How you get there matters, because getting there is half the fun

steamboat_square_albany_1921.jpg

Part of the Albany riverfront was once known as Steamboat Square (shown here in 1921), where people would board steamships for travel along the Hudson River. / photo from Library of Congress via Wikipedia

By Duncan Crary

By now, you probably know "The New York City People" have arrived in Hudson. Or as one writer for the BBC put it, the place has become "a far north weekend colony of New York City."

Like most Upstaters, I'm not impressed by people simply because they're from "New York." But I am impressed by how they come from New York to Hudson. They take the train, for two hours.

Not only does that demonstrate the appeal of Hudson, it demonstrates the appeal of traveling by train. Or any car-free and easy travel, really. The key word being easy.

Hudson Week 2014 in-post ad Olde Hudson

Unlike some upstate cities, Hudson doesn't have a second-rate stop along the line somewhere in its vicinity, like an afterthought. It has a beautiful train station at the base of Warren Street, where all the "attractions" are within walking distance. This setup, the BBC tells us, is "an irresistible magnet for non-driving urbanites..."

I would not be surprised, however, to find that many driving urbanites take the train to Hudson, as well. Sure, taking the car might be cheaper in the short run but it's not quicker and it comes with a whole set of hassles, especially in New York.

On the train, you don't have to "beat" or "fight" the traffic. You can actually observe the passing scenery -- which on this run is some of the most spectacular in the world. You can lounge in the cafe car and grab a bite to eat or drink a beer. You can use the wifi to answer emails, or take another stab at writing that novel. You can speak face-to-face with a friend or fellow traveler. Or just nod off if you want.

There's also something special about stepping off the train into an elegant station in the heart of a city. It's like a ceremony that punctuates one phase of your day before the next.

There's also something special about stepping off the train into an elegant station in the heart of a city. It's like a ceremony that punctuates one phase of your day before the next. And then, you're off -- no need to scramble for a place to stash your ride. No meter to worry about plugging.

Getting there's half the fun...

Have you ever noticed we speak of distances in terms of driving times around here?

I think we do that for two reasons: 1) because many of us drive to get anywhere and everywhere, even the shortest distances; and 2) we've become programmed, by that monotonous experience, to think of everyday travel as a chore -- a block of time to endure before we can get on with our day.

And it's true, cities are where they are because they occupy important sites. But that's not apparent when viewed through the windshield of a car after speeding down a nondescript highway along a nondescript route.

This troubles me, because I feel that the journey from Point A to Point B can -- and should -- be rewarding, even in our everyday commutes. And if getting there's half the fun, then we're missing out on a lot of fun here.

Hudson River Day Line poster map

Back in the Good Ol' Days

Not long ago, there were plenty of popular, affordable, and easy ways to get around without relying on a car -- in and between our Hudson River cities. There were trains, streetcars and riverboats -- everywhere -- that could take you just about anywhere you wanted to go. They were comfortable, relaxing and efficient. They were connected organically to our landscape. They were deliberately designed to provide that meaningful ceremony of arrival and departure.

Grandest of all were the steamboats. Catching the Hudson River Day Line for a roundtrip cruise was the Saturday thing to do in Albany, right up until 1948. The boat left at 9:20 in the morning, making stops at cities all the way down to New York. Day trippers could ride as far as Kingston by 1 pm, with enough time for a picnic before catching the upriver boat at 2:30. After stops in Catskill and Hudson, passengers disembarked at Albany in time for dinner.

Have you seen the Hudson River south of Albany? It's even more spectacular from a boat than a train.

Ask around and you'll still find people, like Skip Parsons, who remember the Day Line. A few years ago, Skip told me he took the steamboats as a kid to visit family in Hudson. But, at the time, he didn't fully appreciate how exciting it must have been. "I guess we thought it would always be a part of life," he said.

Bringin' it back

Over the years our public officials have tantalized us repeatedly with talk of restoring high-speed rail, light rail, and water taxis to this region. We're still waiting.

But the truth is, you don't have to wait. Those options exist now in the Capital Region, for those who are motivated and creative. You've just got to put it all together to get where you want to go.

That's what AOA's "Rail, River, Hudson" excursion this Saturday will do. The fact that 100 people have paid to go along on this crazy adventure shows me there's demand here for alternative transit options, at least for recreation. I hope our region's "stakeholders" are taking note.

I have a hunch there would be greater demand to improve these options if more people had a taste for what it's really like to move about on these rail and river routes, already in place.

Missed the boat?

If you didn't get a ticket for this Saturday, don't worry. There are other car-free adventures you can experiment with:

+ The train from Albany-Renssaeler to Hudson runs several times daily and only takes 25 mins.

+ Want to go farther from home? Try Albany to Utica. Step off the train, into that amazing station, and check in to the Hotel Utica just up the block. Catch a show at the Saranac Brewery later in the evening. In the morning, grab breakfast and some tomato pie to-go before the return trip. (A heads up: the trains west of Albany share the tracks and stop frequently for slow passing freight trains.)

+ For the ultimate backyard excursion, try Albany to Burlington on the "69 Adirondack" train. (Hint: catch the Dome Car, if its the right season.) Get off at the Port Kent, New York platform and board the Lake Champlain ferry to downtown Burlington. Once across, you can rent a bicycle to get to a hotel and anywhere else in and around town.

Still ain't buyin' it?

Sometimes the best adventures are the ones we embark on unexpectedly, and often with reluctance. All aboard?

Duncan Crary lives, works and plays car-free in Troy, New York. He doesn't often leave that small American city. But when he does, he prefers to go by river and rail.

Amtrak is one of the sponsors of the Rail, River, Hudson tour.

Comments

Thanks for the inspiration. We love our daily light rail train rides into Portland, Oregon and back. Also, our annual trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder to Minneapolis/St Paul is always a pleasure. Not only Glacier National Park tantalizes; we also enjoy the long stretches of "nothingness" of North Dakota and Montana where the mind gets a chance to think big thoughts for hours on end.

Great observations on what's close, cool and accessible car-free Duncan. Rivers and rail built this region to a large degree, and it's still where some of the most interesting architecture and history intersect with our future. Keep up the good work in Troy.

Had a fantastic day on the Rail, River, Hudson trip yesterday. Having grown up in the country, I'm still very much attached to my car and the perceived freedom it provides, but the mode of transport definitely added another level of enjoyment of the trip. Looking forward to adding more car-free adventures in my life!

A thought about going to Burlington on the train: You'll need to make a weekend (or longer) of it, as the southbound train leaves before the northbound train arrives. (There's only one train per day.) Also, the Port Kent stop only operates when the ferry does, and unlike the other two Lake Champlain ferry crossings, the Port Kent-Burlington ferry is a seasonal route (June-September).

Having said that, the ferry ride itself is wonderful. I've taken it a couple times when I've had some time on my hands while driving back home from Vermont. It crosses Lake Champlain at its widest point and lasts a little over an hour. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous; it gets a little plain once you're out in the middle of the lake, but even that has its own beauty, just watching the water and the clouds go by and feeling the crisp lake air blowing through your hair and on your face. If you're not prone to seasickness, you should definitely consider it if you find yourself travelling to or from Burlington.

Hallelujah.

I've long said that rail is the only civilized land transportation.

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