Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trails to Rails to Rants

It's a cloudy but dry morning. Outside my tent the Mohawk River is still moving fast, evident by speed at which the flotilla of debris drifts by. I go over to the marina office and meet Bernie the harbour master and he makes some calls to find out the status of the canal. Still closed.

I go off to find breakfast in a homey place that just opened up, sentimentally called Grandma's Kitchen. The coffee was nice and strong compared to the tea-like brew they seem to serve in diners elsewhere. I get back to the marina to chat with Bernie and he thinks the canal will remain closed for the day, most likely reopening tomorrow. I get an idea that maybe I should change my plans and use this time to go back to Buffalo and get my car. St Johnsville is only about 60 miles form Albany and Bernie says leaving the car here is no problem.

Bernie and Bob at the St Johnsville marina.
These two just cracked me up with their cutting NY humour.
The problem is, is that the train does not stop here, the nearest station is in Amsterdam or Utica. There is a bus that goes to Amsterdam so I pack up some basic stuff -- don't forget the car keys -- and ride into town to see if I can catch the bus. Dang, just missed it and the next one won't get me in time to catch the 1:14 pm train.

I go into a gas station store to ask how far Amsterdam is to see if I could ride out there. Thirty some miles, no way would I get there on time either. A man who is in the store, Deri, offers to take me there in his truck for $5 in gas after I tell him about my trip. Deri is a secondhand goods dealer in Little Falls and had spent time in the Philippines as a missionary. He certainly has a lot to talk about during the ride. I tell him I hope I'm not taking him out of his way, and that there is something for him in Amsterdam to make it worthwhile. He replies that he doesn't feel like working today anyway and that this is an interesting enough diversion to his day. Halfway through the ride, I realize I should have asked him to take me to Utica instead. Duh.

My bike in the back of Deri's truck.
We get to the station five minutes before the train arrives, and the booth is unmanned so there is no way for me to buy a ticket. The train pulls in and I ask one of the conductors if I can get on without a ticket and he says yes but they don't allow bikes. I argue with him that it folds up and can fit in the baggage space and he finally complies. This is the second time I've had a run-in with Amtrak with regards to bikes and I am not impressed. I manage to stuff the bike into a baggage shelf and look for the chief conductor to settle my fare. She tells me that because of the fact I had no ticket or reservation she had to charge me double the normal fare. I said nobody was at the station ticket booth and that I could do it on my cell phone right now, but she tells me bluntly, " Too bad, the train has left the station." Compared to the canal boys, this is the unmoving side of "I'm just doing my job." The train is not even half full, and by the time we pull out of Syracuse it is nearly empty, making me wonder why I paid a premium for not having a reservation.

Proof that the folded bike fits in the baggage compartment
Bikes on trains are such a great inter-modal combination in Europe and a sad missed opportunity in North America. On this route particularly, it could have an amazing symbiotic relationship with the Erie Canal bike route with fantastic marketing potential on both sides. Amtrak only allows bikes on certain trains, and makes it complicated by requiring you to box a partially disassembled bicycle and treat it as checked luggage. In unmanned stations like Amsterdam, it would be difficult. Not to mention the waste of cardboard which you end up throwing away at your destination. Earth to Amtrak: it's not impossible, you're just not trying hard enough. OK, rant over.

As the train nears downtown Buffalo, it is so empty I could have danced up and down the aisles naked and nobody would have noticed. With all that space, I unfold the bike. It is so nice to just get off the train, hop on the bike, and I'm within a couple of miles from where I left the car. There it is just like I left it over a week ago.

I thank the guard at the gate and get straight on the Thruway, avoiding any temptation to have more chicken wings. I arrive back in St. Johnsville before midnight and crawl into the tent.

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