page Capital in the 21st Century, including the endnotes. Back in my seat, the train chimed with Urdu and Malay, many of the Canada-bound passengers surviving off towers of Pringles. There was a man in a leopard- print tank top—by his sartorial bravery I guessed he was Québécois.
We started breaking the surly bonds of the New York metropolitan area. Familiar landmarks streamed by. The twin domes of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Then the stately gray presence of West Point, the United States Military Academy, high above the river. After Poughkeepsie, the Hudson widened and somehow became even more beautiful, lighthouses appearing between the shores, the broad blue outline of the Catskills framing the distance. We passed by the über-hipster town of Hudson, with its cutting-edge restaurants, antiques dealers, and art centers, like Basilica Hudson, founded by Melissa Auf der Maur, of the Smashing Pumpkins.
We rumbled into Albany Station, then past the enduring strangeness of the capital city’s Empire State Plaza, a misconceived nod to Brasília with its barren plazas and egg-shaped theater. The tree lines were losing their sparkle as we left Albany, dead leaves scattered along the tracks. It was genuinely sad to leave behind the Hudson, with the soft ripples of its waves and its endless procession of colorful working barges. We were now entering a different New York State, far from the pull of the mighty metropolis. Dilapidated barns, weathered-down shacks—the full extent of America’s rural poverty emerged from behind the leafless November trees.
By that point, I was starving. Let me impart an Amtrak strategy: do not eat the Caesar salad. Carnivores might be okay with the Hebrew National hot dog, which is what it promises to be, although in a soggy microwaved bun. What I’ve consumed on countless trips up and down the Northeast Corridor consists of a Dogfish Head brew and hummus with pretzels. It’s not beluga, but it’ll do just fine.
As the train hugged the shores of Lake Champlain, it felt at times like we were out to sea, with only the distant silhouettes of the Green Mountains of Vermont to remind us that we were passing a finite body of water. The track picked up altitude, and suddenly we were perched high over the lake, beneath us a series of tree-swaddled coves, the autumn tides smashing against the rocky beaches. The quartet of Malay grannies in front of me put down their cell phones to observe the wonders outside.
We pulled into the pencil-thin Ticonderoga station house and headed for historic Port Henry, working-class Plattsburgh, and finally the Canadian border. A shack bearing the signs BOUTIQUE and LABATT'S light welcomes you to French Canada. A young woman in modest Canadian customs regalia rushed through the cabin directing a quick “bonjour, hi!” at each of us. The inspection took a mere 45 minutes, and an hour later the skyscrapers of downtown Montreal were within view. The six cars of the Adirondack pulled into Montreal’s Art Deco Central Station, its gorgeous bas-reliefs featuring the lyrics to “O Canada.” How’s this for an Amtrak miracle: We were a half-hour early.
Now I couldn’t wait to rush out into the cold Montreal night and stuff myself with Schwartz’s smoked-beef sandwiches and L’Express’s calf’s liver with tarragon and buttery bone marrow. I had traveled the length of New York State from south to north, just as I had on the day I turned 30. This had been a quieter journey, summer replaced by autumn in every sense, but there were far worse things than spending a day being handed over from the Hudson River to Lake Champlain, from the Palisades to the mountains of Vermont.
As I write this, it has been two months since I boarded the train bound for Montreal. And unlike the 40 or so airplane trips I’ve taken this year, I actually remember every moment of my rail journey. When I close my eyes, the sun slants through the window, hitting my book perched upon the café table. I hear laughter and French and the metronome beats of time regained. The slower the train, the stronger the sense of stopping time. All I can recall from last year’s high-speed 5½-hour sprint from Beijing to Shanghai is the gray-blue blur of the Chinese countryside. But on Amtrak, you can look out and see our country in real time. There’s the delicious wreck of Bannerman’s Castle moored in the middle of the Hudson like a piece of Scotland lost and found. There’s the low-slung skyline of historic, troubled Newburgh. And there’s a man by his boarded-up cottage wielding a leaf blower, looking up with half a smile at the heavily breathing train rumbling through his backyard, and, whether he knows it or not, looking up at you.